A good notch above the routine spy thriller, this deserves another look. By the mid-1960s the screen was awash with spies so other than trying to invent a new hero in the Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein or revamping older characters such as Bulldog Drummond or sending up the entire genre in the style of Casino Royale (1967), it was difficult to find a fresh angle.
Assignment K does in some measure succeed, in part by going down the grimy route of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), in part by stuffing the picture full of glorious scenery – the Austrian Alps – and in part by turning Stephen Boyd into the kind of spy who has begun to question the entire business. For reasons unspecified, former racing driver turned toy salesman Boyd (The Big Gamble, 1961) is running his own spy operation loosely linked into British intelligence but when the network is compromised his life and that of new love interest Camilla Sparv (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968) endangered. Things get trickier when she is kidnapped and he has to save her while not compromising his own agents.
There is enough mystery to keep the plot, uncoiling like Russian dolls, ticking along and the entire effort is underwritten by some decent tradecraft, dead letter drops, microfilm hidden inside cigarette filters and so on. Tension is surprisingly high. And Boyd is surprisingly human, falling properly in love for one thing, not just treating women in the James Bond/Matt Helm fashion as notches on a bedpost, not ice-cool under pressure either, face knotting in fury on occasion, and not so accomplished in the old fisticuffs department. There is less reliance on just sticking out his chin and looking handsome and this is a more assured performance than in The Big Gamble.
Michael Redgrave (The Hill, 1965), Leo McKern (Nobody Runs Forever) and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation. Here, his screen charm and charisma are at their best and while he was never going to attract the attention of the Oscar fraternity is entirely believable as a spy coming to wonder at decisions taken.
Sparv, too, is much better than I have ever seen her. Unlike her turn in Murderers Row (1966), her role is not merely decorative and the unfolding romance would work perfectly well just as a love story never mind tucked away in the guise of a spy thriller. There is a lovely demonstration of her acting skill, although an odd one to describe, as she pulls on a bathrobe and shimmies out of the towel underneath; I can’t believe that was ever scripted, but if you watch it you will see what I mean. Swedish Sparv was often viewed just as another of the decade’s ubiquitous European starlets but in fact she shows genuine acting ability.
Director Val Guest was usually labelled a “journeyman” despite a repertoire that included The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its sequel, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and sci-fi The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and he had previous form in this genre with Where the Spies Are (1966) which played more to the comedy gallery and did some work on Casino Royale to boot. Guest was also involved in the screenplay along with two first-timers Bill Strutton and Maurice Foster, the former primarily a television writer, the latter a producer. Guest’s work here falls into the efficient category, but it does zip along at the same time as allowing Boyd and Sparv to develop their characters and make their relationship believable. All in all quite enjoyable.
CATCH-UP: The Blog has reviewed Camilla Sparv in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner (1968) and Downhill Racer (1969). Stephen Boyd pictures reviewed so far are The Big Gamble (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and The Third Secret (1964).