Veteran filmmakers Michael Relph and Basil Dearden try a hip ‘n’ flip costume comedy about an 1899 consortium that’s the equivalent of Murder Inc.: Killings for hire done with veddy proper civility and good taste. The charming Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg lead a notable cast — Telly Savalas, Curd Jürgens, Philippe Noiret, Beryl Reid, Clive Revill — through mayhem-filled chases in several European capitals. Tossed off in tongue-in-cheek style, it’s shallow but cute, and if you like the stars it can be a lark. Its saving grace is the spirited Ms. Rigg.
The Assassination Bureau
Viavision [Imprint] 86
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / The Assassination Bureau Limited / Street Date October 29, 2021 / Available from [Imprint] or Amazon /
Starring: Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Curd Jürgens, Philippe Noiret, Warren Mitchell, Beryl Reid, Clive Revill, Kenneth Griffith, Vernon Dobtcheff, Annabella Incontrera, Jess Conrad, George Coulouris.
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Art Director: Michael Relph
Film Editor: Teddy Darvas
Original Music: Ron Grainer
Written by Michael Relph from a novel by Robert L. Fish from an unfinished novel by Jack London
Produced by Michael Relph
Directed by Basil Dearden
This reviewer first learned about Michael Relph and Basil Dearden through their later 1960s pictures, some of which have great potential but aim a little off target: The Mind Benders, Khartoum), Woman of Straw. Only later did we find Relph-Dearden’s best work, the earier classics: The Blue Lamp, Pool of London, Sapphire, Victim — all superb movies.
The Assassination Bureau had everything going for it — a lavish budget for commercial concept that’s winks at 007-spy movies and faux-quaint period satires like Bryan Forbes The Wrong Box. It even has a quasi-moral excuse — the handsome young hero believes in his impromptu murders by dynamite and poison: “We only kill people who deserve to die.” The dastardly villains use political assassinations to jump-start a World War (fifteen years ahead of schedule) so they can sell armaments. In other words, the shallow moralizing might appeal to escapist action fans that disapproved of Vietnam.
A show like this needs to be carried off with style and panache, and Assassination Bureau can’t quite maintain its initial spirit and invention. It’s played to the hilt by a literal gang of favorite character actors and produced on a lavish scale, but the script isn’t as witty as it needs to be, and the direction is neither clever nor stylish. We settle for the bright performances, especially by Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg. They get the joke, and play it with nary a false note.
It’s the turn of the century, the pre-motorized years known as ‘The Golden Age’ before the high-level killings of WW1 soured the appeal of violent national chivalry. The ambitious aspiring reporter Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) shows a newspaper staff how she’s detected a secret company of killers that use the want ads to communicate with clients. She talks the liberal newspaper owner Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) into bankrolling her investigation: with $20,000 pounds of the paper’s money, Sonya pretends to be a client wishing to hire a killing. She indeed penetrates The Assassination Bureau and talks to its charming, impish president Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). They’re mutually impressed with each other. When Sonya says she wants Ivan to kill himself, he thinks it’s a great way to clear away the deadwood and the disloyal in his organization. He charges his key operatives to try to kill him — and he’ll try to kill them. Thus begins a merry chase wherein killers stalk killers across Europe, with Miss Winter tagging along, fully enjoying the experience.
The Assassination Bureau has a lot going for it – beautiful sets and some fun fin de siecle production design, and a dream cast of talented performers rarely given the opportunity to carry a feature. But there are conceptual problems, the most serious being an openly tongue-in-cheek tone that falls flat as often as it rings true.
Direct from her starmaking turn as Emma Peel in TV’s The Avengers, Diana Rigg succeeds 100% in sustaining the proper tone for the film’s extended joke. Her proud heroine is sexy yet completely self-possessed. She blinks distractedly at various comic lines from her male adversaries, sharing the irony of the moment with us. Oliver Reed also displays a keen knack for sly comedy. He plays to the audience even more, eventually mugging and making asides toward the camera. Relph and Dearden impose quaint elements to try to give the show a period flavor, such as animated titles and transistions that mimic the style of a silent movie. At some points we see vintage film of royal ceremonies, etc.; the movie uses shows some scenes in B&W in an inset morticed frame, as if they were silent movies.
Despite great costumes and production values, Relph and Dearden don’t quite create the setting for an Edwardian-era thriller. The one movie that really succeeds in this is Georges Franju’s playful & affectionate ode to silent serials Judex. Like The Assassination Bureau, Judex takes place just before the cataclysm of WW1 that swept away the complacent 19th century world. Bureau has a few jokes referring to the same subject, as when a soldier scoffs at the idea that bombs will ever be dropped from the air. But there’s no thematic tension here — the members of the Assassination Bureau are as casually ruthless as generic bad guys in modern spy movies. Another very successful retro-thriller is Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, although it slips all the way back in time to 1850 or thereabouts. Simply transposing 007-like values to an earlier era isn’t as rewarding.
TV’s Batman was influential along these lines, popularizing a mild, neutered idea of Camp. Every joke now had to break the fourth wall and be shared with the audience. Michael Relph’s screenplay winks at us as if to say, “Ain’t I being clever here?” But this kind of comedy needs a better foundation. Bureau can’t manage the smarts of Beat the Devil or The President’s Analyst, both of which have wit to spare. This show leans more in the direction of dated spy spoofs — although it’s far better than losers like The Last of the Secret Agents? and the popular Matt Helm series.
Yet The Assassination Bureau is frequently engaging — Rigg and Reed are always on task. As with the intermitently charming The Wrong Box the fine actors sell the spirit as best they can. Although Vernon Dobtcheff’s dour Russian makes unfunny, predictable remarks about the sadness of the Russian soul, the brilliant Clive Revill (Avanti!) always strikes the right note of villainous fun — it’s a shame that he exits the show so quickly. Kenneth Griffith (Circus of Horrors) has a brief bit as a would-be assassin, but is hard to identify under his beard.
The Bureau’s headquarters get things off to a great start with a fancy conference room. We’re shown an antiquated manual pully system that makes a ‘futuristic’ sliding wall function. The most lavish episode takes place in a Paris bordello run by Bureau member Philippe Noiret. He’s assisted by Beryl Reid (!) as a diminutive madam, herding the various prostitutes about. The antics in the bordello are regulation low-key Oo-la-lah! — lots of low necklines and red velvet, but more fun than the next year’s tepid The Best House in London — some of the girls and their costumes are genuinely into the right spirit.
The comedy assassinations aren’t all that inventive: the main titles cover five or six killings, most via anarchist-like bombs. Anticipating new bombs isn’t all that fun, and dulls an episode in a Swiss bank run by a Bureau member played by Warren Mitchell (The Crawling Eye). Given main bad guy status alongside Telly Savalas is Curd Jürgens, a Prussian established in a saber-fencing scene, and an episode in a Viennese beer hall with an exploding blutwurst sausage. It’s another bomb joke that isn’t all that funny. Apparently a number of innocent bystanders are killed and maimed, but offscreen, bloodlessly. That’s standard operating procedure for comic ’60s spy mayhem.
The other main supporting villain Telly Savalas ‘gets’ the joke as well. But the script doesn’t give these characters the same kind of delicious verbal sparring we enjoyed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a Bond movie that knows how to properly evoke old-fashioned notions of chivalry. This show hasn’t anything to compare with the Savalas-Rigg chemistry in that great show.
A major sequence is given over to a Borgia-like Venetian murderess Eleanora (Annabella Incontrera), the wicked and greedy spouse of a Bureau member, who teams with her gondolier-lover for murder. Ms. Incontrera has a sly smile but not the star quality to make her scenes memorable. The identity-swapping and trick coffin reversals do show some cleverness here, but we get the feeling that a bigger star was intended. Luciana Paluzzi of Thunderball would have been ideal.
The Assassination Bureau really needs wittier, more lively direction. Basil Dearden’s staging and blocking are pedestrian at best. The camera placement only occasionally exploits the beautiful sets. Dearden also over-uses the zoom lens, which belongs in a hairspray ad, not a period thriller. Dearden’s use is typical: Rigg sits at a dressing table and then wheels to face herself in the mirror. The camera zooms in to a close up on her eyes in the mirror, and the shot dies because both she must wait for the zoom to be finished before continuing. Neither the wide part of the shot nor the telephoto is an optimized angle. One can easily imagine the dull shot divided into two sharp ones with a dynamic cut as punctuation. Too much of what we see in Bureau seems arbitrary, even lazy.
