This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.
After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.
One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.
From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.
I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.
Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.
Limbo is one of the more remarkable British films of the last few years. Its subject matter of asylum-seekers in the UK is not in itself new, but its presentation here is – in several different ways. Although it is a fictional story, there is a real-life event which is some ways might prompt the ideas behind the fiction. In 2015, when the Conservative government in the UK agreed to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, a small number of families (15 or 24 according to varying reports) were sent to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay is a ferry and road/rail journey of around 2 hours away from Glasgow. The influx of even a small number of refugees was noted on an island with a resident population of only around 6,500. Fortunately the refugees appear to have settled in well.
Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo places a motley group of around 20 asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (the film’s credits suggest that scenes were shot on several islands in the group including North Uist). This carries to the extreme the idea of isolating asylum-seekers with larger towns several hours journey away (apart from air services). The asylum-seekers are all single men who are housed in what appear to be local council dwellings and the narrative focuses on a group of four men in one of the small houses. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work until they have been cleared to stay in the UK as refugees. Sharrock’s approach to his narrative is arguably both absurdist and fantastical, but in many ways actually makes a more authentic statement about what it means to be an asylum seeker than other more ‘realist’ films. The film is released in the UK by MUBI and after cinema screenings it is now available to stream on MUBI. The stream includes a recorded discussion between writer-director Sharrock and his four principal actors. It is worth noting that the actors were at first reluctant to read a script which they thought might be the same old story about migrants and ‘white saviours’ etc. However, having read the script, they all became enthusiastic and very much wanted to be part of the production.
The film opens with a close-up on a blackboard. The camera pulls back to a mid-shot of a woman facing the camera. She nods and a man turns on a portable CD player. Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started With a Kiss’ begins and the camera pulls back to a long shot showing the woman slowly begin to move her body in time with the music. We can see the man now as well and the couple appear to be in a small hall with a high ceiling and a long thin blackboard on the wall behind the couple and a large space in front. The screen shape is Academy, the squarish shape (1.37:1) coming back into vogue for isolated art films. I was so mesmerised by this opening, I failed to recognise one of my very favourite performers, Sidse Babett Knudsen the Danish star of the Borgen TV serials. Here with long straggly hair and wearing an ill-fitting blouse and calf-length skirt, she and Kenneth Collard play Helga and Boris who are employed to help asylum-seekers to understand British customs. This lesson is ‘Cultural Awareness 101: Sex – Is a Smile an Invitation?’. When the camera offers us a reverse shot of the twenty asylum-seekers they look bemused, mystified or stunned. The camera picks out the four men who will be principal characters. Sidse’s dancing is at once hilarious, oddly strained and yet still erotic. The pacing is very slow. Helga asks a question when the dancing ends and one man slowly raises his hand to answer but we then cut to the bleak (but very beautiful) landscape of the isles with heather-covered moorland, seawater inlets and hills in the background and then to an isolated phone-box in the middle of nowhere. This is the centre of the universe for the asylum-seekers, their only means of access to the outside world (apart from a hill-top where a mobile signal might be possible). I’ve described this opening in detail because the constituent elements are well-known/conventional but Sharrock presents them in such a distinctive way throughout the film that we are invited to think again about what we see.
Eventually, our focus will narrow to just two of the characters (though significant action will also involve the two West Africans in the house). Omar is a Syrian who always carries his grandfather’s oud everywhere he goes. In its case, the oud is like a guitar and initially Omar cannot play it because he has injured his wrist. When his dressing is removed he is still unable to play but more from the trauma of being parted from his family (though he came to the UK deliberately, hoping to send for his parents). Omar speaks very good English, as does the other main character, the older Farhad, an engaging Afghani man who has been waiting longer for his asylum application to be considered. I’m not going to spoil any more of the narrative and instead I’ll stick to general comments about Ben Sharrock’s approach to his story. I understand he spent some time in Syria after growing up in Edinburgh. This is his second feature following Pikadero (Spain 2015), filmed in Spanish and Basque – this is also available on MUBI.
