Not every spy can be James Bond but then Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) never meant to be a spy in the first place. When he’s not being pulled into matters of classified intelligence, Otley is a man absorbed with one job – finding a place to stay for the night. Since he’s already gone through a bunch of his friends, it’s a job that takes up most of his time. No sooner does he find a sofa to lie on, then he’s back on the streets the next day, and that’s appropriately where we find him at the start of director Dick Clement’s film Otley (1969).
Chronologically, a scene immediately after feels like it should come first. Otley’s land lady gives him notice of his eviction and that would explain why he’s carrying a bag full of (assumedly) all his worldly possessions when he’s walking down Portobello Road. But there’s no question the stroll provides a better encapsulation of what Clement’s film is about.
Written by Clement and frequent collaborator Ian La Frenais – they also co-wrote the series The Likely Lads (1964-1966) for the BBC – Indicator’s recent release is the film’s first time on Blu-ray and comes region free, so there’s no hassle around where it’s available. Among the bonus features is a new interview with star Tom Courtenay. Courtenay mentions, in relation to this opening scene, that his feet hurt more during Otley than they did during The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).
The setting of Portobello Road Market serves the film two-fold. First, there’s the way Otley clearly meshes with this world. To use his own, 60’s slang, this is his “scene.” He knows his way around, runs into people he knows (though in one instance, we learn from Clement’s commentary with film historian, Sam Dunn, this was actually Courtenay running into someone he knew but staying in character), and can comment on whether people made good deals or not.
Then there’s the film’s preoccupation with trade overall. Whether it’s selling goods or paying people off, everyone has a price in Otley, and it’s this world that our main character inhabits. He doesn’t, however, always comply by these rules. Take his apartment, which his land lady sold to him fully furnished. By the time we see it, there are sun stains on the walls from items removed. Far from being a gracious guest, Otley uses the people who allow him to stay at their place by stealing stuff and selling it for cash.
This behavior tells us Otley doesn’t protect his relationships. If he did, maybe he wouldn’t have to live so transiently but a friend can’t promise Otley shelter, and he’s a survivalist. A friend would grow tired of Otley crashing on their couch. His current system allows him to rotate around. It takes work but is more realistic to the extent of people’s charity and Otley’s disinterest in supporting himself.
But when does Otley become a spy comedy? It’s during one of his overnights with an old acquaintance, Lambert (Edward Hardwicke), that Otley wakes up two days later on the Gatwick air field, unsure how he got there. Lambert’s dead, Otley’s suspected, and a bunch of spies think Lambert shared information with Otley before he died. That these spies are constantly switching sides doesn’t help bring much clarity to who’s working for who, but the point isn’t for Otley to adjust to their world or reveal any untapped potential.
Genre conventions are met, including Otley crossing paths with a female spy – Romy Schneider’s Imogeen. He’s not your lady’s man, seducing women all the time. He can be charming, and knows his chances are better with women than men, but it’s really all about getting a roof over his head. It’s the ladies in this film who decide whether to pursue a sexual relationship, and when that relationship will end.
Otley isn’t a serious picture. No situation is too frightening that Otley won’t consider stealing a trinket or two, and this eliminates the sense that he’s in any real danger. If he didn’t think he’d have a chance to auction the piece off later, he wouldn’t take the risk of stealing it. So, by that logic he’s going to make it through.
The music also tells us this is a spy comedy. To go back to the opening scene, this is when we first hear Don Partridge’s song Homeless Bones (The Lament of Gerald Arthur Otley), with its bouncy banjo and harmonica beat. Stanley Meyers is behind the rest of the film’s score and there’s a levity and joy to his music, at the cost of zapping all tension from a scene (including the film’s central car chase, which wasn’t in the original script).
While it doesn’t have the gadgets of a show like Get Smart (1965-70), Otley feels like a movie that would have carried the same appeal. And when the banter is good (especially between bickering couple Lin (Fiona Lewis) and Albert (James Bolam), it’s great.
Otley is available on Blu-Ray as part of Powerhouse Film’s Indicator series.