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9.9.2011

High Season for Spies

The central ploy is a brand new technology (here it is an indestructible steel alloy) and agents from different secret services have to ensure that its formula does not get into the wrong hands - in this case a shady international organisation. Spies from Western secret services meet up in Lisbon and set about wildly chasing after each other, until at the end they join together for the "common good".

Still from the movie "High Season for Spies". (© Germania Film GmbH)


The West European co-production High Season for Spies / Comando de asesinos is a perfect example of a hugely successful sub-genre of espionage films, the so-called 'Eurospy' film. These were a West European phenomenon of the 1960s, a kind of cinematic version of the 'pulp fiction' comic: they were produced on a very low budget and defined by a number of essential ingredients. Amongst these were impressive sets, mad car chases, spectacular shoot-outs and seductive, mainly blond, women... all thrown together in a tense tale of espionage with lots of unexpected twists and turns. The Eurospy hero had to be both cunning and cool but could also be a touch arrogant as well. As the star of what was essentially a piece of escapist entertainment, it was in his nature to play games, indeed to treat the whole world as his personal playground.

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About the Movie

High Season for Spies

Original Title: Comando de asesinos
Spain / Portugal / FRG 1966, 89 min., subtitles

Director: Julio Coll
Cast: Antonio Vilar, Leticia Román, Peter Van Eyck, Klausjürgen Wussow et al.
The majority of Eurospy films were co-productions across two or three West European countries. By the 1960s, this financial model had become a firm favourite with mainstream film producers. A new generation of up-and-coming directors was taking over in countries like France, West Germany and Italy, and the traditional production cadres were having to look for new ways of paying for their films. In other countries, such as Franco´s Spain, mass audience entertainment films were more or less the only films that it was possible to make and that would turn a profit. So these various circumstances came together in the 1960s to provide fertile ground for the growth of European co-productions; logically enough, these were churned out on a cinematic mass production line. The premise was simple: the supply would create the demand. Inevitably, though, as one successful 'model' was copied so many times that it became formulaic and cinema-goers lost interest, it had to be replaced by a new one. Moreover, cross-border marketing created new challenges: each co-producer had to make sure he had enough stars from his own country, because the publicity department needed well-known names and faces if it was to sell the film to each national audience. The international production process also gave rise to some bizarre outcomes, as is abundantly clear in the example to hand: in High Season for Spies, the West German actor, Peter van Eyck, recorded his dialogue passages in German, whilst co-star António Vilar spoke Portuguese and Micaela Rodríguez Cuesta used Spanish. But this linguistic potpourri didn't in the end present any major problems, because the original soundtrack was never used: it was re-cut and over-dubbed for each individual language market. In the version distributed in German-speaking countries, for example, several scenes are missing and much of the dialogue was changed or cut out entirely. Even the storyline was reworked.

The director, Julio Coll, was an influential figure in the world of Spanish commercial cinema during the 1950s and 1960s: he directed nearly 30 films. Earlier he had been a writer of novellas and was also a film and music critic. It may well be that some of the unexpectedly subtle moments in this film are due to this formative literary experience!

High Season for Spies was made in 1966, at the peak of popularity of the Eurospy wave. Naturally enough, Coll deploys all the well-known ingredients in his film, though perhaps rather more tongue-in-cheek than his predecessors. We meet two secret agents, American and British, who are chasing the secret formula for a newly discovered piece of technology – which is also being sought by a number of other shady characters. The storyline is quite complex, although it turns out to be not that important to understand the detail of all the brawling and altercation, bearing in mind that a certain degree of confusion amongst the audience is an essential component of a spy film.

Even if Julio Coll is merely reproducing in High Season for Spies what countless other directors had done before, he manages to do it better simply by the way he handles detail. A good example of this is the storyline above: In the original Spanish screenplay, the story is seen from the point of view of the British agent, Ethel Green. She not only sometimes speaks off-camera, but Mario Pacheco's shots also occasionally follow her personal view of the action. By shifting the focus onto a female commentator, in what is otherwise a pistol-packing, male-dominated action movie, Coll gives the film a fresh and entirely original touch. Furthermore, he finds some remarkable ways of interpreting the business of espionage. For example, the masked ball where all the spies meet up, is a clever allegory of the way the secret agent works.

In conclusion, just a brief comment about one of the main protagonists: Peter van Eyck is the only actor to appear in three films in the "Celluloid Curtain" season: The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse / Die 1.000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960, directed by Fritz Lang), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, directed by Martin Ritt), and High Season for Spies. Although this is pure coincidence, there are some astonishing details in his biography: born in Germany, he became an American citizen during the Second World War and came back to Germany in 1945 as an American film commissioner – an 'agent' with a foot in both worlds, which he remained until his death in 1969.

Today we should enjoy High Season for Spies mainly as a film of historical importance, a paradigm of a cinematic phenomenon that was incredibly successful for just a brief window of time in the 1960s, a time when the mistrust and paranoia of the Cold War infiltrated even the world of popular film.
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Oliver Baumgarten

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