Posts Tagged ‘Telly Savalas’

Basil Dearden’s 1969 film The Assassination Bureau (with the additional word Limited added in some territories) opens with a jolly music-hall-style tune and a montage of attempted Edwardian-era killings going wrong in various amusing ways. Contract killing, it is suggested, was always rather more miss than hit, at least until the closing years of the nineteenth century, at which point a new and rather more efficient organisation of assassins appeared on the scene – the titular bureau, various of whose more creative exploits (lifts with the floor sawn out, etc) are illustrated throughout the opening titles.


Despite all this mayhem, it seems like the only person onto the existence of the Bureau is feisty young reporter Sonia Winter (Diana Rigg), who promises to bring the details of the organisation to a major newspaper if it will oblige her by furthering the course of female emancipation by giving her a job. The proprietor, Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) agrees to sponsor her investigations.

Miss Winter has already figured out how to contact the Assassination Bureau and arranges an interview with its chairman (this entails various unlikely security arrangements). The leader of the gang is one Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) – who, despite his name, has been raised as a very proper English gentleman – who enquires as to who it is that Miss Winter would like bumped off. It turns out the gentleman she has in mind to be killed is Dragomiloff himself. He initially laughs it off, saying she couldn’t afford the fee, but the money provided by Bostwick gives him pause, and he accepts the contract on himself.

Why on earth would he do this? Convening a meeting of the senior assassins, Ivan reveals his reasons: the Bureau was founded with moral notions at its core, the idea being that they would never assassinate someone who did not, on some level, really deserve to die. However, Ivan has come to suspect his associates have lost their moral compass somewhat and are simply killing people for money, which is abhorrent in his eyes. By orchestrating this conflict between them and him, Ivan will be able to purge the Assassination Bureau of its unworthy members, dealing with them one-by-one as they move against him. (Yes, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it’s the notion that the whole movie is predicated on, so you just have to go with it.)

So Ivan sets out across Europe, Miss Winters reluctantly in tow, engaging and despatching his colleagues in France, Switzerland, and other well-known and photogenic locations. What Miss Winters doesn’t know is that Lord Bostwick is a member of the Bureau and set to take over if Ivan is killed, and what Ivan doesn’t know is Bostwick’s plan to use the Bureau as an instrument to incite a major war and redraw the map of Europe…

The Assassination Bureau is one of those movies which probably looked good on paper (it was based on a story by Jack London): the premise has a certain appeal, Basil Dearden is a notable name in the annals of British cinema, and it has an impressive cast – apart from Rigg, Reed, and Savalas, the supporting players include Curt Jurgens (or however you want to spell his name), Warren Mitchell, and many other familiar faces from British films and TV. It’s almost remarkable, in fact, that a film with so much talent attached to it should end up so extremely undistinguished.

It’s easy to see the film’s place in the lineage of zany and tongue-in-cheek comedies of the 1960s – it often plays very much like an Edwardian-dress version of one of the Bond pastiches that were ubiquitous at the time – but, as ever, the main problem is that it just isn’t very funny, and this is probably due to the tonal uncertainty of the film. As you might expect from the title and the subject matter, this is a film with a very significant body-count – there are various shootings, stabbings, poisonings and a lot of deaths by bombing – and the film neither treats these seriously enough to work as a proper thriller, nor floats them past the camera archly enough for it all to work on a tongue-in-cheek level. Much of it is so cartoony that when a character sticks his fork into a bomb disguised as a German sausage and the screen fills with the flash of an explosion, you expect them to emerge with ragged clothes and a blackened face. But they don’t. They just die. It’s almost like a Tom and Jerry cartoon where a horribly mutilated cat has to be taken to the vet at the end.

The murderousness of the script also sits oddly with the various scenes where Rigg and Reed debate the morality of murder and especially of paying someone to kill. This isn’t really done in earnest, but is a pretext for the romance which inevitably develops between the duo. I think both Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg are tremendous actors, neither of whom had the big-screen career their talents deserved, and so I can only assume the lack of chemistry between them is down to the script: Rigg is almost playing a slightly more vulnerable variation on her Mrs Peel character, while Reed is stuck with the dashing male lead, the kind of role which doesn’t require the intensity and suggestion of inner darkness which were his real strengths. (It has to be said that by the end of the film Diana Rigg is very much playing a subordinate role to Reed, in plot terms.)

Of course, if we’re going to talk about 1969 films about suave, saturnine assassins taking on an international conspiracy, with Diana Rigg as the love interest and Telly Savalas as the villain, then the temptation is almost to look at The Assassination Bureau in order to get an idea of what a certain other film might have looked like if Eon had made better casting choices and George Lazenby had remained a vanishingly obscure figure in cultural history. I sort of hope this is misguided, because it’s not a great movie by any chalk – the actors do their best, but the script is poor, the direction not especially impressive, and some of the special effects are absolutely awful.

One is tempted to say that films like The Assassination Bureau illustrate why the British film industry went into such a steep decline, but that might be excessively harsh on the movie. Perhaps if Reed and Rigg had gone on to have the kinds of film careers their talent deserved, this film would just be a curious historical oddity and a reminder that even a film that sounds promising can turn out to be a bit duff. As things stand, though, it gives what’s honestly a slightly poor film a really melancholy edge.

