The Venetian Affair (1966) ****

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.

The Secret Ways (1961) ***

This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising.  Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.

This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.

Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.

Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.

This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.

The Naked Runner (1967)***

We always knew the spy world was filled with the worst kind of legal renegade, the type who can get away with murder in the name of King and Country, with little regard for collateral damage, claiming the Cold War justifies any action. British espionage chiefs, wishing to assassinate an escaped spy before he can reach the Russian border, recruit against his will widowed businessman Sam Laker (Frank Sinatra). The spy top brass don’t care what methods of persuasion are used, “blackmail or drugs,” and eventually they decide that kidnapping his only son will make Laker toe the line.

Spy chief and wartime colleague Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughan) is a cold-blooded killer aiming to turn an ordinary man, albeit with a distinguished war record, into a cold-blooded killer.  Laker is duped into delivering a message while on a business trip to Leipzeig in East Germany. When his son disappears it is at the behest of the equally ruthless East German secret police boss Colonel Hartmann (Derren Nesbitt) and thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse between Sinatra and the two spymasters competing for his services especially when it transpires he is a crack marksman. He is shifted to Copenhagen to assassinate the fugitive.

Naturally, the web is soon even more tangled. Laker becoming even more tense, with his son’s life hanging in the balance questions of morality are void. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff because the audience is as much in the dark as Laker about what is actually going on. Fans of the sophisticated spy thriller will not be surprised that there is a surprise ending.

The main departure from the book by Francis Clifford (also author of the source novel for “Guns of Darkness,” 1962) is the movie overview. The book follows the hero from start to finish. Only at the end is explanation offered. In the book the assassin’s target is a defector not an escaped spy. However, opening the book up to involve Slattery discussing his methods and providing an overview of the espionage world is a bit like tacking on an unnecessary message to an otherwise straightforward thriller. Straying from Laker’s point-of-view lessens rather than increases tension. Sinatra Enterprises produced the picture so presumably screenwriter Stanley Mann’s change of emphasis had the actor’s blessing.

Director Sidney J. Furie has some form in this murky world, having helmed the ground-breaking The Ipcress File (1965) whose spies are lot less glamorous than their James Bond counterpart. Even so, Michael Caine was a jaunty hero. Sinatra is the polar opposite. A more dour individual you could not meet. Sinatra is excellent in a role that asks him to bury a normal screen persona that oozes self-confidence. Furie is obsessed with odd camera angles and extreme long shots and extreme close-ups which has probably the intended disconcerting effect, concentrating the viewer on characters rather than surroundings.

While this approach worked in The Ipcress File and The Appaloosa it is less effective here, largely I think because Sinatra cannot brood with Brando’s intensity nor is his face as open and inviting as Caine’s. Although Sinatra is good in the role it does not suit the director’s intent which was surely to portray a man about to crack. Whereas the director’s impulse for the unusual made The Ipcress File a stylish film, here the camera angles get in the way of what is otherwise a taut story of a man driven to the limit. In fairness, the abundance of close-ups may not have been Furie’s fault. Sinatra disappeared for several days when the shoot moved to Copenhagen forcing Furie to shoot around him and inserting previous filmed close-ups.

Edward Fox (Day of the Jackal, 1973) has a small role as a diplomat and Romanian Nadia Gray (Two for the Road, 1967) appears as Laker’s initial contact in Leipzig.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

Stylish cat-and-mouse thriller that fits into the relatively small sub-genre of intelligent spy pictures. George Segal was a difficult actor to cast. He had a kind of shiftiness that lent credibility to a movie like King Rat (1965), a cockiness that found a good home in The Southern Star and an earnestness ideal for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). But Quiller fit his screen persona like a glove. The part called for charm to the point of smarminess and courage to the point of callousness. A lone wolf for whom relationships were a means to an end, he adopted identities – journalist, swimming coach etc– as the occasion suited.

Quiller’s undercover mission is to expose a neo-Nazi organisation. But just as he sought to discover the location of this secret enterprise, so his quarry was attempting to find out where his operation was based. 

Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters, 1955) had just finished his first spy effort, Operation Crossbow (1966) and that film’s documentary-style approach was carried on here but with a great deal more style. There is consistent use of the tracking shot, often from the point-of-view of one of the protagonists, that gives the film added tension, since you never know where a tracking shot will end. Although the film boasts one of John Barry’s best themes, Wednesday’s Child, there was a remarkable lack of music throughout. Many chase scenes begin in silence, with just natural sounds as a background, then spill out into music, and then back into silence.

But much of the heavy lifting was done by playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963) in adapting Adam Hall’s prize-winning novel. Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by Trevor Dudley-Smith who wrote The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) under the name Elleston Trevor. The Quiller Memorandum involved wholesale change, from the title (the book was called The Berlin Memorandum) onwards. The book is set against the background of war crime trials; Quiller a British wartime rescuer of Jews now tracking down war criminals; the main female character (played in the film by Senta Berger) had, as a child, been in Hitler’s bunker; and there is a subplot concerning  a bubonic plague; there was a preponderance of obscure (though interesting for a reader) tradecraft; plus the Nazi organisation was named “Phoenix.”

Book jacket for film tie-in for what was originally entitled “The Berlin Memorandum.”

