Welcome back to Passport to Espionage. In this installment we time trip to the 1960s, a decade in which a profusion of spies infiltrated the cinemas. Sean Connery debuted as James Bond in Dr. No (1962) and created a sensation. The era also brought a barrage of agents to television, beginning in 1960 with Danger Man (U.S. title Secret Agent) starring the wonderful Patrick McGoohan. In spy films of the period, the Bond paradigm was pervasive: tuxedo-clad operatives shed their formal wear to bed a multitude of bodacious babes.
They also displayed a penchant for expensive cars, imbibed with regularity, and, almost incidentally, dispatched countless enemies of the state. MGM hoped to create two potential franchises in the genre with its releases of Where the Spies Are and The Liquidator. Neither film managed to generate enough audience interest or accolades for the studio to proceed with the desired sequels, yet watching these movies now is nonetheless a gratifying throwback experience. They are divertissements infused with the obligatory nods to the Bond prototype.
The two films’ respective protagonists share certain commonalities. Both are amateurs recruited into Her Majesty’s Secret Service because of their perceived heroic conduct in World War II. In a black-and-white prologue, maladroit tank corps sergeant Boysie Oakes (portrayed by Rod Taylor in The Liquidator) inadvertently kills two men who are attempting to slay British Intelligence Major Mostyn (played by Trevor Howard.) Mostyn misinterprets the serendipity of the circumstances, completely unaware of Boysie’s innate ineptitude. After rising to the rank of Colonel during the Cold War, Mostyn becomes second in command of a highly classified program to exterminate double agents. He erroneously believes that Boysie is the perfect choice for the hit jobs; mistakenly presuming that Oakes possesses the necessary sangfroid and cunning to make the deaths appear accidental. When Oakes discovers that the perks of the job, which include a fancy bachelor flat and other luxury paraphernalia, come with the price tag of committing murder, he briefly rebels against the idea. But the lure of glamourous women and an extravagant lifestyle, not to mention threats from the government, make him rethink. And to devise a plan: He engages the services of Griffin, a proficient and highly discreet assassin for hire. Griffin (a role that wonderfully suits the comedic skills of actor Eric Sykes) muses that he “started life as an undertaker” and revels in inventive plans to execute his executions. In a laugh inducing montage, Boysie romps with lovely lasses while Griffin indulges in ingenious ways to achieve Mostyn’s desired “fatal ‘accidents.’” Griffin’s lethal creativity echoes plot elements of the 1949 quintessential black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, an iconic British film that elevated a multiple murders scheme to giddy and giggly heights of prosperousness.
Despite the charade Boysie discovers that, when imperiled, his requisite espionage training and a fundamental sense of self-preservation do kick in. He pilots a weaponized military airplane, even though he has a fear of flying. And he physically culminates his protocol-defying romance with Mostyn’s secretary Iris MacIntosh (the fetchingly coquettish Jill St. John, who would continue her spy movie affiliation in 1971 as Bond Girl Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever) in a neutralizing manner.
The Liquidator and Bond songstress Shirley Bassey figuratively reunited with St. John on Diamonds Are Forever. Bassey indelibly belted out the electrifying Goldfinger (1964) anthem and additionally crooned the Bond Moonraker (1979) title song. The chanteuse gave voice to The Liquidator titles and end credits numbers, lending a Bond feel to the score which was composed by Lalo Schifrin. Schifrin’s name is synonymous with the famous Mission Impossible theme music.
Director Jack Cardiff began his movie career as a cinematographer, winning an Academy Award for 1947’s Black Narcissus. He segued to directing in the late 1950s and received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1960’s widely esteemed Sons and Lovers. Cardiff’s deft directorial touch combined with Rod Taylor’s daffy yet debonair performance as Boysie make The Liquidator a delightful lark. Based on the eponymous novel by John Gardner, The Liquidator is an espionage escapade that provides a dollop of much appreciated escapism.
