Rod Taylor is the man. Whether punching Morlocks in The Time Machine (1960), kicking ass as a hard-bitten mercenary in Dark of the Sun (1968), or er… watching his house explode in slow-motion in Zabriskie Point (1970), he exudes a certain rugged masculinity that makes him ideal for a Swinging Sixties James Bond rip-off. Except The Liquidator isn’t that straightforward. Based on a novel by John Gardner, the movie opens with Shirley Bassey shrieking her way through Lalo Schifrin’s theme music, suggesting this aims to be another Goldfinger (1964). However, the cartoon credits animated by Richard Williams are equally redolent of The Pink Panther (1964).
A black and white prologue in war torn France introduces our clumsy hero, Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) who accidentally saves Colonel Mostyn (Trevor Howard) from enemy agents. Mostyn remembers Oakes twenty years later, when he and his superior (Wilfrid Hyde-White) hit upon the cheerfully amoral idea of liquidating any British agents who prove treacherous or bothersome. Trained to fight, shoot and identify poisonous toxins by smell, Oakes is given a stylish bachelor pad and any number of young ladies to satisfy his raging libido - except Mostyn’s secretary Iris (future Bond girl Jill St. John - whose British accent is surprisingly good), since romancing agency employees is strictly verboten. Problem is, Oakes is rather squeamish about killing people, so he hires diligent professional killer Griffen (Eric Sykes) to bump targets off for him. With Griffen’s aid, Oakes rises to the top of his profession. He decides to risk a holiday of sun, sand and sex with Iris in Monaco, where trouble awaits…
Capably handled by cinematographer-turned-director Jack Cardiff, The Liquidator trundles along amiably without ever really kicking into high gear. At its heart lies a genuinely witty idea. Imagine James Bond hired some nobody to do all the hard work, while he indulges his playboy lifestyle. Eric Sykes is quite intriguing as the dryly philosophical assassin (“I long ceased to ponder the foolishness of my fellow man”), but this becomes one of several promising plot threads abruptly snipped before they blossom. In Monaco, a sultry French fancy (Gabriella Licudi) lures Oakes into a trap, but the villains suddenly allow him to escape. Halfway through, the film springs its big surprise when Oakes is tricked into trying to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh, but even this is dispensed with far too easily.
The presence of so many droll, British character actors pitches this closer to an Ealing comedy laced with Swinging London sex appeal, but the film lurches from satire, spy caper and sex farce without ever deciding what it wants to be. Despite his qualms about killing, Oakes handles himself well enough through several punch-ups and thrilling stunts. He’s neither a super-spy nor a total buffoon, which is perhaps more realistic, yet still smacks of the filmmakers trying to have their cake and eat it. A few gags are on a Carry On level (“What lovely multi-coloured tits!” remarks Mostyn, admiring the birds while Oakes does a double-take and his girlfriend takes offence), but some - including Oakes’ climactic attempt to land an experimental aircraft aided by a delightfully dry RAF instructor (Richard Wattis) - are very funny indeed and the identity of the master-villain is a genuine surprise. Eurospy fans will enjoy Daniel Emilfork and Alexandra Bastedo in minor roles, plus the once in a lifetime sight of David Tomlinson as an ice-cold, ruthless assassin. What would Mary Poppins say?