Release Date(s)1968 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
A spy picture starring Laurence Harvey that turned out to be the final film of director Anthony Mann, A Dandy in Aspic (1968) was met with negative reviews upon its release, and is not highly regarded today, either, though it has its share of advocates.
Director Anthony Mann entered films in 1937, with several unusually distinct phases during his career. He first established himself as a director with a series of superb film noir, mostly for Eagle-Lion, from 1947-50. After that he enjoyed a fruitful association (1950-57) with actor James Stewart with popular successes like The Glenn Miller Story (1954) but more significantly a series of landmark Westerns, beginning with Winchester ’73 (1950). After falling out with Stewart he made more great Westerns with other actors, especially the Gary Cooper Man of the West (1958) before switching gears again, this time to big historical epics (1960-64). He was fired from Spartacus but rebounded with El Cid (1961). Mann’s next epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) was excellent but a catastrophic financial failure.
Mann was trying to reassert his place in the industry when he died after shooting approximately 90% of A Dandy in Aspic. Star Laurence Harvey took over, filming the remaining scenes to be shot on location in West Germany, including the film’s ending.
After nearly two decades working as a double agent, Alexander Eberlin (Harvey) longs to return to his native Russia, but his Soviet masters insist he stay put. Meanwhile, British Intelligence orders him to root out and assassinate the Russian agent responsible for killing three British agents in as many months, known to them as Krasnevin. In fact, Eberlin is Krasnevin himself. At first, the Brits believe Pavel (Per Oscarsson), Eberlin’s heroin-addicted Russian contact also stuck in England, to be Krasnevin. Pavel is only too happy to have Eberlin kill him to preserve Eberlin’s cover. Russians agents, however, beat Eberlin to that task. The British begin to suspect Krasnevin is a double agent.
As the search for Krasnevin continues, Eberlin travels to West Berlin with arch-rival Gattis (Tom Courtenay), a psychotic security agent, Eberlin hoping to use the trip to escape into East Berlin but he’s sent back by tipped-off German border officials. Gattis begins to suspect Eberlin is Krasnevin as various Russian and British agents confound him (and, to some extent, the audience), along with Caroline (Mia Farrow), a too naïve to be believed Englishwoman who always seems to turn up where Eberlin is.
The spy movie crazed launched by the resoundingly successful James Bond film was only beginning to wane in 1968, but the dozens of Bond imitators had mostly been terrible, few of them understanding, really, what made the 007 movies tick. Apart from the excellent The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), the best of the non-Bond spy films were, ironically, made by one of the Bond producers, Harry Saltzman, who oversaw three excellent Harry Palmer films (beginning with The Ipcress File), all starring Michael Caine. A Dandy in Aspic most resembles those films. It’s gritty and sardonic like the Harry Palmers, gadget-free deglamorizations of the spy trade.
It’s easy to see why A Dandy in Aspic’s failed as it did. The title is a confusing misnomer. Many Americans aren’t familiar with aspic, a once-popular meat-jelly dish, and although Laurence Harvey is dressed in Pierre Cardin suits, either his tailor screwed up or maybe Harvey didn’t bother much with his appearance, as he looks rather slovenly and anything but a dandy.
The bigger issue, I think, is that movie audiences just weren’t ready for a spy picture about a Russian double agent. Although Oberlin’s allegiance is made plain very early in the story, I suspect moviegoers assumed he’d turn out to be a “good guy” in the end, loyal to Britain, or something. The script by Derek Marlowe, adapting his 1966 novel, has a few too many double-crosses and wild card characters for its own good, especially Mia Farrow’s flighty Caroline, a character that doesn’t pay off, and the ending (directed by Harvey after Mann died) is weak.
The film, however, has many good qualities. Photographed in Panavision by Christopher Challis, it’s impressively stylish, and it’s clear Mann implemented very specific visual concepts throughout, all quite effective, such as making the British locations even darker and more overcast than the Harry Palmer films, and photographing Harvey constantly behind girders, fences, etc., symbolically making all of Britain a claustrophobic prison. Somewhat like Hitchcock, he uses Eberlin’s dual identities in interesting ways—showing him gazing into mirrors, etc., and using Pavel (who resembles him) and other visual devices to suggest a man losing grips with his own identity.
Harvey, whose clipped, refined accent belied his Jewish-Lithuanian origins, and whose heavy drinking and smoking made him a very worn out-looking 40, fits the role perfectly, played not unlike his brainwashed political pawn in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Harvey’s best film. Even during his lifetime, he was regarded by many as a bad actor, something this reviewer has never quite understood. Certainly, he appeared in his share of bad films and sometimes gave a bad performance, but he was often perfectly fine and occasionally well above average, as here.
The fine supporting cast helps: Harry Andrews as the head of Intelligence, Peter Cook as a sex-obsessed agent, Lionel Stander as a genial Russian one, with Barbara Murray, Norman Bird, Geoffrey Bayldon, James Cossins, Michael Trubshaw, and a very young Calvin Lockhart all memorable in small roles.
Kino’s Region-Free Blu-ray presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the image, perhaps by design, is grainy like the Techniscope (and thus smaller negative) Ipcress File yet presumably very accurately reflects original theatrical release prints, and overall quite impressive. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is good for a film from this period, and optional English subtitles are provided.
Supplements consist of some but not all of the extras included on the 2019 Indicator U.K. release: A Time to Die (9:32) is an amusing and informative featurette with surviving members of the film crew discussing the picture, Mann’s sudden death, and the resumption of filming with Harvey directing. Pulling Strings (22:10) interviews main titles designer Michael Graham Smith and puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew about the film’s title design, while Inside Mann (11:38) has critic Richard Combs discussing Mann’s career and he does a fascinating literary reading of the picture. A bland trailer (:59) doesn’t have a clue how to sell the picture.
A Dandy in Aspic is methodically paced, introspective, and intelligent, if a bit of mess in terms of its chaotic, sometimes muddled script. But, for genre fans, Anthony Mann fans, it’s definitely recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV