Release Date(s)1969 (October 29, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor's Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release.]
The Assassination Bureau, a comedy/adventure set in Edwardian England, is a secret international organization that will arrange to kill anyone—even heads of state—for a price. The film is a send-up of assassins and anarchists at the turn of the last century, before the high-level killings that touched off World War I. Archival black-and-white footage inserted amid the opening credits accompanied by rinky-tink music establish the seriocomic tone. Additional black-and-white footage is inserted at various points to underscore the film’s period flavor.
Aspiring journalist Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg), determined to expose this murder-for-profit ring, approaches the Bureau ostensibly to take out a contract. Its leader, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed), a young Englishman of Russian extraction, explains that the Bureau assassinates only those who are truly deserving. Sonya reveals that the target is Dragomiloff himself. Being a man of honor, he feels obliged to carry out her instructions.
Dragomiloff realizes that his organization has abandoned its founders’ original intention and decides what’s needed is renewal. He calls a meeting with the board of the Bureau and explains that they will have to assassinate him, according to their client’s instructions, or he will assassinate them. Fellow Bureau member Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) offers 10,000 pounds to whomever knocks off Dragomiloff.
Thus begins an extended cat-and-mouse adventure through several countries as Dragomiloff uses guile, disguises, and knowledge of his colleagues’ weaknesses to pick them off one by one while thwarting their efforts to kill him. Along to document the events for a story that will establish her credentials as a serious journalist is Sonya, independent, self-assured, and able to deal with whatever mayhem may ensue.
Sonya is a predecessor of the feminists that were emerging at the time the film was released. Not the typical female dependent on men to protect her, she’s more of an equal to Dragomiloff as they partner to outsmart those targeting him.
The finale features an elaborate fight aboard a zeppelin from which a bomb is to drop on a castle that is hosting a peace conference attended by all the European heads of state. The effects are pretty good for the pre-CGI era, and there are some neat stunts when the giant airship tilts and wobbles as control of the ship is lost.
Director Basil Dearden and set designer Michael Relph have fashioned an opulent period romp with lavish sets and picturesque locations in France, Italy, Austria, and Germany. As Dragomiloff and Sonya globe trot, they leave destruction in their wake, mostly with explosions but also gas, fire, swords, falls from high places, and a lethal blood sausage. These dispatches are treated cavalierly, as merely business, and are made to appear comic rather than tragic. Because we root for Dragomiloff to succeed, the deaths of his victims become part of a skilled game rather than a personal vendetta.
Diana Rigg, making only her second feature film appearance after her role as Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers, captures the quaint tone of the film, all proper and well-spoken yet willing to become an accomplice in murder for self-serving reasons. Looking lovely in a series of period outfits, she displays a flair for comedy and an appreciation for the absurd machinations of the plot. In a lengthy brothel scene, Sonya is mistaken for a new recruit and sent to meet an aging, hard-to-please count, with riotous consequences.
Oliver Reed’s Dragomiloff displays a cultured manner, well educated and courteous with just a touch of menace. His charm is not lost on Sonya, and the romantic attachment that develops amid their cross-European travels is convincing.
Telly Savalas is the nominal villain whose ego and aspirations directly threaten the two protagonists. Ruthless, authoritative, and unctuous, his Lord Bostwick conveys delight in his own cold-heartedness and megalomania, at one point proudly declaring, “I can bring down governments, dynasties, and empires. I can rule the destinies of Europe.”
The first-class supporting cast includes Curd Jurgens, Philippe Noiret, Beryl Reid, Clive Revill, and George Coulouris.
