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The last Mann
on 12 January 2008
One of those films that is remembered simply as a footnote to its director's career, it's hard to tell if A Dandy in Aspic would have been much better had Anthony Mann not died during shooting in West Germany. On a purely visual level it's evident that he shot most of the picture, not least because star Laurence Harvey, who finished the film, doesn't hide his love of crash zooms or seem to make much effort to match Mann's style. Certainly scenes like the shooting range sequence, a hotel room conversation shown via twin mirrors or the many shots featuring Mann's favorite Scope setup of a character hiding in close-up in one third of the screen while another approaches in the extreme distance in the rest of the frame have the original director's fingerprints all over them. If anything, the film's biggest problems seem to have happened before and after shooting: Derek Marlowe's script seems a rewrite or two away from ready and it's hard to believe that Mann would have gone along with some of the more extreme post-production decisions, from the echoplex dialogue effects in moments of stress to some of the more ill-judged parts of Quincy Jones' generally quite good score.
On paper the slightly schizoid directorial approach should be quite appropriate for this low-key spy thriller variation on The Big Clock where Harvey's undercover Russian spy is ordered by MI5 to track down and kill... himself, and perhaps to a non-fan of Mann's work it wouldn't be quite so distracting. Yet even away from the visuals and some occasionally inconsistent performances, the film has plenty of flaws that can be traced to both the screenplay and casting. Like the title sequence of a puppet getting tied up in knots in its own strings it's full of good ideas that never quite work and certainly for the first third never makes as much of its premise as it could. More Le Carre than Bond, there are certainly some strong scenes, especially with Per Oscarsson's drug-addicted Russian contact or Harvey's attempt to defect back to the East only for the East Germans to shoot at him to drive him back because he's useless to them back home, while there's some entertaining banter in the exchanges between Tom Courtney and Lionel Stander. But while the plot ultimately works itself out more or less satisfactorily, the film never flows or grips as well as it should.
Delivering his dialogue with his customary cold aloof disdain, Harvey is at once perfect casting for the role of the sexless cold fish with no sense of self but at the same time he's a hollow center for the film: his character may long for a real identity and to belong somewhere, but you don't care for or about him. Similarly, Mia Farrow's mildly kooky romantic interest feels more irritation than illumination: rather than showing the life he has missed, she often feels grafted onto the picture because the front office think it needs a love story. The rest of the casting veers from the wilfully perverse - Tom Courtney as a cold-blooded assassin with a chip on his shoulder, blacklist victim Lionel Stander as a Commie spymaster - to the plain bizarre, with the supporting ranks populated by satirists - Peter Cook ("Welcome to the Funkturm. On a clear day you can see them jumping over the Wall"), John Bird - and UK sitcom players - Richard O'Sullivan, Mike Pratt and Norman Bird - though none cause quite as much damage as the astonishingly bad but thankfully brief performance from Calvin Lockhart.
Cinematographer Christopher Challis does actually manage to make Courtney look menacing in several scenes, though his Scope lensing is poorly served in Sony's dark 2.35:1 widescreen Region 2 PAL DVD transfer. No extras either, but the disc should come with a word of warning - don't read the synopsis on the back unless you want to know every twist in the picture before you see it!
So, a curate's egg: not quite the disaster most reviewers often paint it, but less than a success and perhaps more worth a look for Mann's admirers than the casual viewer.