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The Assassination Bureau Limited (1968)

This black comedy from the 1960s stars Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg, the latter in her first film starring role. Rigg plays Sonya Winter, an aspiring journalist in Edwardian England, who has uncovered the existence of a secret criminal organisation, The Assassination Bureau. 

This, in fact, is Sonya's first story and she approaches the newspaper of Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) with a proposal to infiltrate this organisation. Bostwick is intrigued by the idea and can see the possibility of an excellent story. He has great faith in her and is willing to put his newspaper's considerable resources behind her.

So Sonya makes contact with the Assassination Bureau and contracts them to carry out a murder. When she meets the head of the Bureau, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed), a young Englishman of Russian extraction, he explains that they only carry out assassinations of those who are truly deserving. What are the sins of her intended victim?

Well, she explains, he is guilty of pride, avarice and murder. Dragomiloff agrees that he sounds a most suitable subject and promises to take on her commission. What is the man's name? She answers, of course, that the target is Ivan Dragomiloff, the head of the Assassination Bureau.

Diana Rigg opening a book with smoke coming out in The Assassination Bureau
Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) in Dragomiloff's office at the Assassination Bureau

Having already accepted the assignment, Dragomiloff, being a man of honour, feels bound to carry out her instructions. More than that, he comes to realise that his organisation has lost its way and abandoned the intentions of its founders. What's needed is renewal. So he arranges a meeting with the board of the Bureau in which he explains that they will have to assassinate him, as per their client's instructions, or he will assassinate them.

The Assassination Bureau Limited, also released with the shorter title The Assassination Bureau, is an amusing period comedy, made by the director-producer team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph. The two had made a variety of films together, including The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), Sapphire (1959), The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Victim (1961). 

Michael Relph, in fact, seems to be the auteur behind The Assassination Bureau, as he wrote the script (with Wolf Mankowitz), produced the film and, unusually, also designed the elaborate sets. Relph had begun his career in the art department at Ealing Studios, so this was not a complete departure for him, although it is an unusual combination of roles. The storyline was suggested by the book of the same name, an unfinished Jack London novel later completed by Robert Fish.

There are some similarities, though, with Basil Dearden's other film from 1968, Only When I Larf, another crime comedy pitting the younger generation against the establishment. This is not an unusual theme in films of the late 1960s, but there are also a few stylistic similarities between the two films - both open with a prologue composed of old black & white movie footage shown in a 4:3 frame - as well as a few shared personnel behind the scenes.

Curt Jürgens preparing the bratwurst bomb in The Assassination Bureau
General von Pinck (Curt Jürgens) preparing the bratwurst bomb

Like Only When I Larf, The Assassination Bureau dramatises a clash between young and old. In the former film it was between younger and more established generations of conmen, but The Assassination Bureau is even more morally grey - if not confused - as its hero, Ivan Dragomiloff, is the head of a murder organisation who somehow has managed to cling to some moral principles.

He insists that they should only carry out assassinations of those who are deserving, something that puts him into conflict with the rest of the board of the Bureau, who are only interested in profits. This is a familiar theme in other late 1960s films that often presented the established, older generation as altogether too comfortable and corrupted by wealth.

The story's main villain - and given his unlikely casting in what appears to be a small role early on as Rigg's sponsor, this is not much of a spoiler - is Telly Savalas as Lord Bostwick. He is bankrolling Rigg's efforts as a means to put Dragomiloff out of the way and take over as Chairman of the Bureau himself. 

Between them, the board members intend to start a European war that will benefit them as capitalists and investors. This cynical view is in tune with the ethos of the 1960s, and with the general sense that The First World War had come to be seen as a grand folly, benefiting only arms manufacturers and industrialists. 

The Assassination Bureau's board are made up of a multinational group representing most of the leading European powers - German, French, British, Italian and Russian - together with, significantly enough, a Swiss banker. The film also tilts at the culpability of the press in agitating for war, as when Savalas's Lord Bostwick is shown encouraging his editor to stir up trouble between European countries and turn an assassination into a general European crisis. 

Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed in period dress sitting in a carriage
Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) and Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) in Switzerland

The film's riffing on pre-World War I European history has confused some viewers into thinking that one scene is a re-writing of the actual assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo. The character assassinated in the film is, in fact, the Archduke Ferdinand of Ruthenia - although any similarity to the other Archduke is obviously intentional. 

Although some political content is present, the dominant mode of The Assassination Bureau is as a high spirited comedy in well-appointed period settings, and as such it generally works. There's some probable inspiration from the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets from 1949 - Basil Dearden and Michael Relph did, after all, originally work at Ealing and Relph was a producer on that film. Like Kind Hearts, this too is a black comedy of bombs and bloodless murders, carried out by well mannered characters in genteel settings. 

Elaborately designed period comedies, like 1965's Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Great Race were also an occasional 1960s indulgence, although their expense killed off the genre. Even more popular was the black comedy, with How to Murder Your Wife (1964), A Jolly Bad Fellow (1964) and The Wrong Box (1966) - another period comedy - among many that appeared in this decade. 

Oliver Reed is untypically urbane as Dragomiloff, the head of an unusual family business. The burly, and famously boozy, Reed had come up through the ranks as a Hammer horror player, his first lead role being in the company's The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961. By the mid-1960s he was getting leading roles in The Trap (1966) and in fashionable comedies including The Jokers and I'll Never Forget What's'isname, both in 1967. Two of his most important roles, in the musical Oliver! in 1968 and in Ken Russell's version of Women in Love (1969) would also come at this time.

Oliver Reed German pre-WWI military uniform with gun in The Assassination Bureau
The name's Dragomiloff, Ivan Dragomiloff. Oliver Reed in the airship finale

Not unusually for the era, Dragomiloff suggests that self-interest as much as heroism is behind his desire to stop war from breaking out, explaining to Sonya:

"How can we charge our sort of prices with everybody happily killing each other for a shilling a day?"

The main characters have a complex relationship, since Dragomiloff's own colleagues and organisation are trying to kill him at his instigation. Rigg's Sonya, meanwhile, falls in love with a man she is trying to have murdered.

Diana Rigg attracted a fair amount of interest from critics at the time in what was her first major film role, fresh from her star-making turn as Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers. In The Assassination Bureau Rigg has to play one of those mostly humourless, early womens' suffrage types who sometimes turned up in 1960s comedies. But she is sympathetic as the unworldly but enthusiastic would-be reporter. 

In the Paris scene, when she discovers that she has come to what she calls "a place of assignation" (i.e. a brothel) and not a hotel as she originally thought, she exclaims to the concierge "How very interesting. I must make some notes!"

The lengthy brothel scene is played for laughs. Rigg is mistaken for a new recruit and sent to meet an ageing and difficult-to-please count. Who is actually Oliver Reed's Dragomiloff in heavy disguise. He has arrived with the intention of bumping off the establishment's owner, his fellow board member Lucoville (Phillipe Noiret). 

Oliver Reed wearing a mask and carrying an unconscious Diana Rigg in The Assassination Bureau
Dragomiloff rescuing Sonya from a gas-filled room

Relaxations in censorship meant that brothels - especially in westerns and period films - were another element more commonly seen in films of the late 1960s and '70s. This scene also features Beryl Reid as the madam, while the concierge is played by Eugene Deckers, one of British cinema's most reliable Frenchmen, in his final film. A young Peter Bowles also appears in an early film role as an eager customer with absurdly flowery romantic illusions about his new partner.

The film's most unexpected casting is Telly Savalas as Lord Bostwick. Playing an English Lord is quite a dramatic change of scene for Savalas, but he handles the part surprisingly well. He scarcely bothers with an English accent, instead just attempting to sound a little more well-spoken and a bit less New York.

Lord Bostwick is a wealthy newspaper proprietor and pillar of the establishment, although the picture of Napoleon Bonaparte on his wall suggests that he may have unhealthy ambitions and role models. With his character's air of light menace, mixed with a faux politeness and a dark sense of humour, Savalas suggests that he could have made an excellent Bond villain. So it's not entirely surprising that he was chosen to play Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969, opposite Diana Rigg and George Lazenby, the latter in his sole outing as Bond. While Savalas made a perfectly good Blofeld, that film used him as more of a stock villain, without making use of his sense of humour, as a Bond film of the 1970s probably would have done.   

