Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
I was once slightly admonished by my OU tutor for suggesting in an essay on Doctor No that James Bond was always the 'dinosaur' that Judi Dench's
'M' accuses him of being in GoldenEye, staying true to his postwar literary origins and ignoring the swinging 1960s. My tutor pointed out that,
culturally speaking, the 1960s didn't swing until 1967, but I think the claim was a valid one. Bond in the cinema exists in a cultural cocoon defined by
the artefacts of good living, his one acknowledgement that a world exists outside of the casino, the country club, the bar and the bedroom, remains his
ill-judged remarks about The Beatles in Goldfinger in 1964. To find a secret agent with his finger on the contemporary pulse of these years of
change you would have to renew acquaintance with James Coburn's Derek Flint, Dean Martin's deplorably louche Matt Helm, or Philip McAlpine's Dolly
Dolly Spy in the books by Adam Diment. Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File is too seedily authentic to swing.
Spies were of course hugely fascinating to 1960s' audiences; the defections of Burgess, Maclean and Philby, and George Blake's prison break, made anything related to espionage seem bang up to date. Arriving after Billion Dollar Brain, the third Harry Palmer film stylishly directed by Ken Russell, and in between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, you might suppose - erroneously -from its title that A Dandy In Aspic would be taking on some of the surface glamour from the tail-end of that decade. Instead, the production clearly wants to go down the sombre authentic route of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965), but has neither the cast nor the treatment to compete. It is a shame because the central premise of an assassin being assigned to kill himself is a good one.
Laurence Harvey is quite well-suited to the role of double-agent Eberlin, which the rest of the cast seem to enunciate as 'Evelyn' perhaps out of malice. Embedded in the British Secret Service in an administrative post Eberlin has been assassinating his British colleagues. Running out of operatives, his superiors decide that Eberlin must find and eliminate the killer they know as Krasnevin, and to do so team him with Gatiss (Tom Courtenay, The Golden Compass) who hates Eberlin for unspecified reasons. The film opens with a funeral service for the latest fatality with Eberlin flashbacking to his 'hit', this and a bit of freaky camerawork to illustrate his agitated mental state during the interview with his bosses are the only concessions to the trippy filmmaking techniques of the late 1960s.
Laurence Harvey was apparently bisexual and apparently deeply unpopular with his fellow actors throughout his career, predominantly it seems because they deplored his technique. Whatever his peers felt to be his shortcomings it did not hold back his career. His breakthrough came when he was probably miscast as social climbing Joe Lampton in Room At The Top (1959). Despite not being convincing as a working-class northerner on the make, as a gay Jewish Lithuanian he certainly fulfils the outsider status required for the role. The high-spot of his career was as the brainwashed and mother-dominated Staff Sergeant Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another outsider character. After this film Harvey's career inexplicably stalled although he continued to make movies, notably Darling (1965), and his disappointing reprise of Joe Lampton in Life At The Top (1965). The starring roles became cameos until his death in 1973. Harvey took over the direction of A Dandy In Aspic when the great Anthony Mann died during the shoot.
Much of what occurs in the early part of the film is rendered transparent by the late revelation that British intelligence has known that Eberlin was a double-agent if not all along then for a significant time. His behaviour when he gets to West Berlin, ostensibly to search out and destroy the assassin, trying to force his way into the East via a checkpoint, would certainly have given the game away if his partner Gatiss wasn't so wilfully obtuse.
Invited to witness the seizure of another double agent being apprehended on the Thames Embankment, Eberlin sees the man evade capture only to die under the propeller of a boat. He arranges to meet his contact Pavel and asks to return east. While the stress of his double life might account for his request, the fact that he has been in Britain since he was 18 and his open scorn for the communist regime does little to explain his motivation. Eberlin lives a comfortable life with smart clothes, a fancy car and a sexy secretary (Barbara Murray) who dotes on him and shares his bed. Pavel lives in poverty in a grubby flat and has acquired a mainline drug habit. Eberlin's British superiors believe Pavel to be Krasnevin and despatch Eberlin to kill him, Eberlin falters and Pavel is abducted presumably by their own side. Eberlin is then sent to West Berlin with Gatiss to continue the hunt.
In the meantime, Eberlin has begun a faltering relationship with Caroline a young photographer, the luminescent Mia Farrow (The Omen, 2006), and unsurprisingly she turns up in West Berlin as well. Mia Farrow at this time, she was 23, made a virtue of her gaucheness; elfin and pretty, like Peter Pan whom she was to play in a TV adaptation eight years later. She stretches incredulity more than somewhat when admiring herself in a mirror, she says she could have been a model but was 'too voluptuous'. She made another couple of British films around this time Guns At Batasi (1964), and Secret Ceremony (1968), probably helping to secure American funding. Her marriage to Frank Sinatra was soon to be on the rocks so perhaps she had an ulterior motive for being in Britain, although her insistence upon starring in Rosemary's Baby (1968), rather than the Sinatra vehicle The Detective is usually cited as the breaking-point.
Eberlin makes contact with Sobakevich from the KGB, still attempting to be accepted back. Sobakevich is persuaded by Gatiss to sell him Krasnevin's identity but Gatiss takes the opportunity to eliminate Sobakevich at a motor race. Sobakevich is played by the veteran actor Lionel Stander whose Bronx origins make Sobakevich more of a Mexican bandit than a Russian spy. Lionel Stander was blacklisted in the 1950s so he must have enjoyed the irony of playing a communist insurgent.
1960s' satirist John Bird turns up although it is never quite apparent whose side he is on even when Eberlin shoots him. Eberlin's control in West Berlin is played by Peter Cook with the creepy charm he deploys in the excellent Bedazzled (1967), and The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer. It is a disturbing fact that of all the actors playing spies it is probably the Cambridge educated Cook in the role of the facetiously randy Prentiss who might be nearest the mark.
Incoherent plotting and mannered performances mar what might have been a gritty low-budget thriller. The brilliance of the original concept is squandered through lazy writing, where taut simplicity is required, or gnomically telling dialogue, the story is allowed to meander into a parody of what spy fiction is supposed to be. If Harvey had been more confident as a director he might have been able to abandon the poor script and show rather than tell. In an era of pertinent paranoid thrillers A Dandy In Aspic is a sticky fossil.