Book into Film – “Hot Enough for June”/ “Agent 8 3/4” (1964)

Timing is everything in the movie business. Had British film studio Rank shifted into top gear to adapt the best-selling thriller The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson soon after its publication in 1960 it would probably have been a completely different film to Hot Enough for June which took four years to reach the screen. Davidson had produced a ground-breaking espionage thriller that had critics reaching for the superlatives and putting him in the same bracket as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. A film appearing, for example, in 1961 would not have been lost in the box office tsunami, in Britain at least, that greeted Dr No on its movie debut in 1962.

But by the time Hot Enough for June was released a second Bond – From Russia with Love (1963)- had changed public attitudes to spy films and in addition readers were reeling from two blockbuster spy novels, Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (published in 1962) and John Le Carre’s monumental bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (published 1963). In preproduction in May 1963, minus any cast, the projected film was still being known as The Night of Wenceslas. Star Dirk Bogarde dithered so much about his involvement that at one point he was replaced by the considerably younger Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar, 1963).

U.S. cover of the Davidson novel.

As was often the case in adaptations of best sellers, the screenwriter, in this instance Lukas Heller (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962) both added to and subtracted from the original material. For example, the Nicholas of the Lionel Davidson novel was not a particularly attractive character, truculent, snippy, with a bad case of self-entitlement, a bit of a ne’er-do-well, scrounging to pay bills, with expensive tastes and far from charming in his relationship with his girlfriend. He is also employed, rather than unemployed and with hankerings to be a writer as in the film, and comes into the orbit of Cunliffe (Robert Morley in the film) who dupes him into thinking an uncle has left him an inheritance.

Sensibly, Lukas Heller dispenses with Nicholas’s back story which posits him as a Czechoslovakian exile, albeit leaving his native land at the age of six, and various other complications concerning that country. He is sent to collect a formula for unbreakable glass. The “hot enough for June” password is a Heller construct and feels as if belongs to an earlier era of spy pictures. In the book all Nicholas has to do is leave his guide book lying around in the factory for the contact to write there the formula. However, rather than discovering he is working for the British Secret Service, the novelist employs a different twist, that the young man is, unknowingly, in the pay of foreigners plotting against Britain.

Davidson envisaged a different kind of Czech girl, more of a Valkyrie, statuesque (“her breasts stood out like bombs”) rather than the slimmer Sylva Koscina. It is Heller who adds the complication of her father heading up the secret police. In the book, her father is merely a musician and conveniently absent for most of the time, freeing up his house for romantic interludes. And the book has none of the James Bondesque features since the first of the series had not been written when The Night of Wenceslas was published.

However, the film having established the alternative world of rival secret agencies, of the girl being under suspicion and of her father being a senior official in the espionage business, the screenwriter then follows the bulk of the novel’s romance and the thrilling episodes involving Nicholas on the run. The swimming pool, cigarette burn, the parade and the milkman can all be found in the book.

There is one element that had to be changed. In the book, Nicholas makes two trips to Prague. But it is a golden rule of screenwriting that a character visits a location only once. Davidson ends his book with a touch of irony: Nicholas is swapped for Cunliffe.

At whose behest, it was decided to insert the comedy is anybody’s guess. Possibly the feeling that the book as written would be too unsophisticated for audiences accustomed to the rattling action and glamour of a James Bond. The Bond-style connections at the beginning of the film are clunky and the later references to espionage at the highest level also seemed to have been slotted in with no regard to retaining the essence of the book.

Hot Enough for June / Agent 8 3/4 (1964) ***

Thanks to his language skills unemployed wannabe writer Nicholas (Dirk Bogarde) is recruited as a trainee executive on a too-good-to-be-true job visiting a Czech glass factory  only to discover that while engaged on what appears a harmless piece of industrial espionage is in fact considerably more serious.  Complications arise when he falls in love with his chauffeur Vlasta (Sylva Koscina) whose father, Simenova (Leo McKern), is head of the Czech secret police.

Eventually, it dawns on Nicholas that he is in the employ of the British secret service headed by Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley). Soon he is on the run. Adopting a variety of disguises including waiter, Bavarian villager and milkman he evades capture and makes a pact with Vlasta that neither of them will participate in espionage activities.

The slinky clothing and the image of Bogarde with a gun played up to the James Bond persona,
which is of course completely lacking in the film. While Sylva Koscina is seductive
at the correct moment she is not overtly so.

A chunk of the comedy arises from misunderstandings, Iron curtain paranoia, the destruction of indestructible glass, password complications, Nicholas’s contact turning out to be a washroom attendant, and from the essentially indolent Nicholas being forced into uncharacteristic action. Soon he is adopting the kind of ruses a secret agent would invent to outwit the opposition, including burning the hand of a man with his cigarette and stealing a milk cart.

The romance is believable enough and Vlasta has the cunning to shake off the secret agent shadowing her, although the ending is unbelievable and might have been stolen from a completely different soppy picture. Although Nicholas is clearly in harm’s way several times that is somewhat undercut by the espionage at a higher level being presented as a gentleman’s game.

