Nobody Runs Forever (1968) / The High Commissioner ****

Character-driven intelligent thriller ripe for re-evaluation. And not just because it stands out from the decade’s genre limitations, neither hero threatened by mysterious forces in the vein of Charade (1963) or Mirage (1965) nor, although espionage elements are involved, fitting into the ubiquitous spy category. Instead, it loads mystery upon mystery and leaves you guessing right to the end.

And a deluge of mystery would not work – even with the London high-life gloss of cocktail parties, casinos and the Royal Box at Wimbledon – were it not for the believable characters. Rough Aussie Outback cop Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) is despatched to London at the behest of New South Wales prime minister (Leo McKern) to bring home Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) to face a charge of murder.

Probably a better title than either “Nobody Runs Forever”
or “The High Commissioner.”

Unlike most cop pictures, Malone is not sent to investigate a case, he is merely muscle. While he may have his doubts about the evidence against Quentin, suspected of murdering his first wife, he resists all attempts to re-open the case. Arriving in the middle of a peace conference hosted by the principled Quentin, he agrees to investigate security leaks from Australia House and along the way turns into an impromptu bodyguard when Quentin’s life is endangered. But Quentin’s wife Sheila (Lilli Palmer) and secretary Lisa (Camilla Sparv) are not taken in by the deception and so Malone himself forms part of the mystery.

With a preference for cold beer to expensive champagne, you might expect Malone to be a bull in a china shop. Instead, dressed for the part by the solicitous Quentin, Malone fits easily into high society, taking time out from his duties for a dalliance with the elegant Madame Chalon (Daliah Lavi). The background is not the gloss but the passion the Quentins still feel for each other, she willing to do anything (literally) to save her husband, he losing the thread of an important speech when worried about his wife.

While there is no shortage of suspects for all nefarious activities, red herrings abound and cleverly you are left to make up your own mind, rather than fingers being ostentatiously pointed. There is some delicious comedy between Malone and Quentin’s uptight butler (Clive Revill), enough punch-ups, chases and clever tricks to keep the movie more than ticking along but at its core are the relationships. Malone’s growing respect for Quentin does not overrule duty, Lisa’s evident love for Quentin cannot be taken the obvious further step, Sheila’s overwhelming need to safeguard her husband sends her into duplicitous action.

The politics are surprisingly contemporary, attempts to alleviate hunger and prevent war, and while there was much demonstration during the decade in favor of world peace, this is the only picture I can think of where a politician’s main aim is not self-aggrandisement, greed or corruption. There are some twists on audience expectation – the dinner-jacketed Malone in the casino does not strike a James Bond pose and start to play, he is seduced rather than seducer, and remains a working man throughout.

Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) and Christopher Plummer (Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) are terrific sparring partners, red-blooded male versus ice-cool character, their jousts verbal rather than physical. The rugged Taylor turns on the charm when necessary, a throwback to his character in Fate Is the Hunter (1964). Thoughts of his wife soften Plummer’s instinctive icy edge. Lilli Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor) is superb as yet another vulnerable woman, on the surface in total control, but underneath quivering with the fear of loss. Two graduates of the Matt Helm school are given meatier roles, Daliah Lavi (The Silencers, 1966), as seductress-in-chief is a far cry from her stunning roles in The Demon (1963) and The Whip and the Body (1963) – and it still feels a shame to me that she was so ill-served in the way of roles by Hollywood. Camilla Sparv (Murderers Row, 1966) has a more low-key role.

Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) has another scene-stealing part and look out for Calvin Lockhart (Dark of the Sun), Burt Kwouk (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and, shorn of his blond locks, an unrecognizable Derren Nesbit (The Naked Runner, 1967) and in his final role Hollywood legend Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935).

Ralph Thomas (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) directs with minimum fuss, always focused on character, although there is a sly plug for Deadlier than the Male in terms of a cinema poster. (Speaking of posters, I couldn’t help notice this interesting advert at an airport for a VC10 promoted as “10derness.”) Wilfred Greatorex (The Battle of Britain, 1969) made his screenplay debut, adapting the bestseller by Jon (The Sundowners) Cleary. This may not be quite a true four-star picture but it is a grade above three-star.

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor films reviewed in the blog so far are Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

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.

Deadlier than the Male (1967) ****

Now revealed as the first film seen by Quentin Tarantino – at the age of five.

