Few latecomer ’60s spy movies were big successes. This amusing Brit effort sank without a trace, perhaps taking with it the career of the talented Tom Courtenay as a leading man. The comic tale pits an underachieving, cheeky London lad against an intelligence conspiracy that wouldn’t be doing anybody much harm — if they didn’t insist on murdering people.
Powerhouse Indicator (UK)
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 92 min. / Available at The PH page / Street Date March 19, 2018 / £15.99
Starring: Tom Courtenay, Romy Schneider, Alan Badel, James Villiers, Leonard Rossiter, James Bolam, Fiona Lewis, Freddie Jones, James Cossins, James Maxwell, Edward Hardwicke, Ronald Lacey, Phyllida Law, Geoffrey Bayldon, Frank Middlemass.
Cinematography: Austin Dempster
Film Editor: Richard Best
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Original Music: Stanley Myers
Written by Dick Clement, Ian la Frenais from a book by Martin Waddell
Produced by Bruce Cohn Curtis, Carl Foreman
Directed by Dick Clement
The British film industry would do a fast fade in 1970, the moment the beleaguered Hollywood studios pulled back their considerable investments. 1969’s Otley is a Columbia co-production that gave TV writer and director Dick Clement a shot at directing. His work is fine in every detail, but spy spoofs were already going the way of Carnaby Street and the British Music Invasion. It’s a shame, because Clement’s fine mix of deserving actors are given good roles to play. The show is less tongue-in-cheek than it is amiably droll.
Back in 1960 we had Alec Guinness as an ‘ordinary bloke’ forced to become an espionage operative in Our Man from Havana. In Otley Tom Courtenay’s ordinary bloke is swept up in murderous intrigues because he happens to be crashing in a pal’s flat on the night that an assassin comes to call. Our Otley is a self-described layabout tossed out of his own flat because his landlady will no longer accept sex in lieu of rent. He proudly states that he’s won a prize for lethargy. Scraping together an occasional payday by selling antiques, Otley has a group of local friends who own shops. Kidnapped because one group of spies thinks he’s a new operative, Otley is rescued by the seductive Imogen (Romy Schneider), an agent for another group of spies.
The actual conspiracy isn’t particularly important. State secrets are being sold, but that’s taken for granted. The conflict has more to do with who does the selling. Part of Otley’s panic is that nothing big is at stake except his life. Sometimes he stays alive because he’s not important enough to kill. He hides out with friends but keeps getting pulled back into the action, finally agreeing to serve what he thinks is the ‘good’ side. Imogen and others promise Otley that he’ll be able to return to his normal squalid life, just as soon as he does one more deed. At one point the spies ‘posh him up’ to pass as a double agent. Otley has no illusions that he’s suitable material to be a fancy super-spy — he’s just passed a couple of days with only half of his face shaved, making him look like an idiot. Besides, he has a healthy grudge against the upper social echelons. His attempt to be ‘cool’ at the London Playboy Club is a big flop.
The charm is in the film’s quirky character interactions. Otley keeps trying to reignite an old flame in the gorgeous Lin (favorite Fiona Lewis of The Fearless Vampire Killers and Dead Kids) but she has a new boyfriend. Imogen runs hot and cold depending on whether or not Otley is useful to her. In the final reckoning Otley is endearing because he refuses to play the spy game. He insists on asking, with complete sincerity, for uncaring bigwigs and smiling killers to give him a break. Kidnapper-hit man Johnston (the great Leonard Rossiter) so discounts Otley’s ability to escape that he allows him to run free on his farm. Rather than just kill the amateur, Johnston uses him to make contact with an enemy agent, to receive a package that might be a bomb.
Goofball Otley is at a major disadvantage. Imogen simply takes a gun away from him, knowing he’s incapable of shooting anybody. As if not being intimidating isn’t enough, he can’t drive a stick-shift. Imogen ditches him in London traffic behind the wheel of a stolen Jaguar, with an annoyed truck driver calling him a fairy.
