The scene is of carnage around this wealthy Mediterranean home, with gunned down bodies littered around the garden and empty swimming pool. But someone is moving: it is John Shay (George Peppard), a British Government agent who picks his way through the damage to lift the only woman present, Sarah Booth (Joan Collins) out of the area and inside, where he can tend to her wound. Her arm was grazed by a bullet, and though she protests loudly she is not hurt badly, but what brought Shay to this drastic action? It began when he was in Czechoslovakia and trying to contact another agent there; the mission went very wrong and left him more than smarting, he felt betrayed. But by whom?
By 1970 the spy movie was diverging thanks to the twin poles of British fiction as far as the authorship went, for you were either going to create something patterned after James Bond, or John Le Carré. Both concerned themselves with the dodgy dealings behind the scenes of those in power over the world, yet while Ian Fleming had made spying glamorous, Le Carré preferred to emphasise how miserable such work was, with paranoia and doleful one-upmanship at every turn. That said, neither shied away from the fact this was dangerous work, and while Bond was a fantasy, Le Carré's depressed civil servants existed in a real world that could see you get murdered just as easily as in Fleming's efforts.
The Executioner was a strange beast in that it came in like a Bond, that title in particular leading you to expect non-stop action, but soon settled into a Le Carré rut, with a touch of Harry Palmer for flavour. What was interesting was the use of plot devices and details that made for a more convincing watch than any simple Bond rip-off, starting with the inclusion of the lead character using a numbers station to gather information while in the field: these unofficial/official radio broadcasts baffled and intrigued many who picked them up while running through the shortwave dial in the wee small hours, so it was instructive to watch a spy, albeit a fictional one, put them to their proper purpose and decode them.
Shay as played by Peppard had his accent explained away by dint of the protagonist having been born in Britain but brought up in America, just in case you were wondering what a Yank was doing working for the secret services in the United Kingdom, though even then the more probable reason that producer Charles Schneer (best known for his Ray Harryhausen collaborations) wanted an American star to sell this better in the lucrative U.S. markets was hard to miss. Still, Peppard could play the man of action practically in his sleep, though he seemed a shade more engaged with the script here, as if he had somehow been cast in a genuine Le Carré adaptation instead of a respectable knock-off. He was surrounded by Brits, however, aside from defector Oskar Homolka who was key to the plot, yet disposed of too quickly.
In aping the heavily conspiratorial angle of a George Smiley mystery, there was a threat of this becoming so self-important that amusement or at least enjoyment was going to be thin on the ground, yet Shay contained a certain anti-establishment rebelliousness, no matter what side of the political or international divide those leanings were from. In spite of that dramatic opening sequence, quite a bit of the drama was low key, with Peppard a coiled spring of tension only rarely allowed to leap into action, mostly The Executioner's executions turned out to be accidental instead of deliberate, in keeping with the weightily ironic nature of the twists. Shay thinks he is onto something when he works out that a supposed double agent was nothing of the sort, more a lamb to the slaughter, but his endeavours to right that wrong lead to… well, the bloodbath we saw at the beginning. You wouldn't get Bond played for such a sap, which lent this distinction, if not an uplifting tone. Judy Geeson essayed the role of the perpetually frustrated girlfriend - you may sympathise with her disappointments. As for Collins, she mentioned this when discussing her least favourite love scenes because she and Peppard hated one another. Music by Ron Goodwin.