Robert Vaughn gives a terrific performance as a numbed alcoholic ex-C.I.A. journalist drafted into Venice to investigate a plot involving ex-wife and Communist defector Elke Sommer. He’s the spy who lost it rather than a flashy contemporary of James Bond. This occasionally very stylish number kicks off with an excellent credit sequence that concludes with a suicide bomber blowing up a nuclear disarmament conference. Unshaven and with a Columbo cast-off overcoat, Vaughn discovers Sommer was key to the atrocity, the bomber an otherwise distinguished diplomat with no known proclivities in the area of mass murder.
Although sold as an action picture, nobody is ripping through the canals as in a Bond film, and it is altogether a more somber, reflective, intelligent movie. Vaughn’s feelings for his ex-wife are shown when, in her apartment, he tenderly touches her clothes and smells her perfume. Far from being party to the plot, it appears Sommer has had a change of heart and wants to defect back, leaving Vaughn in a perilous dilemma. Does he believe her or is she just using him? It is beginning to sound like a modern-day film noir, except he is already being used by the C.I.A., his presence in Venice a device to draw Sommer out, C.I.A chief Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) every bit as ruthless as the villains.
His investigations lead him to Dr Pierre Vaugiraud (Boris Karloff) and power broker Robert Wahl (Karl Boehm) who possesses a mind-altering drug that can make a man terrified of a mouse, send him into a trance and on his way to deliver savage retribution. There is death aplenty, fisticuffs and chases and Sommer, in hiding disguised as a nun, is worth waiting for.
Based on the bestseller by Scottish novelist Helen MacInnes, who outsold Alistair Maclean in her day, the project was at one point to be directed by Guy Hamilton. Coincidentally, David McCallum, Vaughn’s co-star in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series, was in Venice at the same time shooting Three Bites of the Apple.
Vaughn is superb in a downbeat role – shaking off his Napoleon Solo television persona- never sure if he is being duped, on the rack from falling back in love, and emerging from an alcoholic haze with a few decent ruses up his sleeve. It’s often forgotten that this is an Oscar-nominated (for The Young Philadelphians, 1959) star and that the subtlety of his performance in The Magnificent Seven (1960) is generally overlooked.
Television stalwart Jerry Thorpe making his debut contributes some interesting moments. Interpreters listening in to the conference hear the magnified ticking of the bomb moments before explosion. A sequence on a train is well done and the activity surrounding the mouse is first class. There’s a solid cast, Asner menacing even as a good guy, Karl Boehm a charismatic villain, Karloff memorable in his last performance in a non-horror picture, and interesting appearances by Felicia Farr as a C.I.A agent masquerading as the murderous diplomat’s unsuspecting mistress and Luciana Paluzzi as the girlfriend of an agent. Lalo Schifrin produces an outstanding score.
It was a flop first time round because audiences, partly duped by the title (all Uncle episodes incorporated the word “Affair” although the book, in fairness, was written long before the television series was envisioned) expected to pay to see Napoleon Solo, or something quite like him, on the big screen, with all the pizzazz and gimmickry of the small-screen show. Unfairly under-rated, this is a really satisfying thriller set against a murky Cold War background with Vaughn, trapped between love and redemption, the only character with a streak of morality.