For a movie intended to set up a series character in the vein of James Bond, it was ironic that it was the women who stole the show, not just from their tendency to turn up in bikinis but for their outrageous villainy. Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) are the seductive assassins in the hire of Carl Petersen (Nigel Green) who has designs on an Arab oil empire. On her own Irma dispatches mogul Henry Keller (Dervis Ward) then the pair – emerging from the sea like a pair of latter-day Ursula Andresses – harpoon his colleague Wyngarde (John Stone).   

Soon Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), investigating the death of Wyngarde, becomes a target  and that sets him off, with nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) in tow,  to the Mediterranean and the yacht of oil-rich King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) where, of course, the girls lie in wait.

Dispensing with the gadgets – except for one item employed by the villainesses – and gimmicks of Bond, but retaining the quips, this is a fun ride with a more down-to-earth leading man – like the early Bonds – smarter girls, a more old-fashioned mystery, a hefty thug Chang (Milton Reid)  in the Oddjob mold, a castle doubling as the villain’s lair, a suave master criminal, some detective work, and a super scene involving giant robotic chess men.

The bickering between Irma and Penelope, who is not just a tad sadistic but a kleptomaniac especially as far as her partner is concerned, coupled with their overweening confidence, makes them much more human than any Bond Girl and the character traits explored have a pay-off at the climax. Equally interesting are the mind games, Drummond vs. Peterson but also Drummond vs. Irma. And that the female baddies see it as points on their scoreboard to seduce Drummond rather than the other way round.

Drummond is every bit as capable a seducer as Bond and equally ruthless, stripping a suspect naked. Petersen is also a clever character, faking his own death and running a very smooth operation, and certainly his recruitment techniques are second to none.

Some ideas were certainly ahead of their time, the chess men are the equivalent of a modern computer game while the human bomb has, unfortunately, entered the modern lexicon and there are enough female serial killers around to prevent anyone believing they are always (to use an outmoded sexist phrase) the gentle sex. However, in the middle 1960s, the concept that women would be partial to murder and torture not to mention repeatedly seducing males went so much against the grain of the male authority figures that the British censor slapped an X-certificate on the movie.

Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson was a one time MGM contract player, but his only previous top-billed outing was the Italian-made The Witch (1966). He certainly made a splash with this character, investing it with a great deal more gravitas than Flint or Helm. The Teutonic Elke Sommer (The Venetian Affair, 1966) is brilliant as one half of the assassin tag-team with a batch of one-liners for every occasion. Sylva Koscina (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), nose always put out of joint, almost steals the show.  Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), while his usual sardonic self, has the playfulness of the rich and powerful.

Steve Carlsen, in his movie debut, doesn’t make much of an impact in a largely lame role. Zia Mohyeddin has a more interesting part as the oil kingpin wanting to help his people. As you can expect in a spy picture there are a host of beautiful women – Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) a defector, Virginia North, also making her debut, Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969), and Didi Sydow in her only screen appearance.

The light comedy experience of director Ralph Thomas (Doctor in Distress, 1963) comes is very handy, as his sense of comic timing is excellent, but, perhaps learning from his previous brush with espionage in Agent 8¾ / Hot Enough for June (1964) brings a bigger punch to the action scenes. And it’s a bold ploy to start with an action sequence revolving around Irma and Penelope rather than our star man.

The screenplay was a team effort – Jimmy Sangster (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964), taking a break from Hammer duties, David D. Osborn (Maroc 7, 1967) and Liz Charles-Williams, making her screen debut  – all involved.  This was familiar territory for composer Malcolm Lockyer (Five Golden Men, 1967). British pop act The Walker Brothers had a hit with the theme tune.

This is more fun than camp, not a send-up of the genre like Derek Flint and Matt Helm, but a spy picture with a believable leading men and excellent villains. But the plot is more centred on filthy lucre rather than global control and there is a genuine understanding of how businesses work – takeovers, mergers, dirty dealings – though small wonder Petersen would like to be shot of pedantic boardroom nuisances like Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) – wouldn’t we all?

Bulldog Drummond was an international crime-buster invented by “Sapper,” the pen-name of H.C. McNeile. Bulldog Drummond had been a Hollywood mainstay for over four decades, the twenty-plus pictures attracting stars like Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond, 1929, and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934), Ray Milland (Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937), Walter Pidgeon (Calling Bulldog Drummond, 1951) and a young Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, 1934). But the notion, in the Swinging Sixties, of tagging any leading man by the moniker of ‘Bulldog’ did not seem like a good idea, so the character underwent wholesale reinvention and his nickname is never mentioned.  

The title comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species. That was the original title of the film and also of a Sapper book.

You can get his on a double bill with the sequel Some Girls Do from Network at a very reasonable price. Will be reviewing Some Girls Do next.

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