Sunday, 3 February 2013

Cold war comedy… Catch Me a Spy (1971)


Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are amongst the major figures in UK TV comedy, responsible for The Likely Lads, PorridgeAuf Wiedersen Pet and many others. They bought dramatic sensibilities to sit-coms and created richly worked – edgy - characters. It’s a magical mix and one that most comedy fails to achieve.

In their early careers they also tried their hand at a number of films including Villain, Hannibal Brooks and the wonderful Otley with Tom Courtney, Leonard Rossiter and the ethereal Romy Schneider.

Marlene Jobert
These films began to mix  international stars along with the usual array of home-grown stalwarts. On Villain they got to work with Richard Burton and in Catch Me a Spy they had rising French star Marlene Jobert and Kirk Douglas, well into his 50s but still a leading man: Hollywood royalty.

Catch Me a Spy falls into the genre of spy-spoof and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It hasn’t got the wit and balance of Otely, the plot is predictable and meandering but is enjoyably daft throughout with some good moments from a talented cast – Kirk Douglas is funny and scary at the same time: who else can do that?

Funny and scary?
The film kicks off with a school football match improbably refereed by teacher Fabienne (Jobert) in hot pants, thigh boots and bright red stockings… a challenge for the contrast control on this aged print but very impressive none-the-less. A man watches amused at the side-lines – James Fenton (70s mainstay romantic rogue Patrick Mower… a cut-priced Kirk) who ends up helping out with the match, romancing the teacher and then marrying her in quick order.

The French always had more soccer style...
This we see rapidly was a ploy… Fenton is working for the Russians and, knowing that Fabienne is the niece of high-ranking British spy Sir Trevor Dawson (Trevor Howard), he inveigles his way into her affections with the aim of becoming a fake hostage to be exchanged with captured Eastern block spies.

He is duly “arrested” on the couple’s honeymoon in Romania forcing Fabienne to call in favours from her Uncle and his band of hapless Brit-spies. In Bucharest she encounters a suspicious individual, Andrej (Kirk Douglas) who allegiance is unclear… and who places something in Fabienne’s case under the guise of room service.

What do you mean: "cut-price Kirk"?
Returning to the UK Fabienne is frustrated with the listless attitude of her uncles’ colleagues who seem more interested in playing billiards than playing spies.

An attempted exchange of a rather well fed Russian agent goes awry when, weighed down by his decadent western bounty, he cracks through the ice during the border exchange… Fenton has to return to his well-heeled captivity whilst the Brits are at a loss: they don’t have anyone important enough to exchange.

Tom Courtney in a hat, in a pub
Fabienne decides to catch herself a spy to exchange but only succeeds in entrapping Baxter Clarke (the great Tom Courtney) – a backroom boy assigned to follow her by Sir Trevor’s colleagues and who is innocently entranced with Fabienne.

Isabel Dean, Trevor Howard and Wilfrid Brambell
Undeterred Fabienne arranges a party at her uncle’s house to try and catch her spy. It’s a fab party with dinner served by their inebriated butler (Wilfrid Brambell) and guests including the late Angharad Rees in a middle-less dress that has to be seen to be believed whilst Fabienne’s see-through blue number is equally eye-popping… the early 70s eh?

It's called style dear...
Fabienne spots Andrej who has tried to retrieve the item he placed in her luggage. But it’s not there. He thinks she has it and she thinks he’ll make a good exchange for her husband… But Fabienne’s attempts to snare him only ending up with their both being captured by Russian agents.

They awake, hand-cuffed together in the back of a van heading through Scotland (shades of The 39 Steps…).  But they manage to dive free of the van and run off through a herd of cows and across the glens where they take refuge in a hotel on the banks of Loch Awe.

Kirk checks the temperature
Here the “com” becomes a bit more “rom” as Fabienne starts to trust this man who she had hoped to hand over in exchange for her traitorous hubbie…

Needless to say there’s a few twists and turns before the rather contrived ending but it’s light-hearted fun overall.

I watched this film along time ago in the family sitting room and it’s nostalgic on many levels. Structurally it’s not much different from many comedic takes on the spy genre and the only certainty is that there’s no certainty: betrayal is a matter of course.

Drinking in his every word...
Jobert is an excellent and largely under-rated actress outside of France. She made films with Godard, Chabrol and Pialat and enjoyed a highly successful career before becoming a writer (as well as the mother of Eva Green).  I think she plays well with Kirk Douglas and it’s no stretch to imagine a middle age member of the Douglas clan as attractive to younger women is it? Incidentally, Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in… Russia.

The rest of the cast do their bit with Trevor Howard and Tom Courtney the stand outs amongst a host of top-notch character actors.

That is a hat
Catch Me a Spy is available with a so-so transfer on cheapo DVD and there’s a newer edition from Osiris Entertainment which may or may not have a crisper image.

Dusty verdict: Ignore the lower-ranking Amazon reviews, this is a bit of fun and well worth keeping the VHS (or renting from Netflix) for unchallenging entertainment and some totally gratuitous, swinging 70s dresses.

Angharad Rees defends her dress sense...
Fabienne looks out for spies...
Kirk presses the button
Baxter follows Fabienne at the RAH
What are the 39 Steps?

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