Anthony Mann’s career as a director could be divided into three broad phases; his noirs of the forties, his westerns of the fifties, and his epics of the sixties. I think it’s fair to say that he mastered all of these and brought something new to each. A Dandy in Aspic (1968) would be his first Cold War spy thriller, although ironically it would also be his last film and he died before it was completed. Had he lived, I think it’s unlikely that he would have embraced the genre if this film is anything to go by. All told, it’s a tired, glum effort which offers nothing fresh; it falls back on endless cliches and tries to be too clever for its own good.
It opens brightly enough with a nice credits sequence featuring a puppet dancing on a string to the accompaniment of a cool Quincy Jones score. Alex Eberlin is a British spy who we are informed is a remote, sexless snob. Personally, I found this tidbit of information superfluous as the part was being played by Laurence Harvey, and those are the very words that spring to mind when I think of him. It turns out that Eberlin is really a double agent and a KGB assassin who has been living in Britain for twenty years but longs to return home. However, his controllers don’t want him to return just yet since he’s been performing well enough for them. A bigger problem for him, though, is the fact that his superiors in British Intelligence want him to take on a new task. They have grown weary of their operatives being knocked off and Eberlin is handed the job of eliminating the assassin, in other words eliminating himself. To this end, he is packed off to Berlin in the company of another agent, the openly hostile Gatiss (Tom Courtenay). There follows a series of confusing double-crosses, shot against a drab looking Berlin cityscape, until everything winds down to a vaguely unsatisfying twist ending. Along the way, there is time for a romance with an English photographer, Mia Farrow. I’m not quite sure what purpose this relationship is supposed to serve other than to add some swinging sixties atmosphere – if it’s supposed to help the viewer to connect with these characters in some way, then it fails.
The movie is essentially hamstrung with the casting Harvey and Farrow. Harvey’s role is hardly a sympathetic one to begin with as he shows no remorse for his betrayals, and he kills and uses people simply to preserve his own hide. On top of this, he was the kind of actor who could make the furniture around him seem interesting, those pinched facial reactions conveying all the intensity of a mild case of indigestion. Farrow is just vacant, although, in all fairness, she’s handed such a non-role that there’s no real opportunity to do anything with it. Tom Courtenay’s embittered, and belligerent Gatiss is better but it’s still pretty much a one note performance. He gets to stump around on his cane (which doubles as a rifle – shades of Bond amid all the dourness) and spit out his lines with a perpetual scowl on his face but there’s never any explanation for his anger. Lionel Stander has a clownish part as the cigar chomping KGB man in Berlin, and John Bird does his patented mugging act that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Rory Bremner show. Oh, and Peter Cook (who always seemed to find himself funnier than I ever thought he was) pops up for a small yet irritating role. One of my biggest regrets was that Harry Andrews wasn’t given more to do than chair a claustrophobic briefing session.
There are some interesting shots in the film which illustrate Anthony Mann’s good eye for strong composition, and there’s a nice set piece climax at a motor circuit, but they’re not enough. The plot is close to incomprehensible with all the twists and turns it takes and, in the end, it falls between two stools by trying to marry the grim aspects with too much contrived buffoonery. I think one’s fondness or lack of it for this film may come down to one’s level of tolerance for the performers involved, and I think I’ve made it clear enough where I stand. Basically, I feel I’ve seen all this done before and better but, if you’re a fan of this type of story or any of the actors, it is worth a look. For myself, I only wish Anthony Mann had signed off on a better note.
A Dandy in Aspic is available on DVD in R2 from Sony in a barebones edition, but it does have a pretty good anamorphic scope transfer.