Subterfuge (1968) ***

Worth seeing just for super-slinky leather-clad uber-sadistic Donetta (Suzanna Leigh) who  delights in torturing the daylights out of any secret agent who crosses her path, in this case Michael Donovan (Gene Barry). She’s got a neat line in handbags, too, the poisonous kind. Two stories cross over in this London-set spy drama. American Donovan is under surveillance from both foreign powers and British intelligence. When his contact comes into unfortunate contact with a handbag, he finds himself on the sticky end of the attention of Shevik (Marius Goring) while at the same time employed by the British spy chief Goldsmith (Michael Rennie) to find the mole in their camp.

The three potential British suspects are top-ranking intelligence officer Col. Redmayne (Richard Todd), British spy Peter Langley (Tom Adams) and backroom underling Kitteridge (Colin Gordon). On top of this Langley’s wife Anne (Joan Collins) adds conscience to the proceedings, growing more and more concerned that the affairs of the secret state are taking too much precedence over her marriage.

The hunt-the-mole aspect is pretty well-staged. Kitteridge always looks shifty, keenly watching his boss twisting the dials on a huge office safe containing top secret secrets. Langley is introduced as a villain, turning up at Shevik’s with the drugs that are going to send the Donovan to sleep for eight hours before being transported abroad in a trunk. But he turns out to be just pretending and aids Donovan’s innovative escape. Charming but ruthless Redmayne is also under suspicion if only because he belongs to the upper-class strata of spies (Burgess, Philby and Maclean) who had already betrayed their country.

In investigating Langley, Donovan fixes on the wife, now, coincidentally, a potential romantic target since her husband is suing for divorce. She is particularly attracted to Donovan after he saves her son from a difficult situation on the water, although that appears manufactured for the very purpose of making her feel indebted. However, the couple are clearly attracted, although the top of a London bus would not generally be the chosen location, in such glamorous spy pictures, for said romance to develop.

As you will be aware, romance is a weak spot for any hard-bitten spy and Shevik’s gang take easy advantage, putting Anne, her son and Donovan in peril at the same time as the American follows all sorts of clues to pin down the traitor.

This is the final chapter in Gene Barry’s unofficial 1960s movie trilogy – following Maroc 7 (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968) – and London is a more dour and more apt climate for this more down-to-earth drama. Forget bikinis and gadgets, the best you can ask for is Joan Collins dolled up in trendy mini-skirt and furs. Barry, only too aware that London has nothing on Morocco or Istanbul in the weather department, dresses as if expecting thunderstorms, so he’s not quite the suave character of the previous two pictures. In this grittier role, he does not always come out on top. But that does not seem to dampen his ardor and the gentle romantic banter is well done.

Joan Collins, in career trough after her Twentieth Century Fox contract ended with Esther and the King (1960), has the principled role, determining that the price paid by families for those in active secret service is too high. No slouch in the spy department himself, essaying Charles Vine in three movies including Where the Bullets Fly (1966), Tom Adams plays with audience expectations in this role. It’s a marvelous cast, one of those iconic congregations of talent, with former British superstar Richard Todd (The Dam Busters, 1955), Michael Rennie, television’s The Third Man (1959-1965), Marius Goring (The Girl on a Motorcycle, 1968) and Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) trading her usual damsel-in-distress persona for a turn as terrific damsel-causing-distress.

Shorn of sunny location to augment his backgrounds, director Peter Graham Scott (Bitter Harvest, 1963) turns his camera on scenic London to take in Trafalgar Square, the zoo, Royal Festival Hall, the Underground, Regent’s Park with the usual flotilla of pigeons and ducks to fill in any blanks in the canvas.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Gene Barry in Maroc 7 (1967) and Istanbul Express (1968), Joan Collins in Esther and the King (1960) and Suzanna Leigh in The Lost Continent (1968).

This is hard to find so your best bet is ebay although it is available on Youtube for free but the print quality is not great.

Istanbul Express (1968) ***

Calling this a by-the-numbers spy thriller does this movie no disservice since numbers are crucial to the complicated plot. On the one hand it’s quite a simple set up. Suave high-living art-dealer-cum-spy Michael London (Gene Barry) travels from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to bid for secret papers in a secret auction. The complication: he must pick up the auction money from a bank in Istanbul using a code given to him along the way, each number by a different unknown person. On his side are train security chief Cheval (John Saxon), investigative journalist Leland McCord (Tom Simcox) and colleague Peggy (Mary Ann Mobley). Out to get him are Mila Darvos (Senta Berger) and Dr Lenz (Werner Peters).

The numbers business is an interesting addition to the usual spy picture formula of scenic location – Venice and the Eastern bloc as well as the other famous cities – violence and beautiful, sometimes deadly, women. You spend a good time guessing just how the numbers will be passed on and let me warn you it is sometime by inanimate means while the numbers themselves come with a twist. There’s also a truth serum, bomb threat, a traitor and every obstacle possible put in London’s way to prevent him completing his mission. London is about the world’s worst passenger, always missing the train as it sets off on the next leg of its journey, and requiring alternative modes of transport to catch up. But it’s as much about quick thinking as action and ends with a couple of unexpected twists. And it’s darned clever at times where the numbers are concerned.

