The Jigsaw Man (1983) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Bennett_Jigsaw-Man_corgiThis 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.

I submit this review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey; Bev’s Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog.

“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.

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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 Jigsaw-Man-posterwastes 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

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘man in the title’ category:

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***** (1 fedora tip out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Cold War, England, Espionage, London, Moscow, Spy movies, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to The Jigsaw Man (1983) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – As always, I appreciate your candor. The story had some real potential had the author gone for irony, tongue-in-cheek, etc., but it does seem as though this one has fallen a bit flat. Pity as it could have been done well. Thanks for sharing; I think that for me, this one may remain ‘forgotten…’ 😉

    • Thanks Margot – in a way I wish I dan;t spent quite so much time on a booka nd film that I ended up finding to be as flat as a pair of pancacekes, but thems th ebreaks, I suppose 🙂

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Interesting. I remember the title, but don’t think I saw the film. Maybe, that’s a good thing, Sergio 😉 I did enjoy The Fourth Protocol, though. Both book and film. Have you done that pair, yet? For some reason, though it did get a release in the U.S., it’s only available in a Region 2 disc (which I have).

    • Thanks Mike – It’s been a while since I saw The Fourth Protocol – I remember quite liking at the time and being rather amused by its counterfactual gumption in killing off the then still very much alive Kim Philby!

  3. neer says:

    Philby seems to be your Man of the Moment Sergio. Interesting that he inspired so many artistic endeavours.

  4. Colin says:

    Oh dear! That sounds like poor stuff indeed. This is the only one of Caine’s 80s Cold War efforts I haven’t seen, and I guess I didn’t miss much. I never consciously avoided it and often toyed with the notion of getting it on disc. I’m kind of glad I didn’t now.

    • I think you did quite well chum in aviding it! Actually, it is perfectly entertaining in a disposable, TV-Movie sort of way I suppose, but with all the talent to had it just irks that it always falls so flat!

      • Colin says:

        Yes, our old friend – expectation. The people involved make it sound very attractive, and the concept’s not bad either. It’s always disappointing when something doesn’t live up to its potential. Mind you, I’ve seen a fair few Cold War flicks that left me feeling cold too – and the subject matter always draws me.

        • I do know what you mean – so many of the films from the late 60s and 70s were so drenched in cynicism that it is very hard to want to go back to them – so I can line without DANDY IN ASPIC and PERMISSION TO KILL but would love to see Dik Bogarde in SEBASTIAN again

          • Colin says:

            Good examples. Dandy in Aspic is such dour and downbeat stuff, and again it’s extraordinarily flat. I don’t know when I last saw Sebastian but I’d love to watch it again too – a really fun movie. >strong>Hot Enough for June was another lovely light-hearted vehicle for Bogarde that I’m very fond of.

          • I recently saw a bit of Hot Enough but didn’t stick with it as I found it too jokey – I think I just needed to be in the right frame of mind! I remember quite liking Tom Adams in his Charles Vine outings but was disappointed by Val Guest’s Assignment K and Where the Spies Are with David Niven.

          • Colin says:

            Well, it is jokey – but in a good way for me – and you do probably need to be in the mood for that kind of movie. The presence of Sylva Koscina doesn’t hurt any of course.

            I haven’t seen those Guest films since I don’t know when!

          • It was on telly not too long ago but it was just a mood thing, I’m sure. I remember watching Last of the Secret Agents as a kid in the late 70s and finding it pretty funny but have never seen it since.

          • Colin says:

            You could run a feature on that: Films I haven’t seen in 30+ years.
            I enjoy seeing which ones continue to hold up and which leave me scratching my head and wondering what on earth I was thinking.

          • The potential downside of course is that that the reaction will overwhelmingly be the latter, so as to sppil all those childgood memories 🙂

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    1 fedora tip ! Is this the minimum you have given or is there anything you have given 0 fedora tip ?

    • Now that you mention it Santosh … I suppose I could do half a tip, but that really would be it – I do try to stay positive if at all possible 🙂

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        There is a mystery blogger who rates according to daggers (so many daggers out of 4). He sometimes gives zero daggers. In one such case, he even goes on to say that the author should give him one dagger for having read the book !

