Sunday, July 3, 2022

Diana Rigg in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

(This blog post is part of the Other Than Bond Girl Blogathon hosted by Realweedgiemidget Reviews)

Chances are good that Dame Diana Rigg will always be best remembered as Emma Peel on the classic television show The Avengers. Of course, she will also be remembered as Countess Tracy di Vicenzo in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). While both The Avengers and On Her Majesty's Secret Service are well remembered, one of Dame Diana Rigg's best movies is nearly forgotten. The Assassination Bureau (1969).

The Assassination Bureau stars Diana Rigg as Sonya Winter, a suffragette and journalist who uncovers the Assassination Bureau, Ltd., a secret organization that has existed for centuries and is in the business of murder for hire. Sonya takes a novel approach to putting an end to the Assassination Bureau. Quite simply, her boss, Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) gives Sonya £20,000 to hire the Bureau to assassinate their own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). As it turns out, the Assassination Bureau will only kill those who are truly worthy of death, such as criminals and tyrants. As many of the Assassination Bureau's members have taken to killing for money, Dragomiloff accepts Sonya's assignment and throws down the gauntlet for the other board members of the Bureau to try to kill him.  Of course, as might be expected, things are not quite as they seem.

The Assassination Bureau was based on the unfinished novella The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. by Jack London. Jack London had bought the idea for the novella from Sinclair Lewis in 1910. Jack London wrote 20,000 words before he finally gave up on the novella because he could not think of a way to properly end it. Jack London died in 1916, so The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. remained unfinished for decades. Eventually mystery writer Robert L. Fish completed The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. based on both the unfinished manuscript left behind by Jack London and an outline of an ending for the novella created by Jack London's wife Charmian not long before her death in 1955. The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. was then finally published in 1963. Given President John F. Kennedy was assassinated not long after the novella came out, it proved to be a source of some controversy.

It was in 1966 that it was announced that director Basil Dearden and producer/screenwriter Michael Relph were making a film based on The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. for United Artists. Basil Dearden and Michael Relph had already made several films together, including The Bells Go Down (1943), The Blue Lamp (1950), Sapphire (1959), and many others. Mr .Dearden had even directed "The Hearse Driver" segment of the classic Dead of Night (1945).  While Jack London's novella The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. was rather serious, the movie Messrs. Dearden and Relph had in mind would be an adventure comedy.

Michael Relph had in mind an English lead when he wrote the screenplay, but unfortunately United Artists insisted that Burt Lancaster be cast in the lead role. Michael Relph ended up revising the script to fit with the casting of Burt Lancaster, none of which pleased Mr. Lancaster. Burt Lancaster then left the project. Michael Relph attracted the interest of Rex Harrison as the lead in The Assassination Bureau, but United Artists had absolutely no interest in Mr. Harrison. Ultimately, United Artists lost interest in The Assassination Bureau. This not mean that the project was dead. Basil Dearden and Michael Relph took The Assassination Bureau to Paramount Pictures.

Ultimately, Michael Relph got the British leading man he had wanted to begin with. Oliver Reed had already established his name as a film actor, having appeared in several Hammer productions, as well as the films The System (1964), The Jokers (1967), and I'll Never Forget Wat 'isname (1967). Of course, the female lead was none other than Diana Rigg. Diana Rigg had already become an outright phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic in the classic spy TV series The Avengers. Later, in 1969, she would play Tracy, the one woman to win James Bond's heart, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1968). Curiously, Telly Savalas, one of the few non-British actors in the cast of The Assassination Bureau, would play the villain Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

While The Assassination Bureau was based on Jack London's The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., the movie differs from the book a good deal. The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is a very serious work, with some rather deep philosophical underpinnings. In contrast, the movie The Assassination Bureau is a light hearted comedy adventure. Furthermore, while The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is set in the United States, The Assassination Bureau is set in Europe during the Edwardian Era prior to World War I.

Filming on The Assassination Bureau began in April 1968. It was shot on location throughout Europe, including scenes taking place in London, Switzerland, Paris, Venice, Vienna, and Czechoslovakia. Paramount poured a good deal of money into The Assassination Bureau, in the hope that its stars and production value would translate well at the box office.

The Assassination Bureau received a trade show release in March 1969 and went into wide release in April 1969. For the most part reviews were positive. The review in The Guardian referred to The Assassination Bureau as "elegant, quite witty, engaging" and complimented both Basil Dearden's direction and Michael Relph's screenplay. John Russell Taylor of The Times described it as "a killingly funny film." The film did receive some negative reviews as well. The critic at the Daily Express was particularly vicious with regards to the movie, stating that he "didn't like the beginning or the middle, but I loved the end--simply because it meant the ordeal was over." The Assassination Bureau would receive some recognition by various awards. The Assassination Bureau was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best English Language Foreign Film and Diana Rigg was nominated for the Laurel for Female New Face.

In the United Kingdom The Assassination Bureau did modestly well at the box office in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it did little business in the all important market of the United States. I think it could be possible that the film's title, The Assassination Bureau, could have been unappealing to Americans, the previous year (1968) having seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It could also be the case that in 1969 The Assassination Bureau was already something of an anachronism. In the mid-Sixties such period piece pastiches as The Great Race (1965), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), and The Wrong Box (1966) were popular. At the same time, spy spoofs from Our Man Flint (1966) to The Silencers (1966) met with success. By 1969, both the period piece pastiches and particularly spy spoofs were no longer quite as fashionable. Since The Assassination Bureau was bit of a period piece pastiche and bit of a spy spoof, it should probably be no surprise that it was met with indifference in the United States.

That The Assassination Bureau had less than stellar box office numbers in the United States is disappointing in retrospect. Quite simply, The Assassination Bureau is a highly enjoyable film. Oliver Reed is remarkable as the chairman of the Assassination Bureau who comes to question the organization's morality. Diana Rigg does a great job as Sonya, who shares both Emma Peel and Tracy Bond's independence, but is different enough that she is not a carbon copy of those characters. The script has no shortage of laughs and no shortage of excitement either. And it must be pointed out that, even in the Sixties, there weren't many movies with a climax aboard a Zeppelin. The Assassination Bureau may not be one of Diana Rigg's best remembered movies, but there is every reason it should be.


Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Interesting and well researched read - and adding this to the rewatch pile as totally forgot Telly Savalas was in it. Thanks for joining with this great choice.

Brian Schuck said...

This is a fun watch, full of twists and turns, adult humor and wry performances. But, with its period European setting and lack of name American actors, it never stood a chance of being popular in the States.

I dimly remember the Jack London connection, and it's intriguing that the idea was kicked around by multiple writers over many decades. It's testimony to the story's power that it ultimately made it into print and film.