Late ’60s Pop Is Half Groovy, Half Gloomy In ‘The Double Man’ and ‘Assignment to Kill’

Two new releases from Warner Archives’ made-on-demand website are stylish international thrillers full of postcard shots of Switzerland. They contrast the chic fantasy of places that most viewers couldn’t afford to visit with the equally chic moral muck of a disenchanted world. It’s another example of how movies can be more interesting as social artifacts than for the stories they tell.

A funny thing happened to the ’60s spy. After James Bond established a string of glossy escapist fantasies of sex and sadism and savoir faire, a little black and white movie called The Spy Who Came in from the Cold embodied anti-glamorous, glum, gloomy realities of the Cold War in all its duplicities and tragedies. The postwar spy genre, in books and films, can be perceived as a dialectic between Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. While politicians discussed a “Third Way” between capitalism and communism, spy movies tried to negotiate a generic third way between glamour and realism. That impulse is demonstrated by The Double Man.

The most important element is the scenery of the Alps and the posh resorts therein. As shot by Denys Coop, the movie continually looks wintry and forbiddingly handsome–not unlike Yul Brynner’s taciturn glower as a CIA agent investigating the death of his son in a skiing accident. He decides the best way to do this is to follow the decorative Britt Ekland (not Elke Sommer, as the package claims oddly) around the slopes. Meanwhile, the trap set for him draws tighter.

The script by Frank Tarloff and Alfred Hayes, from Henry S. Maxfield’s novel Legacy of a Spy, is burdened with laboriously expository dialogue. Whole characters and scenes exist so that people can explain what’s already happened and what will soon happen. One such figure is the CIA chief (Lloyd Nolan), who’s stuck in a wheelchair in his office for the whole movie, barking on the phone. The only thing that’s left carefully unexplained is the crux of the plan, but many viewers will guess. When an hour’s worth of set-up finally leads to action in the last half, the story becomes tolerably suspenseful.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner distinguished himself on TV before making a successful leap to the big screen with such projects as The Planet of the Apes, Patton (for which he won an Oscar), Papillon and a more thrilling spy picture, The Boys from Brazil. Faced with this script’s stiff circulatory system, he relies on the visuals and the sour, dour, paranoid atmosphere of the post-Le Carré strain of spy picture. It’s still glamorous and even fanciful, but this film takes the spy game more seriously than the Bond series and its larkish knockoffs. The most Bondian element is the lush, glossy, grooving score by jazzman Ernie Freeman. Thus the picture tries to please everybody and achieves a thoroughly professional evanescence.

Released in the same Warner Archives batch is a film from the same year, Assignment to Kill. At first it looks at first like an extension of the other movie, with people skiing in the Alps, bodies in the snow, and slinky spy-ish music (by William Lava) on the soundtrack.

But wait–it’s actually a detective movie in the Chandler/Hammett noir mode, with a tough, laconic insurance investigator (Patrick O’Neal) wandering around Switzerland having wry, terse, sarcastic conversations with one and all. He packs a rod and can throw a punch when needed, and it’s needed once or twice. Except it all looks so much like a spy movie that the distressed damsel (Joan Hackett) accuses our hero of breaking one of the secret agent rules. Even she thinks it’s a spy movie.

This film too has a sour, worldly point of view in which crime and murder don’t matter as much as money and business, and nominal bad guy Herbert Lom makes a little speech about it. A more dapper bad guy behind him is multinational corporateer John Gielgud. O’Neal’s plan is to use everyone’s tendency to lie and kill against itself, or themself, or itselves. This isn’t a million miles away from Hammett’s Red Harvest, except that the factions are within one organization instead of competitors.

The movie’s point is that in this amoral world, only a dishonest man can be rogue enough to force a little rough justice, and that the truth doesn’t matter as much as the lies people believe. By the end, O’Neal has no idea if he’s telling the truth and the viewer doesn’t know how much sense it makes. Incidentally, the movie’s poster (reproduced on the package) gives away a major twist that shows how the ’60s still hadn’t gotten over Psycho, so if you get this disc, don’t look at the cover.

Character actors Eric Portman, Oscar Homolka and Peter Van Eyck lend their ugly mugs to the labyrinth. The writer-director is Sheldon Reynolds, a TV producer who’d previously starred O’Neal as an insurance investigator in a 1957 sitcom, Dick and the Duchess. The executive producer is portly TV star William Conrad, who in the ’60s had a brief sideline as a producer and sometime director of stylish thrillers. So another thing the two films have in common is that TV people are making their bid for the big screen with the kind of glossy Euro-thrillers then in vogue. The results are at least diverting, with the Reynolds film coming off better for being more complicated — and just a little colder.

RATING 4 / 10