Tuesday 12 April 2016

The strange story of the submerged spy film ....

Unlike Funeral in Berlin, Spy Story barely surfaced in the
public's imagination
I've just purchased a DVD from eBay.

Nothing unusual in that. But what I bought was described by the seller as a "super super rare collectable."

This was, the seller said, "the only copy I've seen in 25 years." He exaggerates rather, but the point is valid.

It was a DVD copy - not even an original - of the film adaptation of Len Deighton's Spy Story. Released in 1976, the film barely troubled the film charts and went into DVD oblivion, never being commercially released.

The Australian seller - from whom I also purchased the Game, Set and Match TV series, similarly "super rare" - made a point in saying the film's copyright was never renewed, so it is out of Copyright control and can be copied.

[Separately, I have also, in recent years, purchased a Betamax copy of said film. I don't own a Betamax player so the only reason for purchasing is it's sheer rarity, and oddness.]

At a time when fans of Len Deighton's fiction can look forward to SS-GB later this year, and an adaption of all nine volumes of the Bernard Samson books by Clerkenwell Films (when they can pull their finger out) as well as a new film based on Bomber, I thought about this film based on Len's books which rather disappeared beneath the surface, and wondered why.

Spy Story is, in the end, not unlike 1988's Game, Set and Match. Both adaptations had fantastic source material to work but through odd casting choices never really struck home; both also then disappeared from the face of the cinematic earth, only to appear periodically on pirate DVDs.

I summarise the film's plot on the main Deighton Dossier website, here.

Remember, this is the story starring that character of Patrick Armstrong. In the book there is ambiguity about him; is he Harry Palmer, but older? He works still for W.O.O.C.(P)., and some characters cross over, such as Dawlish.

The lead character is, according to Deighton, somewhat related in spirit to Harry Palmer, but is also clearly not him. Yet, that didn't stop the publishers pushing the Spy Story book in the US as a follow-on from those successful stories; and in a way, this movie rather plays on that ambiguity too.

Linked to the Harry Palmer films from the 'sixties, this film in contrast failed to sparkle. A great potential story - war games, submarines, the artic - was seemingly wasted by a director who, unlike Sidney Furie, really didn't know what to do with the content.

Spy Story as a film is neither a stunning success or a filmic debacle. It's quite fun but also, not really that memorable. It is a symbolic lost opportunity in the 'seventies to rekindle the public's appetite for the sorts of spy adventures that The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion-Dollar Brain created.

On the imdb database, the Spy Story entry also feels like an afterthought, with little information or user interaction and debate over the movie. No one's completed the film's plot summary. There's no pictures, no furious discussion on the bulletin boards about it.

There are a number of factors which mean the film, while interesting, never really struck the right chord:

The director - Lindsay Shonteff was, by all accounts, not one of Hollywood's directing success stories, let's say. His list of movies on the imdb database is questionable in quality - none of the films made are in any way notable or challenging. Number One Gun, for example, seem like a very poor Bond rip-off, while the only review on the site of its follow-up, The Swordsman, highlights the many flaws in the film.

What made Shonteff the right choice for this film adaptation of a successful novel. One suspects, lack of budget! Wikipedia's entry for Shonteff perhaps sums up the reason for this film's poor quality: "[he] achieved fame for low-budget films made in England."

A lacklustre opening - two men get off a boat and chat. That's about it for exciting or intriguing opening film sequences. It creates little tension, or questions about the characters, but rather gives the feeling that the viewer has just dropped into a conversation. As Armstrong is seen entering his old flat for the first time, there is four minutes without dialogue as he searches and enters the flat, before calling his wife.

The music - even accounting for the poor quality of the DVD ripped from the source, the film's opening title and synthesiser music played by a Poundstore Rick Wakeman, instantly says to the viewer: "this is a low-grade production", setting the tone for much of the rest of the film. Compare this to, say, the opening of Billion-Dollar Brain, and you can see the films are worlds apart in ambition and temperament.

The synth used in the scene when Armstrong returns to his old flat, rather than creating tension, simply gets in the way and becomes annoying.

The choice of lead actor - Michael Petrovich. Even in the 'seventies, there was very much a sense of "who he? An English actor, he had some background in quality TV of the time - Poldark and Crown Court - but little in his acting resume to suggest he could play the literary 'cousin' of Harry Palmer with any sort of elan or gusto.

The film proves this - his acting is irretrievably wooden and lacking in charisma, which gives the view little incentive to root for him. There is little in his characterisation of Patrick Armstrong that creates anger, excitement, jealously, any sort of emotion from the viewer, the very point of a leading actor!

The production values and filming style - it is horribly dated in a way that the more stylish film adaptations of Deighton's works haven't been. The film colour hues, the scenery, the sound mix, all sound simply old and lacklustre. The production feel of the movie feels more ITV's Sweeney than the stratospheric global heights of the Harry Palmer movies.

In the second scene, as Patrick Armstrong returns to his flat, see how the night lighting in the street outside is so poor as to create little tension or atmosphere. There is no artificial lighting used to dramatise the scene. Even inside, the lighting has a touch of seventies gloom about it, redolent of the days of power cuts.

The clicking of his heels on the pavement dominates the soundscape, but is anything but dramatic, instead it becomes monotonous and lacking in any sense of adding to the story.

There are no action sequences or such, anything requiring a significant amount of production work and, frankly, workers. The best scenes are perhaps those on the ice around the surfaced Russian sub, but again this part of the film is static, relying on any drama coming from the characters' interactions, of which there's little to speak of.

