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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.

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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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