Apr 29, 2015

On DVD: Sleuthing and Intrigue in The Alphabet Murders (1966) and Where the Spies Are (1965)

Anita Ekberg in The Alphabet Murders

I recently enjoyed a pair of new Warner Archive releases starring Tony Randall and David Niven, two actors who can bring lightness to the darkest subject matter. They do just that in the jaunty, but deadly The Alphabet Murders (1966) and Where the Spies Are (1965).

Tony Randall takes on Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the amusingly twisted The Alphabet Murders. Directed by Frank Tashlin, the comic murder mystery bubbles with his trademark cartoonish gloss. Randall is delightfully campy as the fastidious sleuth, with a trim figure, shiny bald head and absolutely no sense of humor about himself.

Poirot finds himself on the case of a murderer who is killing victims with alliterative names in alphabetical order. The killer's calling card: a copy of the ABC guide to London discarded at the scene of the crime. When Amanda Beatrice Cross (initials ABC) nearly strangles him in a Turkish bath and claims she is a killer, he thinks the case is closed.

Randall as Poirot

The schizophrenic Amanda is not easily outwitted though and she enjoys playing games with the uptight Poirot. Followed by British Intelligence officer Robert Morley, who is under orders to keep an eye on the Belgian crime magnet, the detective backs the clever killer into a corner, but victory is hard to claim with this alphabet-fixated bombshell.

Though The Alphabet Murders could have been a lightly amusing romp, with Randall and Morley stomping straight-faced through whatever indignity faces them, it ends up being much more unhinged and marvelously messy thanks to Ekberg. As Amanda, she brings to mind Rod Taylor's comment that he had to end his turbulent affair with the star because being with her exhausted him.

Ekberg is just as wild as a dangerously attractive as a twisted killer who plunges recklessly into life, always with trouble in mind. It's one of her best roles, because she has found the perfect part to exploit the careless exuberance of her public persona. For all of Randall and Morley's comic skill, she dominates the movie, hovering over it all like a cobra ready to strike.

For Christie fans, there's an amusing Margaret Ruthford cameo in which she appears as the author's other famous sleuth Miss Marple.

Though Where the Spies Are is less vibrant than Alphabet, it is similarly energized by a charismatic female star. This time it is Francoise Dorleac, the French star whose name became synonymous with tragedy when she died at age 25 in a car accident.

While she is perhaps now more famous for being Catherine Deneuve's older sister, the Dorleac was a huge talent, as she demonstrated in Cul-De-Sac (1966) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). She would likely have been one of the queens of world cinema had she lived.

This isn't to say that star David Niven doesn't hold his own in this slightly lethargic, but always intriguing spy drama. The British actor may not have set off fireworks on the screen, but if an elegant, smooth-tempered lead was required, he always delivered and was never less than pleasant to see. Pleasant is the best way to describe his performance as gentleman doctor Jason Love.

There's a bit of World War II intrigue in Love's past, and so an old associate who recalls his skill talks him out of his holiday and convinces him to instead stop the assassination of a Middle Eastern official. Though there's nothing the doctor would rather do less, he hates violence and danger, the car-obsessed doctor is offered a rare vintage automobile as payment. He can't resist, so he flies to Beirut to go undercover.

There Love meets the much younger agent Vikki (Francois Dorleac), who charms him immediately. Though she is full of her own secrets, she returns his affection. The pair have little time for romance though, as Love's mission becomes increasingly complicated and it is clear that he can't handle the challenges of the job.

The film never quite builds up enough momentum; there's a curious lack of energy to it, but it has plenty of details to recommend it. With a snappy spy soundtrack and gorgeous 1960s Beirut scenery, it has a great feel and Niven is comfortable, if not terribly exciting in his role.

On the other hand, Dorleac doesn't need to do anything to be exciting. She can charm simply, with a smile, or a lightly spoken phrase. Her appeal is effortless. It was a thrill to catch a rare glimpse of her in a starring role.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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