        • Nice one! Well, I only have to blog what I want to and leave off the stuff that left me indifferent – in this case I thought it was just about interesting enough to merit a mention, especially as I got th eimpression that not many had reviewed th ebook online …

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I love Michael Caine but he takes too many poor scripts. In fact, I just wrote a story with him in it.

  7. Yvette says:

    Not for me, but as usual, I enjoyed reading your review, Sergio. I think Michael Caine can be such a funny man. I love his turns in THE WRONG BOX and WITHOUT A CLUE. (THE WRONG BOX came out the same year as ALFIE – hard to believe it’s the same guy in both.) But I also loved him in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, EDUCATING RITA and on and on. In a way, though everyone knows who he is, Caine is one of the more underrated actors.

    Kim Philby was such a cipher. Blunt you could almost feel sorry for – he did repent in the end. But Philby and his other cohorts. Such stagnant pools. Vile people. What was it all for?

    There’s a new Philby book I have my eye on. A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL by Ben Macintyre.

    • I saw a BBC documentary that Macintyre.made about Philby base don his book that I thought was OK but really offer a lot of new insight, except maybe to make his actions a bit more plausible and understandable – ultimately that is probably all we can hope for, and part of the appeal of even fiction based around such figures. I do like Greene’s attempts to do this in fictional terms in THE HUMAN FACTOR (the US equivalent would I suppose have to be Doctorow’s extraordinary DANIEL)

      • Todd Mason says:

        THE BOOK OF DANIEL, which I should probably give another chance to, after picking it up just after finding RAGTIME too jokey and rather shallow…I was 13 at the time, and while TBOD was better, it didn’t sweep me up.

        • It really knocked me out Todd – read it just a few months ago and was incredibly impressed – it aint perfect, but I really thought it hit most of the important thinsg square on – have yet to watch the movie though I just got the DVD so review may be coming …

  8. Sergio, I recall reading about Kim Philby in the papers though I have never read or watched a fictionalised account of his double life. I’m not sure I want to read this book or see the film, not even for Michael Caine, who for some reason I find more acceptable in his later films where he is much older. I did like him in THE FOURTH PROTOCOL, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS.

    • I agree Prashant, he is much better in those films (and even better in The Ipcress File, Sleuth, Alfie, The Man Who Would Be King and The Italian Job). The BBC miniseries, Cambridge Spies, with Toby Stephens as Philby is a fairly decent take on the subject, is still romanticised.

      • Sergio, I’ll probably change my mind about Caine after I see him in the films you mentioned above, though THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING rings a bell. Indian character actor Saeed Jaffrey appeared in many British and Hollywood films and television series including Merchant-Ivory productions. Never heard of CAMBRIDGE SPIES, however.

        • That was a miniseries, made about 10 years ago I think. Jaffrey is wonderful in Man Who Would Be King (well, he’s great in practically everything) – Caine is great in comedy but was a also a very convincing hardpan in the original version of Get Carter from 1971 and is wonderful opposite Maggie Smith in California Suite.

          • Todd Mason says:

            The acting was all there was to CALIFORNIA SUITE. However, PLAZA SUITE was even more mechanically-written. (I actually enjoyed reading COME BLOW YOUR HORN, again about 12 or 13, and noted as I progressed through Simon’s plays how little the newer ones tended to do for me, though the eventual nostalgic autobiographical ones were somewhat better). I was going to be in a high-school production of THE ODD COUPLE (as Murray), but that was short-circuited by leaving 9th grade in New Hampshire early to move to Hawaii.

          • I’m a bit of a Simon fan (or used to be – it’s been a while) at least as far as Biloxi Blues. I used to think The Out of Towners was incredibly funny but now find it stressful! I did get to see Gene Wilder in the London production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor – not as good as My favourite Year though (and the TV movie with nathan Lane was annoyingly laugh- and charm-free).

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    I do love Michael Caine…but I don’t even he could get me to view this one. Great review, as always, Sergio!

  10. tracybham says:

    I was intrigued when I saw Michael Caine and the premise sounds good, but if you did not like either that well, I think I don’t need to go there. Too bad, I love anything espionage related.

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