A Dandy in Aspic (1968)

Like this blog, A Dandy in Aspic starts in medias res. Well, that’s not quite true. It starts with a stylish 60ies opening title sequence, in which a puppet is jerked around by red and blue disembodied hands until it gets completely entangled in its strings. Said puppet, the audience soon understands, is Eberlin (Laurence Harvey), a British spy who is also a double agent for the Soviet Union. That’s not a spoiler; not only does the film reveal this within the first 20 minutes, it’s also plastered all over the back cover of the DVD (not to mention the original poster, embedded on the right). On orders from Moscow, Eberlin (né Krasnevin) has killed a British agent, with whose funeral the film begins in a lovely match cut from dropping body to dropping coffin. His british superiors suspect a mole within their ranks and task Eberlin with ferreting him out.

The storyline reminds me of another Cold War spy thriller, No Way Out (1987) starring Kevin Costner. I admittedly last saw it many years ago, but from what little I remember, it is a (stereo)typically American affair, and indicative of the time it was made in: lots of action, lots of gratuitous sex, and lots of suspense as to the identity of the mole, with the inevitable big twist at the end. Despite the plot similarity, there is apparently no direct connection between the two films; Out is a remake of a 40ies film noir, though one completely unrelated to espionage[1]. In any case, where Out is somewhat stereotypically 80ies American, Dandy is stereotypically 60ies British[2]
Spy work is shown to be a rather tedious affair, not at all flashy or gadget-based (the most advanced piece of technology used by a spy in the film is a car phone). The cinematography is mostly drab and realistic, extradiegetic music is limited to a few select scenes, and the acting is understated. There is, of course, a difference between subtlety and unexpressiveness, but I think most of the actors (and the screenplay) come down on the right side of that divide. Many things remain unspoken, and yet come through in the pauses, in tone of voice, in body language (such as the apparent racism of Eberlin towards a black colleague).

Spoilers have been discovered below!

Eberlin is not the composed and charismatic field agent one associates with British spies, nor is he technically a traitor. He is Russian, brought to the U.K. as a teenager, who managed to work his way to a position as a desk jockey in British Intelligence: he’s an analyst of sorts, important, but hardly glamorous. He snaps at his British colleagues when they tear him away from his desk work and escalate his participation in the field, and he snaps at his Russian contacts when they tell him he’s too valuable to just up and leave his mission. It isn’t a crisis of conscience that drives his wish to be extracted back to Moscow: he shows almost no compassion for those he has killed or wants to kill. Rather, he has grown tired of the demands his role as a double agent puts on him. Eberlin/Krasnevin is not a conflicted man with admirable ideals, but an unpleasant person who can’t handle the stress of his job. That is an unusual perspective on the spy trade, even more so since Eberlin is the only protagonist, with supporting characters weaving in and out of the story, but never amounting to much of a threat, or somebody sympathetic for the audience to root for[3].

Harvey plays him well, Eberlin/Krasnevin, with barely restrained anger at his superiors on both sides, and a well-considered dash of self-loathing for, I suppose, his own weakness. The constant deception makes him fear for his own identity: Eberlin is not real, yet a role that must be played at all times, and Krasnevin is in the past, and in danger of disappearing. What’s left? Mirrors and photographs and paintings and passports are prominent props in the film, and they serve to remind Eberlin of the illusory power of a surface impression.
In an interesting subversion of audience expectations, the British spies who go to Eberlin for the job as mole-hunter receive numerous clues that something is fishy about him, and yet they do nothing. This is frustrating, because as it turns out, Eberlin really isn’t all that good of a spy, or at least a good field agent. Like one of the characters says in the film, he manages to get precisely nothing done. Without wanting to spoil the ending outright: this conundrum does get addressed. It’s just a bit questionable how well.

As fascinating as the main character is and as fine a job cinematography and sound make to create a tense, paranoid atmosphere throughout the film, it is not without its faults. For one, the romantic subplot featuring a very young and very thin Mia Farrow is fairly superfluous and riddled with unlikely coincidences (which I suppose were intended to be a red herring for the audience). Also, even though I like the opening sequence a lot on aesthetic grounds, in hindsight it is not particularly subtle. Even less so is its reprise at the very end of the film, when the puppet finally falls to the ground following the film’s last freeze-frame[4]. And I can’t help but think that the book the movie is adapted from must do a better job of explaining the twists and turns of the plot so they appear well thought out. It also likely gives the many characters who are but briefly introduced and then forgotten something worthwhile to do, like the black spy (surely an unusual sight at that time) and Eberlin’s Moneypenny stand-in. But if the ending is identical to the movie’s, the title A Dandy in Aspic really doesn’t make more sense there either (it would make more sense if Krasnevin remained undetected and stayed on, forever frozen as Eberlin).

The film is Anthony Mann’s last. Skimming through his extensive filmography, I find that he mostly directed films noirs, historical epics and westerns, which gives me a swell excuse for never having seen a film of his outside of those genres. Dandy belongs to none of them, of course, so it enables me to break the pattern. It’s impossible to say how Mann’s death during production affected the film and whether some of the kinks would have been ironed out later. The movie isn’t quite as stylish as Mann’s earlier films I’ve seen, but that fits the story well.
For comparison’s sake, it might be a good idea to watch The Heroes of Telemark (1965) some time, made a few years earlier and with a similar theme (though not quite about the spy trade, from what I can gather).

In the end, what we have in A Dandy in Aspic is a watchable film; one that does not reach the heights of earlier Manns, nor the fun of the Bond movies or the earned earnestness of the John-le-Carré adaptations I’ve seen. It could have been more polished. But having this as the last work on your resumé is by no means the worst way to go out. If you want to get in the mood for the upcoming movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but don’t want to read the novel or watch the BBC miniseries, this film is a decent substitute to show you what you may be in for.

^[1]= A probably unintentional connection: The Big Clock (1948), the noir film, was directed by John Farrow, whose daughter plays a prominent role on the poster for Dandy.
^[2]= Stereotypes, of course, will only get you so far. Consider the James Bond films from the same period, some of which represent the tonal opposite. Or the excellent BBC adaptations of John le Carrés Smiley novels starring Alec Guinness, which are naturalistic and measured to a fault, despite having been made in the late 70ies and early 80ies.
^[3]= Besides Caroline (Mia Farrow), whose presence is aggravating in its needlessness, there is only Gatiss (Tom Courtenay), a competent spy, but his arrogance and volatility make him insufferable as well.
^[4]= It’s a nice bookend for someone who’s a sucker for symmetry, like I am: the first freeze-frame follows the opening titles, kicking off the burial scene and distinguishing the flashbacks.


One response to “A Dandy in Aspic (1968)

  1. Pingback: Passing the Buck: Spy, Dandy, Übermensch | Counter-Currents Publishing

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