Thursday, 5 November 2015

Where the Spies Are (1966)

Where the Spies Are is a lighthearted British spy film that doesn’t seem quite sure just how seriously it wants to be taken. With David Niven as the star you’re likely to be expect this one to be a bit more of a spoof than it actually is.

A British spy named Rosser has disappeared in Beirut. Fearing the worst the chief of MI6, MacGillivray (John le Mesurier), knows he has to send out someone to find out what has happened to his vanished agent. The problem is that with budget cut-backs he simply doesn’t have a real agent available. He is going to have to send someone from the B List - non-professionals who have from time to time done small jobs for British intelligence agencies. Since there’s a malaria conference about to take place in Beirut a doctor would be ideal (he’d have a fairly convincing cover story) and there just happens to be a doctor on that B List. He’s Dr Jason Love (David Niven), a country GP with a passion for 1930s American Cord automobiles (he already owns a supercharged 1937 Cord 812). Dr Love had helped MacGillivray on a case way back in 1943 but these days he has no interest in playing spy games. 

There is only one thing that might tempt him - he has a burning desire to own a Cord LeBaron. And MacGillivray offers to find one for him, if he will just do this very simple task for MI6.

Dr Love manages to find his contact in Rome, a fashion model named Vikki (Françoise Dorléac), and Dr Love starts to think this espionage business might be quite fun after all. That is, until he realises someone is trying to kill him.

Rosser had obviously stumbled upon a sinister conspiracy and now Dr Jason Love is caught in the middle of it. Due to the budget cut-backs at MI6 alluded to earlier he has only one agent to assist him. Parkington (Nigel Davenport) is willing enough to help but he’s tired and in poor health and to tell the truth he’s not exactly what you might call a secret agent of the top grade. Dr Love does however have one other ally - Farouk (Eric Pohlmann), who happens to be a fellow member of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Car Club, in fact he’s the Lebanon’s only member of the club. Farouk is certainly willing to take a few risks to help a man who owns a 1937 Cord 812.

At 56 David Niven was perhaps a little too old for this type of movie but his charm and his inimitable sense of style carries him through without too much trouble. Françoise Dorléac makes a suitably glamorous lady spy. The very strong supporting cast of veteran British character actors helps a good deal.

There is a bit of a problem though with the romance angle, with the 24-year-old Françoise Dorléac being a somewhat incongruous romantic partner for the 56-year-old Niven.

Exotic locations were obligatory for 1960s spy movies and location shooting was done in Beirut (at that time considered to be one of the more cosmopolitan and glamorous parts of the Middle East). The budget didn’t run to the sorts of spectacular stunts that you get in a Bond movie so it has to rely more on wit and charm.

The problem is that this is not quite a full-blown spoof. At times it seems to be heading into fairly serious dark spy movie territory while at other times the tone is much lighter. The biggest problem is that while the plot is perfectly decent it just isn’t outrageous enough.

This film has little in common with spy spoofs like the Matt Helm and Derek Flint movies or the British mid-60s Bulldog Drummond films. The tone is closer to the more subtle and gentle mildly tongue-in-cheek humour of a movie like North by Northwest (although unfortunately it isn’t anywhere near in the same league as Hitchcock’s movie).

Director and co-writer Val Guest proved himself to be pretty competent in most genres but this film possibly could have worked better with a more extravagant approach.

Where the Spies Are was based on the first of James Leasor’s Dr Jason Love spy thrillers, Passport to Oblivion. Leasor was also the author of The Boarding Party which provided the basis for the wonderful 1980 action adventure movie The Sea Wolves (which coincidentally also starred David Niven).

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a good anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio). The colours look reasonably impressive.

Where the Spies Are is modestly entertaining although it’s certainly one of the lesser 1960s spy movies. If you’re a keen David Niven fan or a 60s spy film completist it’s worth a rental.


Samuel Wilson said...

Saw this on TCM last week and noted that inconsistency of tone. I think the film was caught in a moment when spy-parodies were thought to be hot (e.g. Niven in Casino Royale) and was thus marketed as such with the help of Mario Nascimbene's lounge-style score. It seems to aim for dry humor rather than camp but never quite seems certain what it should be.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a little odd that Niven turned down Bond, only to do this (and, of course, Casino Royale). Maybe he regretted his decision?