The terrible characterisations - for example, in the book Colonel Schlegel has some depth and dimension, whereas in the film with Don Fellows (who went on to be in Raiders of the Lost Ark) -  is simply a cut-out-and-keep stereotype 'Yank' officer with cigar, aviator specs, loud mouth and a soft spot for the Brits.

Similarly, Colonel Stok. Not Oskar Homulka's lovable, cheeky and curmudgeonly Soviet solder in the Harry Palmer films. No, we have Derren Nesbit's grumpy communist, with a terrible gummed-on beard and little evidence of being someone with his finger on the nuclear button whom the audience - and Armstrong - should fear.

The lacklustre sound - this is clearly not filmed in Dolby surround. The sound quality overall sounds puffy and muted, with at time unclear dialogue and extraneous background noise. This is a film that was not recorded effectively, giving the sound engineer little to work with, it would seem.

There are some bonuses to the film - it includes the fragrant British 'seventies actress Tessa Wyatt, and Nicholas Parsons as a Tory MP. However, those two items provide insufficient buoyancy to a film which, like the submarine at the centre of it, slipped quickly beneath the waves, never to surface again.

This is very much "Made for TV" territory, and it's not even made very well. So a watery grave is perhaps a fitting location for this misguided adaptation.

If other readers have seen the film, what's your impression? Are there elements of the film that still make it watchable? Share your thoughts below in the comments.


  1. My thoughts here


  2. One more Australian connexion, Michael Petrovich played Tito in Ozploitation classic Turkey Shoot http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/turkey-shoot/notes/

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry - accidentally deleted your comment. Bomber? just based on a passing remark from Len's friend Edward Milward Oliver - haven't got anything more.

  4. I still remember that when Leighton’s “The Ipcress File” novel was published, it became an instant best seller because it was so unlike James Bond novels, the hero who many at that time could relate to as a commoner just like them in his life style albeit he was in the intelligence service. Harry Palmer portrayed by a cockney actor exemplified the above trait. Michael Caine, the thick-framed glass -wearing hero was considered as “ one of us”, and he was a rapidly-rising actor. The above formed the backdrop of why Harry Palmer’s films were such a success. We were university students at that time, excited to see the first James Bond film hitting the wider screen, were no doubt that Deighton would be in demand to produce more best sellers, many of them would become successful films, but also wondered at the same time, whether they would at best appeal to only a small fan-base unlike the Bond novels and films which even then attracted a very large global fan base. If more Harry Palmer novels-I put it that way, were produced,the small fan base would have grown, and a proper “Harry Palmer” franchise , similar to James Bond commercial franchise would have developed attracting quality script writers, film and music directors. Given the interest then on Harry Palmer films, more could have been produced even without more novels, but with Deighton's ideas about those films , particularly on plots, which would have been suffice to attract quality producers, directors, and Michael Caine would probably have stayed on too. This did not happen. Whether Deighton would have allowed this to happen is for another discussion. My own opinion has been that he would not have , as he wrote his novels for a smaller core of discerning audience, which precluded any idea of a large commercial film franchise, just like the case of James Bond. The failure of the Spy Story film should not be a surprise. I did not read the book which came out in 1974, did not watch the film, so also the bunch of my friends who originally were attracted to Deighton in1962, did not too, when the film was released in 1976. By late 1960s, again I remember, even the smaller core of avid Deighton novel readers, further dwindled as some of them joined the emerging larger core of Robert Ludlum fan base, and others, much later took to reading Le Carre.

    Interest in the old James Bond films has not decreased, thanks to the recent periodic release of James Bond films recently, and the repeated screening of old films, even at the 9:00 PM -11.00PM slot, like yesterday’s ( 13/04/2016) showing of the Goldfinger has kept the Bond interest on. Similarly about the Jason Bourne films too. The recent Matt Damon and Pail Greengrass combination again is yielding another Jason Bourne film to be released in the very near future.

    I wonder about the SS-GB TV audience when the dramas are released, as the interest on Deighton novels has dwindled unlike the case of Le Carre novels. Probably this is attempted too late?


  5. I tend agree, to an extent. How successful would the Palmer story be now?
    The plot line of Damon's Bourne maintains some relevance to the audience in today's world where global threats are managed by intelligence agencies who may conceivably overreach their remits.
    Bourne is an aspirational character for many, a programmed machine, a secret history and operating beyond or against the system. The understated, average-man character of Palmer, though rebellious, is constrained within the system. We empathise with his everyday trials, workplace relationships and the mundane. Perhaps we now live in a more aspirational world.
    Is the audience possibly becoming more conservative and nationalistic, staying home when the threat of terrorism restrains international travel, contrary to the phenomenon of our greater global connectivity. Will we then maintain a desire for the excitement of global threat oriented plots or will an interest return to character driven stories closer to home?
    I hope, given the recent popularity of Oldman's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that there is still an audience for Harry Palmer.
    Cameron Duncan.

  6. The Le Carre books are being turned into tv/movie adaptations on a yearly basis. I am hoping that this encourages other producers to look into more classic British espionage works. I, for one, have been very impressed with the new versions of Tinker Tailor, as well as Most Wanted Man, The Night Manager and fingers Our Kind of Traitor will be as good as the book.

    Some of the earlier incarnations of JLC's work was botched as well. Think the Looking Glass War and the Little Drummer Girl.

    Fingers crossed any way!