British actor Dirk Bogarde never played James Bond but he did appear in a handful of interesting spy films made during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He may not have resembled the tough, no-nonsense brute that many associate with 007 but Bogarde’s devilish charm, quick wit, understated elegance and roguish good looks made him a good candidate for playing the British secret service agent or his evil nemesis. For my latest installment of Spy Games I thought I’d take a look at the various spy spoofs and espionage thrillers that Bogarde appeared in and discuss their questionable merits. While some might find Bogarde’s contributions to the spy genre unimpressive, I think the following films are indispensable fun and fascinating footnotes in the actor’s long and impressive career although Bogarde himself would probably disagree with me.
Most of the spy films Bogarde appeared in weren’t particularly successful at the box office and critics rarely gave them the time of day. In numerous letters and books that the actor published he openly admits that he often took these roles to pay the bills. There was little motivation to make these movies besides a paycheck but today they’re testaments to Bogarde’s incredible professionalism, renowned talent and passion for his craft, which is apparent in every one of these movies. No matter how flimsy the script was or how disengaged his fellow cast members became, Bogarde proves himself to be a consummate professional. He’s an actor’s actor if there ever was one.
HOT ENOUGH FOR JUNE aka AGENT 8 ¾ (1964)
Dirk Bogarde made his first spy film just a few short years following the release of the first James Bond film, DR. NO (1962). In HOT ENOUGH FOR JUNE he plays a struggling writer who unknowingly accepts a job with the government as Bond’s replacement following 007’s apparent demise. The film doesn’t verbally link Bond with Bogarde’s character but observant viewers will spot some telling visual clues that connect this spy spoof with its hugely successful predecessor. This lighthearted and somewhat understated film isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but it is loaded with charming quips and Bogarde’s talented supporting cast includes Robert Morley, Leo McKern and the lovely Sylva Koscina who help keep things interesting. But the star of HOT ENOUGH FOR JUNE is Bogarde and he’s exceptional as a reluctant spy who finds himself unwittingly trading government secrets. He effortlessly exchanges funny barbs with his superiors, romances the film’s femme fatale and easily outsmarts enemy agents that get in his way. The film was directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty E. Box who followed this up with other notable spy spoofs including DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967) and its sequel, SOME GIRLS DO (1969). They also previously worked with Bogarde on films such as DOCTOR AT LARGE (1957) and A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1958). The film provides Bogarde fans with an opportunity to imagine the actor in the role of James Bond and that’s worth the price of admission.
MODESTY BLAISE (1966)
A lot has been written about Joseph Losey’s MODESTY BLAISE, a tongue-and-cheek musical adaptation of Peter O’Donnell’s beloved comic strip featuring a beautiful female secret agent named Modesty (Monica Vitti) and her partner (Terence Stamp). Most critics dismiss the film and find it impossible to enjoy, which utterly baffles me. The film’s pop art inspired mise-en-scène and eye-catching visual cues deserve more respect, as does Losey’s attempt to deconstruct an increasingly uninspired genre that was already losing steam in 1966. One of the film’s greatest assets is Dirk Bogarde in his over-the-top turn as the effeminate villain of the film, a master criminal named Gabriel. Losey gave Bogard creative license with his character and the actor willing accepted the challenge. He bought himself a mod white wig that contrasted with is naturally dark good looks and it gave him an unusual appearance. Bogarde also created a background story for his character that involved him being “The black-sheep son of a dowager Scots countess who wrote detective stories, hunted stags and gave her boy psychoses about violence and power.” Whatever failings you may think the film has, it’s nearly impossible to forget Bogarde’s campy scene-stealing moments as the film’s devilish Gabriel.
