[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The only thing of interest in S*P*Y*S—and it’s of sooooooo little interest—is the mystery of how such sharp guys as Kershner, Gould, and Sutherland ever got mixed up in it; or, beyond that, how, having recognized what a mire they were in (and they must have recognized it, sooner or later), they failed to distribute more clues to their disenchantment as disavowals of any responsibility. Since I’ve tossed more than my share of bouquets toward directors, I’ll continue to play it the auteur way and throw my biggest stink bomb at Irvin Kershner. No semblance of focus or structure is to be detected in the film, and it does seem proper to blame the director for that. Even when a competent, well-intentioned director has his film messed up in production or post-production by the proverbial front office, traces always remain: the occasional sequence left intact, a broken-backed but discernible emotional rhyme scheme in the performances, distinctive niceties in the selection of angles here and there, the way corners of shots get filled up. And I didn’t see nothin’ like that in S*P*Y*S, nowhere, no way.
What the (very sensitive and sympathetic) director of richly observed satirical studies like Loving was doing at the helm of a slapstick CIA farce bewildered me the first time I saw an announcement that Kershner was signed for the film. Certainly he’s got the slapstick all wrong; it’s blundering, ugly, graceless, shrill. (Closest thing to a coup: Jacques Marin, as a part-time secret agent, ordering his trained pigeon to shit on Gould and Sutherland when they corner him in a crowded loft.) He has passed for one of our subtlest directors of performers, but only Elliott Gould saves a rare moment or two; Sutherland crashingly overdoes his dullness and naïveté as a loyal—as opposed to hip and self-interested, à la Gould—CIA man. Even the scene that comes nearest Kershner’s home territory—a hapless comedy of masculine possessiveness undone, as Gould improbably makes it (or makes something) with Sutherland’s supposed “girl” Zouzou—is embarrassingly wide of the mark … which Kershner implicitly acknowledges and disastrously tries to make up for with some bathroom jokes.
Other good people are undone here: If I remember correctly, screenwriters Cohen and Freeman were involved in Yorkin-Lear’s very funny Start the Revolution without Me, but the only line that stayed with me is a very bad one lifted from Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three: Gould watches a Russian defector go ape in a Paris haberdashery and chortles something about “Hart, Schaffner, and Karl Marx.” And Gerry Fisher, the fellow who made his fair portion of cinematographic history on Losey’s Accident, has turned in footage as smearily nondescript as any European-based hack’s (although one wonders whether, when the releasing company smells a loser, they don’t reinforce their prophecy by subverting the effort via third-rate processing). Anything else? Oh yes … The title, of course, is intended to recall that earlier asterisked, four-letter-word title associated with Sutherland and Gould. The cryptic, thrown-away “M*A*S*H” set the tone of assured, canny, multivalenced comedy of anger that followed. “S*P*Y*S” tells us a lot, too: it’s parasitic, formless, meaningless, and ungrammatical besides. They should have called it C*R*A*P.
Direction: Irvin Kershner. Screenplay: Mal Marmorstein, Lawrence J. Cohen & Fred Freeman. Cinematography: Gerry Fisher. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff.
The Players: Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Zouzou, Joss Ackland, Vladek Sheybal.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson