This spy thriller was inspired by the exploits of double agent Kim Philby. Indeed the author went so far as to cheekily dedicate the book to him, and all her ‘dear friends in the KGB’ including those, ‘not yet surfaced.’ Published shortly before Anthony Blunt was revealed as the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Cambridge Spy ring, it tells the story of long-time defector Philip Kimberley (sic) who, after some plastic surgery, leaves Moscow to settle some unfinished business back in England.
“Philip Kimberley read his own obituary twenty-four days before Christmas”
Kimberley was a high-flying, high-ranking British Intelligence officer who in 1964 was about to be uncovered as a double agent and so defected to the (then) Soviet Union. His wife and daughter were left behind. His wife is now dead, a casualty of the scandal, while his daughter, Penny, has made a new life, working as quadri-lingual interpreter. Kimberley has become a drunk and an embarrassment to the KGB and after he creates a minor diplomatic incident they decide to take action. As insurance before his defection, Kimberley had stolen a list of all KGB agents active in the UK and now they want it back – he will be given a new identity, a new face and a million Swiss francs in return for the document, hidden somewhere in England. But Kimberley knows that after he hands it over he will be killed, so at Heathrow he asks for asylum to lose his KGB minders then goes on the run to set up a deal to sell the list to MI6 and reconnect with Penny. By sheer coincidence, her boyfriend is a secret agent whose superior in the Service, Scaith, is an old friend of Kimberley’s.
I should probably say upfront that I wasn’t too impressed by either the film or the book it was based on. It’s not ironic or witty enough to carry off its cheeky conceit and doesn’t offer anything new in the way of plot to off-set a parade of cardboard cut outs masquerading as people we are supposed to have some interest in. The world we are presented with is that bitter, cynical 1970s where nobody is to be trusted and where human values are routinely denigrated in the ‘national interest.’ The book is full of cliché after cliché, from its often dire dialogue to its warmed over plot with virtually no surprises to speak of. And as for naming the young hero Harold Farquhar, well, maybe the author had her tongue in her cheek as it does lead to a priceless bit of passionate dialogue from Penny:
“Oh, Farq, Farq, Farq!”
The language of often very coarse, displaying a kind of adolescent glee that really makes you wonder just who the text was aimed at it. The film unfortunately is much too faithful to its source, but then perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Bennett had been married to film’s director, Terence Young, who made his name with the early Bond movies (one of the subsidiary characters is named ‘Connery’). The two were divorced by the time her book came out but Young was very faithful to the text (I wish he hadn’t been) and called in a lot of old friends to help.
Despite this, the production was apparently fraught with problems (shooting had to be stopped and later resumed, leading to some obvious continuity lapses, with Olivier having to sport a false beard for some scenes) and there were long delays before it was belatedly and briefly released.
“Do I look like a Russian fancier! Like anybody’s bloody comrade!”
Caine’s first starring role has been as ‘Harry Palmer’ in the spy classic The IPCRESS File and in the 90s he returned to the role for a pair of inferior sequels as part of series of rather belated, anti-establishment cold war dramas that the actor starred in including the likes of The Fourth Protocol, Blue Ice, The Whistle Blower and The Holcroft Covenant. The first of these was in fact The Jigsaw Man, which in retrospect is both the most peculiar and most interesting of them in terms of its background and the associated talent – but probably also the least artistically successful of them all. Michael Caine plays Kimberley with his usual professionalism despite being miscast as a posh, Establishment type. Unfortunately he fails to convince right from the opening scenes where Kimberley is actually played by Richard Aylen (pre plastic surgery), though Caine dubs in his own voice. This is logical but sadly doesn’t really work all that well since the voice is so distinctive as to immediately draw attention to the fakery. It might have been better if they had followed the approach used in the 1947 minor noir classic Dark Passage, when Bogart also initially appears with a different face before being cosmetically altered, though here they either used a subjective camera or simply kept his face hidden from the audience.
Olivier gets to be gruff and crotchety throughout and is pretty hammy here, a sad contrast to his earlier and much more successful collaboration with Caine on the superb Sleuth. Susan George plays Penny (and, in an inept flashback, her own mother) and is as appealing as ever in an ultra conventional role, while Robert Powell does his usual gruff holier-than-thou act as her lover, here thankfully renamed ‘Jamie Fraser.’ It’s Charles Gray as another senior Intelligence officer (albeit one with a couple of major secrets to hide) who gets the only amusing part, especially in an outrageous bathroom scene (taken pretty much verbatim from the book) in which he comes on to Powell in his hotel bedroom without his toupee, explaining that he has wigs of four different lengths to maintain the illusion the hair is real. It’s really campy and vulgar and certainly memorable – but that’s it for this otherwise threadbare and drab film that wastes a decent cast on a story about people and events you can’t possibly engage with or give a damn amount – it’s all so trite it just makes you angry at the sheer waste. Kimberley’s final words to his daughter, after causing the death of many innocents, are “War is bad” and frankly so are the book and the film.
DVD Availability: Available in barely acceptable editions virtually everywhere – sadly none of them seem to be anything better than a ‘open matte’ VHS transfer with rather washed out colours.
The Jigsaw Man (1983)
Director: Terence Young
Producer: Benjamin Fisz
Screenplay: Jo Eisinger
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Art Direction: Michael Stringer
Second Unit Director: Peter Hunt
Music: John Cameron
Cast: Michael Caine, Susan George, Laurence Olivier, Robert Powell, Charles Gray, Michael Medwin, Anthony Dawson, Vladek Sheybal