Cast & Crew
Montclair, New Jersey widow Mrs. Emily Pollifax, who has decided that she wants to do more with her life than garden and volunteer, enters CIA headquarters and tells Mason, a mid-level administrator, that she wants to be a spy. Although she has been given an introduction by a senator, Mason presses a silent alarm to have their conversation secretly observed via closed-circuit television. Mason dismisses Mrs. Pollifax, but his superior, Carstairs, who is impressed by her intelligence and grit, decides that she would be perfect for a small assignment. After the CIA conducts a background check on Mrs. Pollifax, Carstairs gives her an assignment in Mexico City where, using her own name, she will behave as any American tourist would. Then, on a predetermined date and time, she will go to a particular bookshop, where a copy of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities will be in the window. Using a coded script, she will then buy the book from the proprietor, DeGamez. Although Mason worries that the assignment, to pick up sensitive microfilm that will be delivered to the bookstore by field agent Tupok, is dangerous, Carstairs assures Mrs. Pollifax that no danger will be involved, much to her disappointment. As Mrs. Pollifax arrives in Mexico City and begins her sightseeing, Tupok is killed. When he does not arrive at the bookshop, DeGamez realizes that the operation has been compromised and does not put the book in the window. The next day, though, another American agent brings the microfilm to DeGamez and tells him that it would be safer to place the microfilm inside a deck of cards. Later, when Mrs. Pollifax, frustrated after several days of passing the shop and not seeing the book, hesitates at the entrance, she is invited inside by DeGamez, who recognizes her from her CIA photograph but pretends not to know who she is. DeGamez charms her into buying a book on solitaire, then nonchalantly tosses her a free pack of cards to go with it. The next day, just before she is supposed to leave Mexico City, Mrs. Pollifax makes one last trip to the shop and sees a copy of A Tale of Two Cities in the window. She enters the shop and speaks the code words but is surprised that the proprietor, who says that he is DeGamez, is not the man she met before. Claiming that the other DeGamez is his cousin, the man offers Mrs. Pollifax coffee, which is drugged, putting her into a deep sleep. When she awakens, she is inside a plane, handcuffed to American agent Johnny Farrell. Through the course of a long plane ride, they banter about which one of them can be trusted, but soon develop a mutual respect and affection for each other. When the plane lands, they discover that they are in Communist Albania. After being escorted to a prison in the hills, Farrell and Mrs. Pollifax are thrown into a cell. Farrell is questioned first, and badly beaten, but Red Chinese Gen. Perdido, the man who posed as DeGamez in the bookshop, does not beat Mrs. Pollifax, even though he is convinced that her proclamations of being an ordinary American tourist are lies. When Farrell is next questioned, he tries to escape but is shot in the leg and returned to their cell delirious with fever and pain. With little more than a knife from Col. Nexdhet, an Albanian patriot who dislikes the Chinese influence in his country, Mrs. Pollifax removes the bullet, after which an angry Perdido relates that he is going to leave the prison and not return until Farrell is able to talk again. During Perdido's absence, Farrell slowly recuperates, while Mrs. Pollifax becomes friendly with her jailers, especially Nexdhet and kind young Sgt. Lulash. Nexdhet allows Mrs. Pollifax to walk outside the prison with him, not realizing that her questions about the surrounding countryside are more than passing interest. Because of her enthusiasm, Nexdhet gives her an old book about Albania that contains topographical maps, which Mrs. Pollifax is certain are still reasonably accurate. One afternoon, learning that prison commander Gen. Berisha has a bad back, Mrs. Pollifax gives him a massage and soon earns his admiration and friendship. Her forays through the prison and its environs enable Mrs. Pollifax secretly to collect rocks and other items that could be used in an escape she is planning, as well as information on where small weapons and keys are kept. Each night she returns to her cell and tries to interest Farrell in her escape idea, but he does not return her enthusiasm, instead pointing out all the pitfalls of her plans. The day before Perdido is to return to the prison, Mrs. Pollifax convinces Nexdhet and Berisha that a party they want to hold in her honor should celebrate Christmas because she will not be alive in December. Although saddened by this, Berisha knows that she is right and agrees. Using an evergreen she picks out in the hills, the men hold the Christmas party, with local food, musicians and even brandy from the general's secret supply. As they start to use her solitaire cards for tree decorations, Mrs. Pollifax notices that the eight of hearts has microfilm jutting out from between the paste boards. When the party ends, she is barely able to take the card before anyone else notices, as well as steal a gun from the general's drawer. Late that night, Farrell surprises her by revealing that he has turned the tree, which is now in their cell, into a crutch so that he can make the escape attempt with her. Using a large rock that she has hidden, they knock a guard unconscious, then escape on the prison donkeys. Although they have a good head start, when Perdido returns, he demands that a full-scale search be conducted. Mrs. Pollifax and Farrell manage to elude their pursuers by bribing a local farm couple, who dress them in peasant clothes and allow them to sneak away with their small flock of sheep. Later, Perdido's men catch up to them again but they hide in a corn field until Farrell incapacitates one of the soldiers sent to find them. Meanwhile, Nexdhet looks down the mountain and smiles as he sees Farrell and Mrs. Pollifax escape. When Mrs. Pollifax and Farrell arrive at the river, they take a small boat and row toward the Adriatic Sea. Just before they arrive at the mouth of the Adriatic, though, Perdido and his men race toward them in a speedboat. Because Perdido wants to question them, he orders his men not to kill them but plans to ram their boat. Mrs. Pollifax and Farrell jump into the water, but, unknown to them, Lulash, who is helming Perdido's boat, deliberately causes it to crash into the rocks. As Perdido screams for Lulash, Lulash swims toward Mrs. Pollifax and Farrell, letting them know that he is their friend. Some time later, at CIA headquarters, Mrs. Pollifax and Farrell listen to taped recollections of their experiences and confirm that everything is true. Carstairs thanks them for their help and, in appreciation, gives them trench coats. Mrs. Pollifax asks that Lulash, who has defected, be processed quickly, then happily walks out with Farrell, as they help each other on with their trench coats.
