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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.