With James Bond all the rage in the 1960s, almost every star in Hollywood took a turn as a super-spy. Based on a novel by Henry Maxfield, The Double Man finds steely, emotionless Cold War agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) head for the Austrian Alps when his teenage son dies in a skiing accident. Despite official indifference, Slater suspects foul play and aided by his former partner, Frank Wheatley (Clive Revill) conducts his own investigation that leads to ski instructor Gina Ericson (Britt Ekland), the last person to see his son alive. Her recollection of a masked man sets Slater on the right track, but when he tracks the villains down to their hideout, he gets a nasty surprise.
Putting such a cold, almost callous character at the centre of the story risks alienating your audience, but luckily the iconic Brynner has that attention-grabbing screen presence to make it work. The core concept - a spy movie staple - trades on the two sides of his screen persona, as we get hints of the affable, heroic Yul Brynner we love from The Magnificent Seven (1963) or The King and I (1956), alongside the scary, ruthless Yul set to reach full bloom in Westworld (1973). He is counterbalanced by the gentler, more humane Wheatley, who nonetheless proves prone to panic when Slater needs help.
Brynner does give a sense of Slater wrestling with an inner torment (He punches Wheatly for his remark: “You never loved anyone in your life”), although this is not apparent in the script. The film has elements of light comedy - mostly involving the flirtatious Mrs. Carrington (Moira Lister) - and Swinging Sixties chic, but is a more sombre affair than say, In Like Flint (1967) or the Matt Helm films. A world-weariness with espionage games coexists with ski chases, glitzy parties and other remnants of high style. Ernie Freeman supplies the jazzy score while D.P. Denys Coop sweeps his camera along the alpine scenery.
Always an athletic presence, Brynner acquits himself well in the brisk action scenes, which in a neat irony have him don the same ski-mask worn by his son’s killer. The mid-film switcheroo is quite clever in that our allegiance remains with “Slater” and makes his sudden violent behaviour, shocking but plausible. Another nice touch is the killer’s cruel jest to the captive hero regarding his son’s death: “He was delighted his father had time to go skiing with him.”
The ever-oily Anton Diffring is our chief villain, while Britt Ekland supplies glamour, although she is less capable as a dramatic actress. Not a box-office success in its day, the mystery plot does perhaps parallel its hero a little too closely with such cold efficiency. However, things remain compelling and build to a nicely tense standoff. The ending does try to have it both ways, featuring both a romantic clinch and a bleak assessment of the flawed hero.