A DANDY IN ASPIC. Columbia Pictures, UK/US, 1968. Laurence Harvey, Tom Courtenay, Mia Farrow, Harry Andrews, Peter Cook, Lionel Stander, Per Oscarsson. Original music: Quincy Jones. Screenwriter: Derek Marlowe, based on his novel of the same name. Directors: Anthony Mann, Laurence Harvey (the latter uncredited).


   A troubled production usually means a troubled if not bad movie, and A Dandy in Aspic is not much of an exception, if it’s one at all. Its director, Anthony Mann, died during the filming of this movie, and Laurence Harvey, to save the film, took over. (I’ve not been able to learn exactly what percentage Harvey did, but presumably it was all of the location shooting — in and around Berlin, Germany — and of course putting the film together at the end.)

   Anthony Mann’s death also put the film way over schedule, which kept Mia Farrow overseas away from her then husband, Frank Sinatra, which strained their marriage to its final breaking point, or so I’m told. (That he was 30 years old than she was may have also had something to do with it.)

   None of which does a viewer have to know to decide on his or her own that a movie just isn’t cutting it. It’s the tale of a Russian spy (a dashing but dour fellow named Eberlin, aka Laurence Harvey) who’s dug himself into the British spy service so well that no one knows that he’s also been busily assassinating some of their best operatives. They have his name, Krasnevin, but no more than that, and the task that Eberlin is asked to do is to eliminate him — or that is to say, himself.

   It is difficult at first to understand all of this, and thank goodness for movies on tape or DVD where you can back up every once in a while. But this is one of those spy films in which the plot is deliberately kept murky so as to make a point about the dirty nature of the spy business, but which also helps make sure that the viewers are puzzled as well. (Avoiding this small difficulty is the narrow path that spy books and espionage movies must travel, without a lot of leeway. Only the best seem to do it well.)


   My problem is that Russian names all sound alike to me — a deficiency on my part and no one’s fault but my own — and worse, many of the other mostly dour actors look very much alike. (Harvey is the only one who’s also dashing, but some of the chaps on the British side are rather overweight and somewhat humorous in that regard — but they’re suits only and otherwise pretty much indistinguishable.)

   Getting back to Eberlin, he’s indeed dashing enough to attract the attention of a free lance photographer named Caroline, delightfully played by an innocently wide-eyed Mia Farrow.

   In fact, Miss Farrow is the only source of light and utter joyousness in the entire movie. The rest is a deep study in emotions and deceptions — Eberlin’s only real wish is to return to his native Russia, but naturally he’s too useful to the Russians where he is — and of course the seriousness of the trap he finds himself in.

   A musical score by the likes of a Quincy Jones is usually a plus for most movies, but in this case, it is not so. A good rule of thumb to go by is that if you notice the music, the movie is not completely capturing your attention, and so it is here. While the score is modern enough, for the late 60s, it’s also gimmicky and predictable.

   For me at least, to sum things up, while this movie had its moments, enough so that to suggest watching it may be a worthy way to spend an evening, given the judicious use of the rewind button. And yet. There is also the ending, which I see I haven’t mentioned so far, one that comes as both a surprise and inevitable, as is true in most serious spy and espionage movies, but in this case, it is one, sad to say, that you will remember no more than five minutes after you have turned off the TV.