A Dandy in Aspic comes near the tail-end of the Eurospy cycle inspired by the success of James Bond, the point at which the genre – Bond included – either stopped taking itself so seriously and became satire (Dean Martin’s “Matt Helm” films, James Coburn’s “Flint” films) or shed the frivolous pop-art fantasy and doubled down on being grim and serious. A Dandy in Aspic tries to have it both ways and never quite succeeds at being either. There is too much James Bond style fluff on display for it to count itself among the serious John Le Carre style espionage dramas, and far too much cynicism and serious Cold War politics for it to be light Bondian fare. As a result A Dandy in Aspic never finds a balance that allows it to click with the viewer despite the fact that there’s quite a bit in it that is admirable. In the end, it’s just good enough to be worth a watch but not good enough to be a recommendation, if that makes any sense.
Part of A Dandy in Aspic‘s problem might be that its director, Anthony Mann, died mid-production, leaving lead actor Lawrence Harvey to step into the director’s chair and try to pull everything together. Lawrence doesn’t make much of an effort to match Mann’s style, but these shifts in direction are minimally invasive except in a few occasions. Which means the problems with this movie probably existed before Mann’s untimely demise, and his passing only served to conflate them. Derek Marlowe’s script contains a good movie, but it seems it was a couple of drafts away from being realized. In a way, that makes A Dandy in Aspic more disappointing than it might have been as pure hokum. You can see a good, perhaps even great, thriller struggling to emerge, but it gets buried under too much convolution and too many dispassionate performances.
The premise, however, is intriguing. Lawrence Harvey stars as Eberlin, an MI5 operative who is, like James Bond, very fussy about his clothing but, unlike Bond, is also asexual. When he walks into a room, everyone admires his sartorial taste then whispers about what a frigid, boring guy he is. What the audience soon learns is that Eberlin is a Soviet double agent named Krasnevin. He’s about at the end of his rope, suspecting that his years as a double with a cold, remote personality has left him a man without a home or personality. He longs to simply retire to the socialist paradises awaiting him on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, the Soviets find him far too effective an operative to allow him to retire. And apparently the British also have a high opinion of him, because when it comes time to assassinate the Soviet’s number one killer, Eberlin gets the job. Which is funny, since Eberlin is the Soviet’s number one killer.
Along the way, cranky Eberlin meets free-spirited young modster Caroline (Mia Farrow), a rich girl who takes advantage of her family’s wealth to travel the world as a wannabe photographer. caroline is, perhaps, meant to represent the sort of vivacious, fun life Eberlin has denied himself, but she’s so slight and so flighty that she never comes across as anything more than a well-meaning but spoiled kid. Mia Farrow was in between the fame brought to her by her role on Peyton Place and the iconic status she would achieve after Rosemary’s Baby. She was also near the end of a disastrous relationship with the much older Frank Sinatra. The two were married in 1966, but by 1967, Frank would serve her divorce papers because she elected to work on Rosemary’s Baby instead of making a movie with him. Actually, Frank didn’t serve her with divorce papers. One of his lackeys did.
She’s beautiful in this movie, the embodiment of the willowy mod look of the 1960s complete with her new pixie cut, but for all the talent she had beneath her gamine attractiveness, none of it surfaces in A Dandy in Aspic. She disappears for much of the movie. When she is on screen, she has very little to do beyond lounge about and look cute in fashionable clothing. Her line delivery is uneven. Her character is perfunctory. It’s hinted that, since she tends to appear in whichever country Eberlin has traveled to, that she might herself be a spy. Nothing ever comes of that, though, and in the end, Farrow is left with the thankless task of delivering meandering, pointless dialogue while Eberlin looks on in stoic reserve.
The romance that crops up between the two happens because the script demands it, not because it’s been convincingly constructed on-screen. There’s no chemistry between the two, which would have been fine if we got more of a sense that Eberlin is forcing himself into the romance as some last-ditch effort to see if is capable of feelings. That’s not the case, though. Or if it is, I didn’t find it effectively realized. Nor is it the case that the film makes any use of the subtle suggestion that Eberlin might be gay. Any of that would have been find, but what we have is, ultimately, nothing but the result of a rushed script. Oh well, at least they’re both dressed nicely.
