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After leaving Peyton Place, the hit series that launched her career, and making headlines by marrying Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow made her first move toward film stardom with the 1968 spy thriller, A Dandy in Aspic. But though the chance to film in Germany and London was invigorating, any hopes of participating in the creation of another classic from director Anthony Mann were dashed when he died during location filming.
The '60s was the era in which the international spy thriller took off at the box office. With the relaxation of censorship standards in the U.S. and Great Britain and new developments in special effects technology, it became possible to create combinations of titillation and visual thrills that brought audiences into theatres in often-impressive numbers. The James Bond films were the pioneers in the genre, but as the Cold War continued to dominate headlines, there also was a market for more serious considerations of espionage like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). Derek Marlowe's 1966 novel A Dandy in Aspic was more in that serious vein with its tale of a double agent ordered by his British bosses to assassinate himself -- or rather, the Soviet agent none of his British colleagues realized was actually him.
The story would have appealed to Anthony Mann because of its morally divided hero, neither wholly good nor entirely bad. In his most successful films of the '50s, films like Winchester '73 (1950) and Man of the West (1958) that won him status as an auteur, he focused on heroes torn between their nobler impulses and criminal urges or backgrounds. In the '60s, he had been sidetracked into epic productions, starting work on Spartacus (1960) before he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick, and filming El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) in the wide-open spaces of Spain. With A Dandy in Aspic, he had the chance to move into a more contemporary genre in a way that would put him back in touch with his personal vision.
Or that's what should have happened. The director was not in the best of health when he started filming in London. He took the company to Berlin, where he showed some of his old mastery on the opening funeral scene and a tense standoff in an alley. After a particularly difficult day shooting at the Avus Race Track in weather so cold the cast had to suck ice cubes between scenes so their breath would not show up on film, he made arrangements to meet his cast at nine for dinner. When he didn't show up, according to Mia Farrow in her autobiography What Falls Away, "We all rushed out of the restaurant. When there weren't any cabs, we ran through the streets back to the Kempinski, and upstairs, and we burst into the room where Tony was lying on the bed, completely dead. Larry Harvey was trying to help Mrs. Mann, and calling the concierge or somebody. I went up close to Tony. I had never seen a dead person before. I sort of hugged him and Tom Courtenay yanked me to my feet and said, Don't be morbid. Then a woman doctor arrived and after one second she said, He's dead, which we already knew. Larry and Mrs. Mann were talking about how the movie would get finished, and I'm thinking, Who cares about the stupid movie? Then a waiter walked in with a silver tray: instead of an undertaker, the concierge had sent room service. Nobody spoke any German, so we just pointed at Tony, and the man ran out of the room. Poor Mrs. Mann talked and searched through papers and opened closets. As hours passed, I began to feel quite comfortable, as if I'd been sitting all my life in that hotel room, with those people talking and Tony on the bed, dead. It was no stranger than anything else."
Rather than see A Dandy in Aspic abandoned, leading man Laurence Harvey took over direction. But though he had one previous film to his credit, the 1963 crime drama The Ceremony, he had not developed a style to match Mann's. The resulting film was a strange blend of classically shot location footage from Berlin and stylish razzle-dazzle effects which were then in fashion in espionage thrillers. Critics were, by and large, not impressed. Despite the presence of acclaimed actors like Harvey, Tom Courtenay, Per Oscarsson and British TV comedy star Peter Cook, the film performed poorly at the box office.
Beyond doing little for Farrow's career, it also wreaked havoc on her personal life. Sinatra had agreed to let her go on the international shoot on the promise that she would be finished in just under two weeks, during which time their new home in Beverly Hills was being renovated. The Berlin shoot ran over schedule, however, and the need to replace Mann as director forced her to stay overseas even longer as Sinatra called daily to complain that he wanted her home with him.
At the time, one benefit of the London filming for Farrow was the chance to buy her new husband a special Christmas present -- an authentic London taxi. By the time it arrived, however, it brought little joy to a relationship that was beginning to unravel. When her next film, Rosemary's Baby (1968), also ran over-schedule, forcing her to withdraw from a role opposite Sinatra in The Detective (1968), the strain ended their marriage.
Producer: Anthony Mann
Director: Mann, Laurence Harvey
Screenplay: Derek Marlowe
Cinematography: Christopher Challis, Austin Dempster
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon, Patrick McLoughlin
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Laurence Harvey (Eberlin), Tom Courtenay (Gatiss), Mia Farrow (Caroline), Harry Andrews (Fraser), Peter Cook (Prentiss), Lionel Stander (Sobakevich), Per Oscarsson (Pavel), Barbara Murray (Miss Vogler), Calvin Lockhart (Brogue), James Cossins (Heston-Stevas), Geoffrey Lumsden (Ridley), Elspeth March (Lady Hetherington), Rosa von Praunheim (Bit).
by Frank Miller