The film’s special effects do their best with inadequate resources. A train scene uses distracting traveling mattes to show the moving view outside the windows; many explosions just cut to tinted stock footage. The show finishes with a major set-piece involving a giant Zeppelin, just as does the next year’s The Best House in London. Tasked with delivering at least 20 demanding angles of the Zeppelin in flight, and closer shots of an extended battle on board, effects master Les Bowie does the best he can. Every third shot is clever and creative but most are a mess of flawed sodium-vapor traveling mattes. Oddly, even though the movie seems to have constructed much of the Zeppelin in full scale, what we remember are shots using a toy on strings. Spirited playing by Reed, Savalas and Jürgens saves the scene, but just barely. By this time Ms. Rigg has almost been written out of the movie, for some reason, running around disguised as a nun.
At almost two hours the movie is easily twenty minutes too long. We like the Paris bordello and Eleanora’s clever treachery in the Venetian villa. Some of the action in the runaway Zeppelin is good, especially Oliver Reed’s clever method of escape. Yes, the star performances overcome most of the film’s flaws. Bruiser Oliver Reed’s impish adventurer is more genteel than we’d think possible. The story’s foolish main argument, that Reed isn’t a common criminal because he believes in judging his victims first, is a crock that is wisely left unresolved. He and Diana Rigg haven’t a lot of chemistry but their professionalism keeps things humming at a sub-screwball comedy level. The script has the emancipated Miss Winter finally melt for Dragomiroff, but only on her own ’emancipated’ terms. It’s her choice, not something taken for granted. Diana Rigg maintains her dignity and our respect, which is why we love her: a Rigg character never compromises.
Viavision [Imprint]’s Region-Free Blu-ray of The Assassination Bureau is the first time we’ve seen this show since a Paramount DVD from 2004. The image on that disc was weak, and this newer remastering a great improvement. It still doesn’t jump out at us as did original Technicolor prints — colors have that second-generation look, even as they’re bright and stable. With all the split screens and traveling mattes, the optical sections look a little worse as well. The remastering job is by Paramount; the disc’s audio sounds a little compressed.
Ron Grainer’s romantic main theme recurs in various forms. With lyrics by Hal sharper, the song Life is a Precious Thing shows up two or three times. It’s equally anachronistic as Burt Bacharach’s music for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and only seems awkward when sung in the beer hall.
I enjoyed [Imprint]’s extras. Kevin Lyons is a good host for the audio commentary; he tells us that there are so many name actor cameos that he won’t be mentioning them all. We recognized (barely) John Hallam and Roger Delgado, and noticed George Coulouris only because we were primed to look out for him. Both Lyons and featurette lecturer Kim Newman go into detail on the origins of the story, from an unfinished text by Jack London. Newman points to the book page where another author picked up the story and continued. Newman relates The Assassination Bureau to a ’60s trend for whimsical thrillers set back at the turn of the century, to benefit from the period trimmings. Beatrice Dawson designs a rack of beautiful costumes for Diana Rigg and Annabella Incontrera, and some racy fantasy lingerie for the Parisian ladies of the night.
The most interesting extra this time out is Kat Ellinger’s visual essay on the career and personality of Diana Rigg. Illustrated with at least a hundred stills I’ve never seen, the featurette covers Rigg’s entire life including the ups and downs of her theatrical career. We’re told that she only made 16 feature films — she was always in demand but took pains not to let a commercial career dictate the jobs she took. As Ms. Rigg just passed away recently, this was an illuminating way to remember her, and why we always liked her so much.
Note: the Blu-ray is Region-Free. I think it’s cute that [Imprint]’s spine number is ’86’ — as in ’86 somebody’ as a new way to say ‘kill them.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Assassination Bureau
Region-Free Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements (all new): Audio commentary by Kevin Lyons; featurettes Kim Newman on The Assassination Bureau and Diana Rigg: A Tribute by Kat Ellinger; trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in heavy card sleeve
Reviewed: November 17, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson