Irvin Kershner’s S*P*Y*S (1974)

In 1970 Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould made movie history with their portrayals of Hawkeye and Trapper John, two young wisecracking surgeons working at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. The success of M*A*S*H (1970) catapulted Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould into superstardom and audiences wanted to see them appear in more films together.

In 1974 the actors got an opportunity to team-up again in Irvin Kershner’s unusual comedy S*P*Y*S, which was released on DVD for the first time last year. This uneven spy spoof was panned by critics when it was originally released and it’s not hard to see why the movie has received a lot of negative press over the year, but I still think S*P*Y*S has a few things to offer potential viewers who are looking for some laughs.

Much like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, Irvin Kershner’s film is undeniably a product of its time and the radical politics of the era play a large part in the movie’s portrayal of government figures and the shady world of international espionage. S*P*Y*S is nowhere near as smart or well-written as Altman’s critically acclaimed M*A*S*H, but not all of the jokes in S*P*Y*S fall flat and some of the action filled comedy sequences are well executed. The film was also shot on location in France, which lends the movie a nice atmosphere. If potential viewers expect S*P*Y*S to be another M*A*S*H, they’re bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you watch the film with no expectations you might just enjoy yourself. S*P*Y*S is a quirky unconventional spy spoof that has limited appeal, but a lot of ’70s style charm.

Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould have a natural chemistry together on screen and it’s fun to watch them bounce jokes off one another even when those jokes are missing their intended marks. In S*P*Y*S the two actors play CIA agents Griff (Elliott Gould) and Bruland (Donald Sutherland), who find themselves caught up in a cold war cat and mouse game with Russian agents. Gould and Sutherland were both iconic counterculture figures in the seventies and their shared easygoing humor is undeniably appealing here. Both actors work extremely well together and they’re able to inject some life into the film’s lackluster script.

Top: Elliot Gould & Donald Sutherland in S*P*Y*S (1974)
Bottom: Zouzou in S*P*Y*S (1974)

The movie also stars the beautiful French pop icon and yé-yé star Zouzou (aka Danièle Ciarlet) as a radical anarchist called Sybil. Her appearance in the film is unfortunately much too brief and she doesn’t get the opportunity to sing any songs, but Zouzou is terrific whenever she is on screen and it’s hard to keep your eyes off her. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, but the french actors Xavier Gélin and Pierre Oudrey are memorable as Sybil’s revolutionary minded companions.

This cold war comedy definitely owes a tip of the hat to Kershner’s previous film Up the Sandbox (1972), which starred Elliot Gould’s ex-wife Barbara Streisand. Both films took jabs at the government fueled fears of average Americans toward radical political groups at the time and used comedy as a force to explore pertinent social concerns. Up the Sandbox is a better and more fully realized film than S*P*Y*S, but both movies would make an interesting double feature thanks to their subject matter and stars.

Director Irvin Kershner has had a decidedly mixed carer behind the camera with a few worthwhile hits and many misses. After making S*P*Y*S he directed some critically acclaimed films such as the fascinating Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and the popular Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Ironically Kershner would also go on to make the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983) which marked his only return to the spy genre.

The 20th Century Fox DVD release of S*P*Y*S comes with some nice extras, including an interesting 20 minute featurette called Inside S*P*Y*S, which contains interviews with the director Irvin Kershner and the film’s star Elliott Gould. Both men express their disappointment with the movie, but the “making of” stories they share with viewers are really interesting and informative. The disc also contains a government documentary directed by Irvin Kershner called The Road of a Hundred Days and an original trailer for the film.

New and used copies of S*P*Y*S are currently selling at Amazon and the movie should be available for rent from Netflix and Greencine.

A edited version of this review originally appeared in Cinedelica 04.26.2007

12 thoughts on “Irvin Kershner’s S*P*Y*S (1974)

  1. I remember being disappointed at this film after M*A*S*H, but not much else. It one was definitely marketed to the same folks as liked Altman’s film. I was doubtless one of those looking for another M*A*S*H going in. Maybe if I watched it with some distance, I’d enjoy it this time around. Yet another addition to the old Netflix queue.

  2. If you enjoy Gould and Sutherland I recommend giving it another look. If not, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a hard film to recommend to anyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it developed a cult following due to the cast.

  3. I saw Spys at the time of its original release. Now, if only Fox can be convinced that what we really want to see is a DVD release of The Flim-Flam Man. I finally got around to reseeing The Hoodlum Priest last year.

