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March 2015

SPYS

cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Zouzou, Joss Ackland, and Kenneth Griffith

director: Irvin Kershner

100 minutes (PG) 1974
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Network DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by J.C. Hartley

S*P*Y*S

Early in the 1967 version of Casino Royale, Peter Sellers - who, as Evelyn Tremble, masquerading as 007 is the best thing in that confused overlong morass - meets Duncan Macrae in a Parisian pissoir, allowing for the joke about checking each others' credentials. Incompetent CIA agents Griff (Elliott Gould) and Bruland (Donald Sutherland) also meet in a pissoir in S*P*Y*S, narrowly avoiding being blown-up by their own side. Their boss Martinson (Joss Ackland) assures them it was all a clerical error and dispatches them to oversee the defection of Russian gymnast Sevitsky.

When two British agents (including Nigel Hawthorne) gate-crash the defection, offering a Triumph sports car and a chance to meet Miss Liverpool, against the American's Chevy, suede jacket, and Raquel Welch, the defection ends in a shooting-match. Griff lets the Soviets reclaim their boy, but Russian spy chief Borisenko (the great Vladek Sheybal who built a career on eastern bloc spies) demands two lives in reparation for the men he lost in the gymnasium shoot-out. Martinson agrees, and Griff and Bruland go on the run from both CIA and KGB, hooking-up with a trio of anarchists led by Sybil (Algerian singer, model, and 1960s protest poster-girl Zouzou), while attempting to steal and sell a microfilm macguffin to finance their escape.

If this sounds like a laugh-riot you have been cruelly misled. Tedious and unfunny in the extreme it doesn't even look as if it was fun to make. The Gould and Sutherland pairing that made M*A*S*H a box-office hit in 1970, and pretty much established their characters for some time thereafter, or doomed them to playing variations thereof for the rest of their careers, isn't enough to carry S*P*Y*S, and it was always going to take more than a few asterisks in the poster art to invoke the memory of the earlier film.

Canadian Sutherland did some of his drama studies in England and Scotland and consequently shows up not only in British features like Dr Terror's House Of Horrors (1965), but episodes of The Saint, Man In A Suitcase, and spy-fi like The Avengers and The Champions. Sutherland's only stand-out movie role pre-M*A*S*H is probably as Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen. After M*A*S*H he could pretty much do what he wanted. He made a handful of movies in 1970 alone; the little-seen Start The Revolution Without Me, with Gene Wilder, self-regarding film-director-suffers-crisis picture Alex In Wonderland, and the ever-popular Kelly's Heroes where he played the anachronistic proto-beatnik Oddball. In 1971 he made a cameo, as a counter-culture priest, in M*A*S*H co-star Gould's black comedy Little Murders.

Gould himself had appeared as a Brooks brothers hipster in ultimately conservative sex-comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice before M*A*S*H. He was excellent in the underrated Who?, and in Altman's The Long Goodbye, and conspiracy movie Capricorn One, but seems to have had a quieter career than Sutherland - who had Klute, the excellent Steelyard Blues, Don't Look Now, 1900, Casanova, The Eagle Has Landed, and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers all under his belt before the 1970s were over. Sutherland has since played a major part in The Hunger Games franchise.

M*A*S*H didn't spawn the buddy-movie, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Easy Rider in 1969 had shown the potential; post-modern irony has now given us the bromance. Gould and Sutherland seemed to be a fixture on chat-shows for a while in the 1970s, disastrously arguing US politics with a representative of the American right on Parkinson to stultifying effect. The media like to imagine that the chemistry displayed in a movie relationship is carried over into real life and I daresay the pair had a friendship outside work which enhanced their appearances together, unfortunately the easy rapport they enjoyed in M*A*S*H wasn't to be replicated in S*P*Y*S.

Gould's Griff is already cynical when the film begins, aggressive and confrontational with boss Martinson, he is ready to believe that his own side have attempted a hit upon him. Sutherland's Bruland is a company man, only gradually coming to the conclusion that the only solution to his situation is to go rogue. The shame is that if played a little darker with a greater stress on black comedy, and less on slapstick filler, this film might have worked. The notion that the intelligence agencies were both corrupt and incompetent had plenty of mileage in the 1970s (and since), after all. This film bumbles along, the plot - simple though it is - still manages to be incoherent, and a comedy set-piece at Martinson's daughter's wedding which should be hilarious is simply tedious. It's a shame, I have a great affection for both actors; best to just remember their better work.



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