The "K" stands for krap, dummkopf. Sony's Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Assignment K, the 1968 espionage thriller from Columbia Pictures, written and directed by Val Guest, and starring Stephen Boyd, Camilla Sparv, Michael Redgrave for a couple of minutes, Leo McKern, Jeremy Kemp, Robert Hoffmann, Jane Merrow, Werner Peters for a few seconds, John Alderton, and Geoffrey Bayldon for one scene. A disconcertingly languid, tepid outing, Assignment K's top-flight cast, energetic writer/director, and solid production values would seem to suggest, at the minimum, an entertaining entry in the overcrowded late-60s spy genre. However, an obvious, empty, overly-familiar script, a bland leading performance by Boyd, and worst of all no action, make this spy programmer one majorly failed assignment. No extras for this good-looking widescreen transfer.
London-based Howsco Toys Ltd. executive Philip Scott (Stephen Boyd) is attending a toy expo in Munich, Germany...while being followed by East German Stasi agent Hal (Jeremy Kemp). Hal and his boss, Smith (Leo McKern), are convinced that Scott is an independent agent for British Intelligence, running his own unit in Germany with the help of East German contacts―a theory that is in fact, correct. While in Munich, dining with fellow toy manufacturers Otto Kramer (Werner Peters) and Heinrich and Erika Herschel (Joachim Hansen and Vivi Bach), Scott meets Swedish jet setter Toni Peters (Camilla Sparv), a mutual acquaintance of Scott's hosts. Running into her again while skiing in Kitzbuhel, Austria, Scott successfully pursues the beautiful Toni, but he's forced to return to London when one of his blind contacts, Dr. Spiegler (Jan Werich), is murdered on the slopes, when Spiegler clumsily tried to warn Scott about tailing Kemp. Back in London, Scott meets with his contact, Harris (Michael Redgrave), under the cover of a Board of Trade Imports Appeal meeting at Whitehall (room "K"), where Harris worries that Scott's covert unit has a leak. When Toni turns up in London, and then gets kidnapped by Smith and Hal, it's time for Scott to ditch his cover and battle the enemy agents.
Sounds good, right? Familiar, sure, in its storyline, and to anyone who's seen even just a few 60s spy movies, predictable in outcome, as well―but still fun. Unfortunately, Assignment K is a remarkably dull entry in the genre, satisfying fans neither in the Bondian department (I think there's one short fistfight, and Boyd doesn't carry any gadgets), nor in the Le Carre manner (Boyd's cynical rejection of national espionage is a laughable throwaway in the movie's final moments), nor in the Deighton fashion (unlike the cinematic Harry Palmer, Boyd's Scott is a tedious cipher next to Caine's enigmatic Palmer), nor even in the spoof style (I laughed once in Assignment K...thanks to Geoffrey Bayldon essentially recreating his role from Guest's whacky Casino Royale the year before). Co-written and directed by versatile and (usually) spirited Val Guest (everything from The Quatermass Xperiment to The Day the Earth Caught Fire to When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth to Confessions of a Window Cleaner), Assignment K was Guest's third spy flick in a row, after the middling comedy drama Where the Spies Are and the so-screwed-up-it's-marvelous Casino Royale. If his goal was to dial back from the excesses of Royale while rejecting more hard-nosed, visceral Bondian pleasures, then he went too far the other way with Assignment K, trying to create a realistic view of modern espionage that unfortunately substituted action and suspense for glossy, uneventful superficiality.
It's difficult not to enjoy Assignment K's slow build-up...at first. Guest and co-screenwriters Bill Strutton and Maurice Foster give us good detail on the painstaking methods of low-tech espionage as Boyd's unit smuggles out a tiny piece of microfilm from matchbox to BarbieŽ doll to cigarette butt hidden in a bag of coffee. Meanwhile, handsome/ugly, well-tailored Boyd moves through one cool, swinging 60s Kitzbuhel location after another (probably the only really successful element of the production), with gorgeous, lynx-eyed Sparv looking particularly good in the latest ski and winter wear. Fine. We're all prepped for the suspense and action to eventually ratchet up, since most viewers, ten minutes in, have already pretty much guessed where the movie is going once they see who the actors are here. However, Assignment K's first kill―taking place off-screen, which doesn't help―doesn't come until almost halfway through the picture, with the vintage spy fan beginning to suspect that Guest and company may be trying to cram as much atmosphere and patently bogus red herrings into the movie as possible...to deflect attention away from the empty story.
Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the quintessential "anti-Bond," has a lot of talk and very little action in it, too, but it's fascinating talk, and the movie's form matches its content: dreary, depressing black and white sets, with zero glamour. Assignment K, however, can't get it straight what it wants to be, with glossy cinematography, attractive stars and expensive location work, but with neither action nor any intriguing ideas to suggest a "thinking man's" spy flick. As for characters and their motivations here...forget it. If Assignment K is to succeed without action or ideas, we have to have something to hang on to, and the only thing left is the lead character (...because that love story isn't cutting it). However, Boyd's Scott is a complete nonentity. We never really understand how he runs an "independent" espionage unit, let alone why he does it. Is it for patriotism? Money? The thrills and action? Who knows? The movies studiously leaves this vital information out of the equation. The reason that character motivation is important is because at the end of Assignment K, when Boyd has sniffed out the ultimate traitor in the bunch (oh please...you know who it is), he quits spying by suddenly calling it meaningless: "grown men playing cops and robbers." By 1968 that cynical notion of espionage was already well-played in the movies, but what's worse here is how can Boyd make us believe he's transformed himself in some manner...when he never presented to the audience a belief or stance in the first place to transform?
Boyd's not the only one who has nothing to work with here. You have guys like McKern and John Alderton doing their usual shtick, which is fine because they're good at it, while the talented Sparv, looking sexy as hell in sheer blue ski pants, is detached enough to make us wonder about her fuzzy character. But then Guest wastes engaging players like sexy Merrow or Kemp in shadowy, vague characterizations (this nothing role for the superlative Kemp―they don't even show his death scene―had to be a humiliating let-down after his terrific co-starring turn in The Blue Max two years earlier). The marvelous Werner Peters, in particular, is badly abused here. Introducing him early in the picture, all signs point to an actor like Peters being a major player in the movie's spy plot, but after a scene or two he disappears; his character was strictly filler and completely unrelated to the storyline at hand. Criminal. Redgrave fares no better, getting third billing but having only three short scenes―shot on the same, and all obvious and beneath his considerable talents (indeed, casting such a heavyweight as Redgrave for this particular role only further makes the suspense element of Assignment K a joke...).
As for Boyd, his turn shows exactly why he didn't cross over into the A-list ranks. Even with a poor script, Boyd could have delivered Assignment K on charisma or magnetism alone, but here he's almost goofy in his inexplicably upbeat performance (not aided by one of those incongruous, awful 60s scores that sounds more suited to a Doris Day sex comedy). Boyd was a much better villain than hero; given a good heel part, he was memorable, from The Man Who Never Was to Ben-Hur to Shalako to even the notorious stinker, The Oscar (his feral, hilariously over-the-top turn is beautiful). But cast him as a good guy and he disappeared on the screen, either enunciating so calmly we fall asleep (Fantastic Voyage), or breaking out into inappropriately broad grins and laughs (as in this movie), to the point where that we wonder what is he doing. Boyd is constantly laughing and smiling and mugging in Assignment K, and yet nothing is funny here. Or intriguing. Or suspenseful.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.