While retaining the harsh realities of the spy business, Pinter junks most of this in favour of a more contemporary approach. Instead of meeting his superior (Alec Guinness) in a theatre, this takes place in the Olympiad stadium. Guinness’s upper crust bosses, played by George Sanders and Robert Flemyng, are more interested in one-upmanship. Berlin still showed the after-effects of the war and Pinter exploited these locales. Senta Berger is an apparently innocent teacher in a school where a known war criminal had worked. And, of course, Segal is an American, not British, drafted in from the Middle East.

But the core remains the same, Segal prodding for weaknesses in the Nazi organisation, the Nazis hoping to reel him in and force a confession from him, Segal planning on roping them in by getting close to them. Despite receiving second-billing Alec Guinness has a minor role, but Max von Sydow as Segal’s adversary more than makes up.

There is still a lot of tradecraft: “do you smoke this brand” (of cigarettes) is the way spies identify themselves; Segal being followed on foot turning the tables on his quarry; Segal poisoned after being prodded by a suitcase; and the use of word associations Segal employs to avoid giving real information. Having flushed out his adversaries, Segal is now dangerously exposed. But that’s his job. He’s just a pawn to both sides. He’s virtually never on top unlike the fantasy espionage worlds inhabited by James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint.

The structure is brilliant. Segal spends most of the picture in dogged bafflement. Guinness at his most supercilious flits in and out. Segal is stalked and stalks in return. There are exciting car chases but the foot chases (if they can be called that) are far more tense. But the core is a bold thirteen-minute interrogation scene where Segal is confronted by von Sydow, head of the shadowy neo-Nazis. And as an antidote to the thuggery and danger to which he is exposed, Segal becomes involved with Senta Berger.

Berger is hugely under-rated as an actress. She was in the second tier of the European sex bombs who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the top league dominated by Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. On screen she is not as lively as those three, but the quiet intensity of her luminous beauty draws the camera in. Here, she is utterly believable as the innocent women who, in falling for Segal, is dragged into his dangerous world.  She was criminally under-used by Hollywood, often in over-glamourous roles such as The Ambushers (1967) or as the kind of leading lady whose role is often superfluous.

Segal is a revelation, grown vastly more mature as an actor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) for which he was Oscar-nominated, confident enough to abandon the showy carapace of previous pictures. This is a picture where he sheds layers, from the opening brashness to the sense of defeat in surviving the interrogation ordeal, knowing the only reason he is still alive is to lead the enemy to his own headquarters, buoyed only by inner grit. He hangs on to his identity by his fingertips.

A must-see for collectors of the spy genre.

Torn Curtain (1966) ****

I never thought I’d see the day when Paul Newman was out-acted by Julie Andrews. Or spent most of the time wondering how much better it would be with James Stewart or Cary Grant instead. They can both do stillness. For all the wrong reasons you cannot keep your eyes off Newman – he is such a jittery, fidgety commotion.

Which is a shame for all that is wrong with this often wrongly-maligned Hitchcock picture is the set-up. The opening love scene is only necessary to get it out of the way (“Newman! Andrews! Together!” type set-up) though it is something of a riff on Psycho, setting up the possibility of a bad girl (i.e. goody two-shoes Andrews having sex before marriage) being punished. You could have started more economically with Andrews just turning up in Copenhagen for whatever reason (fill in the blanks) and the story pushing on from there, unintentionally Andrews becoming involved in Newman’s plan to infiltrate the East German nuclear programme.

The rest of the picture is classic Hitchcock, and as ever he uses sound brilliantly, just the clacking of feet as a bodyguard pursues Newman through an empty museum. And he riffs on North by Northwest in the tractor scene. The murder, also soundless apart from the noise of human terror, is quite brilliant. And another riff, on The 39 Steps, with the woman who knows their true identity but has her own reasons for not giving them away.

Every time we think they are going to be caught something unexpected prevents it, every time we think they are safe something unexpected prevents that. Clever twists all the way. Hitchcock has a knack of doing the same thing differently every time, he hated repeating himself, so when transport enters the picture, there are unexpected results.

Andrews is very good. Like Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, she is often the focal point of the story, getting Newman out of a spot. Two scenes in particular stand out: one in a bedroom where she is filmed side-on looking out of a window with Newman at the far back of the screen and the other when she lets a single tear leak out of her eye. Where Newman just looks out of sorts (maybe he was annoyed Andrews was being paid more), she does a nice line in barely contained rage.

Even with the annoying Newman, Torn Curtain is still up there not at the very top of the Hitchcock canon but certainly in the second rank.    

 

Fathom (1967) ***

If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966)  Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.

Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Welch came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that  the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.

With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).

Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.

Richard Briers perhaps contemplating The Good Life.

Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next. Anthony Franciosca, still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves.

There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Ronald Fraser as the spy chief pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Welch while Franciosca delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”

Raquel Welch surviving a close encounter with a bull.

The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Welch is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to her fans, that she has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character.

There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1966) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge.  

She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills but some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch and Clive Revill thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.  

But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.

See the “Book into Film” section for a review of the source novel A Girl Called Fathom.

Assignment K (1968) ****

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 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 is 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.

Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation, given a lot more to do than stick out his chin and growl. Here, his screen charm and charisma is at its 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.  

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. His 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.