The casting of an American actor as an English Milord does obscure one of the film's themes a little - the role of European elites, including newspaper proprietors and financiers, in bringing about the First World War. But the film was never intended to be a serious satire or commentary on pre-WWI Europe, so this is not a significant problem. 

Diana Rigg wearing a hat and brown dress in The Assassination Bureau
Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) in a quieter moment 

The other members of the board include Phillipe Noiret as a French politician and Paris bordello proprietor, Warren Mitchell as a Swiss banker, Clive Revill as an Italian with a much younger and homicidal wife (Annabella Incontrera) and Curt Jürgens as German Army General von Pinck. The main board members are all based on well-established national stereotypes played for laughs - militaristic German, randy Frenchman, gloomy Russian and mercenary Swiss banker. 

The normally serious Curt Jürgens shows more aptitude for comedy than his other film appearances would suggest. He cuts a particularly absurd figure in the scene where he approaches Reed and Rigg with a bomb while crudely disguised as a waiter, with a lopsided wig and false moustache gone askew.

Vernon Dobtcheff appears as a comically miserable and lugubrious Russian. Dobtcheff is one of those ubiquitous actors you have probably seen in something without knowing, as he was one of British cinema's reliable "foreigners", appearing in, among others, Mary Queen of Scots (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  

The Assassination Bureau also has a surprisingly extensive list of uncredited cast members, including Eugene Deckers, Peter Bowles, Fred Emney, Roger Delgado, Frank Thornton and Jeremy Lloyd. 

The film's script, by Michael Relph and Wolf Mankowitz, contains not only physical high jinx, but plenty of sly, stray jokes. When Noiret leaves his wife, supposedly for a political meeting but actually for his bordello, she tells him earnestly: 

"The women of France will never forget what you are doing for them". At which point the camera cuts to a copy of La Vie Parisienne on the table, with a cover drawing showing a well dressed man canoodling with a half naked woman.

When Savalas is late for the board meeting he apologises, explaining, in a topical joke that hasn't dated:

"A fallen horse in Piccadilly caused a terrible congestion. How the traffic will flow when it is all motorised."

US poster for the film The Assassination Bureau
An original US poster for The Assassination Bureau

The film has good production values, the detailed period settings being an important part of its appeal and great care was obviously taken here. The back projection used - in a rail carriage, a coach and in the view from a hotel room - is no better than most films of its time, but the film's technicalities are mostly good. 

The finale takes place on an airship intending to drop a giant bomb on a meeting of European heads of state. Despite the back projection, the model of the airship itself is quite good, as is the airship interior set. 

There is some dubbing of minor and supporting characters, but that was not uncommon in this era. These include Annabella Incontrera (who was apparently dubbed by Olive Gregg) as the beautiful wife of Clive Revill's character, and Jess Conrad as her younger, more handsome lover. Several minor characters sound like Robert Rietty, a familiar voice over artist in British films of this time. 

It's the sixties, so there's also briefly a cheesy song along the way, "Life is a Precious Thing" performed by the Mike Sammes Singers. Although the film undercuts the sentiment by ironically setting it to scenes of the female characters dressing up for a funeral, in a cynical moment equally typical of the end of this decade.

The Assassination Bureau was Basil Dearden's penultimate film before his untimely death in a car crash - his last was the 1970 thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself. Dearden is still an underrated figure in British cinema, a director who turned his hand to a variety of subjects, generally with success. 

This film, though, does feel more like Michael Relph's project, given that he wrote it, produced it and designed the sets. The Assassination Bureau is a very well-appointed, generally polished black comedy. Although much broader than its illustrious predecessor, Kind Hearts and Coronets, it's an amusing romp that makes the most of its elegant period settings. 


