Monday, October 12, 2009

Hot Enough for June

Nore - in Godalming, Surrey - was the last and most extravagant of the country houses Dirk Bogarde owned in England before he upped sticks for France and settled in a Provence farmhouse. Set in ten acres, it was more of an estate, with two cottages and a studio in addition to the house itself, which boasted ten bedrooms and eight bathrooms. Bogarde and his manager/partner Tony Forwood paid £40,000 for it. That was in 1962. When it went on the market in 2004, the asking price was £2.5million.

Imagine the upkeep! It's no coincidence, as John Coldstream points out in his magnificent biography of Bogarde, that he began "accepting parts purely for the money". Even then, he wasn't enamoured about appearing in 'Hot Enough for June', Ralph Thomas's adaptation of Lionel Davidson's novel 'The Night of Wenceslas'. It was only when Tom Courtenay was in the frame for Nicholas Whistler, the hapless linguist who becomes a spy without even knowing it, that Forwood, as Coldstream recounts in the biography "said to Dirk in front of the producer and director: 'I'm not sure, Dirk, that you can afford to turn this down. Everyone knew that 'afford' was meant in the literal sense."

It wouldn't be the last time Bogarde gritted his teeth and made a film he had no interest in - nor the last time he'd do it to fund the upkeep on a house. In the 70s, he again returned to the espionage genre (with 'The Serpent' and 'Permission to Kill') and sunk the paycheques into Clermont, his property in France. I've not seen either of these, although both have eclectic casts and sound like they might be highly entertaining films. I have seen 'Hot Enough for June', though, and while it's not the abject mess that many critics would have you believe neither is it (unfortunately) a camp, spoofy underrated gem ripe for rediscovery.

That it never really gels is because it isn't camp or spoofy enough.

The plot in a nutshell: aspiring writer Nicholas Whistler (Bogarde) is happily signing on at the Labour Exchange when he's given an interview, ostensibly for a trainee management position. Picked for an overseas assignment due to his fluency in Czech, he has no idea that his new boss, Cunliffe (Robert Morley) is actually a big wheel in MI5, or that he's an unknowing courier, there to collect a formula and carry it back to London. Arriving in Prague, he is assigned a chauffeur: the glamorous Vlasta (Sylva Koscina). He has just as little idea that Vlasta's father, Simoneva (Leo McKern) is a ranking member of the Secret Police and Cunliffe's opposite number. Simoneva wants Whistler for his contact and the formula. Vlasta just plain wants him. Hilarious shenanigans ensue.

Or should have ensued. The opening scene, even before Whistler is recruited, sets the scene for the film 'Hot Enough for June' could have been. In a non-descript office, spymaster Roger Allsop (John le Mesurier) returns to the quartermaster a plethora of gadgets, ruing the untimely demise of the agent to whom they'd been issued. A cut to an index card reading "007 - deceased" provides the punchline. Although the number is never mentioned, it's clear Whistler has been recruited as 008. Only without anyone actually bothering to tell him.

At this point (ie. three minutes in), Ralph Thomas and scripter Lukas Heller - best known perhaps as co-writer, with Nunnally Johnson, of 'The Dirty Dozen' - could have gone one of two ways: absurdist humour played dead straight (a la 'Dr Strangelove'), or out-and-out camp spoofery. Sadly, 'Hot Enough for June' is neither one thing nor the other, and such pleasure as it does offer are incidental ones. Such as Morley and McKern chewing up the scenery, the latter bringing a brusque physicality and a droll wit to his characterisation of Simoneva.

There are wry touches - although much more humour could have been milked from them - in a smattering of scenes which point up the differences between Whistler and his better-known predecessor: when Whistler dons a tux it's not to make a dashing entrance into an opulent casino but to impersonate a head waiter as he makes his escape through a restaurant (he tarries long enough to serve up a Hungarian goulash with dumplings; when Whistler needs a mode of transport to get away from his pursuers it's not an Aston Martin DB5 with modifications but a stolen push bike.

Bogarde bumbles through the (deliberately) half-arsed action scenes like a good sport, maintaining an air of perplexion throughout. The man was no stranger to light comedy at this stage in his career, as his almost unholy popularity as Simon Sparrow in the 'Doctor' films attests. He even invests his scenes with Sylva Koscina with a bit of sparkle.

But, ah Sylva Koscina! If there is any reason to watch 'Hot Enough for June', it's Sylva Koscina. Playing Vlasta as an ice-maiden one moment and a purring, coquettish kitten the next - and with a twinkle in her eye that lets you know the whole thing's one big joke - she sways and shimmies through the film with a knockout 60s hairdo, an hourglass figure and a disarming amount of likeability.

Never really achieving the Hollywood cross-over success of Sophia Loren, Koscina propped up any number of forgotten thrillers and sex comedies in the '60s and '70s. Coincidentally, her motivation for accepting roles was not dissimilar to Bogarde's: most of the money went into her well-appointed villa in Rome's affluent Marino district.

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