During the late 1960s Columbia Pictures Corporation could have dished up a gripping Cold War movie with a proper twist, but instead released an adequate one with a translucent coating. Mark Fraser laments a squandered opportunity.
WARNING: This review complains about an intentional spoiler.
One can’t help but feel that Anthony Mann’s A Dandy in Aspic (1968) – a spy yarn set during the Cold War – plays its hand way too soon.
Adapted for the screen by Derek Marlowe from his 1966 novel, the movie concerns itself with a Russian-born double agent who is sent to West Berlin by British intelligence to assassinate himself.
Krasnevin (Laurence Harvey), whose English name is Alexander Eberlin, cuts a suave, but highly discontent figure. Yearning to return to the motherland after 18 years abroad, his request to come in from the cold is denied by the Soviet Union, forcing him to take part in an operation designed to eradicate a foreign hitman responsible for the recent murders of a number of UK operatives.
As a result Krasnevin/Eberlin spends most of the movie in a paranoid funk, on the one hand wondering who knows what while, on the other, trying to avoid the proverbial cross hairs.
Despite the fact it contains the potential makings of a man-is-really-searching-for-himself kind of film – whereby paydirt comes in the form of a climactic punch in which the true identity of the protagonist is finally revealed – this is not exactly how A Dandy in Aspic is played out.
Naturally, being a spy movie, there is a twist of sorts at the end – one that is adequate enough to provide the dramatic backdrop for a final (albeit modest) confrontation between two secret agents at the RAF’s military airbase in West Berlin.
Nevertheless, it is still established way too early on in the narrative that Eberlin is in fact Krasnevin; that the Dandy – as he is referred to by his Russian handler Pavel (Per Oscarsson) – is both the assassin and the target. By expeditiously putting this detail on the table, Mann and Marlowe do the story a little injustice; they sacrifice intrigue for tension, erode ambiguity and negate guesswork – all of which should be anathema to any good espionage tale.
In doing so, the pair make A Dandy in Aspic just a little too transparent. Moreover, this premature revelation also helps undermine a rather nuanced performance by Harvey, whose troubled disposition would have been far more interesting to watch had his true motivations not been known pretty much from the get-go. If anything, this is a movie which requires a little more cloak to accompany its adequate level of dagger.
Having said this, it should be made clear that the film does enjoy its deceptive moments – it contains its fair share of red herrings and blind alleys, especially once the action switches from London to Berlin.
And, as a story about a man who is on the run, it’s quite effective thanks to Mann’s pacing. Like any good chase movie A Dandy in Aspic never stands still long enough to let itself become bogged down.
But therein lies part of the problem – it is a better race-against-the-clock type of film than a spy one, a slightly mystifying development given its chilly Cold War setting.
The real built-in spoiler – a scene in which the Dandy’s true identity is first revealed – occurs during the movie’s first third when the London-based double agent meets Pavel along the banks of the Thames within eyeshot of Tower Bridge. Accurately suggesting there might be some trouble ahead, he tells his Soviet counterpart that his work situation is “snowballing in size, and if it gets any bigger I don’t think I can cope with it”.
When his request to leave the UK is subsequently denied by the KGB – and he is then given the mission to kill his alter ego by the British (who believe Pavel is Krasnevin) – Eberlin starts to panic, his uneasiness exacerbated when his handler is kidnapped by some unidentified agents.
Thus, with nowhere to turn, the Dandy is forced to join the particularly tart Paul Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) on the Continent to eliminate the target and, in the process, find a way to escape this mess.
Along the way there are some Cold War cat and mouse shenanigans – especially when the pair becomes involved with the Soviet operative Sobakevich (Lionel Stander), who is fully aware of Eberlin’s true identity, but seems happy enough to go along with Gatiss’ game of deceit. The hapless double agent also has a brief romantic liaison with Caroline (Mia Farrow), a London photographer who may or may not be following him around. Additionally, he remains wary of the junior British spy Prentiss (Peter Cook), whose cheery preoccupation with sex makes him appear harmless.
Aside from these intrigues, though, A Dandy in Aspic seems, for most of its 107 minute running time, to emanate a feeling of inevitability – so much so that its final twist is not so much a revelation, but more like to a foregone conclusion.
Had Mann and Marlowe not revealed Krasnevin’s true identity until the end (or at least closer to it), it’s arguable this dramatic slip may have been avoided.
This is all something of a pity given A Dandy in Aspic looks and acts like a proper spy picture.
By using predominantly desaturated colours, Mann and his cinematographer Christopher Challis make good use of their sometimes bleak English locations, while Berlin is suitably portrayed as a city divided, with one particular elevated long shot of Bernauer Strasse about three quarters of the way through the movie depicting the wall and its east and west environs in all of their ideological glory.
Mann – who died before the principle photography was wrapped (leaving his leading man with the responsibility of completing the shooting schedule) – also elicits a few useful performances from his actors. As mentioned above, Harvey is fine as the paranoid double agent, while Oscarsson is close to perfect as his despairing drug addicted Soviet handler who seems to have given up on the prospect of ever going home.
Also good is Harry Andrews as Fraser, the deceitful British intelligence head whose no-nonsense management style includes berating his subordinates while briefing Eberlin on his approaching mission. Even the usually likable Courtenay comes across as completely cold and intimidating – something his role demands.
While movies about men unwittingly searching for themselves may have become a little old hat in recent times, they still have their place if done well (think Alan Parker’s 1987 Angel Heart or Martin Scorsese Shutter Island  here).
Furthermore, they tend to be watched more than once as audiences go back and look for the clues which alluded them the first time around.
If anything, films of this ilk enjoy a little more longevity than many others in their particular genres.
Had A Dandy in Aspic fully exploited this trope and not given its game away so soon, it may have been held in the same esteem as more reflective Cold War works from the same era like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair (1967).
Instead, this handsome production remains in the second tier of spy movies.
Words by Mark Fraser
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A Dandy In Aspic was released on Blu-ray in the UK on March 25, 2019 by Powerhouse Films.