Admittedly, the plot is a tad over-complicated but it’s fun to see London wriggle his way out of situations and for Cheval and McCord to turn up unexpectedly to provide assistance.

Gene Barry (Maroc 7, 1967) is little more than his television alter ego from Burke’s Law but he has an easy screen presence, never flustered, tough but charming and a winning way with the ladies. John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) is the surprise turn, on the side of the angels rather than a villain, and equally commanding on screen, and certainly in one of his better roles. Austrian Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) is not given as much screen time as you would like – a long way from being set up as the normal espionage femme fatale – but is certainly a convincing adversary.

This was only a movie if you saw it outside of the United States. There it was shown on television. But it had high production values for a television movie and director Richard Irving, who directed the television feature that introduced Columbo (Prescription Murder, 1968), keeps it moving at a healthy clip.  The numbers idea was probably a television device, allowing the opportunity for timed breaks in the action. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link were a class television act, creating Columbo, and prior to that the Jericho (1966-1967) and Mannix (1967-1975) television series.  

Interestingly, Senta Berger, John Saxon, Gene Barry, Levinson/Link and Richard Irving were all at various points involved in the groundbreaking U.S. television series The Name of the Game (1968-1971).

I had not realized Istanbul Express was a made-for-TV picture until I had finished watching it and in that case found it a superior piece of television and a decent-enough riff on the spy movie. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.

CATCH-UP: Senta Berger has featured in the Blog in The Secret Ways (1961), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Necklace (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966).

Maroc 7 (1967) ***

With a string of Swinging Sixties fashion models providing the requisite bevy of beauties, a gang of thieves, a Moroccan heist, superb locations, great cast and a touch of archaeology with secret chambers and a long-lost relic thrown in, this splendid espionage frolic proves a welcome return to big screen top billing for Gene Barry after nearly a decade in television in Bat Masterson (1958-1961) and  Burke’s Law (1963-1966).

Something of a cat burglar himself, Simon Grant (Barry) infiltrates a gang which uses fashion as a cover and whose ingenious speciality is to steal famous heirlooms and replace them with fake ones in the assumption that on their departure from a foreign country the customs officers will not be able to tell the difference. Louise Henderson (Cyd Charisse) and Raymond Lowe (Leslie Phillips) head up the gang while Claudia (Else Martinelli) may or may not be in on the act.

Her dalliance with Simon suggests an inclination towards the right side of the law but the fact that she has been involved with the pair for so long sets up the intriguing notion that she is stringing the American agent along. Initially, she rejects Simon’s advances until told by Louise to comply and pump him for information leading to one of the movie’s best lines (and innuendo that a British audience in particular would adore). Says Simon: “We haven’t done much about pumping but maybe that will come later.”  Doubts also surround the intentions of Michelle Craig (Alexandra Stewart).  On their trail is Inspector Barrada (Denholm Elliott).

There is mystery aplenty and a fair quotient of punch-ups, romance, shoot-outs and murder while the unearthing of the hidden treasure is less heist amd more straightforward Indiana Jones. The fashion is the icing on the cake. The Moroccan fashion shoots are more than merely decorative, or an excuse to bare the charms of the gorgeous models. Instead, the shoots would not disgrace Vogue or any of the other glossy magazine temples to haute couture, with that Sixties focus on fabulous clothes, genuine location and outlandish hairstyles.

On top of that, several of the stars are either playing against type or out of their comfort zones. Legendary Hollywood dancer Cyd Charisse famed for such classic musicals as The Bandwagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) sets such fluff aside to essay a criminal mastermind, whose cunning often gets the better of Simon. Leslie Phillips (Crooks Anonymous, 1962), better known as a charming Englishman with an eye for the ladies, is as ruthless a photographer as he is a criminal. Director Gerry O’Hara (The Pleasure Girls, 1965) has managed to get both Phillips and Denholm Elliott to drop their standard methods of delivery, usually embracing a drawl, making their characterisations a good bit more fresh than normal. Phillips was clearly intending to make some kind of career change since he was the producer.

Gene Barry makes a perfect entrance as an adventurer-spy, as confident in his seduction techniques without women falling at his feet like James Bond, with a nice line in self-deprecation and more than able to look after himself. Before being side-tracked by television, Barry had shown movie star potential in War of the Worlds (1953) and Thunder Road (1958) and now he delivers on that earlier promise. Elsa Martinelli (Hatari!, 1962) is the femme fatale who may or may not wish to play that role, keeping the audience completely on edge as to which side of the law she is likely to come down on. Added bonuses are Alexandra Stewart (Only When I Larf, 1968), Angela Douglas (Carry On Screaming!, 1966), Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), dancer Lionel Blair (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964) and Maggie London.