Limbo does have a conventional narrative of sorts. Some viewers might read it as a showing a ‘character journey’ for Omar. It’s not giving too much away to suggest that he can only free himself from his own ‘limbo’ by playing his oud, preferably for an audience. But this also means coming to terms with aspects of his family relationships and Sharrock finds ways to explore this using fantasy sequences which I think work very well. I think this is a wonderful film. Parts of it are very funny. One or two moments are harrowing. It isn’t an overlong film at just over 100 minutes but it is slow, giving you more time to appreciate the camerawork by Nick Cooke and the pacing of the edits by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, as well as reflecting on what you are seeing. The performances are all very good but particularly the two central performances by Amir El-Masry as Omar and Vikash Bhai as Farhad. Bhai is from Leicester and El-Masry was brought up in London. I realised later that I had seen El-Masry in the John Stewart film Rosewater (US 2014). He has also appeared in a Star Wars film. Bhai has been in several UK TV shows. El-Masry speaks Egyptian Arabic and Bhai learned some Dari for his role as an Afghani man. I point this out simply to confirm that this is a carefully scripted film for actors rather than an attempt to cast non-professionals in a form of realist drama. The focus is directly on the experience of ‘limbo’, the pervading sense of being caught in a ‘waiting room’ with memories of where you have left and attempts to maintain hope about where you might get to. There is relatively little contact between the four men and the locals who are mainly friendly if sometimes insensitive. The locals include both Helga and Boris but also a local Glaswegian Sikh shopkeeper who has some good lines. Reviewers have variously compared the film’s presentational style to Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. I can see the possible links but this is very much Ben Sharrock’s (and his cast and crew’s) film.
One of the best films I’ve seen this year and one that I very much recommend, I hope you can find Limbo online or on a cinema screen. Perhaps community cinemas will book it? You can view the MUBI trailer below. The US trailer is, I think, misleadingly ‘oversold’. The MUBI one gives you a better idea of the film.
Bank Holiday is notable for several reasons. It’s an early directorial effort from Carol Reed, borrowed from ATP for a Gainsborough production. It’s also an early outing for Margaret Lockwood, already looking ‘smashing’ and an experienced ‘leading lady’, but not yet the huge star she became in the 1940s – it was the third of her seven films made with Carol Reed. In her autobiography she argues that the success of this film made her a real film star in the UK. The photography is by Arthur Crabtree who would go on to become a major director at Gainsborough Studios. The strong supporting cast includes several notable players including Kathleen Harrison in her ‘Cockney’ persona. The film is a comedy-drama mixed with a romance. (In the US the film was retitled Three on a Weekend with one sequence excised to comply with the Hollywood Production Code.)
The first half of the film perhaps provided the model for the later propaganda picture Millions Like Us (1943) with its depiction of a seaside holiday in Brighton (disguised here as ‘Bexborough’). Reed and Crabtree offer us an almost documentary record of the British working-class August Bank Holiday (which was thensensibly at the start of August, rather than the end as currently). I particularly enjoyed the sequence at the London railway terminus (presumably meant to be Victoria). There are two, for me, unusual features of the film. The first is the casting (with top billing) of John Lodge, possibly for the US market. I confess that I wasn’t aware of Lodge as an actor and an American ‘blue-blood’. Lodge was a tall man with a severe demeanour and a face seemingly etched from marble. I’m not surprised that his biggest role was opposite Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, early in his short acting career. Later he appeared in several British films plus a French production but he gained a naval commission in 1942 and never returned to acting. He was part of the two great New England families, the Lodges and the Cabots, and after the war he became first a US Senator and then Governor of Connecticut. When the Republicans returned to power in 1968 he moved into diplomacy as an American Ambassador. With his background, Bank Holiday sounds an unlikely production on which to utilise his talents. In fact Lodge as ‘Stephen Howard’ provides the serious drama which to some extent bookends the comedy and romance. As the film opens, he is waiting for the birth of his first child and his wife is being tended by hospital nurse Catharine Lawrence (Margaret Lockwood). The birth is difficult and the mother dies. Catharine is very moved by Stephen’s distress but like so many other workers in London, she is expecting on this Saturday lunchtime to travel to the seaside with her boyfriend Geoffrey (Hugh Williams). Can she enjoy the Bank Holiday with Stephen’s despair hanging over her? On her train journey we meet the other characters who provide the two main comic adventures.