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Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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In the past I have occasionally alluded to the infelicities that occur when movie titles are translated from one language to another. In Japan, for instance, Basic Instinct is known as Smile of Ice – well, that’s actually not that bad, certainly compared to things like The Indestructible Iron Man fights the Electronic Gang (Chinese title for A View to a Kill), Tuesday the 13th (the Brazilian version of Friday the 13th) and Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It anymore (Germany’s revision of Tough Guys).

Compared to some of the above, Horror Express isn’t too bad a title, just a terribly bland one – especially when compared to the original, which is Panico en el Transiberiano. For yes, this 1973 film, directed by Gene Martin (aka Eugenio Martin), was made in Spain, for all that it stars three imported foreign stars. Topping the bill is the latest Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Sir Christopher Lee. Rather surprisingly this film didn’t appear in the selection of highlights that accompanied his investiture, BAFTA opting for things like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars instead. Poor show. If and when the great man finally passes on, the tribute season could easily last for about four years, and hopefully it’ll pop up then.

Anyway, the movie opens in a remote area of China, where Lee, in an extravagant furry hat and nearly as extravagant moustache, is playing a paleontologist. Our man discovers a perfectly-preserved ape-man frozen into a block of ice and, as you do, decides to ship it back to Blighty to show the Royal Society.

This being about 1904, he’s obliged to go by the Trans-Siberian railway, and the scene shifts to a railway station where confusion reigns. Not in terms of the plot – Lee bumps into a slightly-less-starchy colleague and rival, who just happens to be taking the same train. He is portrayed by the great Peter Cushing, which if nothing else means that this film will have some of that old Cushing-Lee magic sprinkled upon it. The confusion arises from the fact that nobody, including the writer and director, seems entirely sure where they are and what ethnicity anyone should be.

Some of this may be down to Chinese politics at the time, which may explain why various Europeans are in positions of authority, and I suppose the fact it’s a Russian railway explains the presence of so many Spanish-people-pretending-to-be-Russian. However, this doesn’t account for Chinese characters with Russian names. Most bizarre of all, shortly after a caption appears establishing that we’re in Peking, Cushing cheerily greets Lee with ‘Hello! What are you doing in Shanghai?’ Sigh.

Oh, well. It doesn’t really matter, as everyone cheerfully gets on the train with Lee, Cushing, and the rapidly-defrosting ape-man, unperturbed by the mysterious death of a thief who snuck a peek inside the creature’s packing crate. (I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would ever volunteer to spend extended time in the vicinity of characters played by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Redshirts in Star Trek tend to have a longer life expectancy than Cushing-Lee movie supporting casts.)

Now, you may be thinking that this will develop into another fairly routine ‘defrosted ape-man runs amok on train’ movie, as I did the first time I saw it. But you would be wrong, as the movie has a trick and a twist up its sleeve. The ape-man indeed defrosts and runs amok, killing a few more characters with a gaze-of-death gimmick. But, less than an hour into the film, it’s shot and killed. Now what?

It turns out the monster isn’t the ape-man, but an alien mind-parasite that’s been trapped inside it: the creature has the power to hop from body to body and drain the knowledge and memories of its victims. The alien’s been stranded on Earth for at least seventy million years and would quite like to go home now. There’s a bit of a subplot about it trying to acquire the knowledge and materials to build a spacecraft, but the film doesn’t really have the space to develop this properly.

An unknown Chinese extra manages to achieve some small measure of immortality…

So in some respects Horror Express distinctly exceeds expectations. Lee and Cushing do their usual flawless stuff – Cushing is, unusually, playing second banana to some extent – and there’s a memorable performance from Alberto de Mendoza as a crazy Russian mystic who’s also on the train (he’s basically Rasputin with a railcard).

However, it drops the ball in other departments. The writers can’t resist going beyond the pulp-SF premise of the movie and throwing in elements of supernatural horror: the ape-man’s crate inexplicably repels the sign of the cross, for instance. And there’s some very, very dodgy science involved – characters in 1904 talk very casually about ‘genetic defects’, and the ‘visual memory’ of the alien is stored in the eyeballs of its hosts. Hmmm. And everyone’s very good at jumping to utterly unlikely conclusions, which always turn out to be correct.

It shows ominous signs of total collapse in its final third, but proceedings are reinvigorated by the arrival of the third imported star, Telly Savalas, who appears as Kazan, a soldier sent to investigate the weird occurences a-transpiring. Savalas overacts utterly shamelessly but gets all the best lines: ‘I’ll have you sent to Siberia!’ shrieks a noblewoman when he appears and starts throwing his weight about. ‘I’m in Siberia!’ replies Kazan, bemused. Later on, Kazan and his men have the alien’s current host and the Rasputin-a-like cornered down one end of the train, and he orders that anyone coming from that direction be shot on sight. ‘But the monk may be innocent!’ cries Cushing. ‘Ah, we got lots of innocent monks,’ shrugs Savalas. It takes a big man and a big performance to upstage Cushing and Lee in the same scene, but Telly Savalas manages it here. Respect due.

Even so, by the climax everything’s gone a bit unravelled in the name of a spectacular denouement, with the Russian authorities deciding to crash the train and a plague of zombies putting in an eleventh-hour appearance. By the standards of low-budget horror films, though, it looks good and stays fun throughout, and it’s always just a little bit better than you expect it to be – even if by the conclusion (brace yourself) Horror Express is showing distinct signs of running out of steam.

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