Film discussion

The Assassination Bureau – Throwback 50

Based loosely on an unfinished novel by Jack London, and turning 50 this year, is the 1969 black comedy classic The Assassination Bureau. A delightful romp (back when the term meant an adventure rather than something more sordid) that dishes out equal amounts of wit, slapstick and charm. Lavish set pieces, catchy music and wonderful cast chemistry make this film just as captivating as it was when it came out.

Set in the days leading up to the first world war, Sonya Winter, the glorious Diana Rigg fresh from playing Emma Peel in The Avengers, has discovered the existence of a society of hitmen known as The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. Wanting to become a journalist, the women’s rights campaigner brings the information to a highly reputable London paper and reveals she has already placed an ad that will result in her being contacted by the Bureau. Although the world of journalism is a male-dominated profession, Winter is determined to break into it. This resolve catches the attention of the owner, Lord Bostwick (Terry Savalas). He agrees to take on Miss Winter, but only if it is kept secret, claiming it’s because he does not want to become a target of the organisation if it knows he is backing her.

Miss Winter is taken to her meeting where she comes face-to-face with the chairman of the organisation Ivan Dragomiroff, the very suave Oliver Reed who was clearly on the ascent to the peak of his career. The twist in the tale is that the man Miss Winter wants to be assassinated is Dragonmiroff, and further to that Lord Bostwick is revealed to be the Vice-Chairman who is bitter about being passed over by the former leader in favour of his son. Intrigued by her offer and seeing it as a way of weeding out those of the board who are motivated by greed rather than morality, Dragonmiroff accepts her contract and the adventure truly begins.

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Both Reed and Rigg are fantastic and their chemistry is amazing throughout. It would have been so easy and of the norm back in the 60s to turn Miss Winter from a feisty feminist into a swooning heroine who always needs saving, but thankfully this does not become the case. Although the film does not pass the Bechdel Test, the character of Miss Winter is never diminished too much in favour of the men. There is a somewhat gratuitous scene involving Rigg jumping on a bed wearing only a towel, which no doubt adds even more to the claim that she was a woman who brought about many mens sexual awakenings, but when the inevitable kiss occurs between her and Dragonmiroff it is because she permits it to happen.

Reed excels as the intelligent leading man and his performance certainly gives credibility to the rumour that he was shortlisted to be the actor to replace Sean Connery as James Bond. An article, published by Guardian Online, states Reed not being Bond was “one of the great missed opportunities of post-war British movie history” and you can certainly see from both his physical scenes, the sword fighting, and even the comedic timing he demonstrates delivering the witty and irony-laced script. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been interesting if it had reunited Reed with both Rigg and Savalas who would go on to star alongside George Lazenby. 

The film also stars Curd Jurgens, another Bond alumni who went on to be in The Spy Who Loved Me, Warren Mitchell (famous for playing Alf Garnett in numerous onscreen outings) and a whole host of uncredited cameos such as Peter Bowles (To The Manor Born), Roger Delgado (the original Master in Doctor Who) and several other recognisable faces who make you pause and say: “Wasn’t that..?”

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The crosses, double-crosses and sometimes blatantly absurd assassination attempts are all wonderfully framed by beautiful sets that make you feel you are travelling all over Europe,. The final confrontation aboard a Zeppelin is worthy of any action film of the time period. The music, composed by Ron Grainer (The Omega Man, Tales of the Unexpected, To Sir With Love), is catchy and the lyrics written for the film’s main theme ‘Life Is A Precious Thing’ by Hal Shaper will end up being an ear-worm for several days after viewing.  

Although it takes liberties with some historical events, such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, The Assassination Bureau remains a very clever black comedy that is still viewable today. It is well worth a rewatch in celebration of its 50th birthday.

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