Rigg and Oliver Reed co-star in a middling, late ’60s romp
After a high-profile run on the popular The Avengers TV series across three years (65–68) and 51 episodes, Diana Rigg (aka Mrs. Emma Peel) was understandably ready a change. Eyeing a jump from cathode-ray TV sets to the big screen, Rigg co-starred in two studio-backed productions in 1969, The Assassination Bureau in March and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in December. The latter, the first and last time George Lazenby stepped into the James Bond role first — and most iconically — essayed by Sean Connery throughout the decade, was and remains the larger, better remembered film and not only because it was part of a long-running super-spy series, but because Rigg delivered a standout performance as Bond’s first, great, and until Eva Green performed a similar role in Casino Royale almost forty years later, last love.
But we’re not here to sing the praises of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or even The Avengers, but to judge The Assassination Bureau on its own merits, a slightly above average genre mashup elevated into watchability status thanks to Riggs’s performance as the co-lead, Sonya Winter, a women’s rights activist and freelance journalist in early 20th-century London, who, through circumstances unclear and undefined, uncovers the existence of the title organization, a non-governmental, transnational group dedicated to separating the immortal souls from the mortal souls of bad, immoral, corrupt men in powerful positions in exchange for cold, hard cash deposited in bank accounts across Europe.
Winter sees exposing the so-called Assassination Bureau as both a moral imperative and the perfect opportunity to show off (and show out) her journalism skills to Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas), a publishing magnate with an agenda of his own that might run counter to Winter’s. Either way, Bostwick agrees to bankroll Winter’s somewhat daft plan to expose the murderous organization. Said plan involves locating the chairman of the Assassination Bureau, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed), where he lives and apparently works, and putting an irresistible proposal before him: If, as asserted, the bureau targets only men who truly deserve their fates, then surely the head of said organization should be targeted.
In far from the first credulity- and plausibility-stretching plot development, Dragomiloff agrees to Winter’s terms, essentially setting himself as the target of an executive board comprised of well-to-do, high-status professionals who double as assassins as needed for monetary gain. That, in turn sets up a loose, stop-start narrative that borrows more than a few pages from Ian Fleming’s super-spy’s adventures, including, but not limited to city- and country-hopping location switches, glossy production values, periodic, high-stakes set pieces culminating in a literally explosive, effects-heavy finale, and a central romance resolved before the end credits roll.
Based on an unfinished Jack London novel only completed in 1963 by another author, The Assassination Bureau leans hard on familiar super-spy tropes, though turning Dragomiloff from the supposedly irredeemable head of a murderous organization to the ostensible hero doesn’t quite work, though Reed, an actor who rarely delivered a poor performance regardless of the quality around him (or lack thereof), does his next-level best to match the tonal demands of director Basil Dearden’s (Sapphire, The Blue Lamp, Dead of Night) approach, regardless of where a particular plot point falls on the verisimilitude scale. (Arguably, verisimilitude matters less in a genre mashup like The Assassination Bureau dominated by a black comic tone.)
It helps, of course, that Rigg invariably matches Reed energetic beat for energetic beat over the course of The Assassination Bureau’s languid two-hour running time. Despite Winter’s presumed centrality to the narrative, though, she’s often sidelined at crucial points, including the finale involving a bomb-laden dirigible. In the closing moments, Winter’s presence functions as an unnecessary punchline to a not particularly funny joke. It also serves as delayed an unfortunate reminder of the limits of late ’60s progressivism on and in film. Still, Rigg never looks better and the sizable costume budget ensured a different, period-specific outfit for every scene change. If only the same could be said for The Assassination Bureau’s storyline or treatment of its central duo.
High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
Original lossless English mono audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Brand new audio commentary with authors Sean Hogan and Kim Newman
Right Film, Wrong Time, a 30-minute appreciation by critic, broadcaster and cultural historian Matthew Sweet
Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork choices
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