Assignment to Kill (1968)
Director: Sheldon Reynolds
Cast: Patrick O’Neal, Joan Hackett, John Gielgud
Synopsis: A private eye is hired by an insurance company to investigate a shipping magnate suspected of deliberately sinking his own ships for the insurance money. He finds himself involved in a web of deception, double-crossing and murder.
I don’t know whether this film’s generic title is an attempt to form associations in the viewer’s mind with Bond’s ‘licence to kill’ tag, but if it is it’s doing itself a disservice. This film isn’t about secret agents, and its star, Patrick O’Neal, is no Sean Connery. Having said that, this film is one of those little gems that you stumble across every now and then: a little film, not very well-known, considerably overlooked, and yet deserving of praise and recognition.
O’Neal plays Richard Cutting, a laconic maverick insurance investigator who carries a gun, much to the discomfort of his employers. ‘Do you carry a gun?’ one of them asks him. ‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘May I see it?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because then you’d be carrying it.’ The film is full of sharp little exchanges like this which, while not perhaps Award winning material, give pleasure to a viewer who likes dialogue that has clearly been thought out before being committed to the page. O’Neal is no Connery as I said, but he is his own man, and he brings a nicely jaded attitude to the role without coming across as just another tough guy. You could imagine sharing a couple of drinks in a bar with him, and if his magnetic attraction to the opposite sex seems a little unlikely he still manages to play the part well.
The story is a typically 60s industrial espionage tale and it’s none the worse for that. I like 60s European co-productions anyway, and the film creates a kind of nostalgic atmosphere for the days when heroes wandered around in sheepskin coats as they crossed the continent (although this one’s largely confined to Switzerland) and could wear their girlfriend’s silk scarf around their neck without looking effeminate. Cutting is employed by an insurance company to investigate the reported appearance of a man believed responsible for sinking a number of tankers belonging to a shipping magnate suspected of fraud (John Gielgud — an unusual casting choice that works well). The man (Peter van Eyck) was believed to have died in a plane crash so, unable to prove that the claims aren’t genuine, the insurer has been forced to pay out. Cutting flies to Switzerland and is soon on the man’s trail with the help of his former secretary (Joan Hackett). Also on his trail is Herbert Lom (playing a character called Matt Wilson, the only aspect of the film that irritates; Matt Wilson sounds like a slick private eye, not a debonair cigar-smoking Euro-villain), Gielgud’s henchman attempting to get to van Eyck before he can spill the beans.
While the story unfolds at a decent pace, its predictability is tempered by the cool dialogue and O’Neal’s engaging performance and, while the final twist isn’t really that much of a surprise, it neatly wraps up what can only be described as a film of unexpectedly high quality.
(Reviewed 4th September 2009)