The Assassination Bureau (UK 1969)

Diane Rigg as Sonya Winter

This is perhaps an unusual film to be discussed on this blog but, apart from providing some light relief as an ‘entertainment film’, it does exemplify several trends in British and international cinema in the 1960s. The production team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph developed mainly at Ealing Studios in the 1940s and early 1950s. They then sometimes worked separately but later re-united for several successful ‘social melodramas’ interspersed with various forms of comedy films. Dearden was nearly always the director with Relph the writer, producer and sometimes art/production designer. He performed all three roles on Assassination Bureau. By the late 1960s the pair were generally able to command bigger budgets, in this case producing at Pinewood with support from Paramount. They were also able to attract top talent such as Geoffrey Unsworth as DoP and Ron Grainer as music composer. The involvement of Paramount marks this as one of the productions to benefit from the significant investment in the UK industry by Hollywood studios in the second half of the 1960s.

Rigg and Reed together

The budget and Dearden-Relph’s track record also helped to attract a distinguished cast led by Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed. Diana Rigg, who died in September 2020 was never really a ‘film star’ as such, though she was undoubtedly a star (Shakespearian) actor on the stage and a very popular TV performer, mainly because of her stint as ‘Mrs Peel’ in The Avengers (51 episodes, 1965-68). That series sold well abroad so she developed the international appeal of a film star through TV. I would argue that the late 1960s through to the mid 1970s was an important period in her film appearances. Besides this film, the two I remember were The Hospital (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973), both, like The Avengers and The Assassination Bureau, mixing comedy with other genres.

Oliver Reed was, by contrast, primarily an actor on film. IMDb lists 122 roles in a career lasting 45 years. He began as an uncredited youth in the 1950s and broke through in the 1960s in Hammer films, especially Joe Losey’s The Damned in 1962. By the late 1960s he was a leading man and appearing in some noteworthy films including Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971) and Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo (1972). These titles cast him opposite Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Mr Reed was a lucky boy in the casting process and the roles continued through the 1970s before his heavy drinking and wild behaviour made him well-known as a ‘celebrity’ rather than the talented star actor he could be. The film roles declined in importance – some were simply smaller roles, others were in not very good films. Some reviewers of The Assassination Bureau are not impressed by Rigg and Reed but they both seemed fine to me and I think they carry the film’s comedic tone very well.

The Bureau’s London HQ with Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) in the chair (back to the camera)

The film’s plot is fairly simple. It is based on an incomplete book by Jack London that was finished in 1963 by another writer, Robert L. Fish (writer of the novel used for Bullitt in 1968), and adapted by Michael Relph. Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) is a feminist in London a few years before the Great War in 1914. She discovers the existence of ‘The Assassination Bureau Ltd.’, a secret organisation that will accept commissions to assassinate public figures. Originally intended to target corrupt or morally reprehensible leaders, the Bureau now seems to kill anyone for a fee. Alarmed by the threat such a group poses for the general well-being, Sonya has the idea of commissioning an assassination, selecting the head of the Bureau himself, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) as the target. Amused, he accepts the commission and challenges the other members of The Bureau to attempt to kill him, thinking that it will enable him to re-organise the Bureau’s membership. He sets off across Europe to pre-empt his erstwhile colleagues, killing them before they can kill him. Ms Winter goes along to record the events for a newspaper she has convinced to take a punt on a female journalist but soon gets more involved than she expected. Some of the assassinations are quite clever but they all borrow genre elements from other films, some reminded me of scenes from Hammer films.

Philippe Noiret, one of the Bureau, is operating a Paris hotel with a difference . . .

The original novel belongs to a cycle of Gothic fictions/espionage/anarchist novel set in the 1890s or early twentieth century. The most obvious example is Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) but similar elements  are found in Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. The Holmes links remind us also that recent Holmes films and have re-visited the era and the meta genre as well as being re-worked as ‘steampunk’ narratives.

Curd Jürgens and Telly Savalas in control of a Zeppelin

Finally, this kind of production is typical of the ‘international’ films of the period. Ostensibly a British film based at Pinewood, the funding is American and the third credit on the film is for Telly Savalas, who plays the newspaper owner prepared to hire Ms Winter – he later turns out to fulfil a rather different role. Although a familiar face in American film and TV, Savalas wasn’t a ‘star’ in the UK at this point. By the mid 1970s he would become much better known for the Kojak TV series. The international casting really refers to the various European stars who play the members of the Bureau. These include Philippe Noiret and Curd Jürgens. The less well-known Annabella Incontrera perhaps steals the picture as the wife of the Italian member of the Bureau. The locations used included Paris, Vienna and Venice – something that British productions had managed fairly consistently since the early 1950s.

The Assassination Bureau has appeared on Talking Pictures TV a few times and it reminds us of the period when the British cinema could still make and release films of this scale on a regular basis. But it was almost the end of the British studio system, especially with the withdrawal of Hollywood investment in the next few years. If you enjoy a good romp with a strong cast I think the film is quite entertaining.

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