Where The Spies Are

Director: Val Guest
Starring: David Niven, Francoise Dorleac, John Le Mesurier, Cyril Cusack, Eric Pohlmann, Nigel Davenport
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Based on the novel by James Leasor

Many years ago, I read one of James Leasor’s Jason Love Adventures. It was Passport To Suspense, and had the hero battling neo-Nazis in South America. It was a rattling good read and I have always intended to read a few more of Love’s adventures, but I haven’t gotten around to it. But I have finally got my steel claws on a copy of the film version of Passport To Oblivion – filmed as Where The Spies Are (thank you RRD). I must admit that in my minds eye, David Niven just doesn’t seem like Jason Love, but anyway let’s look at the film.

The film opens with titles by sixties design guru Robert Brownjohn. Brownjohn also did the titles for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger – he also did the album cover for The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed. Unfortunately these titles aren’t as visually compelling as some of his other work. It is essentially a burning piece of paper, but we are compensated by a groovy instrumental theme by composer Mario Nascimbene (featuring an organ solo by Jimmy Smith).

After the titles, the film opens in Moscow. A British defector is lecturing a group of KGB students on some of the more covert Western espionage secrets. As examples, projected on the screen behind him are British agents and enlargements of the weapons and gadgets that they use. One of these M.I.6 operatives is Peter Rosser and he is stationed in Beirut.

The film then cuts to Beirut and to Agent Rosser. We follow Rosser to the Hotel Al Cazar, where he is captured by enemy agents and ultimately killed.

Back in England, the head of M.I.6, Douglas MacGillivray (John Le Mesurier) needs a replacement for Rosser fast. It seems there’s more trouble brewing in the Middle East (that’s a new concept). As security has been broken, they can’t use their regular agents. They need a man from their ‘B’ list. For cover, they check a list of events happening in Beirut that week. There happens to be a malaria conference.

There is only one doctor on the ‘B’ list: Dr. Jason Love (David Niven). M.I.6 think he is the perfect candidate, but now they have to convince him to go. M.I.6’s preferred method of coercion is blackmail. Love’s one weakness is that he is a Cord enthusiast – Cord being a make of car. M.I.6 offer Love a rare model Cord, ‘the Baron’. Love grudgingly accepts and sent off on the mission.

Love travels via Rome, where he meets a fellow operative, Vikki (Francoise Dorleac). As he has a few hours to kill before his connecting flight to Beirut, he heads back to Vikki’s apartment for, er, refreshment. In the end he overstays his visit and misses his flight. This is a godsend for Love, because the plane blows up, just after take off.

Love finally makes it to Beirut, and his adventure really starts. One of the characters Love meets is Parkington played by Nigel Davenport. And for a short while he gives this production the ‘toughness’ it has been lacking. In fact, on the strength of his performance, I’d have liked to see him play Love rather than Niven.

The film works and fails on Niven as Love. Niven is such a likeable actor that he effortlessly carries this production. It’s his screen presence that makes this film watchable. At the same time he is possibly too charming –and too old. Love, although middle aged is a man of adventure. His passion for exotic sports cars and fast driving indicate that he is a man who enjoys an adrenalin rush. Whereas Niven (at his age) is a man of leisure, rather than adventure. You would expect to find him in a fine restaurant drinking a superior bottle of vintage wine, rather than in a sports car with his foot mashed down on the accelerator. Niven’s a great actor, but he was simply miscast in this role.

The film itself, doesn’t seem sure of whether it’s a comedy or a serious spy film, and the shifts in tone make it hard to sit back and settle into this movie. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but I felt it could have been so much more. And maybe if they had got it right we would have seen more Jason Love films on the cinema screen.

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