At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

WHERE THE SPIES ARE (WB Archives)

By • Mar 24th, 2015 •

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Val Guest leaned, on occasion, towards a pseudo-documentary style. He used it to great effect in the Hammer Quatermass series, and again in his more personal sci-fi ultimatum, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. Here he utilizes it with less successful results in an anti-Bond spy film released after DOCTOR NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER had set the standard for the genre. Making it feel real, indelicate and lived in probably accounted for five of the film’s sluggish 110 minutes, time that could have been shaved and tightened to better effect. But there are enjoyments to be had nonetheless

The result of Guest’s handiwork is a leisurely narrative that finds David Niven, as Doctor Jason Love, a former spy, cajoled back from happy retirement into action, to do what seems a simple enough task, though the suave middle-aged playboy should have known better. Before long he’s death-deep in espionage, and for a while fate escorts him through the spy universe’s maze of duplicity. Finally, however, it all catches up with him and the third act, devoid of ‘fun,’ suddenly gets pretty upsetting.

The title of the film indicates what must have been grave concern on the part of the distributor. Maybe it was always called WHERE THE SPIES ARE, but I doubt it. I’m guessing that when the boys of MGM saw the final cut, they desperately sought a moniker that mass audiences could relate to, and sadly grabbed onto a variation of 1960’s summer vacation romp, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and its insipid sequels, FOLLOW THE BOYS (’63) and WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (’65). Big mistake. Word of mouth could not have been positive. There’s not an iota of frivolous teen shenanigans to be found in this quirky flick.

In place of Dolores (soon to be a nun) Hart, Yvette (fresh from playing an Eloi) Mimieux, Connie (later traumatically assaulted in a Howard Johnson’s motel) Francis, and Paula Prentiss, we have Francois (soon to perish in a car accident, aged 25) Dorleac, who had more potential than all four of the former film’s ladies, although Paula Prentiss might have given her a run for her money. Dorleac, the older, friskier sister of Catherine Deneuve, had a solid career arc going (Criterion has just released Truffaut’s THE SOFT SKIN, featuring another example of her skill) but her time had just about run out when she essayed the pleasant, undemanding role here of Vikki the femme fatale. She died during the production of another mediocre spy drama – THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, on June 26th, 1967.

I was always partial to films that started light and gained gravitas as they went along. BONNIE AND CLYDE, CARTOUCHE, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, etc. WTSA definitely fits into that mold, but it’s an awkward fit, like everything else about the film. Wolf (DR. NO, 1967’s CASINO ROYALE) Mankowitz is credited as co-screenwriter, but it doesn’t feel like his script, and Guest (who shares the credit) was known for tinkering with his projects at the screenplay stage.

I’m an enormous fan of Mario Nascimbene’s work. The filmusic composer gave us, among many other harshly wondrous scores, THE VIKINGS, BARABBAS, SOLOMON AND SHEBA, and 1,000,000 YEARS BC. His use of electronic tonalities pre-dates and no doubt influenced Ennio Morricone’s. But his work on this one sounds jokey and foolish, as if he’d been instructed to gag it up. Not a Nascimbene score at all, save for an errant cue here and there. And Arthur Grant’s cinematography is flat and undramatic (and it’s not the mastering of the DVD – I remember it looking just like this back in ’66 – like Metrocolor stock that was fading before it even left the lab).

And yet, despite all this critical dismay, there is something likeable about the movie. Maybe it’s the drifting aura of what it tried to be, popping up once in a while as part of an odd effort that aspired to be unique.

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