Color, 1969, 109 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Basil Dearden
Starring Diana Rigg, Oliver Reed, Telly Savalas, Curd Jürgens, Philippe Noiret, Clive Revill, Beryl Reid, Warren Mitchell
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Imprint (Blu-ray) (Australia RA HD), Paramount (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Part of a distinguished lineage of dark British comedies with a homicidal streak, The Assassination Bureau is an often overlooked but delightfully colorful farce. Like the then-recent The Wrong Box, it fuses an irreverent, slightly psychedelic '60s sensibility into a literary property, in this case Jack London's incomplete final novel, The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. (That's also technically this film's full on-screen title.) Director Basil Dearden has a long history with Ealing Studios and brings some of that sensibility here, with the sillier side balanced by a sober lashing at the acceptance of government-sanctioned murder, war, and profiteering. Of course, it's also a great opportunity to watch Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed bantering while dressed in fancy clothes, which is reason enough for a recommendation right there.
In the early 20th century, London journalist and activist Sonia Winter (Rigg) decides to make her latest and most ambitious assignment about a cover organization, the Assassination Bureau, which is headed by the young and cultivated Ivan Dragomiloff (Reed) and requires a justification for all of its financially-mandated victims. Sonia aims to bring the whole thing down by hiring them to kill Ivan himself, a challenge he finds appealing. In fact, he's so disillusioned with the decay in the morals of his fellow board members that he turns the situation into a contest seeing whether he can bump them off before they get him first. Among the international targets are the representatives from Germany (Curd Jürgens), France (Philippe Noiret), and Italy (Clive Revill), with vice chairman Lord Bostwick (Savalas, also seen with Rigg in the same year's On Her Majesty's Secret Service) proving to have an even more grandiose and destructive plot up his sleeve.
Packed with visual signifiers of the era like fancy stylized transitions, zooms, ragged rear projection, and blazing colors, The Assassination Bureau offers a very game cast and lots of globe-trotting adventure. It never quite goes into slapstick territory, opting instead for a droll absurdist tone that isn't for everyone but works very well if you're on the same wavelength. As you can imagine from the title, it boasts a very high body count for a comedy but stays sprightly throughout with the inevitable romantic inclinations eventually emerging between the two leads. This would prove to be the penultimate film for Dearden, who had shot to fame during World War II and soon after with a number of classics (Dead of Night, The Halfway House, The League of Gentlemen), and in fact he would be gone two years later after one more film (The Man Who Haunted Himself) and some work on TV's The Persuaders. Fans of the 007 series and Rigg's turn on The Avengers should have a particularly good time here for obvious reasons, and since the whole thing is constructed as an extended chase with frequent changes of disguises and locales, everyone else should find something to enjoy, too.
A home video staple since the VHS days, The Assassination Bureau debuted on DVD from Paramount in 2004 and made its first appearance on Blu-ray in 2021 from Imprint. Framed at 1.78:1, that release was a massive letdown in terms of presentation with the studio supplying a very soft, heavily noise reduced, contrast boosted mess of a transfer that appeared to be an upscale of the 720p broadcast and streaming master created several years earlier. The LPCM 2.0 mono audio was passable, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. At least the disc had some substantial and worthwhile extras including a thorough audio commentary by Kevin Lyons, a Kim Newman video analysis (14m11s), a visual essay about Rigg's career by Kat Ellinger (23m50s), a trailer, and a 4m10s photo gallery. In 2023, Arrow Video announced a U.S. Blu-ray release with a 2K HD presentation, which would indicate it was from the same master. Thankfully that turned out not to be the case; it looks far better here with natural contrast, actual film grain and detail, and a more consistent and pleasant appearance throughout. The framing tightens to 1.85:1, though compositions don't appear to be affected either way. The LPCM 1.0 English mono track sounds fine throughout and comes with English SDH subtitles, while Sean Hogan and Kim Newman provide a new, different audio commentary with plenty of cheerful and welcome info about the source novel's weird history, connections to some of Vincent Price's later British horror comedies, another 007 connection with a lively fencing scene, and lots more. In "Right Film, Wrong Time" (27m30s), critic Dr. Matthew Sweet looks at the film's roots in its literary source (itself bought off of Sinclair Lewis) and predictive handling of global violence, as well as the long process of adapting the novel (including its locale) by the man who completed it, screenwriter Robert L. Fish. Also included are an SD, open matte theatrical trailer and a 63-image gallery; the first pressing also comes with six reproduction lobby cards and an insert booklet featuring an essay by Katherine McLaughlin.
ARROW VIDEO (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on March 10, 2023.