Wendell D. Baggett
Mark H. Davis
Fred "bud" Giles
Everett A. Hughes
William C. King
Robert J. Madden
C. A. Mcknight
Roger K. Shearman
Mrs. Pollifax, Spy
Gilman's clever, popular twist on the genre caught the attention of Rosalind Russell's husband, theatrical producer Frederick Brisson, who purchased the novel shortly after its release in 1969 with the intention of developing it as a future project for his wife. The production timeline was advanced when Russell, who had been lobbying to play Coco Chanel in the Broadway musical Coco, did not get the part (which went to Katharine Hepburn) and was now available and in need of a project. Brisson stepped in with The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, which eventually made it to the screen as Mrs. Pollifax Spy.
With a final screenplay by Rosalind Russell using a pen name, the production of Mrs. Pollifax Spy was directed by Leslie H. Martinson, a veteran who had cut his teeth on dozens of television episodes, moved into features with P.T. 109 in 1963, then moved back into a steady career directing many popular, top-rated TV series of the 1960s. Russell had seen and been impressed with his 1967 tongue-in-cheek espionage adventure Fathom starring Raquel Welch, and felt he had the right touch for her own lighthearted spy caper.
Producer Brisson assembled a cast of gifted actors to support his wife, including the droll Darren McGavin, who, though known mainly at the time as a dramatic actor, would get the chance to use his comedic talent in Mrs. Pollifax Spy. (Screen newcomer Gene Hackman had also been up for the role.) The rest of the cast was composed of veteran "I-know-his-face-but-I-don't-know-his-name" character actors such as Nehemiah Persoff, Harold Gould, Albert Paulsen, Robert Donner, Dana Elcar, John Beck and many others. Even though Miss Russell was in her early sixties, the shooting schedule and sheer rigor of the multi-location action comedy was eagerly anticipated by all.
With most of the on-screen action supposed to be taking place in the far-off but very real People's Republic of Albania, there were concerns that this would be a runaway production, but there were never any plans to shoot the film anywhere but in the U.S. with a few locations in Mexico. To double for Albania, the filmmakers lucked upon the spectacular Jackson Hole, Wyoming, terrain with its myriad of breathtaking vistas and rugged Grand Teton mountain locales which could perfectly capture the remote mystery of the Albanian landscape. In August of 1969 a cast and crew of over 100 descended upon Jackson Hole, receiving a gala welcome and finding a local populace ready and willing to help the moviemakers throughout the production.
According to Walt Farmer, whose Wyoming Film History book details the filming of this and other locally-produced movies, Rosalind Russell, though afraid of heights, bravely rode an aerial tram to the filming location every day, and other crewmembers tackled treacherous and twisting mountain roads to transport equipment to the site. One of the biggest props brought from California to the location was a pair of huge doors, previously seen as the castle entrance in Camelot (1967). Too big to be trucked in, these enormous structures had to be attached to the bottom of the tram in order to be hauled up, dangling ominously from it until it reached the peak. The primary filming location at the top, at a startling 10,450 feet altitude, was an area surrounding the tram station, where midday storms would often halt filming for several hours.
