Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

1914. Suffragette and all-purpose feminist Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) attempts to break into that vestige of the patriarchy we know as journalism. To reach her goal, she finds out how to contact the elusive international group of assassin’s known as The Assassination Bureau, and proposes to make contact with them and write about it to Lord Bostwick (Telly “Most British Man Alive” Savalas), owner of quite a popular London newspaper. Even a bit to Miss Winter’s surprise, Bostwick agrees.

Soon, Miss Winter finds herself in front of the boss of The Assassination Bureau (Limited), charming crazy man Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). Because she’s a public minded person with a sarcastic streak, Miss Winter declares she wishes to hire the Assassination Bureau to kill one Ivan Dragomiloff. Dragomiloff agrees to take on the job, because he thinks his organization has fallen far from its former ideal of just killings for money to just killing for money, and having a kind of mass duel between himself and the regional leaders of the organization – as played by people like Curd Jürgens and Philippe Noiret – would be a good way to clean up their act.

What Miss Winter doesn’t know is that Lord Bostwick is actually the vice chairman of the Bureau and this is his – rather idiotic – plan to get himself on the chairman’s seat. From here on out, it’s all Miss Winter following and romancing Ivan around the world (he’s no fool though, and soon just takes her with him, because she’s Diana Rigg in 1969), Ivan donning ridiculous costumes to kill people in ridiculous ways, and Telly Savalas and Curd Jürgens chewing scenery in the most enthusiastic manner.

The Assassination Bureau isn’t one of director Basil Dearden’s best works, but it is quite an entertaining black comedy that generally is at its best when it lets house favourites Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg – here quite at the heights of their powers - do their respective things while various European character actors around them gloat, die, and explode (not necessarily in this order) in more or less effective ways.

All this takes place in fine, stylized and colourful sets and locations,  with Dearden milking everything he gets his camera on for purposefully ridiculous and clichéd local and temporal colour, clearly basing the film’s world not on the actual 1910s but on the pop cultural idea of them, leaving us with a film that contains an awesome (in the old sense of the word) bordello that defies description in – of course – Paris, a pretty gondolier who sings a pre-recorded piece of schmaltz after dropping off the bodies his lover (frequent giallo actress Annabella Incontrera) has poisoned, and a finale that sees a European peace conference threatened by a bomb carrying zeppelin. It’s quite impossible for me to argue with these things, particularly when they are presented with as much ironic delight and verve as Dearden shows here.

In fact, Dearden is so convincing a director I found it easy to ignore two of the film’s three main flaws. Firstly, the fact that the film’s idea of humour can be more broad and slapstick-y than I generally prefer, with rather a lot of these “comical chases” I usually only read about; though most of them end with dead people, so that’s still quite alright.

Secondly, it’s a bit of a shame how little the film really does with its historical background. Even when it (rather tastelessly) integrates the actual starting occasion of World War I in slightly fictionalized form (with added blood sausage), there’s never the impression it actually has something to say about the historical era it is taking place in. Again, it seems to be more interested in the era as pop cultural colour than as anything deeper.

Thirdly, and quite impossible to overlook, is the sad fact that the film gives all the swashbuckling action scenes (and, despite the wrong historical era, this is very much a swashbuckling comedy in its nature) to Reed, with Rigg fortunately not cast as a helpless girlie yet also generally side-lined when it comes to the action. Which is a bit (or a mountain) of a shame, really.

Still, The Assassination Bureau is a highly enjoyable bit of British humour that doesn’t contain one boring second, and that certainly counts for a lot in my book, flaws or no flaws.

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