Color, 1968, 107 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by Anthony Mann
Starring Laurence Harvey, Tom Courtenay, Mia Farrow, Harry Andrews, Peter Cook, Lionel Stander, Per Oscarsson
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (US R0 MOD NTSC), UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
With the spy movie craze in full swing in the latter half of the '60s thanks to James Bond and writers like John Le Carré, producers were scrambling to bring any reputable literary property to the big screen with characters ranging from Matt Helm to Harry Palmer trotting around the globe finding danger and excitement. In 1968, English writer Derek Marlowe (The Disappearance) adapted his own novel, the inscrutably titled A Dandy in Aspic, for what would be the final film by legendary film noir and western director Anthony Mann, with star Laurence Harvey stepping in uncredited to finish it after the auteur's death.
Following the funeral of a fellow, not terribly adored fellow British agent, Eberlin (Harvey) is enlisted to track down and eliminate a Russian KGB operative named Krasnevin believed to be behind a string of recent betrayals and murders. However, Eberlin actually is Krasnevin, which complicates things when he's partnered up with the antagonistic Gatiss (Courtenay) and beings an affair with Caroline (Farrow), a photographer. As Eberlin tries to figure a way out of his predicament by heading to Berlin, he finds his dual masters also closing in with very different intentions for him in mind.
Though obviously a bit bumpy in spots due to its tortured history, A Dandy in Aspic is quite an enjoyable, stylish little espionage thriller highlighted by lots of pithy, memorable dialogue delivered by old pros like Courtenay, Lionel Stander, Harry Andrews, and a very cast-against-type Peter Cook, popular at the time as a comedian. The wide Panavision photography and snappy score by Quincy Jones (which has inexplicably never had a soundtrack release of any kind) add to the pleasure of the film, while Farrow is appealing in what amounts to a window dressing type of role. (And she's still putting on that weird not-quite-Mid-Atlantic accent she was using in Rosemary's Baby.) For a '68 film it's also surprisingly light on mod '60s touches, though there is an awkward, fleeting animated effect in the final moments that didn't look convincing even when this was in theaters. All told, it's a slick, compelling little film that's built up a small but dedicated following over the years and serves as a fine final statement for its peerless director.
In a decision that still seems baffling, RCA/Columbia decided to make this one of the very first letterboxed 2.35:1 titles to ever hit the laserdisc format, and U.S. viewers couldn't see it that way again until an MOD DVD release from Sony in 2011. A legit pressed DVD version had been floating around in various European countries since 2007, all of them featuring an improved anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film finally made its Blu-ray debut in 2019 from Indicator in the U.K. with its best a/v presentation to date, accurately capturing the dark, drab look of the film with more detail in evidence. It still has that odd late '60s Columbia film stock look with some grungy color processing and those hard contrast edges against bright backgrounds (don't worry, that's not edge enhancement), and thankfully there haven't been any attempts to process the image or pretty it up for modern audiences. The LPCM English mono audio is also in fine shape, with optional English SDH subtitles. In a welcome addition, you also get an isolated music and effects track to get the closest thing to a release of Jones's score we're likely to have for a long time.
A new audio commentary by Diabolique's Samm Deighan is up to her usual high standards as she dissects the film's savvy use of urban vs. country locales, the visual methods used to evoke an atmosphere of paranoia, the film's place in the pantheon of '60s spy films, a possible explanation for the meaning of that title, and the unusual approach to violence far removed from the more giddy tone of James Bond films. An additional audio options is 1988's "The British Entertainment History Project Interview with Christopher Challis," which runs for the length of the film with the film's cinematographer chatting about his professional path with Kevin Gough-Yates from his start as a focus puller through a number of high-profile productions including multiple ones for Powell & Pressburger and Stanley Donen. "A Time to Die" (9m30s) culls together brief memories from second assistant editor Richard Dobson, continuity supervisor Elaine Schreyeck, special effects technician Terry Schubert, camera assistant Nigel Cousins, and stunt man Colin Skeaping chatting about shooting in London and West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. The eerie, colorful opening sequence (which was more or less duplicated in the memorable teaser for David Fincher's The Game) gets explored in "Pulling Strings" (21m22s) with titles designer Michael Graham Smith and puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew noting how the concept was created and the featureless puppet was designed to move in a jarring, unconventional way. "Inside Mann" (11m35s) features critic Richard Combs analyzing the film within the context of Mann's output, with its visual approach extending the relationship of character to landscape present in some of his most notable titles. A similar thread is found in "London to Berlin" (5m14s), a visual guide to the locations used throughout the film with very specific address in most cases if you feel like recreating any scenes in your spare time. The vintage "Berlin: The Swinging City" (4m34s) is a promotional short from Columbia touting the film while showing off the "split personality" of the two sides of the once divided city including the requisite shots of West Berlin shaking it on the dance floor. Also included are the original theatrical trailer, a gallery of production photos and promotional stills, and an insert booklet featuring new liner notes by Jeff Billington, an archival press report from the set, a brief essay by Marlowe, and sample critical reviews from the initial release.
Reviewed on February 23, 2019.