Kathleen Harrison plays the mother of three young children, travelling with her not very supportive husband. This Lancashire actor (born in Blackburn) solidified her persona as a cheerful Cockney character in the post-war ‘Huggets family’ films at Gainsborough, starting with Holiday Camp in 1947 (which is also ‘topical’ in detailing the post-war surge in holiday camps). The other main comic narrative in Bank Holiday features René Ray as Doreen, the winner of the ‘Miss Fulham’ beauty contest hoping to win a prize in a contest at the Grand Hotel in Bexborough. With her is her friend Milly (Merle Tottenham) and this narrative also plays on the social class differences as all the film’s characters end up at the Grand Hotel for various reasons. (There is an interesting glimpse into the world of ‘girls’ papers’ discussed by Doreen and Milly at the newsstand in this piece from the Jill Craigie Project.) The original story idea and final script for Bank Holiday were written by Rodney Ackland (with Hans Wilhelm and Roger Bruford). This was Ackland’s first major success and he went on to have a hand in many more stories and scripts.
I’m interested in Bank Holiday partly because it seems like Gainsborough’s answer to ATP’s success with Sing As We Go (1934) starring Gracie Fields on her trip to Blackpool. Fields was the biggest British female star of the 1930s and Blackpool was Brighton’s main rival as the premier seaside resort. I’m biased in favour of Blackpool, but I’m intrigued by some of the Brighton footage, especially the outdoor swimming pool which I’m assuming was the Black Rock Pool. The 1930s was the age of the Lido in the UK, with 180 built between 1930 and 1939 (see the history of Grange-over-Sands lido). Margaret Lockwood in 1938 couldn’t match Fields, but she was at the top by 1945. They were, however, very different kinds of film star. Lockwood could sing but I don’t think she did in films?
The film’s script cleverly brings the three narratives together through the Grand Hotel (and the idea of the ‘dirty weekend’ as Geoffrey finally gets a room with a double bed for his girlfriend Catharine). I find the tonal shift between the drama of Catharine’s concern for Stephen and the comedy of the Brighton adventures to be startling and Stephen’s behaviour at the hospital is shocking by modern day standards but it doesn’t seem to have bothered the 1938 audiences. In some ways the film feels like a war-time picture with its tragedy and comedy mix and the fears of war are presented through newspaper hoardings. Reed and his crew are I think quite brave in the way that they represent dreams and interior thoughts, such as Catharine’s about Stephen as she handles the cigarette lighter that he left behind at the hospital. Linden Travers has the small but significant role as Stephen’s dead wife Ann. The first occasion, when Catharine thinks about Stephen is presented, I think, as a parallel narrative, with Stephen staring into the Thames while Catharine gazes into the sea. The second longer sequence, when Catharine plays with the lighter, offers something I haven’t seen before. Catharine’s thoughts about Stephen conjure up a flashback to Stephen and Ann together watching a royal event which could be the Coronation of George VI in 1937. Has anyone else seen this kind of narrative device? Does it have a special name?
But above all this is Margaret Lockwood’s film. She went to Hollywood soon after her next film, The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock, but she didn’t enjoy her time at 20th Century Fox (Fox had a ‘star-exchange’ scheme with Gainsborough and Ms Lockwood found herself playing opposite Shirley Temple rather than Tyrone Power as she hoped. After a second Hollywood production loaned out to Paramount she came back to the UK with her husband just a few weeks before war broke out in 1939.
