Reporter Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) is determined to be a woman making a difference in a man's world, so to that end she has managed to hit upon a way of exposing the so-called Assassination Bureau, a group of shadowy hitmen who have revolutionised the manner in which key political figures have been bumped off in the early years of the twentieth century. Having noticed a codeword placed in newspaper classified advertisements just before a killing, she places one herself, only the person she wants dead is not who the Bureau might have expected...
Michael Relph adapted Jack London's story for this period adventure that has gathered a cult following over the years thanks to a willing and stylish cast and a sense of humour that, while not employed as much as it should have been, still generated a spirit of goodnatured derring-do. It was a lavish, episodic affair, where the action traveled around Europe from a brothel in Paris to the canals of Venice, filmed where possible in the actual locations to offer it that look of no expense being spared in bringing you, the audience, the very best screen entertainment had to offer. In that fashion it was like an Edwardian James Bond movie, and there were connections to that famous series here.
For a start, stars Rigg and Telly Savalas, as Lord Bostwick, the newspaper proprietor who agrees to hire Sonya, were both in On Her Majesty's Secret Service the same year in surprisingly similar roles, although the head of the Bureau quickly turns out to be Oliver Reed, playing Ivan Dragomiloff, a Russian trained in Britain by his father who founded it. When Sonya gives him the name of the proud, conniving murderer who she wants to be killed, he is taken aback to learn that it is himself who shall be the target, but using her logic and his that there should be a moral reason for offing the victim, he has to admit she has a point and after she hands over the cash in thousands of pounds he agrees to her request.
Reed was never so suave as he was here, with the opulent sets and his finely tailored suits providing him with a truly debonair quality, and Rigg was a perfect match for him, both hinting at a tone of don't take all this dress up seriously folks, but combining that with a grit that put across the genuine sincerity of what was at stake: peace in Europe. Obviously that didn't turn out too well over the next few years, but that won't stop Ivan from doing his level best to prevent his would-be successor to chairman from allowing the power of the assassin to go to his head and bringing down the stability of the continent. It's all rather arch, rather contrived and has a touch of nastiness to give it an edge.
Yet while Rigg and Reed get by on their natural charm, everyone else is simply playing a caricature and the Bureau themselves don't really convince as expert killers - only Savalas is a genuine threat although Curt Jurgens seems to be enjoying himself for a change as an expert swordsman who you just know will be duelling to the death with Ivan before the finale. It has its moments, like the battle on a zeppelin which carries a huge bomb, but it could have been funnier, and it can't help but begin to get repetitive once it's established Ivan has to execute the Bureau one by one. The special effects are fairly cheap looking, unfortunately - all the money must have gone on the sets and costumes. That said, on the plus side there are plenty of explosions, newsreel footage and some singing though a little of this goes a long way. The music is by Ron Grainer.