Sebastian (1968)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: David Greene
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, Lilli Palmer, John Gielgud, Ronald Fraser, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sutherland
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Sebastian is a wildly uneven British spy film, but oh so very enjoyable. At times it doesn’t seem to know if it is a romantic comedy, a character study, or a hard edged spy film. Thankfully, the film almost works during all its various tone shifts.

The film opens with a small pre-title sequence where we see Mr. Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) running through the streets in Oxford. He is running late for a ceremony where the Prime Minister is to be presented with an honorary degree. Dressed in red ceremonial robes, as he makes his way to the ceremony, he almost collides with a jeep driven by Rebecca Howard (Susannah York). Howard is a quick witted and smart mouthed, modern liberated woman, whereas Sebastian is of a slightly older vintage. He comes from a more rigid background. As you can imagine, these two don’t take an instant shining to each other. Howard abuses him for running in the street. He pays her no mind, and quickly moves on.

But there is something about Sebastian’s aloof manner that intrigues Howard, so she spins the jeep around and follows him through the streets. As he jogs to his appointment, she asks him some questions, to which he makes cryptic replies. Then quizzically he asks her name – but rather than getting her to say it, he gets her to rattle off the letters backwards, which she does. Then he asks her how many words can she make from the letters that make up the word ‘thorough’. She quickly rattles of a dictionary full of word variations. Sebastian is impressed. He gives her his card and says ‘if you’re looking for a job come and see me’.

We then launch into the title sequence, which was put together by Richard Williams, who also created the titles for the Boysie Oakes adventure, The Liquidator. Underneath the titles we see Mr. Sebastian interviewing a whole swag of girls. He asks them all a series of cryptic questions and most respond in a miserable fashion. You see Sebastian is the head of the code breaking section in British Intelligence and he continually has to hire new talent to break enemy codes. Why he chooses to employ only women is never fully explained, but as this is a swinging sixties, Carnaby Street type of scene, man, let’s just go with it.

After several months, Rebecca Howard finally calls Sebastian looking for a job. She is called in for an interview and is one of the lucky few who pass all the tests. She is put through security training, and when ready sent off for her first day on the job. She heads to a high-rise office block and catches the elevator to the top floor. The office is a huge open space populated exclusively by women – well almost. Upstairs in his office, overseeing the room, Mr. Sebastian presides over all the girls in the room. He has all the girls breaking top-secret Russian codes. Howard’s first assignment is to crack a code relating to a prisoner who has just escaped from Wormwoods Scrubs.

Pardon my sexism – because this is what the film wants me to say (and say in a cockney accent) – this films pulls the dastardly trick of having one hundred pieces of love-er-ley English crumpet, all made up and all that, in a room all together – but rather than depicting them as sex objects, it shows them as quick witted, super-smart assets for the intelligence community – and Mr. Sebastian treats them as such. Well that is until he falls in love with Rebecca Howard. The couple have a tenuously balanced relationship where he represented the old school tie boy’s club, and she represents the modern free-spirited liberated woman. Like they say – opposites attract.

Of course the romance is doomed to failure like many office romances. But like I said at the top, this film changes tone many times and now it’s a hardened spy film, and Sebastian ends up captured by a particularly nasty chap by the name of Toby (Ronald Fraser)…Yes, Toby! I know he doesn’t sound like much of a villain but let me assure you he is quite evil.

This may be a silly thing to say – but that has never stopped me before – but I think Sebastian is one of the quintessential British spy films from the sixties. It may not be the best, but it has elements of all the best the genre has to offer. It has adventure like the Bond films – spying as a dirty business like a LeCarré film – it has that tried and true chestnut, ‘sex as a weapon’ which is inherent in any good spy film – it has glamorous girls – it has a fantastic soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith – it has trippy drug inspired visuals – the only thing it seems to be missing is an Aston Martin and a car chase. That aside, this film deserves to be widely seen by anyone who is interested in spy films or sixties culture in general. Do yourself a favour and track down a copy.

Thanks to Tanner at the Double O Section

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