Despite the obvious hardships of simply getting the movie made, Rosalind Russell was also not in perfect health, having undergone an earlier double mastectomy. Now she found herself battling what she would later learn was rheumatoid arthritis. At first she believed the pain in her fingers and joints and her swollen hands were due to the often brutally cold conditions at the Wyoming film locations. During filming she was dunked several times in icy water, but despite her own discomfort, she'd offer up her own mittens and scarves to a crewmember whenever she would spot one shivering with cold. Though the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis wasn't a direct result of the bitter conditions during the filming of Mrs. Pollifax Spy, it was still a daunting and exhausting shoot. The movie would turn out to be Russell's last feature film, though she did make one more movie-for-television in 1972, The Crooked Hearts. Rosalind Russell died in 1976.
Reviews for Mrs. Pollifax Spy were decidedly mixed. Many critics enjoyed Rosalind Russell's plucky performance and the contributions of the talented supporting cast. Others faulted the overlong and excessively intricate script which Ms. Russell had written. Perhaps it was just that this quirky, unique and lighthearted spy picture was too untypical of the genre to make it a popular success plus it lacked a hip hook for younger audiences. Nevertheless, as the last screen appearance of the bigger-than-life and always enchanting Rosalind Russell, Mrs. Pollifax Spy is an utterly delightful and rarely seen treat.
Producer: Frederick Brisson, Charles Forsythe
Director: Leslie H. Martinson
Screenplay: Rosalind Russell, Dorothy Gilman (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Film Editing: Fred Bohanan, Gene Milford
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Emily Pollifax), Darren McGavin (Farrell), Nehemiah Persoff (Berisha), Harold Gould (Nexdhet), Albert Paulsen (Perdido), John Beck (Lulash).
by Lisa Mateas
Mrs. Pollifax, Spy
The working title of the film was The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. The end credits include the following statement: "Research for this film was done from a documentary picture-'The Three Faces of Communism' which was filmed in present day occupied Albania." No additional information about that documentary has been found. Set decorator William Kuehl's surname was misspelled "Keuhl" in the onscreen credits. C. A. McKnight, the name credited with the film's screenplay, is actually a pseudonym for actress Rosalind Russell. Although few contemporary sources, aside from New York Times and Filmfacts, mentioned Russell's writing connection to the film, information in the AMPAS Library production file for the 1956 film The Unguarded Moment (see below) confirms that Russell originally wrote the original story for that film under the C. A. McKnight pseudonym. Information in Russell's autobiography and various modern sources confirm that C. A. McKnight was an occasionally used writing pseudonym of the actress.
Dorothy Gilman's The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, which was the basis for the film, was the first in a series of fourteen novels published between 1966 and 2000 featuring the character of New Jersey widow "Mrs. Emily Pollifax," who became an on-call spy for the CIA during the Cold War. The film roughly follows the novel, although the novel provides some background on Mrs. Pollifax, who, in the novel, is feeling useless and contemplating suicide until she is advised by her doctor that she still has time to reach for her dreams. Mrs. Pollifax then decides to follow one of her early dreams of becoming a spy. Another difference between the novel and the film is that, in the novel "Sgt. Lulash" helps Mrs. Pollifax and "Johnny Farrell" to escape but does not defect. Author Patrick Dennis, who had a brief appearance in the film as a tourist, wrote the best-selling novel Auntie Mame, which was adapted into the very successful Broadway play and 1958 film of the same name, in which Russell played the title role.
Contemporary news items from April 1966 through early 1968 stated that the film initially was to be produced by Jacques Mapes for Ross Hunter Productions as a Universal Pictures release. First Herman Raucher, then A. J. Russell (possibly another Rosalind Russell pseudonym) were to write the screenplay for the story, which producer Frederick Brisson, Russell's husband, bought as a property for her. David Lowell Rich was first announced as the film's director, and was listed in that capacity on a March 27, 1968 Variety production chart. However, filming was delayed and the picture did not start production until late August 1969, at which time Leslie Martinson was the director.
According to news items in 1969, the film was shot on the Warner Bros. lot (then called Warner Bros.-Seven Arts). Although a news item in Daily Variety on September 5, 1969 quoted Brisson as stating that trade paper ads he had taken out indicating that the film would be shot in Mexico and Albania were "a put-on," some scenes in which Russell appears that are set in Mexico City were shot there. Some pre-production news items indicated that portions of the film would also be shot in Europe, but the Daily Variety article and other contemporary sources confirm that the Albanian sequences were shot near Jackson Hole in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. Various news items during the after production describe problems which the filmmakers encountered in trying to find a distributor. United Artists eventually released the film in 1971.
Mrs. Pollifax-Spy marked the last feature film appearance of Russell (1907-1976). She acted in one additional film, the 1972 television movie Crooked Hearts. Brisson, Russell's longtime husband, produced many of her films. Another adaptation of Gilman's novel was made for television in 1999 under the original title of the novel, starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Pollifax and Thomas Ian Griffith as Farrell.
Released in United States Spring March 1971
Released in United States Spring March 1971