There are unnecessary nods to 007 and the kind of gadgets essential to Bond films, although none come Nicholas’s way. But these attempts to modernise what is otherwise an old-fashioned romantic comedy largely fail. Taking a middle ground in comedy rarely works. You have to go for laughs rather than plod around hoping they will miraculously appear. And in fact the comedy is redundant in a plot – innocent caught up in nefarious world – that has sufficient story and interesting enough characters to work.

As well as James Bond, the movie tagline referenced “The Spy Who Came in
from the Cold” (1965). The American version of “Hot Enough for June”
appeared with a new title a year after the British release and was
able to take advantage of the film adaptation of the John Le Carre novel.

That the movie is in any way a success owes everything to the casting. Dirk Bogarde, though well into his 40s, still can carry off a character more than a decade younger. He can turn on the diffidence with the flicker of an eyelash. And yet can call on inner strength if required. He is the ideal foil for light comedy, having made his bones in Doctor in the House (1954), reprising the character for Doctor in Distress (1963), while dipping in and out of serious drama such as Victim (1961) and the acclaimed The Servant (1964), released just before this.

In some respects it seems as if two different pictures are passing each other in the night. The Bogarde section, excepting some comedy of misfortune, is played for real while in the background is a bit of a spoof on the espionage drama.

Sylva Koscina (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) is excellent as the beauty who betrays her country for love. Robert Morley (Topkapi, 1964) and Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), although in on the joke, are nonetheless convincing as the secret service bosses.  Look out for a host of lesser names in bit parts including Roger Delgado (The Running Man, 1963), Noel Harrison (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. 1966-1967), Richard Pasco (The Gorgon, 1964) and stars of long-running British television comedies John Le Mesurier, Derek Fowlds and Derek Nimmo.  

This was the eighth partnership between director Ralph Thomas and Dirk Bogarde, four in the Doctor series but also three serious dramas in Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), A Tale of Two Cities (1958) and The Wind Cannot Read (1958). In themselves the comedies and the dramas were successful, but mixing the two, as here, less so. Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) wrote the screenplay based on the Lionel Davidson bestseller.

American distributors were less keen on this picture and it was heavily cut for U.S. release and retitled Agent 8¾ presumably in an effort to cash in on the James Bond phenomenon. I’ve no idea what was lost – or perhaps what was gained – by the editing.

The end result of the original version is a pleasant enough diversion but not enough of the one and not enough of the other to really stick in the mind.

Sebastian (1968) ***

Decoding the emotional life of mathematics professor Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) lies at the heart of a spy thriller mainlining on loyalty and trust. The presence of a flotilla of potential Bond girls has opened this picture up to charges of being a spoof, but I saw the mini-skirted incredibly-bright lasses as being a reversal of the standard secretarial pool. And a supposed  representation of the “Swinging Sixties” would hold true if shot in the environs of Carnaby St  rather than the bulk of locations being arid high-rise buildings. 

In roundabout fashion, intrigued after literally bumping into him in Oxford, Rebecca (Susannah York) is recruited into an espionage decoding department staffed entirely by gorgeous (but brainy) women. Among the older employees is chain-smoking left-winger Elsa (Lili Palmer) whom security chief General Phillips (Nigel Davenport) suspects of passing on secrets. When romance ensues with Rebecca, Sebastian dumps dumb pop singer girlfriend Carol (Janet Munro) who is already having an affair and spying on Sebastian.

Sebastian and girlfriend.

Although there is no actual beat-the-clock codes to be unraveled, tensions remains surprisingly high as in the best Alan Turing/Bletchley manner, breakthroughs are slow. There’s an undercurrent of electronic surveillance, eavesdropping on recruits, bugs planted in the houses of even the apparently most trusted personnel, seeds of distrust easily sowed, codes shifting from numbers to sounds.  The occasional nod to the contemporary, a disco, pop songs, Rebecca doing a fashion shoot in the middle of traffic, is background rather than center stage.

Sebastian, though worshipped by is female staff, is “more whimsical than predatory.” Nonetheless, introspective and often morose, unable to deal with emotions, it falls to Rebecca to take on the task of sorting him out which naturally leads to complications.

Most reviewers at the time complained it was a victory of style over substance, but somehow they managed to overlook the essential questions about trust the picture asked. That said, it does follow an odd structure, the third act dependent on directorial sleight-of-hand.

Rather unique meet-cute: Sebastian, all set to attend a function at Oxford University,
gives Rebecca a word-game test.

Dirk Bogarde (Accident, 1966) is always highly watchable and Susannah York (The Killing of Sister George, 1968) Rebecca catches the eye with an  impulsive, slightly kooky character who turns out to be down-to-earth. Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) bring his usual cynical malevolence to the party but with the twist of not knowing whose side he is really on. John Gielgud (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) is a delight. There’s a brief appearance by a pipe-smoking Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, 1967). Janet Munro (Bitter Harvest, 1963) decidedly rids herself of her Disney persona. Miss World Ann Sidney is one of “Sebastian Girls”

In his second picture after The Shuttered Room (1967) David Greene’s direction is mostly competent but the opening aerial tracking shots set the precedence for occasional bursts of style.  Jerry Fielding supplied the score.

