The Trouble with Spies

There are subtle ways of surmising that a movie has been sitting on the shelf for a while. You can check the dated fashions, listen for year-old speech anachronisms, or note the untimely subject matter.

Then there’s the acid test: How many of the cast members have died since the film was made?

Sounds macabre, right? But when actors who’ve been dead for a couple of years turn up in a new movie, you know the film was in no hurry to be released.

Such a film is The Trouble with Spies, which features Ruth Gordon in a supporting role. Not to dwell on the morbid, but Gordon has been deceased for a while now, which suggests that The Trouble with Spies has been collecting dust for a couple of years.

The reason for the delayed release is abundantly clear. The Trouble with Spies is excruciatingly bad, without an ounce of wit, charm, or suspense.

There was a time when the basic premise—a bumbling spy set up as a Judas Goat by his own government, with comic consequences—would have been appropriate material for director-writer-producer Burt Kennedy. Kennedy made a few funky Westerns in the 1960s, such as The Rounders and Support Your Local Sheriff!, which proved his talent for mixing comedy with action.

But Kennedy doesn’t find any of the comedy here. This film’s idea of funny is summed up in its opening scene: British spy chief Robert Morley asks clumsy agent Donald Sutherland to please be careful with that machine gun in Morley’s neat office. Sutherland assures him not to worry; the gun isn’t loaded. At which point the gun begins spraying lead all over Morley’s walls. Gee, we haven’t seen that gag before, have we?

Sutherland, who seems to be following Michael Caine’s policy of taking every job offered, is sleepwalking through this one. The oddest thing is that, despite the film’s official status as a comedy, Sutherland remains quite stolid.

Elsewhere, Gordon does the cute-little-old-lady thing, and Michael Hordern and Ned Beatty are similarly wasted. Lucy Gutteridge manages to make the phrase “love interest” a contradiction in terms.

Another oddity: Though the film includes Sutherland’s walk along a topless beach on the island of Ibiza, it gets a tame PG rating. Presumably the censors were (understandably) asleep by that time.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Another forgotten movie, produced by DEG, Dino De Laurentiis’s shingle at the time. Had some hopes going into this, because of Burt Kennedy, but obviously it appears to have fallen short of expectations, and everything else. For the record, Ruth Gordon died in August 1985, and this movie was released in December 1987. I still think the length-of-actors-being-deceased is a good yardstick for suspecting something amiss about a movie. In any case, this is the kind of thing that would go straight to video today, but was able to actually secure a release in those innocent days. Another reason not to be nostalgic.

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