The film opens with a credit sequence that lampoons the colorful James Bond credits while also serving as a symbol of what’s to come. A wooden puppet is jerked around, only to become tangled in its own strings. And while that’s an apt summary of the plight in which Eberlin finds himself, it’s unfortunately also an apt summary of Lawrence Harvey’s performance. Eberlin is supposed to be cold, but he’s also supposed to be a man desperately searching himself for some sense of feeling, for some remnant of humanity, desperate to put the spy game behind him and rediscover what might be left of his actual personality. Harvey never communicates that turmoil. He deadpans it through the whole thing, giving the audience no point at which they can feel connected to him or see him as anything other than the well-dressed automaton he has masqueraded as for so long. Of course, this could have been the point; that Eberlin has played the role so long that it’s all that remains. He wants to discover his own humanity, only to discover that he has no humanity. But if that is the point, Harvey’s performance doesn’t make one care.
Contrast that, for example, to the burnt-out, doomed spy Alec Leamas played by Richard Burton in the cinematic adaptation of Le Carre’s The Spy Who came in from the Cold. Leamas and Eberlin are very similar characters, but Burton makes you feel Leamas’ plight and his desperation to hold onto or rediscover some semblance of humanity. He’s hunted, exhausted, cynical, and in a situation that forces him to play a role that crushes him inside. When The Spy Who Came in from the Cold wound to its inevitably tragic conclusion, one really felt it. Not so, A Dandy in Aspic. No matter what happened to Eberlin, no matter how theoretically tragic it was meant to be, I reacted to it with the same remote disinterest as Lawrence Harvey himself.
Still, it’s not at all dire. The film may be an emotional dud, but the convoluted plot does have flashes of excitement. The central plot, about an agent being assigned to kill his own secret identity, could be mined for its comic potential, either overtly or darkly. At the very least, the irony of the situation could be exploited, the way it was decades later in Breach, based on the true story of an American agent selling secrets to the Russians who is then put in charge of tracking down whoever it is that’s been selling secrets to the Russians. A Dandy in Aspic elects, however, to play it completely dry, never really taking advantage of the situation’s inherent absurdity.
There are a few good, tense moments, especially when he tries to take advantage of his assignment to get himself back over the Berlin Wall and finds himself between his British handlers, who keep expecting him to actually get on with his assignment and track down the shadowy assassin they don’t realize is him; and his Communist handlers, who are adamant that his time to retire has not come, and he better figure a way out of this mess. In these moments, Lawrence Harvey musters a sense of world-weary exasperation that works and draws into focus the sometimes self-destructive (literally, in his case) nature of intelligence work. The core of the story gets buried a bit in double crosses and a parade of British agents who rarely stand out from one another, but it’s good enough to succeed in spots despite the needless twists.
Perhaps in the same way The IPCRESS File sought to undermine the tropes of the spy film as defined by James Bond, A Dandy in Aspic makes use of the veneer of Bondian espionage fantasy but applies it to a mechanical, depressing Cold War drama. The movie trots from London to Berlin, but rather than indulging in the travelogue footage that was so important to so many spy films, everything is grey and grimy and dull. Where Bond was full of witty repartee, A Dandy in Aspic deals mostly in jaded characters trading mean-spirited barbs. If Bond was a man of the world, Eberlin is a man tired of the world. And where Bond films were draped in beautiful, sophisticated femme fatales, Mia Farrow’s Caroline is childish and naive. But exquisitely dressed. Her Pierre Cardin outfits, the subject of a pictorial in Life magazine in advance of the film’s release, represent A Dandy in Aspic‘s only splashes of color. Like her, they are the flash of life and beauty that has wandered unwittingly into the dismal, hopeless, colorless world of espionage.
The cinematography is another feather in the film’s cap. It’s one thing to take advantage of the widescreen format when you’re shooting dramatic vistas and iconic cityscapes. But Christopher Challis manages to frame cramped, claustrophobic interiors with dramatic scope, warping our sense of place and resulting in gorgeous compositions without the assistance of sweeping vistas. Wide-open claustrophobia, so to speak. He also shoots on real streets and real locations instead of sets, lending the film a further air of authenticity.
All of which I can admire. A Dandy in Aspic is ambitious. It strives to be more than a Bond clone, more than a Eurospy film. And it almost succeeds. It gets so close. But admiring a film isn’t the same as enjoying it, and most of A Dandy in Aspic I found to be disappointingly tedious when it should have been tense and emotionally engaging. The film didn’t do much at the box office. For all the pomp surrounding Mia Farrow’s coming out as a movie star, there’s not much for her to do (no worries; the year held better things in store for her). The end result is an indecisive film that I tend to appreciate more in retrospect than while I was watching it. it’s like being in one of those conversations where everyone is trying to decide between a few good restaurants, but no one will actually make the decision. Wherever you end up would be fine, but the process of “I don’t know; whatever you want” gets frustrating. It’s definitely worth watching, but the mechanical nature of its central character makes for rather a mechanical film, one that is fine to watch but has a hard time thrilling you or making you care.