The Spy Who Came In From The Cold — Cream

Here’s Shadowplayer Chris Schneider on a late, and underappreciated Frank Tashlin/Doris Day picture…

” … I forgot to mention the sexuality, the anarchy — and the fashion.”~ FB friend Larry Frascella talking of CAPRICE

When I think of CAPRICE, a Frank Tashlin comedy-thriller from the late Sixties, it usually involves one of three things. One: Doris Day in an out-of-control helicopter whose pilot has just been shot, the thought of which terrifies this fear-of-heights sufferer.Two: the unsettling sight of Michael J. Pollard, soon to appear in BONNIE AND CLYDE, with his hand venturing up Doris Day’s leg. Three: Ray Walston in drag. 

“Cary Grant or Rock Hudson maybe,” I say to myself, “but Michael J. Pollard?”

(An Aside: You’ll find so-called “spoilers” in this piece. My reasoning is that, some fifty years after its premiere, anyone interested in CAPRICE is unlikely to be concerned with plot.)

You could say that CAPRICE has an autumnal feel, in that it’s the next-to-last film to be shot in Cinemascope and the third-from-last theatrical film to feature Doris Day. Soon, for Day, it would be strictly television. But that doesn’t fit, ’cause the palette on display in CAPRICE is determinedly bright. Day’s Ray Aghayan wardrobe pretty much never varies from white or red or buttercup yellow, and to go with that there’s music by Robert Aldrich’s pet composer De Vol. (“Smile when you say that name, stranger.”

Yet this is, nevertheless, a spy story, and therein lies the balance. Day plays an industrial spy for one, if not two, rival cosmetics firms.  “The spy who came in from the cold — cream,” she calls herself at one point. The story’s shifting alliances fit in with a mid-’60s John Le Carre world-view, for all the emphasis on comedy and the fact that a man is asked to remove his trousers within the film’s first six minutes. Does Day work for Edward Mulhare, an industrial toff with his own private jet, or rival honcho Jack Kruschen? Answer: What time is it? There’s a Wham! Slam! Ka-Boom! triple-cross in the final reel. There’s also, lest we forget, Ray Walston in washerwoman drag looking mean as he holds a gun.

Nor should we forget that the romantic interest, Richard Harris as an industrial spy and/or Interpol agent who also does Olivier and Richard Burton imitations, jabs Day early on with a non-consensual hypo full of Sodium Pentothal. A tad “rapey,” you say? Perhaps the vigilant will be glad to learn that the last reel’s “romantic” fade-out has Day giving Harris his own non-consensual Sodium Pentothal jab, intoning to him about “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Much of CAPRICE is “funny odd” rather than “funny ha-ha.” It’s also highly self-conscious, Ouroboros-like in willingness to comment upon itself like a snake devouring its own tail. Not a surprise, in that other Tashlin-directed films include a poodle named Shamroy (after CAPRICE cinematographer Leon Shamroy) and name-checking of star Jayne Mansfield’s non-Tashlin films. But this one has a BATMAN-like chase running past a television that’s playing BATMAN, Day tailing Irene Tsu (who plays Walston’s secretary) to a theater where the fare is CAPRICE with Doris Day and Richard Harris — that’s where the Pollard scene happens — and the revelation that a supposedly inaccessible parlay is being filmed when we see the film’s image running out. Is it unexpected, given the presence of Shanghai-born Tsu, that the movie encounter happens in the Cathay theater? Or that half of a nearby couple attempting a li’l movie-house grope is Barbara Feldon of the spy comedy series GET SMART? 

CAPRICE was not popular.  The NY Times’ Bosley Crowther dismissed it, saying that “nutty clothes and acrobatics cannot conceal the fact that [Day] is no longer a boy.” As if anyone ever mistook Day for a boy! Or went to Day when looking for one!

I think the problem, rather, is that CAPRICE — like its central performer — is all too strenuously perky. Sorta like the protagonist of that John Cheever story, the one who insists on lining up chairs at parties and jumping over them like hurdles … long after his athletic prowess is a thing of the past.  See television adaptations involving Gary Merrill and, later, Michael Murphy. 

Like that out-of-control helicopter, CAPRICE has the capacity to be scary.  Then, too, like what happens to the helicopter, CAPRICE settles for cute and “endearing” plot solutions. Alas.

7 Responses to “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold — Cream”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    After the success of “Bonnie and Clyde” Michael J. Pollard went on to star with Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale in “Les Petroleuses} (aka. “the Legend of Frenchie King”) by Christian-Jacques so Doris’ leg was a mere appetizer. I got to know Pollard slightly as he was a friend of Tim Hardin’s. Warren Beatty (who justturned 84) was quite close to him personally and professionally. He had a part in “Dick Tracy” which was one of his last roles.

  2. I just viewed The Glass Bottom Boat on TCM, starring Doris Day and Rod Taylor, directed by Tashlin. It could easily be the most labored, unfunny comedy I’ve yet seen.

  3. Doris was signed up for both the Tashlin films by her husband/”manager”. She didn’t want to do them.

    The Glass Bottom Boat always strikes me as terrible in the first half, but then the colours start to get cartoony and we get hams like Dom DeLuise and it improves a fair bit. The best way to watch it is simply to skip the first half. (I slightly favour skipping everything in Bringing Up Baby before Baby shows up, which I know is an Unpopular Opinion).

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Late Tashlin peaked with the Jerry Lewis’ movies, especially The Disorderly Orderly (not to be confused with the Abbas Kiarostami short called Orderly or Disorderly). I saw his movie The Alphabet Murders which is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot that’s also a spoof of Poirot at the same time. There’s a lot of jokes, and a great credit sequence and Tony Randall as Poirot with his accent is fun. There’s some well done sequences but it’s missing the wit and anarchy of the ’50s films.

    I think Tashlin was defined by the ’50s zeitgeist but he wasn’t able to get on with the ’60s zeitgeist. In that he was like so many Hollywood directors of that time (Preminger with Skidoo for instance, he had more luck with Bunny Lake is Missing but even then mostly by means of baroque intensity…Kazan’s The Arrangement with its proto-Mad Men look into advertisement did better but not close). Blake Edwards was the only one who made the transition, more or less. His EXPERIMENT IN TERROR definitely feels like a ’60s movie even if it has a classical style.

  5. I think Tashlin’s two Day spy movies suffer from being less hip than the things they’re spoofing, which puts them at a serious disadvantage. It’s fifties talent taking on a sixties genre, satirising from a square perspective, although the postmodernism is pretty delirious.

    But they’re still better than some of his other films: The Man from the Diner’s Club struck me as woeful, and I like Danny Kaye.

    There’s something to be said for genre films that deconstruct themselves as they go along.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The problem was Doris Day was already “there.” Tashlin played no role in her creation and while he tried his best he couldn’t integrate her into his world.

  7. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I know I have seen this movie but can’t for the life of me remember much about it. Your piece had made me curious to watch it again, which is the hallmark of a successful piece of writing.

    Was it around this time that Pauline Kael described Doris Day as “the all-American middle-aged girl”?

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