SEBASTIAN might just be my favorite Bogarde spy spoof. This surprisingly smart and engaging film boasts a stand out supporting cast (Susannah York, John Gielgud, Lilli Palmer, Janet Munro and Nigel Davenport) along with an excellent score by composer Jerry Goldsmith that includes other noteworthy musical talents like Tristram Cary, Jimmy A. Hassell and Anita Harris. David Greene (THE SHUTTERED ROOM, I START COUNTING, GODSPELL, etc.) directed SEBASTIAN and it was produced by Michael Powell (THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS, PEEPING TOM, etc.) who had intended on making the film himself but ended up as one of the film’s producers instead. Bogarde stars as a brilliant mathematician working as a counter-intelligence agent. He cracks codes and deciphers messages sent by enemy agents with help from an army of beautiful women and the latest technology until his heart is captured by Rebecca Howard (Susannah York). The film was written by Powell’s frequent collaborator, Leo Marks, who was an actual cryptographer and wrote a memoir detailing his experiences during WW2 titled, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941-1945. Like Powell’s previous films, SEBASTIAN contains an element of magical realism and seems eager to dissolve into a romantic comedy at times. But I think the film’s loose structure works in its favor and presents viewers with a unique look at the technical aspects of international espionage.
THE SERPENT aka Night Flight from Moscow (1973)
Bogarde’s previous spy films were all spoofs that often relied on humor to engage an audience but THE SERPENT is a deadly serious affair that represents a tonal change in Hollywood’s approach to the increasingly murky world of espionage. The movie was written and directed by Henri Verneuil who’s probably best remembered for his French crime thrillers such as ANY NUMBER CAN WIN, THE SICILIAN CLAN, THE BURGLARS and I AS IN ICARUS. Verneuli had the ability to manifest genuine tension on screen and THE SERPENT is a great example of the director’s talent for making thoughtful and suspenseful thrillers. The film was based on an espionage novel Le 13e suicidé (aka The Thirteenth Who Committed Suicide) written by a retired French spy, Pierre Nord. Verneuil was probably also inspired by the work of John le Carré and the film adaptations of his novels such as THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965) and THE LOOKING GLASS WAR (1969) but his creative direction combined with Claude Renoir’s cinematography and Pierre Gillette’s editing make THE SERPENT a distinct viewing experience that fans of Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) should appreciate. This interesting docudrama is notably ahead of its time in the way that it incorporates video footage and audio to tell its story. It also features a moody and minimalist score by composer Ennio Morricone. With an exceptional cast that includes Henry Fonda, Yul Brynner, Farley Granger and Philippe Noiret, it’s easy to assume that Bogarde’s role as a conniving double agent named Philip Boyle (based on Kim Philby who was part of a notorious ring of real British spies known as the ‘Cambridge Five’) is overshadowed by these talents but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Bogarde not only holds his own in THE SERPENT but I think he delivers the best performance in this notable spy picture.
PERMISSION TO KILL aka The Executioner (1975)
This is my least favorite of Dirk Bogarde’s various espionage outings but it’s still worth noting. In the film Bogarde stars as the mysterious head of ‘Western Intelligence’ who goes by the name of Alan Curtis. His character aggressively gathers a team of political radicals and freedom fighters together (including Ava Gardner, Frederic Forrest, Nicole Calfan and onetime Bond, Timothy Dalton) so they’ll help him stop their friend, lover and leader (Bekim Fehmiu) from overthrowing a small-unnamed government. The convoluted plot isn’t helped by Cyril Frankel’s uneven direction or Freddie Young’s surprisingly bland cinematography but PERMISSION TO KILL does benefit from some good performances. The cast is memorable but as expected, it’s Bogarde who steals the show as the smart and cunning Curtis. The film is also successful at showing us a glimpse of the dark and dirty aspects of the spy game where agents are forced to hide in the shadows and can trust no one but themselves.
Some of these films are available on DVD and video but others might be trickier to track down. TCM occasionally airs them so check the schedule and sign-up for updates if you’re eager to see Dirk Bogarde play a reluctant international man of mystery.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for TCM’s Movie Morlocks