Saturday, March 12, 2016

WHERE THE SPIES ARE (1966)


This lighthearted, yet underwhelming film was to initiate a Dr. Love spy series. Released fifty years ago this month, the decision not to pursue a sequel had to be fairly obvious. A baggy-eyed David Niven plays said doctor, a reluctant recruit to carry out a Cold War medical mission. A charming, debonair man, Niven was not particularly handsome at fifty-six unless he is wearing a jolly good smile or saying about anything with his British accent. How he is roped into the spy game is good fun and the movie grabs your attention in the first five or so minutes. Usually a good sign for any movie. Usually. Noel Harrison fans unite!

The action goes from interesting to dangerous in very quick order. This is a better spy yarn than comedy as the amusement is subtle. Picturesque location shoots add to the worldwide flavor established in the popular James Bond series. Niven’s instant romance with a double agent, Francoise Dorleac, is hard to fathom. She is young enough to be his niece. Having her fall so quickly for the old codger is at least remarkable. Just as remarkable are the spy gadgets Niven instinctively uses like a pro. Without any training other than medical.

The last thirty minutes live up to the spy genre as the good doctor is briefly tortured to gain his knowledge about his part in the mission in stereotypical Soviet fashion. Niven comes off competent and a bit daring. However, painfully laughable scenes hurt this otherwise decent ending. Obvious budget constraints took their toll. One is the landing of the Comet airliner in Canada, created from a scale model and set. Not unusual for this era but Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” series was more believable than this. And second, when Niven “jumps” from the taxiing plane, what jumps out and hits the ground appears to be a close up of dryer lint as if blown by a hair dryer. Whatever that is, it certainly is not humanoid. Truly hilarious.

Filmed in Metrocolor, the film looks faded and weak. I do not think this was intended to subliminally reflect on this movie, however. The most glaring faux pas is a mixed bag music score. It jumps from a jazzy, bongo and percussion coolness to sappy full orchestra elevator music which in no way is appropriate for the scene it is used to support. That scoring segment might have gone over better had Niven co-starred with Doris Day in another family film.

The poster speaks for itself. The film obviously plays off the recent 007 successes at the height of an international spy craze. If you like this early spy genre or you are a huge Niven fan you will enjoy this. Well, except for those creepy romance scenes with his “niece.” I would recommend seeing “Casino Royale” first, however. It might help.

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