Here’s the Talking Pictures TV trailer for Bank Holiday:
Alice and the Mayor is an intriguing little film that I found both interesting and enjoyable. It doesn’t appear to have been released in cinemas in the UK or US but is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. Again, as with the Indian films on MUBI, there is little in the way of extras, just one review. I wonder if it is a problem with cinephiles who don’t seem to have much interest in ‘everyday politics’? Not that this is a realist film about politics in any way but it does raise a number of questions and one or two moments did ring true for me.
The writer-director Nicolas Pariser is here making only his second feature after working as a film critic and earlier spending a fair amount of time as a postgraduate student. He reveals that the film is actually the result of melding three different story ideas and producing a final narrative that he tackles with reference to an approach associated with Éric Rohmer, Pariser’s only film tutor at the Sorbonne. Rohmer himself made a film about a Socialist mayor, L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque in 1993.
The story is set roughly around 2014-15 during the François Hollande Presidency of France and ends with a coda set during the Macron Presidency (i.e. post 2017). The national picture is not directly relevant except that the central character of the Mayor of Lyon is a senior Socialist Party figure and therefore a potential presidential candidate. Lyon is the second or third major French city depending on how boundaries are drawn and it is interesting for me to compare it with Greater Manchester in the UK, in a similar position in terms of size and importance. Manchester too now has a mayor, Andy Burnham, a Labour Party politician. Mayors as executive (i.e. not simply ceremonial) leaders constitute a relatively new phenomenon in the UK and Burnham is now arguably the second most powerful directly elected political figure after the London mayor. ‘Paul Théraneau’ (Fabrice Luchini) probably has more direct local power in Lyon than his UK counterparts. The ‘inciting incident’ of the film’s narrative is the arrival of Alice Heimann (Anaïs Demoustier) in a new post in the mayor’s office. Slightly bewildered/bemused by what her new job might entail, Alice is informed that the mayor, a seasoned veteran of 30 years in politics, has suddenly lost the ability to think up new ideas. She is charged with stimulating his thinking as an ‘ideas woman’.
This central plot point could lead to different kinds of narratives. The casting of the talented comic actor Fabrice Luchini suggests a comedy with Alice creating mayhem with naïve, revolutionary or simply daft ideas. We are used to British and American parodies or satires of government. But though there are comic moments in Alice and the Mayor, there are also interesting references to literature, philosophy and politics which form the basis for genuine discussion. Alice is not a ‘whizz-kid’ or a ‘policy wonk’. She’s a thoughtful young woman who graduated in Lyon and has recently been studying and teaching in Oxford as a literature scholar. She isn’t pushy and is possibly a little embarrassed by her sudden elevation when the mayor begins to believe that she can really help him. Despite her embarrassment she behaves in a professional manner at all times.
Reflecting on the film after screening it, I think I can see the separate stories that Pariser has put together, or rather I can see three different stories that don’t quite match the three that Pariser mentions in the Press Notes, but I think I’m close enough. One story is about the Mayor and his relationship/friendship with Alice, one is about Alice herself as an intelligent and charming young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life and one is about politics as a contemporary professional practice. Pariser reveals his affection for The West Wing in his presentation of the political machinations in City Hall.
Why did I enjoy the film so much? Partly because I’ve previously enjoyed several Fabrice Luchini films and appreciated his acting skills and partly because I’m an admirer of Ms Demoustier. I knew I’d seen her before and I later realised that she has been in several films by Robert Guédiguian, the Marseilles-based director whose left politics inform his narratives, as well as playing the eponymous character in The New Girlfriend (France 2014). It’s rare these days to come across a film in which genuine political questions are raised. Alice is required to provide the Mayor with ‘notes’ each day. Concise questions, quotations and ideas to get him thinking. At one point she mentions a George Orwell quote about ‘common decency’. This is Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in which he tries to explain what he thinks ordinary working people expect from socialism and contrasts it with the outlook of left intellectuals. Alice intends it to remind the mayor that it is very easy to become too distant from his constituents. Later on Alice talks to an old friend who remarks that some renegades in the Socialist Party have started taking ideas from Orwell and Pier Paulo Pasolini as if this is an apostasy. Alice seems to float above all of this, able to deal efficiently with most of the tasks that the Mayor sets her without becoming involved in any kind of sectarian struggle.
