A Dandy In Aspic (1968) ***

Belongs to the “serious spy” genre that exposed the nitty-gritty espionage business, often more concerned with the impact of the job on the spy than on the mission on which they have been sent. The biggest successes came early on – The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1965), The Ipcress File (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966). A Dandy in Aspic is one of the latest in the series of sad spies and like The Defector (1966) it’s more of a character study than an action picture. The tone is set with the credits, a puppet dangling to the point of being tormented, on a string.

The character in question is Eberlin (Laurence Harvey), a spy who wants to quit and go home. He knows only too well what happens to the burnt-out case, one of his colleagues is a drug addict. Only in this case home is Russia. But the feedback he receives is that nobody back home wants him to quit. His British bosses send him to go to Berlin to assassinate a dangerous Russian spy called Krasnevin. The only problem is, Eberlin is Krasnevin and so begins a game of bluff and double bluff while he fails to uncover the supposed foreign assassin his ruthless British unwanted colleague Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) is helping him locate.

Thrown into the mix is a girl, Caroline (Mia Farrow) a casual pick-up, a photographer he met in London who turned up in Berlin. Happenstance? Perhaps. But there is no such thing for a suspicious spy and to tell the truth even the moviegoer will treat her as just too good to be true even though she is a delightful personality and beautiful to boot. The fact that Eberlin has a girlfriend Miss Vogler (Barbara Murray) doesn’t seem to bother him, spies, as you will know by now, discarding women like old shoes.

If a noose is closing in, it’s a strange one, and feels more like it’s coming from the East rather than the West. He is blocked from taking a trip to East Berlin. Cops are tipped off when he makes contact with someone who could get him over/through the Wall. His Eastern masters seem willing to pay good money to find out the identity of Krasnevin.

It’s all twisted and complex and all sorts of strange characters come out of the woodwork. For no reason at all one sequence is set at a Grand Prix race, one of the drivers paid to cause a distraction to allow someone to be shot. Like The Defector, this is a movie that unravels backwards. Once you get to the end it makes a lot more sense. If you were asked to choose, on the basis of the characters presented, whether the Russians or British had more principles you would be hard put to decide.

Laurence Harvey (The Running Man, 1963) is one of the few actors with the vicious fragility to carry this off. He is coming apart at the seams. He can hold onto his good looks far longer than his mental stability. His rare acts of violence seem petulance. And since we are never allowed inside his head, since he cannot confess his feelings to Caroline, he cannot explain what it’s like to be abandoned by your native country, cast aside like an old lover. It’s left to the audience to work this out for themselves, that a true patriot risking his life for his country is refused sanctuary.

He’s doomed and soon he knows it, nowhere left to run, the sense that the trap is closing and perhaps the few hours spent with Caroline are like a condemned man’s final wishes.

Filmed in bleak London and Berlin, the setting reflects the character’s mindset. There’s a bit too much fancy cinematography and sound effects, but otherwise it’s solid entry into the “more real than reality” subgenre. Director Anthony Mann (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) died during the making of the film, Laurence Harvey taking the helm for the last two weeks of shooting and post-production so it’s possible this is not quite the film Mann had in mind.

You can see here elements of the documentary style Mann developed in The Heroes of Telemark and it’s possible that when it came to the editing director Harvey accorded himself more prominence than Mann might have, leaving a complex tale more difficult to follow than necessary.

Harvey is very good in the role of the ruthless narcissist, Mia Farrow – she followed this with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – with a creditable English accent is excellent as the lover though Tom Courtenay (Operation Crossbow, 1965) seems miscast. Excellent support is provided by Lionel Stander (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Harry Andrews (Danger Route, 1967) and Per Oscarsson (Who Saw Him Die?. 1968). Look out for comedian Peter Cook (Bedazzled, 1967) as an unlikely lothario, Barbara Murray (television series The Power Game, 1965-1969) and Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun, 1968).

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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