Another freebie on Youtube.

Justine (1969) **

In pre-WW2 Alexandria in the Middle East with the British on the point of departing, impoverished young poet Darley (Michael York) becomes the latest plaything for Justine (Anouk Aimee), wife to Egyptian banker Nessim (John Vernon) who encourages her multiple relationships in order  to smooth the path for his gun-running activities. Matters are complicated since Darley is having an affair with belly dancer Melissa (Anna Karina) and some of Justine’s other lovers float in and out of the picture. Political intrigue which might have anchored the movie also shifts in and out of view. In this cross-cultural hotchpotch various groups – Jews, Moslems, Coptic Christians – look to seize control.

Cluttered is the best way to describe this. Despite excellent performances by Anouk Aimee and Dirk Bogarde it is still a mess. Whatever story there was has been buried by “atmosphere” and too many characters adding too little to the overall outcome. Entangled lives end up being just that – wrapped around each other with nowhere to go. Over-emphasis is placed on the louche background, nightclubs featuring cross-dressing belly dancers and a  massive carnival. Luckily, we can’t entirely blame venerated Oscar-winning director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, 1964). He was picking up the pieces after Twentieth Century Fox fired Joseph Strick (Ulysses, 1967) but was stuck with a lot of footage that had already been shot and a screenplay that didn’t make much sense.

When you realize the movie encompasses religious prejudice, racism, same sex arrangements, incest, child prostitution, nymphomania, revolution, and police and political corruption and is hardly able to give any of these themes more than a fleeting glance you soon realize this is one of those films that is just going to go on and on until sudden conclusion rears up and all is revealed. And that would be fine since many movies of this decade meander at length and sometimes appear to be completely lacking in plot or logic, but whose flaws are more than compensated by outstanding direction or performances. Alas, even the stunning evocation of this city and period cannot save the day.  

And it would have worked if Justine had been a femme fatale of the film noir school or if the politics been more grounded, but that doesn’t occur either and although Justine does have many influential men in her clutches you could hardly say that Darley is one of them. His role is merely to act as narrator and apologist.

One last point which has little to do with the film. In this film and in the same year’s Topaz, John Vernon gives very good dramatic performances, in both cases, coincidentally, wounded emotionally. So what happened that he is mostly remembered for villainous tough-guy roles from the following decade?

The Angel Wore Red (1961) ***

Given that this is filmed in black-and-white, it seems a curious title. So I’m assuming the color is a reference to a scarlet woman which, indeed, Ava Gardner (On the Beach, 1959) is, working in a “cabaret” in an unnamed town at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Strangely enough, the decision to shoot in black-and-white works in the actress’s favor. She was one of the last relics of the Hollywood Golden Age when brilliant cinematographers used innovative lighting to capture on screen not so much great beauty but tantalizing emotion.

The close-up was almost exclusively the preserve of actresses who could convey deep feeling with minute changes of expression or simply through their eyes. Here, a couple of joint close-ups prove the point: Gardner’s face illuminated, struggling to contain passion; that of lover Dirk Bogarde (Song without End, 1960) merely the same as always.  

This Italian-American production is part homily, part reverential, part brutal. Bogarde plays a priest on the run from the invading Communist forces during the Spanish Civil War. He takes refuge in a cabaret (code for brothel) where he is sheltered by Gardner. He has just denounced his faith so when captured is not executed as an enemy of the state, thus allowing him to begin a relationship with her. They share an unusual type of innocence, Gardner because, as what was known in those days as a woman of easy virtue, she has never known true love, Bogarde, for obvious reasons, the same. Their trembling acceptance of this wondrous state of affairs is the beauty of the film. No one can portray a fallen woman like Gardner, but even as a mature woman her steps towards true love are hesitant, almost believing it is tucked away beyond the rainbow far out of reach, while inner conflict had become central to the Bogarde screen persona.

The love story which would surely in any case have a tragic outcome unfortunately too often plays second fiddle to a subsidiary tale of safeguarding a sacred relic – about whose importance, strangely enough, both sides are agreed – and of arguments between various other political characters over the conflict. Joseph Cotten as a cynical journalist – are there any other kind? – bears testimony to the opposing perspectives while Vittorio de Sica has a glorious cameo as a no-nonsense general who nonetheless deplores the “dirty” war. Neither side comes out well in the war, the Communists, like a mob storming Dracula’s castle, destroy the cathedral, the Republicans committed to killing all prisoners so as not to hold up the advance of their troops. Only the clergy retain their principles even when tortured.  

Writer-director Nunnally Johnson had good reason for choosing to film in black-and white – it permitted use of newsreel footage of diving Stuka bombers and more importantly since much of the story takes place at night it creates a haunted background of dark alleys. Color would have destroyed such a vision. You could argue there is artistic purpose here, filming a country which has fallen into spiritual darkness. But that would not be true of the star – black-and-white allows rare opportunity to show what the camera adores in Gardner, her face, even in repose, absorbing the light, as if she were, indeed, redemption.

   

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