The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) ****

A more prescient picture you couldn’t find, tapping into a contemporary audience’s greatest fear – global warming. Its bold cliff-hanger ending would also appeal to a modern audience often left dangling at the climax of a blockbuster. And it cleverly skims on the special effects, relying on the more easily achieved downpours, thick fog, constant sweating, newsreel footage of natural disasters, water rationing and end-of-the-world riots than anything bigger.

But what surprised me more was the sheer pace. Not just a story moving at a frenetic pace but the British characters acting like they had been injected with a heavy dose of New York zap, talking over each other, hardly getting a complete sentence in before interruption, like Howard Hawks had taken command instead of a mere Englishman like Val Guest (Assignment K, 1968), a former journalist.

Front cover of the Pressbook.

It channels the director’s experience into creating the most realistic newspaper office you will ever come across, beating out All the President’s Men (1974) in its representation of how journalism really works, as concerned as much with the general fodder of unheralded stories as the scoops that normally drive such a narrative. And for a story that started off as pure pulp, the dialog is superb, so good it won the Bafta award.

It certainly helped that an actual newspaper editor, Arthur Christiansen (of the Daily Express) lent a guiding hand, playing the role of the editor of this downmarket daily. The summoning of copy boys (actually grown men), the demand for 500 words, the printers ready to switch the front page at a moment’s notice, the inevitable diet of pie and pint, and the emotional casualties as marriages crumble under the strain of a husband more concerned with this next story than wife or children, all serves to ground the film.

And yes, the narrative plays into the usual journalistic tropes, ambitious newspaperman Peter (Edward Judd), career on the line, uses typical wiles, duping lowly scientific secretary Jeannie (Janet Munro) into revealing more than she should. It’s a meet-cute of the old-fashioned variety, she hates him on sight.

Peter is as off-kilter as the world, knocked off its axis by the simultaneous explosion of nuclear devices, unable to come to terms with his divorce, finding solace in the time he spends with his child, and it seems fitting that much of that is spent diving into the darkness of the ghost train ride, the fog equally thematic as he wanders round in circles in that, as aimless as in his life, while a bath is just as cinematically important, not just for the obvious semi-nude scene but as a place of refuge from impending terror.  

These journalists know how to sniff out a story, how to separate the what from the chaff of the official line, digging deeper, and with global connections able to put two and two together far swifter than officialdom. It helps that Peter’s guardian angel Bill (Leo McKern) has a scientific brain and is able to work out the source of the infernal rising temperature.

It’s axiomatic of how clever the screenplay is that Peter and Jeannie come together over a lost child, although Peter, cynical and bitter, but more vulnerable than most, remains a conniving character, happy to risk their burgeoning relationship for the sake of a scoop.

Like Quatermass and the Pit (1967) it’s one revelation after the other as the world hurtles towards oblivion, though not before ending up as the biggest barbecue of all time. The film acknowledges the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the time before piling on proof that man has sown the seeds of destruction on a four-month countdown to doomsday.

We have been here before with end-of-the-world scenarios but this story unfolds not in scientific or official offices, and there’s no President around to add gravitas or take the blame, but in the minds of the dogged journalists, soon appalled by their discoveries, and for once a scoop is unable to save the day or give the villain his just deserts. Whoever is behind the catastrophe remains nameless, although the outcome of superpowers duking it out for supremacy is never in doubt.

Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964) delivers a star-making performance as the jaded, jagged, journo capable of emotional depths while Janet Munro (Hide and Seek, 1964) escapes Disney tomboy servitude with a very adult role. Leo McKern (Assignment K) has the solid acting chops that would, two decades before television fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, see as a formidable heavyweight addition to any film and a threat to any co-star through jis charismatic ability to steal scenes.

But the film belongs to Val Guest, who constantly turns up the emotional heat and the terror scale, getting the most out of the riveting, sparkling screenplay he co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz (The 25th Hour, 1967).  

Assignment K (1968) ****

A good notch above the routine spy thriller, this deserves another look. 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 (The Big Gamble, 1961) 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 (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968) 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. There is less reliance on just sticking out his chin and looking handsome and this is a more assured performance than in The Big Gamble.

Michael Redgrave (The Hill, 1965), Leo McKern (Nobody Runs Forever) and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation. Here, his screen charm and charisma are at their 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.  Swedish Sparv was often viewed just as another of the decade’s ubiquitous European starlets but in fact she shows genuine acting ability.  

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. Guest was also involved in the screenplay along with two first-timers Bill Strutton and Maurice Foster, the former primarily a television writer, the latter a producer. Guest’s 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.

CATCH-UP: The Blog has reviewed Camilla Sparv in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner (1968) and Downhill Racer (1969). Stephen Boyd pictures reviewed so far are The Big Gamble (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and The Third Secret (1964).

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.

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.

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