Sebastian (1968) ***

Decoding the emotional life of mathematics professor Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) lies at the heart of a spy thriller mainlining on loyalty and trust. The presence of a flotilla of potential Bond girls has opened this picture up to charges of being a spoof, but I saw the mini-skirted incredibly-bright lasses as being a reversal of the standard secretarial pool. And a supposed  representation of the “Swinging Sixties” would hold true if shot in the environs of Carnaby St  rather than the bulk of locations being arid high-rise buildings. 

In roundabout fashion, intrigued after literally bumping into him in Oxford, Rebecca (Susannah York) is recruited into an espionage decoding department staffed entirely by gorgeous (but brainy) women. Among the older employees is chain-smoking left-winger Elsa (Lili Palmer) whom security chief General Phillips (Nigel Davenport) suspects of passing on secrets. When romance ensues with Rebecca, Sebastian dumps dumb pop singer girlfriend Carol (Janet Munro) who is already having an affair and spying on Sebastian.

Sebastian and girlfriend.

Although there is no actual beat-the-clock codes to be unraveled, tensions remains surprisingly high as in the best Alan Turing/Bletchley manner, breakthroughs are slow. There’s an undercurrent of electronic surveillance, eavesdropping on recruits, bugs planted in the houses of even the apparently most trusted personnel, seeds of distrust easily sowed, codes shifting from numbers to sounds.  The occasional nod to the contemporary, a disco, pop songs, Rebecca doing a fashion shoot in the middle of traffic, is background rather than center stage.

Sebastian, though worshipped by is female staff, is “more whimsical than predatory.” Nonetheless, introspective and often morose, unable to deal with emotions, it falls to Rebecca to take on the task of sorting him out which naturally leads to complications.

Most reviewers at the time complained it was a victory of style over substance, but somehow they managed to overlook the essential questions about trust the picture asked. That said, it does follow an odd structure, the third act dependent on directorial sleight-of-hand.

Rather unique meet-cute: Sebastian, all set to attend a function at Oxford University,
gives Rebecca a word-game test.

Dirk Bogarde (Accident, 1966) is always highly watchable and Susannah York (The Killing of Sister George, 1968) Rebecca catches the eye with an  impulsive, slightly kooky character who turns out to be down-to-earth. Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) bring his usual cynical malevolence to the party but with the twist of not knowing whose side he is really on. John Gielgud (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) is a delight. There’s a brief appearance by a pipe-smoking Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, 1967). Janet Munro (Bitter Harvest, 1963) decidedly rids herself of her Disney persona. Miss World Ann Sidney is one of “Sebastian Girls”

In his second picture after The Shuttered Room (1967) David Greene’s direction is mostly competent but the opening aerial tracking shots set the precedence for occasional bursts of style.  Jerry Fielding supplied the score.

Another freebie on Youtube.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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