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.

Return to Sender (1963) ***

The B-film’s B-film. Where American B-pictures invariably focused on sleaze, sci-fi, horror or violence, their British counterparts often exuded class with solid acting, clever plots, excellent though simple sets and good composition. Edgar Wallace, the world’s most prolific writer, had regained sudden popularity thirty years after his death, and movies made from his works made ideal subjects for B-pictures fed into the British double-bill system. His thrillers are all story, racing along with twist after twist.

On the verge of being arrested for fraud, high-class businessman Dino Steffano (Nigel Davenport) hits on blackmail as a means of forcing investigator Robert Lindley (Geoffrey Keen) to drop the case. He sets up associate Mike Cochrane (William Russell) to fake photographs involving sexy Lisa (Yvonne Romain) and Lindley in compromising positions. So Lisa, pretending to hold vital evidence, lures him to her flat where this can be staged.

Meanwhile Lindley’s daughter Beth (Jennifer Daniel) chats up Cochrane after overhearing him asking questions about her father’s cottage. Cochrane has history with Lindley, an 18-month prison sentence the result of a previous encounter. He also resents Steffano over previous double-dealing and is planning to take his own revenge while carrying out the master plan.

I doubt if you will be able to see the twists coming. Suffice to say, nothing is what it seems. The closer Lindley gets to uncovering the mystery, the darker it becomes and the more danger he appears to be in. Even when characters reveal their plans, you can be sure they will have a different one up their sleeve. Steffano’s exceptional charm masks his ruthlessness. While Lindley is dogged, he is no match for the slinky Lisa who can play the vulnerable female with ease. Artist Beth treasures her independence so much that it takes her down some devious alleys, especially when trying to pump Cochrane for information. And it all leads to a terrific climax, involving further twists and double-dealing.

Most of this is played out in classy apartments with log fires burning and Steffano drinking brandy and smoking cigars, or on a yacht, or Lindley’s equally splendid chambers.

The cast are either up-and-coming movie stars or destined for small-screen fame. Many of these Edgar Wallace thrillers would prove stepping stones for new talent.

Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) is the pick and would become an accomplished supporting actor in films like Play Dirty (1969). Yvonne Romaine had already made a splash in The Frightened City (1961) and would go on to play the female lead in Devil Doll (1964) and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965). Geoffrey Keen (Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow, 1963) would make a bigger impact on television in Mogul (1965-1972). As would William Russell (The Great Escape, 1963) who went on to become a long-running sidekick of Dr Who (1963-1965). Jennifer Daniel became a horror favorite with the female lead in The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Reptile (1966).  

Making his movie debut director John Hales clearly benefits from a couple of decades as an editor in films like The Seventh Veil (1945) and Village of the Damned (1960) and he nips quickly from one scene to another to keep the plot ticking along while showing some gift for framing characters within a scene.  

I should point out you will easily find flaws. Strictly speaking, if you know your British police procedural, Lindley would not be an investigator, and it would not be too hard to find strains of implausibility showing. But that should not detract from this enjoyable movie.

British studio Anglo Amalgamated churned out these Edgar Wallace thrillers as double-bill fodder and, even though compromised in the budget department, they were generally well-made. Wallace was a brand-name, the country’s best-selling author on account of his 200-plus novels, most still in print long after his death, and a byword for a good read. American networks edited the features down to fit into a television series. So if you are hunting these down make sure you get the original features rather than the edited versions.

You could try this sampler on Amazon Prime but if you like what you see you would be better to buy one of the box sets.

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