The Secret Partner (1961) ****

Curious about what happened to Haya Harareet, Charlton Heston’s leading lady in Ben Hur (1959), filmed in 70mm glorious color, I happened across this neat twisty British thriller filmed in standard ratio and black-and-white. Turned out to be put together by the Basil Dearden/ Michael Relph combo and starring Stewart Granger, one-time star of MGM extravaganzas like King Solomon’s Mines (1951) and clearly now atoning for failing to hit the box office mark often enough for Hollywood’s liking.

Driven by a brilliant plot, whose resolution I defy you to guess, it climaxes with three stunning twists, the first story-driven but the others landing a no less effective emotional and human punch. I should warn you right away that Harareet is not in the picture as much as you would expect given that she took second billing. That’s no surprise, really, since on her first entrance, as wife Nicole, she walks out on husband John Brent (Granger) citing his illicit romantic liaisons.  

Though driving a swanky car and living in a big London house, Brent , a top-level shipping executive, is one harassed individual. He is being blackmailed by alcoholic dentist Ralph Beldon (Norman Bird).  When the shipping company’s safe is robbed of £130,000 (equivalent to £3 million today), suspicion falls on Brent, one of only two employees with both keys and the combination. Enter about-to-retire chain-smoking Detective Superintendent Hanbury (Bernard Lee, shortly to achieve global fame as “M” in the Bond series).

Constantly wreathed in a cloud of smoke, Hanbury’s investigation leads to various suspects – the other keyholder Charles Standish (Hugh Burden) whose job is at risk, interior designer Clive Lang (John Lee) who is too familiar with Nicole and friend Alan Richford (Conrad Philips) who is secretly in love with her. All have good reason to be responsible for the theft, not least Nicole because of Brent’s habit of talking in his sleep and in trying to memorize ever-changing safe combinations constantly running them through his head, conscious or unconscious.

To add to the complications, Brent has a mysterious past. In addition, a masked gunman pops up from time to time. So, although Brent remains the prime suspect, Hanbury, with an investigator’s vigilance and attention to detail that Hercule Poirot would be proud of, uncovers clues that point elsewhere. Pretty soon, Brent is on the run, first to France, where he is arrested, and then, after escaping custody, through the murky streets of Soho trying to locate a girl to whom he might have given the combination while asleep. He, too, discovers some unpleasant truths far closer to home.

Dearden does a brilliant job of setting up the mystery, a dab hand, too, at serving up multiple red herrings, as well as a spot of sleight of hand, not least when the music intrudes too loudly in old-fashioned manner as if to point the finger, and the audience’s attention, in a misleading direction. Sure, it’s a low-budget affair by Hollywood standards and indeed by Dearden/Relph standards (big-budget roadshow Khartoum, for example), and the black-and-white photography is for financial rather than artistic reasons, but it is superbly done and keeps you guessing to the end. Granger is at his suave best. Harareet, all fur coat and steely resolve, gives a good performance. Bernard Lee is an excellent British copper, hoping to end his career on a high note, patiently probing suspects, and there is a good turn from Norman Bird as the dodgy dentist and a fleeting appearance by Willoughby Goddard as an equally dodgy hotel manager.

Except there’s no extraneous violence, it could be a latter-day film noir.

Catch-Up: Other Dearden/Relph films reviewed in the Blog are: Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). Stewart Granger was also reviewed in The Secret Invasion (1964).

Only When I Larf (1968) ***

Terrific, elongated, 20-minute pre-credit sequence sets up this brisk con-man thriller as the trio of Richard Attenborough, his younger lover Alexandra Stewart and apprentice David Hemmings fleece a couple of greedy businessmen in New York.  The action moves with military precision, the trio so appealing, the scam so well-worked, you want them to escape.

But when their next sting fails to come off, roles are reversed and it is floppy-haired Hemmings who takes charge, organizing the scheme, and making moves on Stewart. Meanwhile, Attenborough is planning to double-cross them. The first and last schemes work a treat but the middle one sags, even allowing for cracks to appear in the relationships.

Attenborough is the pick of the bunch, switching accents and personalities, one minute a suave businessman, the next a nervous Lebanon banker, while at other times his stiff upper lip contends with his sergeant-major attitude. Hemmings’ accents are less convincing, all over the place at times, but the switch from junior partner to operation controller is convincing especially as he clearly enjoys putting Attenborough in his place, forcing him to shave off his moustache and giving him the name Longbottom. And Stewart is never quite what she seems, willing to indulge either man to suit her purpose. Scottish actress Melissa Stribling, wife of director Basil Dearden, is a late addition to the crew and colder-eyed.

This was a departure for author Len Deighton, better known for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

This was Attenborough’s first starring role since Guns at Batasi (1964) – Best Actor at the Bafta Awards – and although he had featured roles in Hollywood productions The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – his screen person was quite confined in those pictures. Here, it feels like he has been let free. Hemmings was coming off three heavy roles in Camelot (1967), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Long Day’s Dying (1968) so it felt like he, too, had a spring in his step. This was a distinct mainstream jump for Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, although she had small roles in Maroc 7 (19670 and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968),

Basil Dearden slipped this one in between the more lavish Khartoum (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). There is a slapstick chase reminiscent of the latter but, basically, he keeps to the story and allows character to develop. This being a British film, you might find some outdated British attitudes. This was bestselling author Len Deighton’s first stab at production.

The Flight of the Phoenix, Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau have previously been reviewed in this blog.

Catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) ***

A couple of decades before the “high concept” was invented came this high concept picture – a killer is hired to kill himself. Oliver Reed is the assassin in question and Diana Rigg the journalist doing the hiring. So Reed challenges the other members of his murderous outfit to kill him before he despatches them. The odds are about ten to one. Initially involved in shadowing Reed, Rigg becomes drawn to his aid when it transpires there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.

Set just before World War One, the action cuts a swathe through Europe’s glamour cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Venice – while stopping off for a bit of slapstick, some decent sight gags and a nod now and then to James Bond (gadgets) and the Pink Panther (exploding sausages). Odd a mixture as it is, mostly it works, thanks to the intuitive partnership of director Basil Dearden and producer (and sometime writer and designer) Michael Relph, previously responsible this decade for League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), Masquerade (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

The American advertisement for the film set out its stall in a different way to the British advertisement with Diana Rigg taking pride of place.

Moustached media magnate Telly Savalas has a decent chomp at an upper-class British accent. It’s easy to forget was one of the things that marked him out was his clear diction and he always had an air about him, so this was possibly less of a stretch. Ramping up the fun is a multi-cultural melange in supporting roles: Frenchman Phillipe Noiret (Night of the Generals, 1967), everyone’s favourite German Curt Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964) playing another general, Italian Annabella Contrera (The Ambushers, 1967) and Greek George Coulouris (Arabesque, 1966) plus British stalwarts Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1969) as a brothel madam, television’s Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Kenneth Griffith and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967).

The action flits between sudden danger and elaborate set pieces. When Reed announces his proposal to his board he promptly fells a colleague with a gavel just as that man throws a knife. Apart from folderols in a Parisian brothel, we are treated to a Viennese waltz and malarkey in Venice. There are disguises aplenty, donned by our hero and his enemies. Lighters are turned into flame throwers. And there is a lovely sly sense of humour, an Italian countess, wanting rid of her husband, does so under the pretext of Reed gone rogue. Reed and Rigg (in her best Julie Andrews impression) are in excellent form and strike sparks off each other. The second-last film from Dearden suggested he wanted to go out in style.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.