Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Liquidator (1965)

The Liquidator is yet another 1960s spy spoof movie, this one being a British production. The problem with spy spoofs was to get the tone right. The Matt Helm and Derek Flint movies were straight-out spoofs which worked pretty well. Another equally valid option was to take the slightly tongue-in-cheek flavour of the Bond movies and push things just a little further.

The Liquidator shows what happens when the tone isn’t quite right. It’s not sure if it wants to aim for slapstick or sophisticated banter and at times it seems to be tempted to take a more serious line. The Bond movies managed to combine the tongue-in-cheek approach with decent spy movie plots and plenty of spectacular action. The Liquidator just doesn’t have enough action to succeed on that level. It’s still fairly entertaining although it has to be counted as more of a near miss than an actual hit.

The basic premise really would have lent itself very well to a black comedy approach but this avenue is never really explored.

During the war Sergeant Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) had saved the life of British intelligence agent Major Mostyn (Trevor Howard). Flash forward twenty years and Major Mostyn is now Colonel Mostyn, a senior officer in the Security Organisation. Colonel Mostyn and his boss (played by Wilfred Hyde-White) have a problem. There have been so many security leaks and so many spy scandals that their jobs are on the line. They have a rough idea who the potential security risks are but they can’t do anything until they have actual evidence and by that time it’s too late - there’s yet another spy scandal for the press to make a fuss about. That’s the trouble with being the good guys - you have to worry about annoying details like evidence and the legal rights of suspects. It would be so much easier just to have all the potential security risks killed quietly and without fuss. In fact the more the Chief and Colonel Mostyn think about it the better that idea sounds. Why not employ someone to do just that? Unofficially of course.

Mostyn now remembers that young tank sergeant who saved his life during the war. He does a bit of digging into the past of Boysie Oakes and he likes what he discovers. Quite a few of Boysie’s more irritating and inconvenient acquaintances seem to have met with fatal accidents. Colonel Mostyn draws the obvious conclusion - that Oakes is a cold-blooded and efficient murderer and is therefore just the man he’s looking for. He recruits Oakes as an ultra top secret assassin.

There’s only one problem. Boysie is not a cold-blooded killer. He’s a good-natured but rather clumsy fellow, so clumsy that he may well have been responsible for a few accidents, but Boysie is incapable of hurting a fly intentionally. Boysie doesn’t point out Mostyn’s error because he has no idea what he has actually been recruited to do until it’s too late.

Boysie is now a secret agent. He’s been set up in a luxury London flat, provided with a sleek sports car, he’s getting paid lots of money and it seems like a job that involves very little actual work. This should provide plenty of free time for Boysie to do the only thing he’s really good at - chasing women. It all seems like splendid fun. Until he discovers that his job is to kill people. That’s one thing Boysie just cannot do. It’s an awkward situation but Boysie discovers a solution - he pays a professional hitman to do the killing for him.

Of course we know that eventually Boysie will find himself having to play secret agent for real. And we know that he’s likely to get himself in a good deal of trouble.

Rod Taylor is reasonably well cast. He has the slightly bumbling amiability that the role demands. Trevor Howard is as reliable as ever. Jill St John is fine as Mostyn’s secretary (and the object of Boysie’s lust). Eric Sykes was one of the great English comedians but he was also quite capable in straight dramatic roles and he does very well as hitman Griffen. He’s the most interesting character in the film and should have been given a lot more screen time. What stands out about the supporting cast is that it’s composed overwhelmingly of great character actors who were particularly good at comedy - actors like John le Mesurier, Derek Nimmo, Eric Sykes and David Tomlinson. And yet they’re given remarkably few opportunities to display those gifts.

Peter Yeldham’s screenplay certainly seems to be the weak link here. 

The movie was directed by Jack Cardiff, a superlative cinematographer who directed a handful of features including Dark of the Sun (in which Rod Taylor gives his career-best performance). Cardiff’s movies always look good and this is no exception. One can’t help feeling though that maybe Cardiff wasn’t the right choice for a spy spoof.

Aviation geeks will be excited by the prominent part played by a very cool Vickers Valiant bomber.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a generally good anamorphic transfer.

The Liquidator is harmless and reasonably enjoyable but with less sexual innuendo and more black comedy it could have been considerably better. Worth a look for hardcore spy spoof fans and spy movie completists.

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