ON DVD & BLU-RAY
A Dandy in Aspic (1968) dir: Anthony Mann Blu Ray (Indicator)
A double agent fears that the net is closing in
This Cold War thriller features Laurence Harvey as Krasnevin, a Russian double agent planted within British intelligence under the fake name of Alexander Eberlin. When he sees one of his comrades drown in the River Thames while attempting to escape from some genuine British operatives, he becomes concerned that the net will also close in on him. He attempts to persuade his superiors to allow him to return to Moscow.
Unfortunately, they refuse to grant him permission to do so. Moreover, he quickly finds himself in a particularly troubling situation: he has been tasked with flying to West Berlin in order to take down another Russian agent who has been accused of assassinating three British operatives. This agent’s name? Krasnevin.
While there, he attempts to use a fake identity to get across the Iron Curtain into East Berlin and to safety. However, even this is complicated when he becomes involved with an English photographer named Caroline (Mia Farrow) and discovers that he has been assigned a minder named Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) who excels at breathing down his neck.
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The surrealism of Cold War tensions
A Dandy in Aspic was part of a 1960s British spy movie craze which veered from the escapist fantasies of James Bond to the more realistic style of the Harry Palmer films. This one veers more towards the latter end of the scale but has a few flashes of sheer out-of-left-field strangeness which set it apart. It was a troubled production due to the fact that director Anthony Mann died before it was completed, resulting in lead actor Laurence Harvey taking over the reins to shoot the remaining scenes. It’s a flawed movie to be sure - and, perhaps, would still have been even if Mann had lived to see it through to completion. The plot is overly convoluted for its own sake and a number of character threads aren’t really resolved satisfactorily. Nonetheless, it still musters an undeniable atmosphere of giddy paranoia along with a fair few witty character exchanges.
The fact that much of it was shot in Berlin during the Iron Curtain days does add a lot to the mood. Back then, it was a dismal, soot-encrusted place which all-too-literally encapsulated the hopeless gulf between East and West during the period. While it wasn’t the most aesthetically-pleasing of cities back then, the dark environments lend the film a certain edgy film noir feel. There’s some action here: a few brief chases, a violent bathroom scuffle and an assassination carried out amid the frenzy of a race car accident. However, most of the thrills are psychological and based around increasingly suffocating predicament in which the central protagonist finds himself. During some of these moments, heavy use is made of distorted avant-garde sound and jarring camera movements in order to amplify the sense of dread. As to whether such gimmicky techniques can be considered effective or irritating is open to conjecture. However, it’s certainly offbeat enough to be interesting.
The actors are also pretty good and handle the barbed, cynical interpersonal exchanges with enough dry aplomb. Laurence Harvey’s Krasnevin/Eberlin comes across as coldly arrogant and aloof at first but begins to feel increasingly human as things turn from bad to worse for him. However, Tom Courtenay outshines him as his subtly intimidating de facto nemesis, Gatiss, who carries a gun concealed in a walking stick and isn’t afraid to level it at his fellow agents whenever he wants to get his point across. Peter Cook has a smaller but still decent non-comedic role as a slimy, superficially friendly sycophant who assists Gatiss. There’s also Mia Farrow in one of her first major movie roles. She has an evident on-screen coolness and star quality here but her role ultimately turns out to be less important than is implied early on.
The bleak ending has a sad air of inevitability about it but, at the same time, might make you wonder why the various parties involved went to such extraordinary lengths in order to bring it about. Nonetheless, there’s a certain fever-dream quality to the whole that makes it just about work in context. After all, the Cold War was such an absurd, counterproductive waste of time and energy that, perhaps, surrealism is the whole point.
Runtime: 107 mins
Dir: Anthony Mann, Laurence Harvey
Script: Derek Marlowe, based on his own novel
Starring: Laurence Harvey, Tom Courtenay, Mia Farrow, Harry Andrews, Peter Cook, Lionel Stander, Per Oscarrson
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Visually, this restoration is a bit of a mixed bag. The colours look faded and unsteady at times but are considerably better elsewhere. Farrow’s glamorous dress early on is an eye-catching highlight but some of the darker shots descend into a murk of colour bleed. Likewise, some shots are very blurry, whereas others are pin-sharp. Then again, this may have been the case with the original cinematography.
Audio Commentary with Samm Deighan
The associate editor of Diabolique Magazine provides the film with an essay-style commentary. She looks at the recurring themes running through director Anthony Mann’s films as well as actor Laurence Harvey’s interesting career and the history of the spy genre - in particular, the more downbeat and fatalistic strain to which A Dandy in Aspic belongs.
A Time to Die
The film’s 2nd assistant editor Richard Dobson, continuity assistant Elaine Schreyeck, special effects assistant Terry Schubert, camera assistant Nigel Cousins and stuntman Colin Skeaping all chip in to reminisce about the production of A Dandy in Aspic. Schubert admits that there was only one actual FX shot in the film (a bullet striking a wall behind Tom Courtenay’s head), whereas Skeaping remembers that Laurence Harvey had a bad temper. Most of all, they collectively piece together their memories of director Anthony Mann’s sudden demise during filming, making for an engrossing and touching featurette.
An interview with Michael Graham-Smith who designed the memorable string puppet title sequence. His idea was meant to be a visual analogy of the central protagonist’s predicament as he gets pulled back and forth by machinations on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He approached John and Lyndie Wright of Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London in order to get them to supply both a wooden puppet and one of their puppeteers: Ronnie Le Drew, who also gets interviewed here.
Le Drew reveals that the sequence was especially challenging for him because it involved getting the puppet increasingly tied in knots and then being unceremoniously dropped on the floor - both of which go against the grain of the profession’s usual objective of making the movements look graceful and elegant. Nonetheless, he is clearly very proud of the sequence because he admits that he still shows it during his talks on puppetry.
Richard Combs, film critic at Film Comment and BFI lecturer, takes a look at the film. He discusses its themes and symbolism as well as examining how it fits into director Anthony Mann’s wider body of work.
London to Berlin
This 5-minute featurette takes a comprehensive shot-by-shot look at the film’s shooting locations.
Berlin: The Swinging City
This contemporary promotional short provides a fascinating snapshot of late-1960s Berlin. While the city is well-known for its hip, bohemian vibe nowadays, this featurette reveals that the Western side was an epicentre of fashion back then with all of its hippies, discotheques and strip bars.
The extras are rounded out by a collector’s booklet, an audio interview with cinematographer Christopher Challis, an isolated music & effects track, a theatrical trailer and an image gallery.
A Dandy in Aspic may not be the finest epitaph that Anthony Mann could have had but it still amounts to intriguing and atmospheric fare. The collection of extras is pretty enjoyable too.