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  Ring of Spies Espionage, Suburban Style
Year: 1964
Director: Robert Tronson
Stars: Bernard Lee, William Sylvester, Margaret Tyzack, David Kossoff, Thorley Walters, Nancy Nevinson, Derek Francis, Hector Ross, George Pravda, Patrick Barr, Justine Lord, Gillian Lewis, Newton Blick, Philip Latham, Cyril Chamberlain, Bryan Pringle
Genre: Drama, Thriller, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Britain is under threat from spies, who could be lurking anywhere in the country and may be walking past you in the street or be your next-door neighbours. These are dangerous people for they place the liberty, values and even the lives of the nation under pressure, and when they are caught the law comes down on them like a ton of bricks. For example, there is Henry Houghton (Bernard Lee), a low-level bureaucrat, ex-British Navy, in Warsaw who as an alcoholic thought little of womanising as much as possible - and was happy to pass information on to the Soviets there. He was replaced in this position and returned to England, the town of Portland, where he was given a different, though similarly low-level job at a base there. But he was brimming with resentment...

This was a film based on a true story, a fictionalisation of the Portland Spy Ring from 1961 that rocked Britain because it showed that spies could be living in the most mundane and suburban of circumstances, literally next door to you. This weirdly banal paranoia was well-captured here, its matter of fact stylings growing curiously tense, for although the stakes were high the details were so prosaic as to be almost perversely unexciting, and director Robert Tronson was able to elicit this paradox very effectively while sticking loosely, but not too loosely, to the truth. Equally good was Lee who had become known as M in the James Bond films, an item of casting that was quite inspired, for his Houghton character was about as far from the upstanding boss as he could get.

And yet, they still existed in the same world of espionage, only this was reality where bedding beautiful women and getting into gadget-packed car chases just did not happen to agents like Houghton. The best he gets for the former is dowdy spinster Bunty Gee (Margaret Tyzack) who, going about his lecherous ways that more often than not are rebuffed, he manages to charm merely by showing an interest in her (and watching her badminton matches!). Make no mistake, there was nothing glamorous about this, unless you counted William Sylvester's supposedly Canadian, then supposedly American, but actually Russian, contact who convinces the couple to work for him by "borrowing" documents from the safe at the base so they can be photographed and turned into microdots (do spies still use those?) all the better to be smuggled to foreign climes.

Decades later, when we hear of spies they are committing murders with poison that are so blatant it's almost as if the Russians are taunting the West, knowing there will be no repercussions they cannot weather successfully, but back then they were a lot more careful, and the spy game was a lot more convoluted-seeming. There was plenty of detail included here, and they used the actual locations where possible, but in the main it was the strength of the performances and the direction that served up its chill, designed, apparently, to have you wondering about the person in the cinema seat next to you - even if it was the person you had shown up to the picture palace with. The first half illustrated how Houghton and Gee were drawn in, the second how they were caught, which would have been common knowledge back in the mid-sixties but here may contain unintended suspense to modern viewers. With nothing to set the pulse pounding by design, it was engrossing to see how much Ring of Spies drew you in, and being aware of its general accuracy only more so, this being the milieu of shortwave numbers stations and code phrases passed in art galleries.

[Network release this on Blu-ray as part of The British Film with an image gallery and trailer as extras.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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