Permission to Kill (1975)

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Alpine scheming!
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vt Kickback; vt The Executioner
UK, Austria, US / 97 minutes / color with occasional brief bw / Sascha–Film, Jungbluth & Lazek, Warner, Columbia–Warner, Embassy Dir: Cyril Frankel Pr: Paul Mills Scr: Robin Estridge Story: W.I.L One to Curtis (1967) by Robin Estridge Cine: Freddie Young Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Ava Gardner, Bekim Fehmiu, Timothy Dalton, Nicole Calfan, Frederic Forrest, Klaus Wildbolz, Anthony Dutton, Peggy Sinclair, Dennis Blanch, John Levene, Alf Joint, Vladimir Popovic, Ratislav Plamenac, Oliver Schott, Erna Riedl-Tichy.

Released at the height of the Bond era—this came out between The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), a time when the Bond franchise was for legal reasons undergoing a (very) brief hiatus—Permission to Kill could hardly, despite its title, be more distanced from the technical hijinx, passionate encounters, shootemups and protracted action scenes that characterized its glitzy counterpart. Perhaps aspiring to the gravitas of Le Carre, it focuses on intrigue and the interplay between characters. It’s not entirely successful in this, but it does have a fair amount of appeal in its own right.

Alexander “Alex” Diakim (Fehmiu), a charismatic populist leader in exile from his Middle European homeland because of the repressive government there, has halfway decided to go back to lead the struggle for liberation, even at the likely cost of his life.

Dirk Bogarde as Curtis.

For reasons unstated—perhaps just a fear of rocking the boat—the British secret services don’t want him to do so. A controller who calls himself Alan Curtis (Bogarde) is put in charge of the effort to persuade Alex to delay his plans or, if he proves intractable, to kill him.

Curtis, using various means of blackmail and claiming to be working for the nonexistent Western Intelligence Liaison, assembles a disparate group of people important for some or other reason in Alex’s life and flies them to the small town of Gmunden in the Austrian Alps, where Alex is biding his time while making his final decision. There’s Katina Petersen (Gardner), the love of Alex’s life and the mother of François Diderot (Schott), the son Alex has never known he had. There’s his old friend and comrade-in-arms, investigative journalist Scott E. Allison (Forrest). There’s Charles Lord (Dalton), the promiscuously gay Foreign Office diplomat who arranged a massive loan for Alex’s expat flying of the freedom flag, a loan that HM Government has so far declined to call in.

Timothy Dalton as Charles Lord.

As backup Curtis recruits beautiful-but-deadly Red Army Faction-style assassin Melissa Lascade (Calfan) in case all the attempts at persuasion fail and Curtis needs to make use of the permission to kill that his bosses have granted him.

Nicole Calfan as Melissa Lascade.

And so, amid stunning Alpine vistas that veteran cinematographer Freddie Young’s camera adores, the maneuverings and manipulations begin.

It soon becomes evident that Curtis isn’t going to have everything his own way as a maneuverer and manipulator. Alex, surrounded by loyal partisans like Kosta (Popovic), is, as a long-time politician, well experienced in influencing those around them. Allison swiftly shows himself capable of ditching the minder Curtis has put on him, Brewer (Blanch), and Lord is equally adept at avoiding his own minder, Jennings (Dutton). But in a sense the greatest adversary to Curtis’s schemes is the resistance leader Alex’s ego.

Bekim Fehmiu as Alex Diakim.

Lord is openly antagonistic. Amid much else, he constantly taunts Curtis with none-too-subtle insinuations that the older man is likewise promiscuously gay, insinuations that Curtis neither confirms nor denies—an ironic piece of characterization in view of Bogarde’s own private life. At other times he resorts to simple insult:

Lord to Curtis: “Do you ever do crosswords? ‘A paranoid policeman with delusions of grandeur.’ Four letters, beginning with C and ending with T.”

Oliver Schott as Francois Diderot.

Frederic Forrest as Scott Allison.

Ironically, Lascade, the assassin, is the most forthright of the “team” in stating her independence of Curtis’s orders, even though she’s also the one most completely under his thumb. The character’s full of contradictions in other ways, too—tough yet vulnerable, very feminine and yet with a distinctly male form of forcefulness—and is very well played by Calfan. In an early scene where, clad solely in her underpants, Lascade stands and argues with Curtis, she’s as unselfconscious about her toplessness as a man would be. And why not? No one, we sense, would dare try to take advantage of the situation.

Ava Gardner as Katina Petersen.

Gardner and Fehmiu, as Katina and Alex, make an odd couple, in that she was in her mid-fifties when the movie was released and he was not yet forty, and there’s no real attempt to disguise the gap in years. It’s pleasing to see the age differential, for once, go the other way round in a movie: the usual trope is that heartstoppingly lovely younger women inexplicably find flabby old geezers irresistible (if only . . .)—probably because movies tend to be made by flabby old geezers. Kudos to the moviemakers for bucking the trend, and to the two actors for so very easily persuading us of the depths of their relationship.

Vladimir Popovic as Kosta.

At the center of the web lies Curtis, who’s the most interesting character on display. This website has for a very long time been a fan of Bogarde’s work, and this latterday performance doesn’t disappoint, even though I suspect that by this stage in his career it was one that didn’t have him breaking too much of a sweat. Curtis is, as we’ve noted, a master-manipulator; he’s also, as we discover, capable of quite breathtaking ruthlessness—something that can shock not just us but his devoted assistant, Lily (Sinclair). Yet he’s also a loving family man who’s quite clearly being torn apart by the fact that he sees far too little of his domestic life on the farm with his wife and kids. And, because he’s played by Bogarde, there’s about him a sort of roguish decency that makes it hard for us to accept that, even as he’s performing the most despicable actions, he’s other than a man of integrity at heart. This assumption of ours contributes to the effectiveness of the movie’s shocking denouement.

Peggy Sinclair as Lily with Dirk Bogarde as Curtis.

Permission to Kill has a score by Richard Rodney Bennett, played by the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra under Robert Opratko. Noting this in the opening credits, I prepared myself for something a bit special—and was, alas, a bit disappointed. There are times when you could close your eyes and imagine yourself in an elevator . . .

As I said at the outset, this isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly interesting to watch as an example of late-era Dirk Bogarde (although he lived another quarter-century, he racked up only a few more screen credits) and late-era Ava Gardner—not to mention early-era Timothy Dalton, here playing (very convincingly) a character who’s the complete antithesis of the remorselessly heterosexual killing machine James Bond. And there are those fabulous Alpine locales—if I had the time and the money, I’d have had my plane ticket for Gmunden booked even before the movie was over.

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12 thoughts on “Permission to Kill (1975)

  1. This film is frustrating – on the face of it should be great value with its cast and crew, but when last I saw the movie (long while ago) it just seemed so glum! May give it another go though … Ta!

      • Despite being such a massive fan of Film Noir, I tend to not really enjoy depressing movies. And yet most of the DVDs and and Blu-rays on my shelves are dramas and not especially cheery ones, so it’s not that I spend all my time watching romcoms. Just need a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

        • Pam’s the same. I persuaded her the other day that we should watch the recent Arnie movie Aftermath, and afterwards I wished I hadn’t . . . even though I myself liked the movie quite a lot. But, yes, a downer — very little light at the end of that particular tunnel!

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