Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Subterfuge (1968)

I wasn't even aware of this film's existence until it turned up on my local That's TV channel over Christmas, when they gave their schedules entirely over to old public domain movies of variable quality.  Clearly made to cash in on the 'spy craze' of the sixties, Unlike many of these type of movies (particularly the Italian made ones) Subterfuge tends more toward the Harry Palmer school of espionage than James Bond, presenting us with a dour tale of double agents within British intelligence, played out against the background of a dour-looking and wintry London.  The budget and ambition of the film is indicated by the calibre of its main stars: Gene Barry and Joan Collins.  Both steady and reliable second string leads, but fundamentally unexciting.  Barry was coming off of a reasonably successful TV series in the form of Burke's Law (or Amos Burke, Secret Agent, as it became in its final season) and was very good at playing, well, the Gene Barry character.  He specialised (or was typecast, take your pick) in playing well dressed, high living two fisted men of action.  His biggest hits were on TV, whether as Bat Masterson, Amos Burke or, in the seventies, The Adventurer, They were all pretty much interchangeable.  (As was the scientist he played in the lead of George Pal's 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds - he might have worn glasses, but nobody was fooled: he was looking to defeat those pesky Martians in a stand up fist fight).  Subterfuge is pretty typical of the kind of films he starred in during the latter part of his career: slightly above average B-movies.

And, to be absolutely fair, despite its relatively uncharismatic leads and obviously limited budget, Subterfuge is actually a reasonably decent film: well crafted, decently scripted and quite watchable while it is on.  It musters a pretty decent supporting cast, including Michael Rennie as Barry's boss, plus Colin Gordon, Tom Adams (veteran of several other low budget spy movies of the era) and, surprisingly, Richard Todd, as the three double agent suspects.  I say, surprisingly, but by the late sixties Todd's days of winning World War Two for Britain in celluloid, portraying a series of stiff upper lipped military officers were well behind him and his career in decline.  Nevertheless, it still comes something of a jolt to see him in a B-movie playing Secret Service chief who frequents pervy clubs.  (I suspect that one of the reasons he was cast was because of his height: he was relatively short and wouldn't tower over Gene Barry, for whom this was, allegedly, something of an issue).  The cast also boasts Marius Goring (an actor who always seemed far too good for the sorts of films he ended up in) as a low rent Blofeld-type villain (complete with armies of white clad, motorcycle riding henchmen), and Suzanna Leigh, (an actress who all too often seemed wasted in thankless supporting roles, although I have fond memories of her being molested by some carnivorous sea weed in Hammer's utterly barmy The Lost Continent), as a sadistically kinky villainess with a penchant for black leather.

Indeed, it is the streak of violent kinkiness running through the film, (Leigh's character gleefully tortures Barry by strapping him to a table  wiring him up to the National Grid, for instance), which distinguishes Subterfuge from the sorts of contemporary TV movies it often resembles. Arguably, without these episodes, it could easily have been an extended episode of Barry's Amos Burke, or even The Adventurer.  That said, plot-wise Subterfuge is relatively sophisticated for a movie of this type, with the use of an outsider - Barry's US agent, in this case - to try and flush out a traitor within an intelligence organisation, isn't a million miles from The Ipcress File.  Of course, the hunt for the mole involves Barry getting into the prime suspect's wife's bed and romancing Joan Collins.  There are plenty of red herrings along the way (although it is blindingly obvious quite early on who the real traitor is) before it all climaxes in a frenetic bout of action on a beach.  The director, the prolific Peter Graham Scott, moves it all along efficiently, if blandly, making the most of his grey and mundane locations, which contrast nicely with the complex espionage machinations unfolding against them.  I say 'blandly', but Scott was a director who, basically, knew where to pint the camera to maximum effect: while there is nothing stylish or flashy about his direction, it does allow the story to unfold clearly and logically, regardless of plot convolutions.  While a more 'stylish' director might bring more visual flair to a movie, there is always the danger that their directorial tricks will undermine the narrative: something that Sidney J Furie's direction, for instance, often threatens to do on the afore-mentioned Ipcress File.

So, while Subterfuge is no lost classic, it is an entertaining diversion with some good performances, a reasonably intelligent script, some authentic sadism of the kind found in early Bond movies and a suitably downbeat ambience.  As an added bonus for railway enthusiasts, there are several scenes at a post-steam Paddington staton, featuring a variety of Western Region diesel hydraulics, including two Westerns (one in the then new corporate blue livery, the other still sporting maroon livery), a Hymek and an NBL Type Two, (the latter two still wearing their green liveries).



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