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Not all 1960s SuperSpy® films are created equal. Fans are familiar with a hierarchy within the half-suave, half-flaky subgenre. At the top are the James Bond pictures, and just slightly below them are the exploits of the witty Harry Palmer, the cartoonish Derek Flint and the vulgar Matt Helm. Off on a separate evolutionary branch are literary, serious spy thrillers from works by the likes of John Le Carre, Graham Greene, etc. We won't be talking about those.
The lower ranks of SuperSpy-dom remain a disorganized mess. Every country with a film industry made them. Most of the pictures date badly, with Mod styles and sexist attitudes that seemed cheap even when new. Many are now hard to find. Turner Classic Movies will from time to time show things like Where the Spies Are. In the late 1960s American syndicated TV was overrun with dubbed versions of what I think were pan-scanned French OSS 177 films. I really can't remember what they were like. And then there were the quasi-slapstick spy spoofs, a bad idea in a genre that already saturated with self-spoofery. A main offender in this category might be Allen and Rossi's The Last of the Secret Agents. Lastly come oddball pictures almost impossible to see, such as the legendarily bad Operation Kid Brother, aka O.K. Connery. Sean's brother Neil Connery stars among several official 007 actors; I would enjoy seeing it again if only to savor its music by Ennio Morricone.
MGM added to the crowded theatrical spy-scape with re-edits of its The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV show, but also floated a number of original features. One prominent offering from early in the craze is The Liquidator, an upscale production that can boast a good leading man in Rod Taylor and a creative director in former camera genius Jack Cardiff. Saying that The Liquidator has dated isn't enough, as its problem is a tonal friction that gripes many a SuperSpy® contender. The comedy wants to be slapstick-broad and tongue-in-cheek cynical at the same time. It wants to sell sex, yet is too tame to present any real sexual content. Finally, the audience will be way ahead of most of the plot developments, especially the story's main "twists". Just the same, Taylor and Cardiff put on a lively show.
Tired of spy scandals and security leaks, snooty espionage minister "Chief" (Wilfrid Hyde-White) orders Major Mostyn, his point man for undercover skullduggery (Trevor Howard) to toss aside all legality, fair play and moral considerations. Mostyn remembers a tank commander from the liberation of Paris in '44, and tricks him into working for the secret service. Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) eagerly trades his provincial tearoom for a swank bachelor pad, fine clothes and a new Jaguar XKE. Boysie has already signed away his rights when he discovers that his new code name is "L", for Liquidator: his job is to kill whoever Mostyn tells him to kill. The Chief wants anybody even suspected of leaking info or cooperating with the Russians to be eliminated.
But Boysie is not the "born death merchant" that Mostyn foolishly believes he is. Addicted to liasions with the voluptuous, eager "birds" that seem everywhere available, Boysie doesn't bother to correct Mostyn's thinking. He hires out civilian hit man Griffen (comedian Eric Sykes) to do his dirty work and redoubles his efforts to get Mostyn's secretary Iris (Jill St. John) into the sack. The amorous pair jet off for a sexy weekend in Nice, where Boysie is kidnapped by nefarious agents Sheriek and Corale (Akim Tamiroff & Gabriella Licudi). Posing as a Brit operative, archenemy Quadrant (David Tomlinson of Mary Poppins) tricks Boysie into thinking he's pretending to assassinate Mostyn as part of a security exercise. The entire spy apparatus is convinced that the "born death merchant" has switched loyalties!
On one level The Liquidator lives up to its billing. A spy comedy about a reluctant agent a la Our Man in Havana, it looses its Boysie Oakes to chase girls, but won't let him really catch any of them. Jill St. John's classy front office girl is Boysie's main target, yet things stay as tame as a Doris Day picture. Iris promises Boysie everything while slipping in and out of towels in a Mediterranean hotel, but the old rules of sexus interruptus are strictly observed. Other 'spy babes' breeze through, wiggling their hips and shooting Boysie come hither looks while handing out their phone numbers -- lookers like Jennifer Jayne (The Crawling Eye) and Heller Toren. Lovely Suzy Kendall is barely present for a walk-on. She would make bigger impressions in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and in a dual role in Rod Taylor's private eye bash-fest, Darker than Amber. One scene seems to have wandered in from Matt Helm-land, a poolside packed with bikini-clad women that offer their bodies for the camera to glom as Boysie fumbles and stumbles his way through.
Jill St. John's main competition is the underappreciated actress Gabriella Licudi, as an opposition spy that helps arrange the neat scam that makes Boysie an inadvertent double agent. Critics always mention Licudi's small role in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale, when she made a much stronger impression as a melancholy alien in the modest sci-fi picture The Unearthly Stranger. Licudi also stars in the hallucinatory experimental film, Herostratus.
Trevor Howard is there to tempt Boysie, rattle off snide remarks and throw temper tantrums. He isn't a naturally funny guy, and his comedy exchanges with Rod Taylor aren't very successful. Eric Sykes' eager-to-please hit man Griffen hits just the right note of homicidal mirth. Griffen's cavalier attitude about his work provides an amusing contrast to Boysie's nervous reluctance to do anything violent.
