With THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU heading our way, let’s dodge the “BOURNE meets INCEPTION” juggernaut by heading back in time –
We have to refer to THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU as a Michael Relph-Basil Dearden film, because although Dearden directed, Relph not only produced as usual, but scripted (from an unfinished Jack London novel) and designed it. Relph’s script is a little uneven but serves up some good lines (Oliver Reed’s arch-assassin is against war, because “How can we charge our rates with everyone killing each other at a shilling a day?”), and his design is sumptuous, combining with the luscious costumes to serve up an Edwardian Europe, sixties-style, that’s nostalgic and colourful and a little bawdy.
Though Dearden heaps largesse on the movie by stuffing the cast with familiar faces, some of whom are true archetypes of British filmmaking in that era — Clive Revill, Roger Delgado, Warren Mitchell, Curt Jurgens, Philippe Noiret (!) with Kenneth Griffith as an excitable Rumanian — but his actually filming is disappointingly dependent on the zoom lens in nearly every scene. The lens flattens the wonderful sets, and fails to create the air of liveliness the film is hankering for. Another excitable Rumanian, editor Teddy Darvas, attempts to add gusto by cutting everything to the bone, adding energy by playing fast and loose with continuity, but his rhythms are sometimes wearisomely repetitive.
Still, there’s Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas, cast against type as an English press baron. One of cinema’s great smokers, Telly here has a long cigarette holder to conjure with, and promptly holds it alongside his big bald head — but vertically, rather than the more traditional horizontal approach (doesn’t the ash fall down his sleeve?). Always something fresh with Telly. The screen lost an inventive talent when he switched from cigarettes to lollypops. Best moment, as Curt Jurgens lists the members of European royalty about to assemble below his airship bomb — “Spare me this parade of mediocrity!”
Reed and Rigg make an intriguing couple, and there’s the possibility of sparks flying due to her character’s suffragette politics and Ollie’s real-life chauvinism, but the romance, like the main plot, doesn’t quite catch fire. The story requires Rigg to slowly lose her principles as she’s dragged along on Ollie’s comic killing spree, but the necessary beats of this throughline are neglected in favour of local colour and incident.
Still, this is an occasionally bright, always brisk entertainment in the company of charming players, and it evokes not only nostalgia for bomb-hurling anarchists of the early 20th century, but also for swinging 60s all-star romps with more gusto than reason for existing.