A Dandy in Aspic (1968) is Anthony Mann's last film, or perhaps not: he died during production, and the remaining footage, including the film's ending, was shot under the direction of the star, Laurence Harvey. Original author and screenwriter Derek Marlowe wrote of Harvey's contribution, "He directed his own mis-talent, changed it and the script – which is rather like Mona Lisa touching up her portrait while Leonardo is out of the room." Which is the first of many problems the film presents in the path of anyone trying to appreciate it.
Even those who decry the auteur theory (and I've been known to do so myself, depending on whether I'm being employed as a screenwriter or director) may admit, if pressed, that the director is the only person suitably placed to oversee every aspect of a film and ensure a measure of balance and coordination: in other words, the only one who could guide it to become a work of art. When the director expires of a heart attack before principal photography has been completed, and before the edit, score and sound mix have been embarked upon, he's obviously no longer suitably placed to perform such a task.
It's possible, some of the time, to tell Mann's typically crisp, dynamically-composed, aggressively energetic work from that of his stand-in, which tends to over-rely upon the zoom lens and follows a path of trendiness rather than cool analysis of dramatic values. The fact that the lines are at least somewhat blurred must be down to the work of cinematographer Christopher Challis, an underrated figure in British and international cinema: he photographed the later Powell and Pressburger films, which are as beautiful as the more celebrated ones shot by Jack Cardiff, but generally not as good. He also shot Two For the Road for Stanley Donen, and thus helped kill the process shot as the dominant form for filming car scenes. Mann was a great believer in location photography and chose Challis to help him make Dandy entirely outside the studios.
In both the London scenes (made by Mann) and most of the Berlin ones (partly Harvey), Challis uses the widescreen with jaw-dropping panache, frequently deploying a diopter lens to split the focus between a foreground closeup and background action. This device can be intrusive if used unwisely, but here the split-focus serves as a neat metaphor for the hero's compartmentalized mind.
For this is a tale of espionage! Harvey, as bitter and hostile to our sympathies as he was in The Manchurian Candidate, plays Eberlin, a British agent entrusted with the job of killing Krasnevin, a Russian spy planted somewhere inside the British secret service who's been killing off high-ranking state employees. The trouble is, Eberlin is Krasnevin.
The plot hook smacks of Philip K. Dick and A Scanner Darkly, and indeed the film has a paranoid twitch balanced on the knife-edge of a bad trip. It's commendable that overt psychedelia is avoided, considering when the film was made. This storyline also presents the second hurdle in the path of the critic or audience member seeking to appreciate the movie. For all Mann's talk of "realism," the plot scarcely supports a reading of the movie as an authentic insight into the workings of the Cold War. For one thing, the double agents who brought the British secret service to its knees in the sixties (such as Kim Philby, who charmingly used to give his profession as "Russian spy") weren't actual Russians with false papers, they were Oxbridge-educated pillars of the establishment. We're not that stupid. Though the film's tone is relentlessly downbeat and bleak, it's far from the dour verisimilitude of John LeCarre and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the movie it's most often compared to. The fact that one character sports a walking stick that fires bullets should serve as a clue.
So Dandy carries the split focus into its very heart, keeping one eye on grim realism and the other on slightly camp expressionism. And this camp side ties in with a vein of homoerotic cruelty running all through Mann's work. Even as I suggest ignoring the problem of authorship and focussing purely on the object before us, that object leads us back to a reading of the film in the context of Mann's long history of coded-gay villains, from gangster John Ireland who scents his pistol with perfume in Railroaded! (1947), to Richard Basehart as the perverse, torturing spymaster Robespierre in Reign of Terror (1949), all the way to Christopher Plummer's effete emperor in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
Maybe it's Mann's response to the perceived effete decadence of British culture, but in this movie it seems a long time before we meet any straight men at all. (Harry Andrews, with his weathered granite face, seems like the first hetero presence, though his auto-erotic asphyxiation death scene, while wearing a tutu, in 1972's The Ruling Class might cast even this certainty into question.) The bizarrely variegated cast appear to have been instructed to camp it up for all they're worth, with the ever-ambiguous Harvey a relatively mild offender. Peter Cook, a surprising presence in the first place, whose entire characterisation is based around rampant womanizing ("She's eine klein raver!") nevertheless flicks his hair and ponces about with the best of them. Tom Courtenay and Calvin Lockhart (a surprising black British spymaster) play their confrontations with Harvey in the hissiest way imaginable (in a shooting gallery scene, they fire at images of naked men), and there's a strong implication that Per Oscarsson's Swedish-accented Russian operative is or has been Harvey's lover. At any rate, attempting to kill Oscarsson, Harvey pumps his bed full of bullets, just like Lee Marvin in Point Blank the same year.
Amid all the claws-out bitchiness, Lionel Stander alone maintains an air of avuncular jollity, as Harvey's Russian operator (not a real Russian, but at least a real red). With his face like a boiled brain and his voice—the sound of dinosaur bones grinding in their sleep—his always-welcome presence adds a further funhouse grotesquerie to the yarn. And he's first introduced reading an issue of Batman. As "beard" to Harvey, we have Mia Farrow, essaying an excellent English accent and showing up unexpectedly at every turn, so that the suspicion she must be in on the plot becomes unavoidable. Yet she's not: merely a heteronormative gesture to soothe the moral majority. And if Mia Farrow's the best you can do to straighten your film (Ava Gardner's reaction to Sinatra's marriage to Farrow: "I always knew he'd marry a boy.") then you're really halfway out. It would have been fascinating to see where Mann's cinema would have taken him as the old censorship rules eroded and collapsed.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.