+++ STENCH, an evil organisation led by the mysterious Doctor Crow, has infiltrated and sabotaged a top secret British research lab and stolen a brand new chemical formula. Stretched thin by the challenges of the Cold War, the British intelligence establishment has to send their most inept agent, Desmond Simkins (played by Kenneth Williams), in pursuit of the villains, and he is assisted only by three rookies who have barely finished their training.
Will our heroes prevail?
Will they cause more chaos and mayhem than the formula is worth?
Most certainly. +++
I had only ever properly watched two Carry On films, and that was 30 years ago when a handful of them were broadcast on TV. So my memory of them is rather dim, but of course I am aware that the franchise is primarily known for the fact that the few reasonably good jokes are smothered under a layer of shticky acting and bawdy humour.
Nevertheless, I had some hope for Carry On Spying. For one, because it is an early film in the franchise, so I was hoping that the bawdiness and the shtick would be far less prominent; and also because it is a spy spoof comedy, so genre-wise should be right up my alley.
And I must say that the film really met my expectations. It was entertaining, well-paced (a few overly-long running/escaping scenes notwithstanding), and the bawdy jokes were mostly tame and grounded in solid humour.
Since the Carry On screenplays are not exactly sophisticated constructs that take years to write, it is safe to assume that the team had always several ideas, outlines, and half-finished scripts floating around. So it is tempting to think that the decision to go with Carry On Spying as their next project, filmed in early 1964, was in part prompted by the defection of British agent Kim Philby to Moscow in 1963 – the latest and perhaps biggest blow to British Intelligence. But of course, filming of Carry On Spying also came hot on the heels of James Bond’s first two cinema outings: Dr. No and From Russia with Love.
As it turns out, there are only one or two scenes in the film that you could link to Philby, and only with a lot of good will. While the ineptitude of British Intelligence (embodied by Simkins) lies at the heart of the story, the film is mostly occupied by re-living and calling out genre tropes.
In this regard, the film’s main part can be subdivided into four segments. The first one takes place in Vienna, and spoofs thrillers in the tradition of The Third Man. The second one takes place in Algiers, and plays with tropes of adventure/spy films with scenes set in the Maghreb. The third one is set on an over-night train, spoofing those films that take place on such trains (including From Russia With Love), with all the appertaining tropes like scenes in sleeper cabins, etc. The fourth segment is taking place in a villain lair that could be straight out of Dr. No or earlier SciFi B-movies. Doctor Crow is a Bond villain to boot and the name is almost certainly a spoof of Bond’s Doctor No. Likewise, STENCH is a spoof of SPECTRE.
The fact that this film is entirely in black & white, with highly competent lighting and cinematography under DP Alan Hume, helps greatly in emulating classic genre entires like The Third Man. One of the villains is code-named The Fat Man, which might be a reference to a number of things, including a noir film of that name or to a character in The Maltese Falcon.
Apart from good lighting and camera work, the film benefits from very good performances by its cast. Kenneth Williams is going on a tour de force here as the bumbling agent Simkins who is blessedly oblivious to his own ineptitude. He is supported by Charles Hawtrey as the brittle and hapless trainee agent Bind in an outstanding performance, and by a fascinatingly goofy Barbara Windsor in her first Carry On appearance. The quartet is completed by Bernard Cribbins who takes on the role of the quasi-straight man. While bumbling, his character is kind and brave and most of the times he is the voice of reason – even if Simkins will not listen to him.
Supporting roles are filled by Eric Barker, Richard Wattis, and rising star Jim Dale who gives a tremendous performance. On the side of the bad guys you have another set of great actors (including some series regulars) like Dilys Laye, Eric Pohlmann, Victor Maddern, and Judith Furse.
The writing is OK, but nothing special. The plot works well but is razor-thin and mainly exists for the actors to be sent on a wild goose-chase; with the aim of creating the four above-mentioned segments in order to reach all those various tropes and traditions that the writers intended to spoof. The dialogue is lots of fun, but it is the delivery that brings it to life and that elevates the lamer jokes that are nestled in between the good ones.
It is astonishing what they could do on a limited budget and in only 30 days of filming. The credit for this goes to the director and his team. Gerald Thomas probably knew how to rein in the cast if he had to, preferably only employing actors and crew who he could trust to immediately get settled and get to work.
Because the actual plot of the film was only of minor interest to the writers, the film ends rather abruptly and without a particularly strong or meaningful resolution.
Rating: 6.0 to 6.5 out of 10