Where the Spies Are is marginally more cerebral than The Liquidator. The mature urbane demeanor of David Niven in the lead role of Dr. Jason Love is a contrast to Taylor’s libido driven Boysie Oakes. Love, a vintage car enthusiast, is seduced into espionage by the lure of a 1937 Chrysler LeBaron; an upgrade from his rare and temperamental 1937 Cord Phaeton. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have an eye for the ladies, especially when he meets fashion model Vikki (the beautiful and enticing Françoise Dorléac) who doubles as an agent. Like Boysie, Love’s conduct in a World War II incident give him cloak-and-dagger gravitas. In addition, his credentials as a renowned physician provide the ideal cover to attend a prestigious medical convention in Beirut, where MI-6 agent Rosser (played by Cyril Cusack) was stationed and has gone missing. The film’s audience knows the fate of said agent courtesy of a flashback that is part of the movie’s prologue. The prologue is interesting in and of itself: a former British agent (Geoffrey Bayldon) is giving a lecture to a group of novice Soviet spies concerning an array of the latest spy gadgets. While the lecturer explains the capabilities of one of the devices, the narrative transitions to explain what befell the MI-6 man in Beirut.
It is relevant to recall that Beirut was a cosmopolitan and trendy city in the 1960s; a destination that Dr. Love willingly accepts as a substitute for his scheduled holiday in the south of France. Once ensconced in Beirut, Love accidentally meets hard-drinking British operative Parkington (played with rough and tumble gusto by Nigel Davenport) and together they unravel what happened to Rosser and its connection to an assassination plot with the potential to destabilize the world.
While not as whimsical as The Liquidator, Where the Spies Are does have a certain droll quality. Be it Love’s sardonic assessment of the gadgetry and weapons thrust upon him or Vikki’s frisky flirtatiousness, there is enough playfulness to keep the plot amusing. And when Love discovers that his anonymous pre-Beirut contact is the bewitching Vikki, clad in a revealing halter top and sporting a modish Carnaby Street cap, his look of surprise and delight is priceless.
Actress Dorléac was thirty-two years younger than David Niven but despite the age difference, their onscreen romance is rendered viable largely because of Niven’s genteel sexiness. He is nimble and spry in action scenes, witty and suave in his seduction repartee. Aged to perfection, so to speak. And according to more than one source, he was suggested by Ian Fleming to play Bond. The delectable Ms. Dorléac would later appear in another spy movie, 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain, her last film role before her tragic death in a single car accident at the age of 25.
The Where the Spies Are screenplay was written by Wolf Mankowitz based on James Leasor’s first Jason Love novel Passport to Oblivion, which was the film’s working title. Mankowitz’s association with cinema spies began in 1962 when he introduced his close acquaintance Cubby Broccoli to Harry Saltzman who owned the film rights to James Bond. Mankowitz was commissioned to be of the cluster of writers for Dr. No, but left during the early stages of filming and had his name removed from the credits. The 1967 campy pastiche Casino Royale was his other collaborative writing foray into the Bond universe. In addition to a batch of screenwriters, Casino Royale also had several directors. One of them was Val Guest who directed Where the Spies Are.
Val Guest is a name familiar to Hammer Productions fans for directing 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment (American title: The Creeping Unknown), an adaptation of the Nigel Kneale BBC-TV series. The success of the film, which spawned a 1957 sequel, reputedly changed the studio’s trajectory toward the horror genre. Guest is perhaps best remembered as the director of The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) a science fiction movie for which he and Mankowitz won the BAFTA award for Best Screenplay.
Where the Spies Are and The Liquidator provide a most welcome respite from today’s chaotic world. Indeed, even the 1960s sexist mentality and abundant lack of political correctness come across as having an antiquated charm given the way things are now. I think you will find the films pleasurable, and hope you enjoyed this installment of the Passport to Espionage. Please join me on the next adventure. A teaser: We’ll explore a novel whose protagonist is a concert musician and—and also, of course, a spy. Intrigued?