  4. I was stoked to see this one after a long, rambling interview with Sutherland and Gould on THE PHIL DONAHUE SHOW. They appeared at the same time hip and yet totally out of it. I recall Donahue constantly playing up their unconventionality (particularly Sutherland)and the whole hour making them seem like some kind of magical anarchists of comedy and movies. Then I saw the movie. Can’t recall one single thing about it. Even your review jogs no memories (and I have a spooky memory!)I’d rather see the DONAHUE episode again, frankly.

  5. I also saw S*P*Y*S* when it came out — too lazy to look up dates, I think it was around the same time as 99 44/100% Dead and Chu-Chu and the Philly Flash — and remember not enjoying it at all. In fact, I’d forgotten that ZouZou was in it until reading your post! She cut such an imposing figure in Chloe in the Afternoon.

  6. As I mentioned in my post, the film has a lot of problems. I think any positive response I had to the film is hampered by a few factors. I was just plain excited to watch Zouzou in another film (love her!). And Elliot Gould was one of my dad’s favorite actors so I associate him with my deceased father and sentimentality gets in the way and clouds my judgment a little. If you’re a Gould fan, you’d be much better off watching him in Robert Altamn’s comedy California Split (1974) that was made the same year or better yet, watch M*A*S*H again. Lets be honest here; when it comes comedy we all know Kershner is no Altman.

    Last but not least, compared to countless other comedies I’ve managed to sit through, S*P*Y*S* is nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be after all the negative reviews I had read and random comments, which aren’t worth much. I’d watch this again over Spielberg’s 1941 for example or any of Adam Sandler’s comedies, which somehow manage to have a fan base, get good reviews and make money.

    Curious viewers who like Gould & Sutherland’s ’70s films and silly spy spoofs in general should consider giving this a look. Everyone else should opt for watching an Altman comedy.

    On a side note – I wish someone would upload that Donahue episode to youtube, Steve!

  7. I’ve got this one on my Netflix queue already–so I’m going to have to come back to this piece after I’ve seen it. I know it doesn’t have the greatest rep, but I’m looking forward to it. I seem to be seeing a lot of Gould lately, maybe since I saw him speak after a screening of THE TOUCH last month. Right now I’ve got a disc of LITTLE MURDERS courtest of Netflix waiting for me.

  8. I also saw this when it came out, but I remember more about the circumstances than the actual film. I was ten years old, and my family was spending the summer in Shelter Island. When my older brother (who was a big fan of M*A*S*H) saw that this was playing in Greenport, we took the ferry over and saw it. I think we may have been the only people in the theater. Afterwards, he bought the movie tie-in book (I think I may still have it). To this day, the only thing I remember was that the film opens with a tape drop at a public toilet in Paris (a “pissoir” in the book) which gets blown up. The ten year old me thought that was extremely funny.

  9. Other than M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye it seems like every movie Elliot Gould made in the ’70s had its negative burnt. Why none of Gould’s choices have aged well – up to this point – is probably worth its own critial analysis. Until then, I enjoy these visits to the vault, Kimberly. I would much, much rather read about S*P*Y*S than the Golden Globe nominations!

  10. I never thought much of S*P*Y*S, it was pretty lame, like a married stars’ vanity project or something along those perilous lines. I really liked Gould’s turn in “Busting”, however, a nifty ’74 cop buddy film with some funny, and hard, edges. “Busting” had that anti-authoritarian vibe that “M*A*S*H” had, and some nifty location shooting. No happy, funny ending either, but Gould and his co-star Robert Blake had good chemistry. The other great Gould / Sutherland pairing, altho somewhat tangentially, is the wonderful black, black, black comedy from ’71, “Little Murders”.

  11. Mr. Peel – I’d be curious to see what you thought of the film after you watch it. I’m still sort of baffled by all the negative reactions to it, but I suspect that if a lot of people watched it again after 30+ years and compared it to popular modern comedies playing at the local multiplex, they might be surprised by it today.

    Fred – Toilet humor seems extremely popular with modern audiences (adults as well as kids) so maybe there’s hope for a revival?

    Joe – I think critics might have created a backlash against Gould’s popularity in the ’70s that’s stuck and needs to be reconsidered, but I might be in the minority.

    Vanwell – Even though Pitt & Jolie were only celebrating their very public affair instead of their marriage, maybe S*P*Y*S is the Mr. & Mrs. Smith of it’s era? Oh wait… the Mr. & Mrs. Smith remake (was it a remake?) actually got good reviews so I guess that won’t do. I’ll never understand critics. I’ve never seen Busting but you’ve made me curious about it.

    Will – I hope you get some enjoyment from S*P*Y*S when you see it. It’s no California Split or The Long Goodbye of course, but I also don’t think it’s the unwatchable mess that so many others seem to think it is.

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