The Assassination Bureau Limited

Year: 1968
Genre: Crime comedy
Country: UK
Director: Basil Dearden

Cast Oliver Reed (Ivan Dragomiloff), Diana Rigg (Sonya Winter), Telly Savalas (Lord Bostwick), Curt Jürgens (General von Pinck), Philippe Noiret (Lucoville), Warren Mitchell (Herr Weiss), Beryl Reid (Madame Otero), Clive Revill (Cesare Spado), Vernon Dobtcheff (Baron Muntzof), Annabella Incontrera (Eleanora Spado), Kenneth Griffith (Monsieur Popescu), Jess Conrad (Angelo), George Coulouris (Swiss peasant), Katherine Kath (Mme. Lucoville), Olaf Pooley (Swiss cashier)

Uncredited: Fred Emney (1st victim), Frank Thornton (Philanderer, 2nd victim), Milton Reid (Leonardi, 3rd victim), Ralph Michael (Editor), Anthony Dawes (Assistant editor), Kevin Stoney (Blind beggar), Maurice Hedley (Military man at Lowe's), Arthur Hewlett (Counterman at Lowe's), Peter Graves (Dragomiloff's butler), Roger Delgado, Maurice Browning, Clive Gazes, Gerik Schjelderup, Bill Cummings, Ray Ford, Steve Emerson, Stephen Hubay, Terry Maidment and John Hallam (Bureau members), Eugene Deckers (La Belle Amie desk clerk), William Kendall (M Marivaux at La Belle Amie), Peter Bowles (Jealous lover at La Belle Amie), John Abineri (Police inspector), Dermot Tuohy (Archduke Ferdinand), Felix Felton (Beer cellar proprietor), Michael Gover (Venice hotel manager), Michael Mellinger (Venice police sergeant), Raymond Young (Police officer with Sonya), Robert Rietti (Police officer with Eleanora), Malcolm Johns (Piero), Roy De Gay (Tsar), John Adams (French President), Gordon Sterne (Corporal), Michael Wolf (Zeppelin officer), Hubert Hill (Kaiser), George Murcell (Zeppelin petty officer), Oliver Tomlin (Edward VII), Jeremy Lloyd (English officer), Olive Gregg (Voice of Eleanora Spado), John G. Heller and Victor Beaumont (Von Pinck's aides), Desmond Walter-Ellis and Colin Vancao (Equerries), Elizabeth Knight, Pauline Barker and Georgina Moon (Nursemaids), Dominique Don, Katharine Holden, Sheree Winton, Dianne Greaves, Mona Chong, Carmen Dene, Sally Douglas, Karen Young, Sue Vaughan, Alicia Deane, Jane Bates, Nita Lorraine and Angela Grant (La Belle Amie girls), Sydney Arnold, Neal Arden, Colin Vancao and John Crocker (La Belle Amie clients), Jim Delaney, Don Rosy, Chris Webb and Joe Santos (Undertakers)

Screenplay Michael Relph, additional dialogue Wolf Mankowitz, based on an idea from the novel The Assassination Bureau Limited by Jack London and Robert Fish  Producer Michael Relph  Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth  Production designer Michael Relph  Editor Teddy Darvas  Music Ron Grainer  Costume designer Beatrice Dawson  Art directors Frank White, Roy Smith  Special effects Les Bowie, Thomas Clark  Titles Robert Ellis

Running time 110 mins  Colour Technicolor

Production company Heathfield  Distributor Paramount Pictures

Comments

  1. I somehow have missed this movie, but I'll try to find it now. I like these kinds of 60s period pieces. I've watched The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men so many times I know them by heart.

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    Replies
    1. There was probably over-production of elaborate period epics, comedies and musicals at the end of the '60s and some of those with less clearly defined audience appeal (like this) got a little overlooked. It's worth seeking out if you like this kind of thing. The Wrong Box is even better.

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    2. Don't know The Wrong Box either. Will track them both down.

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  2. Despite a great cast, I didn't care for it. There were some good moments here and there, but I didn't think it was funny enough.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not really lough-out-loud funny, it's true. It's more of a moderately amusing adventure comedy.


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