The trouble comes when The Liquidator fumbles the basic idea of a License to Kill. James Bond is not a crude hit man. He's never asked to kill somebody without verifying for himself that his target is a clear-cut villain. Boysie Oakes might as well be working for Dutch Schultz or Lepke Buchalter. His targets are only suspected of being traitors, so their murders seem odious at best. Director Cardiff seems to realize this when he shows suspected spy Frances Ann Chandler (Betty McDowall, pictured above) in a sympathetic light, smiling sweetly at Boysie. Although SuperSpy® pictures dote on cynical, offhand killings, we do not enjoy seeing Frances Ann shoved into the path of a speeding train. Moreover, because Boysie is too chicken to do the job himself, he comes off as a total worm.
The same thing happens when another Boysie babe gets shot by mistake. Killing people is "fun", but suddenly the Boris Badenov- like Akim Tamiroff is lamenting her untimely death. The Liquidator wants to be fashionably ruthless, but doesn't understand that SuperSpy® fantasies require that real feelings and moral issues be kept behind the curtain.
Rod Taylor is okay when action is involved, but he's neither suave enough nor enough of a ham to deal with silly spy jokes, the kind that Roger Moore handles with ease. Taylor does nothing with a dumb scene in which "L" correctly identifies the kinds of poison in a series of mixed drinks, by smell alone. Taylor is too tough looking to convince us that he gets airsick. When yet another sexual encounter fails miserably, he breaks into tears like a burlesque comic.
Is it a case of wrong casting? Basic things fail to gel in the screenplay by Peter Yeldham (Michael Powell's Age of Consent): Boysie Oakes is a jumpy fumble bum with a pistol, but also a crack shot with a telescopic rifle. Rod Taylor is better than almost any actor when it comes to throwing a convincing punch. That talent unfortunately works against his supposedly maladroit character. It is interesting to imagine how much better The Liquidator might play as an even broader comedy - with Don Knotts as Boysie Oakes!
Jill St. John's sex appeal has always eluded me. Although I understand that she's a very intelligent woman, I think her voice has always sounded hollow and unappealing, almost as if she doesn't know English and is speaking phonetically. St. John does have a cute laugh, and an attractive smile. The underused Gabriella Licudi is far more appealing. Akim Tamiroff is only asked to contribute a bit of smirking. It's too bad that The Liquidator doesn't pair Rod Taylor and Eric Sykes as a 'spy buddy' team. Sykes' carefree hit man is the only character that really fits in with The Liquidator's comic aims.
The rest of the cast is standard casting with a pleasant surprise or two. John Le Mesurier and David Tomlinson are acceptable but not much more; we see through their deceptions far too quickly. Cadaverous-looking enemy agent Daniel Emilfork is on hand to grin at the prospect of torturing Boysie; he looks convincingly crestfallen when ordered to miss Boysie with his automatic pistol. Oddball Derek Nimmo is Fly, Mostyn's assistant; he's just as amusing here as he is in his bit in Casino Royale. The same goes for the ubiquitous Richard Wattis, whose flying instructor remains maddeningly calm and unfazed when helping non-pilot Boysie land a giant jet bomber. Only those familiar with Wattis' screen persona will understand the joke being played -- the bomber basically lands itself, but the boastful Boysie immediately takes credit for it with his next potential conquest.
Director Jack Cardiff and his cinematographer Ted Scaife keep the picture moving and the images bright and lively. It's a visually handsome picture despite some less than impressive interiors, such as Boysie's cavernous bachelor pad. Action is staged very cleanly, with a car chase on narrow Nice roads taking place at sunset. Rod Taylor and Cardiff would work again, on the big-budget mercenary epic Dark of the Sun.
Original author John Gardner must have been doing something right. He wrote eight Boysie Oakes novels in addition to other book series, and finally made an entire career writing post-Ian Fleming James Bond novels, after Kingsley Amis's last entry Colonel Sun in 1968.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Liquidator is a very good transfer of decently preserved Metrocolor elements, with attractive color that highlights the work of Ted Scaife. Lalo Schifrin's music score provides the expected "spy" bounce during the lighter scenes. Producer Jon Pennington commissioned a trendy title sequences with animation by Richard Williams and a title tune belted out by Shirley Bassey. It comes off a bit wrong -- the Goldfinger- like music doesn't quite match animated titles suitable for A Shot in the Dark. The end title card indicates the film's level of humor: the barrel of an animated gun logo suddenly goes limp, as in a Tex Avery cartoon.
The original trailer provided packs every moment of the film's mayhem and action, plus its most voyeur-friendly cheesecake shots, into a couple of minutes. The wince-inducing tagline is, "Where there is trouble he can TAKE IT ... where there are women he can MAKE IT." Had I seen this trailer as an impressionable teenager I would have made plans to hotfoot my way to The Liquidator. No, the young Savant instead fell victim to coming attractions for snoozers like Sol Madrid and Hammerhead.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Liquidator rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.