Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: S*P*Y*S (1974)

In 1974 Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, hoping to recapture their success two years previously in M*A*S*H, reunited for director Irvin Kershner's  S*P*Y*S. The result was a counterculture spy spoof that tunes the counterculture elements way down to the point where it most closely resembles a Hope/Crosby ROAD movie with more car chases and explosions.

Sutherland and Gould play Bruland and Griff, two not very bright CIA field agents. When they botch the defection of a Russian gymnast, resulting in the deaths of two Russian operatives, it instigates a new international agreement among the world's intelligence agencies demanding "a corpse for a corpse." Finding themselves marked for death by the CIA as well as the KGB,  Griff and Bruland, along with a beautiful French anarchist (Zouzou), flee through Europe to escape their former employers.

It's easy to see why audiences didn't respond to this film when it was released in 1974.  When inevitably compared to M*A*S*H it becomes obvious that S*P*Y*S is a much lesser film. It's cartoonish and relies much too heavily on slapstick. In fact, the whole thing feels rather like a television sitcom, which isn't surprising since its screenwriters, Lawrence Cohen and Fred Freeman, are both sitcom veterans who returned to TV shortly after writing this film. However, the film has one thing that saves it from being a waste of time: the chemistry between Sutherland and Gould. The actors are obviously friends and clearing are enjoying riffing off each other and that enjoyment is contagious. If they had wanted to, they could have been a great comedy team and it's a shame that the critical reaction to this film probably discouraged them from teaming up again.

Anyone who rents the DVD of S*P*Y*S would do well to check out the supplements on the disc including an informative featurette on the making of the film. Gould especially is very candid about his dislike of the script and how Sutherland talked him into doing the film. Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff discuss the genesis of the project, originally titled WET STUFF (intelligence agency slang for blood, apparently) and their difficulties getting the project financed even after the two stars became attached. They then talk about selling the film to 20th Century Fox who, against the wishes of everyone involved in the making of the film, changed the title and marketed the film to more directly play up the connection to M*A*S*H.

Time has been kind to S*P*Y*S.  Without the specter of M*A*S*H looming over it, S*P*Y*S has a lot less to live up to.  Also the absence of a lot of political content has kept the film from becoming too dated. It may fail as political satire but it's good-natured enough to be a pleasant way to spend 87 minutes and sometimes that's enough.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

1 comment:

  1. This was perhaps the first film I was ever dissuaded from seeing by a hostile newspaper review, when I was 9yo...not that it was going to be playing long enough at the mall theater, if it even opened there, for me to catch it. But I've barely come across it since, either.