Sunday, January 13, 2008
Serious spy movies from the 60s usually get forgotten on those days when Bond isn’t talked about in the wake of Matt Helm and Derek Flint, but Harry Palmer is known by a few people and thankfully we have the American Cinematheque to fill in a few more of the blanks, like when their Overlooked and Underrated series features such titles as A DANDY IN ASPIC and THE DEADLY AFFAIR. Both serve as very interesting examples of the genre and while each contains the typical plot confusions that you would expect from such films, they deserve to be better known than they are. I want to be careful with plot details, even though both are unavailable on DVD, but there’s also the honest issue that it sometimes takes at least a second viewing with some of these films to sort out every plot point anyway. Still, if this is your sort of thing, then it’s your sort of thing.
A DANDY IN ASPIC stars Laurence Harvey as a British spy who is actually a double agent for the Russians. He’s also desperate to be sent home and his troubles are compounded when he is sent to Berlin to track down and kill the Russian agent who is in fact himself. The film is given the unique plot point of a hero who is desperate to break in to the iron curtain and would make a good Reluctant Spy double feature with THE IPCRESS FILE. In fact, it’s easy to think that IPCRESS, several years old by this point, was a key inspiration in this film’s production. It never goes quite as far as the wacko camera angles that Sidney J. Furies used in the earlier film, but the feel is sometimes there. And to me DANDY seemed to be considerably better than the two Harry Palmer sequels that were made. Dry, very dry, DANDY is just about the cinematic equivalent of the tone of Laurence Harvey’s voice, something which partly makes sense when you consider that Harvey took over direction from credited director Anthony Mann who died during filming. In addition to a very good Tom Courtney, the enjoyably eccentric cast includes Mia Farrow, sporting her short ROSEMARY’S BABY haircut, Lionel Stander as a Russian agent introduced reading a Batman comic and a post-BEDAZZLED Peter Cook, lending the tone just enough of a twist to help ensure that this is more than just a straight spy movie. There’s also very interesting location work in London and Berlin, some very cool Scope use and an evocative credit sequence featuring a marionette, presumably meant to represent Harvey. If it wasn’t for that unfortunate title—which, it should be said, is from the novel it is based on—maybe DANDY would be better known than it is.
THE DEADLY AFFAIR was the second feature and made an interesting comparison. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s more serious and also more emotional. Both films share enjoyable supporting performances by Harry Andrews and each contains a score by Quincy Jones. The music for DANDY is more successful as it correctly fits the tone of the IPCRESS approach but the sixties-lounge nature of the music in DEADLY doesn’t really work at all. True, the film offers the rare pleasure of a theme sung by Astrid Gilberto and it would probably work just fine if heard on its own, or with a more appropriate film. But as heard here it unfortunately clashes with the gravely serious tone of the piece. Lumet’s never been very much for using full scores (BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD is a notable exception) and maybe the music for this film is a reason why.
Based on the John le Carré novel “Call for the Dead” the plot of DEADLY tells of British agent Charles Dobbs (played by James Mason—he’s le Carre’s running character George Smiley in the novel) investigating the mysterious suicide of a government official who had just been cleared of an investigation. He’s also dealing with a troubled relationship with his wife (Harriet Andersson in a rare, strangely awkward English-language appearance) and how his visiting friend (an enjoyable Maximillian Schell) fits into that. “Thematically it was a film about life’s disappointments,” wrote Lumet in his book “Making Movies” and that comes through in the utter bleakness of London that we witness but the script by Paul Dehn (who worked on GOLDFINGER and the various PLANET OF THE APES sequels) feels a little too unfocused at times, although certain plot revelations to help earlier sections of the film in retrospect. This sort of thing is why I wish I could see the movie again. Simone Signoret plays the late officer’s wife and there are unusual, enjoyable appearances by Roy Kinnear and Lynn Redgrave as well.
I wish I could see both of these films again to get a better handle on them, but each contains an interesting look at that other, less flashy version of the spy sub-genre from the sixties, one where the different sides become blurred to the point where even the hero doesn’t know what he’s fighting for. For their own reasons, they’re each worth a look if you get the chance.