Featuring 1080p resolution, The Assassination Bureau is presented on Region-Free Blu-ray by Imprint/Via Vision in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Clarity of the Technicolor print is excellent, with nicely delineated details in costumes, art decor bric-a-brac, military uniforms and medals, patterns in wallpaper, and furnishings. The model for the zeppelin is realistic, though when it’s matted into the real sky, there’s a visible border around the model. Rear screen projection is used for scenes in which Sonya and Dragomiloff are traveling in vehicles, a technique commonly used in films at the time. Explosions, both actual and special-effects, add dramatic pizzazz. The silent black-and-white footage is interesting and occasionally comical and includes scenes of real pre-World War I heads of state arriving for a formal event.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono LPCM. English SDH subtitles are an available option. The sound at the beginning of the film has an echo-y quality, making dialogue difficult to understand, but disappears after the first few scenes. Diana Rigg speaks in a stiff and formal manner, suggesting Sonya’s desire to be taken seriously. She delivers comic lines with a twinkle in her eye, in contrast to Oliver Reed’s silky, urbane line readings. In the Paris brothel scene, ambient noise from the house of assignation is blended well with dialogue. The zeppelin sequence features the sounds of motors, high wind, escaping hydrogen gas, and the clanking of boots on the aluminum runways of the airship. The song Life Is a Precious Thing, performed by the Mike Sammes Singers, is heard over the end credits.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary, 2 featurettes, the theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Kevin Lyons notes that The Assassination Bureau is based upon the Jack London novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. The opening sequence with silent footage sets the jokey tone that the film will take. The book offers a more serious and darker tale. The film gave Diana Rigg the rare chance to show her comic side on the big screen. Oliver Reed’s character “is so charming, he’s hard to dislike.” Career overviews of Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg are provided. Rigg’s character is discussed in terms of emerging feminism of the late 60s and early 70s. The mood changes slightly to French farce when the scene shifts to Paris. Producer Michael Relph spared no expense in art direction and costumes and is “the real architect of the film.” He produced, wrote the screenplay, and designed the sets. A bit of the philosophical and ethical debate from the novel made it into the script. The film has sometimes been referred to as “steampunk.” Sonya transforms from a tough, resourceful investigative journalist to a simpering, old-fashioned heroine who will need comforting and rescuing by Dragomiloff on more than one occasion. The use of zeppelins was a real concern of Great Britain, fearing invasion by an increasingly aggressive Germany. The Assassination Bureau did well at the box office, especially in the United Kingdom (where it was known as The Assassination Bureau Limited). Critics were relatively kind to it. Some thought it was parodying the James Bond series. Excerpts from original reviews are read. A sequel to was never made. Today, it would likely be a big-screen franchise starter or multi-episode streaming series.
Kim Newman on The Assassination Bureau (14:11) – The genesis of the film goes back to Sinclair Lewis, who in 1910 sold to Jack London the idea of a secret society of high-placed adventurers who do terrible things. London is famous today for animal-themed adventure novels like The Call of the Wild and White Fang. London was a “big name author around the turn of the [20th] century.” A socialist as well as journalist, London wrote about deplorable conditions in the east end of London. He also wrote some science fiction. The film was also inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club and G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. London wrote about 40,000 words of the book and “couldn’t crack the ending.” He abandoned it long before he died in 1916. Contemporary 1960s author Robert Fish completed it. Basil Dearden had directed a number of London-based thrillers, such as Pool of London and Sapphire, the supernatural Dead of Night, and the big-budget Khartoum.
Diana Rigg: A Tribute (23:50) – Narrated by film historian Kat Ellinger, this featurette provides a detailed overview of Diana Rigg’s life and career. Rigg got her start playing Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers. She “forged her own path” and didn’t follow cliches in her roles. Photos of Rigg as a young girl and at various stages of her career are interspersed with brief excerpts from her films. She worked in repertory theater as a young actress until landing a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She replaced Honor Blackman on the The Avengers and starred in it from 1965 to 1968. After leaving the show, she returned to Shakespeare and was offered many film roles similar to her TV character of Emma Peel. In The Assassination Bureau, she portrayed a militant feminist pursuing a cat-and-mouse competition. She played the woman who married James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Portia in the Charlton Heston version of Julius Caesar, and a nurse in The Hospital, written by Paddy Chayefsky. Her other roles included the daughter of an actor (Vincent Price) seeking vengeance against critics in Theater of Blood and Charlotte in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. A late career success was the role of Oleanna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. Diana Rigg appeared in only 16 films over six decades.
Theatrical Trailer (3:01) – This trailer features quips and action moments from the film. The “o” in the Assassination of the title is replaced by an old-fashioned round bomb with a fuse. Music from the film is heard on the soundtrack.
Photo Gallery (4:10) – This slideshow of color and black-and-white images features still photos of Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Curd Jurgens, and Philippe Noiret. Also included are color images of the film’s poster and lobby cards.
Though there’s some political content, the predominant tone of The Assassination Bureau is high-spirited comedy in attractive Edwardian settings. The script by Michael Relph and Wolf Mankowitz contains both physical gags and sly jokes as well as plenty of boisterous action. The film is a highly polished black comedy.
- Dennis Seuling