MASQUERADE Cliff Robertson

MASQUERADE. United Artists, 1964. Cliff Robertson, Jack Hawkins, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Charles Gray, John Le Mesurier, Felix Aylmer. Screenplay: Michael Relph & William Goldman, based on the novel Castle Minerva by Victor Canning. Directed by Basil Deardon.

   It’s the early sixties, and the British Lion’s bite isn’t what it once was. In the Arab state of Ramault, once liberated by the Brits in WW II, that means the treacherous leader has plans to rid himself of his nephew, the twelve year old heir to the throne, and sell out to the Russians, depriving England of those precious oil concessions.

   That’s why the Brits have called in Colonel Drexel (Jack Hawkins), the man who liberated Ramault and assigned him to kidnap and protect the young prince. Drexel, a latter day T.E. Lawrence, does things his own way, and he insists on his wartime ally American David Fraser (Cliff Robertson) as his aide in protecting the prince. The government isn’t sure. Fraser has a history of financial problems and a tendency to trouble.

MASQUERADE Cliff Robertson

    “Yes, David always was an Errol Flynn fan,” Drexel dryly observes, but he’ll have Fraser or no one, and Fraser needs the work. Currently he’s been reduced to posing as a male model for magazine ads.

   Still, Fraser is no happier about it than the government: “Drexel, I never worked with you. I always worked for you.” But when he faces the realities he agrees to follow Drexel one more time.

   But no sooner than they are set up in a villa where they bring the prince than Robertson finds himself seduced by lovely Marissa Mell and menaced by her boyfriend (Michel Piccoli) and the prince kidnapped from under his nose — all the Machiavellian work of his buddy Drexel, who after a lifetime of service to the Empire finds he is growing older and has nothing but a few ex-wives and no money to show for it. The ransom he gets for the boy will take care of that — and if that means setting up his old friend as the fall guy — well, Fraser is the adaptable sort. He’ll find a way out of it.

MASQUERADE Cliff Robertson

   Now Fraser is labeled a traitor and forced to rescue the boy, who still thinks Drexel is a hero and believes Fraser set him up to save himself, but that’s not his only problem, which include Mell and her circus folk in Drexel’s employ, a pet vulture, a phony private eye, and the one question he doesn’t want answered, how far will Drexel go? To kill the boy — or him?

   This clever spy spoof mixes humor with action and an unusually intelligent and quip-filled script handled by an expert cast who know their way around a dry line or a raised eyebrow. The scenery is handsome, the direction crisp, and the plot keeps twisting right up to the final scene. Robertson was born to play this sort of whimsical hero and Hawkins plays Drexel with some of the same style he brought to his role in The League of Gentleman, reviewed earlier by Steve here.

MASQUERADE Cliff Robertson

   It’s based on a novel by Victor Canning, a major British thriller writer who rivaled Eric Ambler, Geoffrey Household, and Hammond Innes in his day and whose works were frequently adapted to the big and small screen, including his most famous, and atypical book, The Rainbird Pattern, which became Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

   Canning’s books veered from adventure to Cold War dramas, from taut suspense to picaresque humor. Panther’s Moon, Queen’s Pawn, The House of Turkish Flies, His Bones Are Coral, The Great Affair, and Finger of Saturn are some of his better known titles.

   From the catchy title tune and the animated titles, to the little twist at the end, this is a too little seen spy parody from its era, directed with a light but sure hand by Deardon and acted with wit and tongue in cheek by the entire cast.

   If you’ve never seen this one and you like the better spy spoofs of the era — the best of which always seemed to be British — catch this clever and entertaining film. But don’t listen too closely to the title tune the first time you watch it. It gives away a few plot points, however unintentionally.