Perhaps the melding of three different narratives and a final coda means that it is difficult to summarise what the film is trying to say and possibly frustrating in terms of its narrative resolution. On the other hand, perhaps the film accurately conveys politics as practice as viewed by someone who approaches it from literature and philosophy? Alice gives the Mayor Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1778) and Bartleby by Melville (1853) with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. But she’s also very aware of ecological issues and able to see through the vanity projects that the Mayor’s search for new ideas is in danger of encouraging. It’s a film for politicos and philosophes but also for those of us who worry about whether Alice will find her own future happiness. Socialism might be struggling in France but surely there is hope for Alice? One last point. I can’t find any stills which deal with Alice’s life outside the Mayor’s office – I think the film’s Press Office have failed on this score.
After two ‘smaller’ independent films, my third ¡Viva! title is a more mainstream comedy drama. I’ve again chosen to go with the direct translation of the Spanish title into English, since the ‘given’ English title doesn’t make much sense. This is a familiar narrative, probably most recognisable as referencing films such as The Odd Couple (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, 1968), but really any narrative in which seemingly disparate characters are thrown together and must find a modus operandi of some kind. The setting is Sevilla and an oldish apartment block in a now desirable part of the city. Sara (Juana Acosta) is senior manager in an insurance company, an attractive but rather serious and stressed woman on the brink of 40. She is being shown around an apartment by Óscar (Carlos Areces) a seemingly not very competent estate agent. The apartment is going at half the usual price and eventually the reason for this unusual sale becomes clear. There is an ‘inconvenience’ – the current owner must be allowed to stay on until she dies. Lola (Kiti Mánver) is in her mid 70s with a history of heart problems and she smokes, drinks and eats too many sweet and fatty foods. Óscar gaily announces that she won’t last long and refers to her as an ‘inconvenience’. The fact that Sara rebukes him suggests that perhaps she isn’t quite as cold as she first appears.
This is a quite glossy and beautifully-presented ‘Scope comedy that offers a familiar story in an attractive city. It is certainly funny and and sometimes quite moving. It’s not giving too much away to note that the two women are both lonely and for not dissimilar reasons. They will initially be at loggerheads but will also each grudgingly admire the other at times. Óscar provides a kind of running joke by popping up at regular intervals in various service jobs, none of which he can hold down for long. His incompetence is something the two women can agree about. In terms of timing and performance it is perhaps worth noting that Carlos Areces and Kiti Mánver are both alumni of Almodóvar productions. Juana Acosta is well cast as the business woman with her own problems beneath a polished veneer. Director Bernabé Rico is making his feature film début after several shorts and a decade of producer credits. Cinematographer Rita Noriega is also a features debutant. The script is by the director and Juan Carlos Rubio (based on his own theatre play) and the music is by Julio Awad.
I did find the film entertaining and I enjoyed the performances and the presentation, but I think that the relationship between the two central characters could be explored further, including their back stories. The basic premise (about a half-price apartment that Sara sees as a sound investment) refers to a real social issue in Spain – the rising cost of housing. This and Sara’s lack of a work-life balance, which means that she hasn’t yet decided whether she wants to have a child, point the way towards a richer social comedy that might have more resonance while remaining a mainstream entertainment. The dramatic element might be a little more developed too. El inconveniente is showing again at ¡Viva! on Saturday August 14th at 18.00 and Friday 20th August at 20.40. It would make a good weekend ‘fun film’. This trailer (no English subs) gives a sense of the rapid-fire dialogue:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.