« Amanda | Main | Revoir Paris »

July 21, 2023

A Dandy in Aspic


Anthony Mann - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Regions ABC

The basic narrative of A Dandy in Aspic is played out in the opening credits. A faceless, featureless marionette is manipulated by very visible strings. The hands of the puppeteer appear from the top of the frame. The more the marionette moves, the more it gets tangled up in its strings until it can not move anymore.

Adapted from Derek Marlowe's novel, this is a low key genre film released at the time when spy thrillers were still popular. There are no big action set pieces or fantastic technology. Even the sex is muted. Even though the film was made during the era known as The Cold War, with British spies versus Russian spies, the heart of the story is a double agent manipulated into chasing himself. While identified mostly as the British agent Eberlin, he is the targeted Russian Krasnevin. The aspic here is West Berlin, and Eberlin's attempts to return to Russia.

The film is now mostly remembered as the last film by director Anthony Mann. As Mann, only 61 years old, died while on location in West Berlin, much of the film was directed by star Laurence Harvey. This is one film that would have greatly benefitted from a commentary track by someone well versed in the films by Anthony Mann. The brief supplement from film critic Richard Combs is helpful in identifying those parts of the film that show Mann's hand. Several of the exterior shots have Harvey seen behind bars or grating, as if already caught in a trap. There are interior shots with a character in close-up on one side of the screen while two other characters are seen in full shot on the other side. Combs uses a couple of shots from El Cid, erroneously titled as shots from Fall of the Roman Empire, to make his point. There are very few alternating close-ups in the scenes of dialogue. Most of the film is composed of two-shots and group shots, as if to say that while Harvey's character is in opposition to virtually everyone else, he can not separate himself from the world without destroying himself. There are also a number of zoom ins, visually underling, that is not visually characteristic of Mann's work.

Derek Marlowe thought Laurence Harvey was miscast as Eberlin. There is a sense of detachment in Harvey's performance that makes sense for a man disconnected from his true identity. There may be something too personal for the Lithuanian born Zvi Mosheh Skikne who became an iconic British movie star. Tom Courtenay appears as Harvey's supervisor and nemesis. The film marks the first of three films released in 1968 in which Mia Farrow received star billing, a young woman who seems to coincidentally appear in Harvey's life. If you look close enough during a scene in Farrow's apartment, you can spot husband Frank Sinatra's album by a turntable. The most delightful performance is Lionel Stander as a top Soviet agent, doling out Cuban cigars and made-up Russian aphorisms.

A Dandy in Aspic also goes against the grain of the time by not showing a "Swinging London" where the first half of the film takes place. Visually, the film partially recalls Mann's film noir roots, of questionable men doing questionable deeds under the cover of darkness.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 21, 2023 07:18 AM