The Naked Runner is a rather limp follow-up to The Ipcress File by director Sidney J. Furie. The film stars Frank Sinatra as Sam Laker, an American business man who lives in London. Now before you panic and think, this is late sixties, and Sinatra was probably competing with his old pal Dean Martin in the swingin’ spy stakes, let me tell you, you’d be wrong. It is a million miles away from the Matt Helm films. Does that mean it is any good? Sad to say, no! But Sinatra is quite good. His performance gets critisised in a lot of reviews, but he is solid, playing the highly stressed, confused, and distraught Laker. Maybe it’s a persona that people didn’t want to watch Frank portray?
So Frank’s okay. Why is the film bad? First I’ll give you a quick overview of the plot and then look at the negatives. British Intelligence Officer, Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughan) receives a phone call in the middle of the night from the Minister. It seems a political prisoner, Rudoph Frensal has escaped from custody at Wormwood Scrubs. Frensal was being held because he tried to flee the country with some highly secretive, technical information. British Intelligence believe he was freed by the Russian’s and now is on his way to Moscow, where they will retrieve the information. This cannot be allowed to happen. Frensal must be killed.
The hard part of the job is finding a man to do the assassination. They can’t use one of their regulars. They need a man who is unknown to the enemy and totally uncompromised. After going through file after file, Slattery is struggling to find the right man. Then while reading the local newspaper he spies an article about Sam Laker (Sinatra), who has just won an award for chair design. Slattery knows Laker from the war, where he had been seconded to Slattery’s unit from the O.S.S. But since the war, Laker has lived a life of a respectable business man.Now Slattery has found his pawn, he needs to find a way to make him a killer. And Laker is not the type of guy who will simply pick up a gun for the sake of it. No, Laker needs to be manipulated into killing Frensal. Various psychologists are called in to analyse what makes Laker tick, and what is the best way to make him carry out the mission.
They contrive a plan to gently drag him back into the world of espionage and dirty tricks. Laker and his son Patrick had already arranged a trip to Leipzig trade fair. Slattery convinces Laker to do one small task. It is to drop off a message to a watch-maker near the fair. Laker reluctantly agrees. But during the few minutes that Laker and his son are separated, Patrick is kidnapped by Colonel Hartman (Derren Nesbitt). After Patrick’s kidnapping, Laker is told about the other, distasteful part of the mission. Laker is outraged, but they are holding his son and he feels it is out of his control.
Up until this stage the film is quite good. Sure, it is contrived. Very contrived. But it still has been fast paced and entertaining. But from now on, the film really bogs down. From my synopsis, you can tell where the film is going, but the film-makers drag this bit out for another sixty minutes. As a reviewer, I hate to admit this, but twice, I have fallen asleep during the second half of this film. That’s not why I will dispense with the synopsis though. As I said, you can tell where the story is going.
As I mentioned earlier, Sinatra’s performance is okay. Uniformly, the acting is good throughout the film. Peter Vaughan is excellent as Slattery, and is absolutely chilling in his deceitfulness. And Derren Nesbitt’s turn as Colonel Hartman has a modicum of menace about it too. It’s not surprising to see that he turned up a year later playing another similar role in Where Eagles Dare.
The real villain in this movie is the plot. It’s hard to point out the biggest flaw in this movie without spoiling the ending totally. But in a roundabout way; at the beginning, when the Minister and Slattery start planning the mission, at the meeting they discuss why they need Laker for the job. The reason being the enemy knows all their agents, methods and there is no way a regular British agent could get close enough to do the job. The ending; Laker has completed the mission, and confused is running to safety. Within seconds, British agents spring from nowhere to calm Laker down. Question: If the British agents were that close to Laker as he completes his mission, why couldn’t they have completed the mission for him?
The film is ridiculous. I’d only watch it if you were a die-hard fan of Frank Sinatra and even then, I’d have a pot of coffee percolating and a pack of ‘No-Doze’ handy.