Underneath the comedy is real danger. Otley is fairly good at making escapes, even if he’s humiliated along the way. A major sequence is a rather good comedy chase during a driving test, but the violence in other scenes is just as rough as in other spy pix. Trying to act in a human manner, Otley is forced to witness one supposedly noble spymaster eliminating another noble spymaster by running over his head with the wheel of a bus.
Clement plays the comedy as character-driven, which goes against the grain of spy spoofs with stupid quips and cartoonish action. He injects little bits of comedy here and there without going silly, as might Richard Lester. The driving test car chase never gets too crazy. When the cops bring him in in connection with his pal’s murder, Otley expects the third degree. But because they mistake him for a government agent, he’s given the utmost hospitality. The irony between this V.I.P. treatment and Otley’s usual lack of status is funny indeed.
Tom Courtenay is marvelous as a clod who can’t do anything right, yet survives his dangerous days as a marked man. His Otley thinks that Antonioni has something to do with Spanish dancing, and he can get a laugh simply by making a face at a Julie Andrews poster, just because he feels like it. The star of Billy Liar enjoyed a fine career and Otley shows just how versatile he could be. His Pasha/Strelnikov was one of the best things in Doctor Zhivago, so much so that I always thought his story would be more entertaining than that of the lead character.
Favorite leading actress Romy Schneider is sadly underused, in a role that any pretty face could have played. When Otley asks her Imogen why a German is working for MI6 (or whatever), she says she began an au pair worker for a government minister, and things just took their natural course. James Villiers usually plays insufferable upperclass types; here his villainy is sharper and more defined. Alan Badel is a political bigwig about to be knighted, yet is a bona fide traitor. He’s another bit of Otley’s social criticism. Leonard Rossiter’s assassin is so self assured that he’s funny as well. Clement doesn’t let any of these wacky characters slip across the line into ordinary spoofery.
One favorite actor does cross the spoof barrier, and gets aways with it. Looking far too thin to be himself, the great Freddie Jones is a swishy gay art expert-spy par excellence, and funny as hell. Like some of the other actors Jones holds the floor for only a few minutes, yet makes a satisfying, endearing impact.
Director Clement stages the film in everyday locations, which is always a plus for London-set movies. We’re fascinated by the signage on the streets and in the Underground — there’s even a poster for Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade on view. True, Otley not a classic and is in fact likely too low-key of a comedy to make everybody happy. I found it more than enough good fun.
Side note: Talking about interesting casting: Dick Clement’s next picture, the all-but-forgotten A Severed Head, puts Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough, Ian Holm, Claire Bloom, Jennie Linden and Clive Revill together on the same screen.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of Otley is a limited edition import that plays perfectly well on Region A machines. The transfer by Sony is excellent, with rich colors, lots of fine detail and strong audio for Stanley Myers’ lighthearted music score. Myers and Don Partridge composed the song ‘Homeless Bones’ heard during the titles and credits. Its lively tone says ‘street busker,’ not ‘super-spy.’ The title sequence, by the way, is an impressively lengthy tracking shot as Otley walks through the antiques district, snooping on bargains and meeting and greeting friends. As extended tracking shots of this kind were not yet the rage (fomented by the film student generation) Clement’s effort feels particularly noteworthy.
Indicator’s extras give us an interesting commentary by Dick Clement. The writer-director is a fine raconteur and his memory has saved up about just everything in the picture. For viewers keen to learn even more, an audio track of a long interview with Clement and his writing partner Ian La Frenais is up next. Frenais the returns for a new on-camera interview.
The revered Tom Courtenay appears for a short but bright interview of his own, having fun with his memories of the time and offering some thoughtful comments about his career, which was intensely hot for several years. He sadly thinks that Otley marked his downturn. I don’t think it was Courtenay that faltered, but the Brit film industry itself.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: commentary with Dick Clement and Sam Dunn (2018); The Guardian Lecture with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (2008) at London’s National Film Theatre; Video interviews with Tom Courtenay (2018, 6 minutes) and Ian La Frenais (2018, 17 mins); trailer; image gallery. PLUS, an illustrated 40-page booklet with a new essay by Laura Mayne, an extract from Martin Waddell’s original novel, location reports, archival interviews with Tom Courtenay, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson