A Dandy in Aspic

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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.

 

Winchester 73

Down through the years there have been a number of significant collaborations between directors and actors, such as Ford and Fonda, Ford and Wayne, and Huston and Bogart. In 1950 another such partnership was born, that of Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Their work together was to change the direction of both their careers, and produce some of the best cinema of the decade. Anthony Mann had made his reputation with a series of fine noirs in the last half of the 40s, but he had never done a western. James Stewart’s name had been built on the light leading man roles he excelled in before the war; with the exception of the comedic Destry Rides Again he was another relative stranger to the Old West. However, as a result of the success of Winchester 73 the names of both men would be forever linked to the oldest genre of them all. They went on to make eight films together, five of them westerns.

The story concerns Lin McAdam (Stewart) who arrives in Dodge City on July 4th 1876 and enters a sharpshooting contest presided over by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Virgil Earp and Bat Masterson. The contest’s first prize is the famous rifle of the title, and it soon comes down to a run-off between McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). There’s clearly a history of bad blood between the two men, and when McAdam wins it’s not long before Dutch Henry robs him and makes off with the gun. The film then chronicles McAdam’s search for his stolen rifle, and his pursuit of the man who took it. But that’s really only a plot device, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin – something of greater significance to the characters than it is to the audience. While the gun is admired, valued and coveted by everyone who comes across it, it is not the sole, nor even the most important reason for McAdam’s dogged quest. This is a dark tale of revenge and the settling of old scores and, despite the dropping of a number of hints, the cause is not stated explicitly until the end.

James Stewart’s pre-war career consisted mainly of Mr Nice Guy roles, while the years following his return found him floundering around in search of a niche. Although It’s a Wonderful Life and Rope offered him roles with a greater complexity, Lin McAdam was a complete departure for him. This part, and subsequent ones with Mann, allowed him to display a cold ruthlessness that the public hadn’t seen before. In addition, he seems so completely at home in the saddle that it’s hard to believe this was his first serious western character. The film boasts a marvellous cast of character actors and up and coming talent: Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea (playing Waco Johnny Dean – lots of exotic character names in this movie) as villains, Shelley Winters as a luckless saloon girl, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, and early parts for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.

The character of Wyatt Earp is really only incidental to the story here. His appearance is limited to the first twenty minutes or so and doesn’t add much to the narrative. Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge at around the time the story takes place but the film suggests he was the principal lawman in the city. Will Geer portrays him as a folksy, down home type which seems at odds with the popular conception of the man. When McAdam challenges his authority early on, he fumbles around in his vest pocket for his tin star before almost sheepishly revealing his identity. One would have expected the real Earp to have kicked the upstart’s butt up and down the street.

Winchester 73 is a Universal release on DVD in R1 and R2, and it’s a fine looking disc. Not only is the transfer clean and tight, but there’s one fantastic extra. The film comes with a feature length scene specific commentary by James Stewart. I’m not usually one who gets too excited by extras in general, especially commentaries – but this kind of stuff is cinematic gold dust. Most of the stars of this period were long gone by the time the idea of recording commentaries occurred to anyone, so this is one to be treasured.