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DVD SAVANT

The Assassination Bureau


The Assassination Bureau
Paramount Home Entertainment
1969 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / The Assassination Bureau Limited / Street Date July 13, 2004 / 14.99
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
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
Art Directed and Produced by Michael Relph
Directed by Basil Dearden

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This quaint thriller gets off to a terrific start and then bogs down, as do many Basil Dearden / Michael Relph movies. Together they have the knack for choosing consistently exciting material (Masquerade, Khartoum), and somehow defeating their excitement. The relatively interesting The Mind Benders and Victim are happy exceptions.

Associated with the 60s SuperSpy craze, The Assassination Bureau is a lavishly produced comic sendup of "quaint" assassins and anarchists at the turn of the century, before the high-level killings that started WW1. Some droll wit is offset by a lot of flat comedy, and the charm of the performers is eventually undone by a script that's nowhere as clever as it thinks it is. But it has its moments, mostly due to game actress Diana Rigg.

Synopsis:

Suffragette Miss Winter (Diana Rigg) talks newspaper owner Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) into letting her pursue a secret company called The Assassination Bureau that performs killings for hire. She locates president Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) and hires him to kill himself, essentially, an assignment Ivan accepts as a way of clearing out the deadwood in his organization - most of whom are against him. Thus begins a merry chase wherein killers stalk killers across Europe, with Miss Winter (who despite her ideals has fallen for Ivan) tagging along.

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 its openly tongue-in-cheek tone.

Diana Rigg's emancipated woman blinks distractedly at various comic lines from her male adversaries, sharing the irony of the moment with us. Cheerful assassin Oliver Reed also plays to the audience, eventually mugging and making asides toward the camera. And Relph and Dearden have designed their show with the "quaint" framing device of showing some scenes in an inset morticed frame, in B&W, as if they were silent movies.

With the advent of The James Bond movies and TV's Batman the media began to talk a lot about the concept of Camp in a new sex-neutral context. Batman was a put-on, you see, a purposely corny show where the creators and actors shared the secret of its silliness with the audience. Michael Relph's screenplay has its tongue "firmly in its cheek," i.e., it not only doesn't take itself seriously, but it winks at us continually as if to say, "Ain't I being clever here." There's a fine line to be drawn while making a comedy like this, and Bureau just doesn't have the smarts of Beat the Devil or The President's Analyst. both of which have wit to spare.

Most spy spoofs are rife with lame in-jokery and many of them are near unwatchable today, not just losers like The Last of the Secret Agents? but big pictures like the Matt Helm series. The Silencers and Murderer's Row have some good aspects, but are intolerably arch and smug about their own stupidity.

As with the intermitently charming The Wrong Box there are some good jokes in The Assassination Bureau, but most of the time we're stuck with dumb one-note characters. Vernon Dobtcheff's dour Russian makes unfunny, predictable remarks about the sadness of the Russian soul, and the brilliant Clive Revill isn't on screen long enough to make an impression. After their delicious verbal sparring in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas don't have any really good scenes together.

When Annabella Incontrera's Borgia-like murderess enters the game we're treated to some interesting scenes, but for every good plot twist there are two dumb ones. The gag of hiding bombs in unlikely objects like a Viennese blutwurst sausage, is quickly driven into the ground. Gags are telegraphed and punchlines ruined, such as when a man plunges into an elevator shaft or a wary banker (Warren Mitchell of The Crawling Eye) pegs an innocent man as his target.

The saddest episode is in a Parisian bawdy house, the kind that has lots of low necklines and red velvet. Everyone in sight behaves as if told to act "naughty" and there is of course a police raid, a weak excuse for a lot of silly PG sight gags. There's no opportunity for anything exotic - the Parisians (even a slumming Phillipe Noiret) speak only English. In Vienna the beer hall song is in English, and in Venice the gondolier sings - in English.

Style and panache can sometimes make the difference. The Assassination Bureau just isn't visually distinguished. Dearden's direction seems to slow down proceedings, and his visuals suffer from an overuse of the zoom lens, predictably pushing in for almost every reaction and "meaningful" moment.

The Zoom is a cinema-killer. Directors think they are getting two setups for one, but they're really putting a mechanical technique between them and their audience. 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 and we are waiting for the zoom to be finished before continuing. Neither the wide part of the shot nor the telephoto is an optimized angle and one can easily imagine the dull shot divided into two sharp ones with a dynamic cut as punctuation.

Dearden starts things off snappily enough but settles into a methodical pace. The story lopes from one situation to another until we're way ahead of the game; there's a big Zeppelin special effects finale but the baddies are all disposed of far too predictably.

What keeps The Assassination Bureau watchable are the actors. Bruiser Oliver Reed has an atypical role as a gentleman adventurer and comes off far more genteel than we'd think possible. There is no chemistry whatsoever between him and Rigg, but their professionalism keeps their interaction interesting at a sub-screwball comedy level. The script has the emancipated Miss Winter finally melt for Dragomiroff and take pride in being an attractive woman, a thread that Dearden or the editors mercifully tone down. The film'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.

The best scenes are up front as the plot is being established, a later series of clever reversals in the Venetian villa of the treacherous Eleanora and some of the action in the runaway Zeppelin, especially Oliver Reed's clever method of escape. The matte and effects work are technically imperfect but colorful; it looks as though they built a full-scale mockup of the airship as well.  1


Paramount's DVD of The Assassination Bureau is 16:9 enhanced, but the image is soft, grainy and slightly washed out - not terribly, but just enough to keep the elaborate settings and careful closeups from looking good. Colors are off and muted, as if the transfer element had faded and these were the best hues that could be wrung from the Rank telecine machines. The frequent opticals look even worse, with some travelling matte composites on a train veering off into the green register; while the rest of the film leans to the reddish side. I doubt that Paramount went back to England where better-looking film has to be on file, one would think. The sound is also a tad over-compressed, I'm sorry to say.

As in keeping with most Paramount discs there are no extras, a deficiency that seems negligible when their transfers and encodings are good. The Assassination Bureau was one title in a group of Paramount foreign acquisitions that were released together on laserdisc in the middle 90s - Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik and Alfie. Diabolik was slated to be released with Bureau but has been delayed, hopefully for extras and (please, please) an improved transfer with original audio tracks.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Assassination Bureau rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Fair +
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 9, 2004


Footnotes:

1. Perhaps we'll someday see a good DVD of Georges Franju's Judex, a masterpiece of how to handle "quaint" dated material with style and conviction. The screenplay makes fun of cute moments such as a "thrilling" 1912 car chase at 8 mph that has to be interrupted at dusk to light the gas headlights. But both the actors and the director take the fantastic events completely seriously, and we care for the characters as much or more than we would those in a contemporary, realistic story.

Like The Assassination Bureau, Judex takes place just before the cataclysm of WW1 that swept away the chivalric niceties of the 19th century world. Bureau has a few jokes referring to the same subject (a soldier scoffs at the idea that bombs will ever be dropped from the air, for instance) but there's no thematic tension here - the members of the Assassination Bureau are as casually ruthless as bad guys in modern spy movies.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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