I have seen virtually every James Bond clone released by major studios during the 1960s but "Assignment K" had eluded me until it was released as a burn-to-order title by the Sony Choice Collection. I was expecting another low-brow effort done on a small budget and perhaps affording some guilty pleasures throughout. However, "Assignment K" was a pleasant surprise. It's an intelligently written, well-acted espionage yarn that goes to some lengths to avoid Bondisms in favor of a realistic scenario populated by realistic characters. The film was directed by the woefully under-rated Val Guest, whose talents were generally dismissed at the time as workmanlike competence but which today seem much more impressive. (Guest had some spy movie experience, having previously directed key segments of the multi-director farce "Casino Royale".)
Stephen Boyd stars as Philip Scott, a high-powered executive of a London-based toy company. When we first meet him, he is attending an international trade show in Munich. We learn very quickly that the dapper, charismatic Scott is actually a secret agent of sorts. There are cryptic messages passed and even more cryptic conversations that take place at the toy fair as well as Scott's luxury hotel. (He seems to have a Bondian expense account, if nothing else.) The plot centers on a real MacGuffin: something about sneaking a strip of vitally important microfilm back to MI6 in London. Naturally, there are bad guys who want the microfilm, too, though I was never clear about precisely what information the strip contains. Nevertheless, Scott is not above mixing business with pleasure and during the course of his visit to Munich he meets Toni Peters (Camilla Sparv), a gorgeous young Swedish woman on holiday at a ski resort. She initially resists his attempts to get a date, but finally she relents. Scott goes all out to show her a good time and his substantial expense account certainly aids in the effort. He takes her a non-stop, dizzying agenda before succeeding in getting her back to luxurious villa. It isn't long before the undercover man is literally under the covers with his new flame. Before long, the two are madly in love- and Scott doesn't seem to be bothered by that gentleman's code for secret agents that dictates you shouldn't get too romantically involved with any "civilians". Scott's selfish obsession with Toni is understandable. (Hey, she looks like Camilla Sparv!). However, his judgment proves wrong when he continues to date her even after one of his contacts is murdered on a ski slope by adversaries who are after the microfilm. Ultimately, Toni is kidnapped and held for ransom, the price being that Scott must identify his key contact in Munich. Surprisingly, he agrees to do so, though the resolution of the problem is a little confusing in terms of his motivation. Throughout the plot, Scott keeps assuring the perplexed Toni that the real danger is over and the couple returns to London. Here, we see Scott report to his MI6 boss, Harris (played with amusing world-weariness by Michael Redgrave), who reminds him that he is putting an innocent girl in jeopardy. Sure enough, Toni is kidnapped once again, thus forcing Scott to follow in 007's footsteps in one key respect: he goes to the "toy company's" version of gadget master "Q" (Geoffrey Blaydo,n in an amusing reprise of virtually the same character he played in "Casino Royale") in order to use hi tech methods of tracking down where the kidnappers are located. He also imposes on the branch to devise a time bomb in a desperate attempt to free the innocent woman whose life he has now placed in danger. That's the extent of the hardware and gadgetry used in this film. Scott doesn't drive fantastic cars, nor does he have the ability to press buttons to get himself out of jams. He loses fist fights and takes beatings in a refreshing nod to realism.
Boyd's character is in the mode of Harry Palmer: he's clearly not enamored of moonlighting as a secret agent. (Unlike Palmer, he freelances, and thus can quit the profession at any time.) His cynicism, however, never reaches the depths of Alec Lemas, the despondent protagonist played by Richard Burton in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold". Lemas was so cynical and disillusioned that you felt all the joy had been sapped from his life. Scott, however, adopts Palmer's ability to thumb his nose at his superiors but has not lost his joie de vivre when it comes to his vices: smoking, drinking and bedding beautiful women. The character is very well played by Stephen Boyd, an actor who could go over-the-top occasionally (see "The Oscar"!) Here he delivers one of the most restrained and impressive performances of his career. Sparv provides the kind of old world, spy girl glamour that is in short supply nowadays- and she is a more than competent actress, as well. The supporting cast is terrific and includes the great Leo McKern and Jeremy Kemp as heavies, as well as an appearance by Jan Werich, who originally filmed sequences as Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice" only to be replaced by Donald Pleasence. The film has an exotic look to it, as director Guest maximizes locations in London, Austria and "West Germany". (Isn't it satisfying that we can now eliminate "West" and "East" when describing Germany?) The plot is a bit confusing but the characters and dialogue are intriguing and there are some genuine surprises that are unveiled at the climax of the story. The only complaint is the musical score by Basil Kirchin, which is far too lightweight and zippy for a film with this somber premise.
"Assignment K" didn't make much of an impact during its initial release. Perhaps audiences were so jaded by the tidal wave of spy movies. In the U.S., the film was released as the second feature on the same bill with the horror film anthology "Torture Garden" and was dismissed by the New York Times in a few sentences that indicated it was nothing more than a glorified travelogue. It's a pity because if the film had received the reception it deserved, Boyd could have continued to play the character of Philip Scott in some well-warranted sequels.
The Sony Choice Collection DVD has a fine transfer, but is devoid of any extras, including a trailer or even a menu. Can't this film get some respect?