Cover of the VHS release
Nuclear war specialist Pat Arrmstrong and his colleague Ferdy Foxwell return from a six-week mission aboard a nuclear submarine gathering data on Soviet communications and electronic warfare techniques in the Arctic Ocean.
Armstrong travels back to London, where he finds his flat has been broken into and mysteriously re-decorated. Back at work at the war games research centre, he has to get used to a new boss, US Colonel Schlegel. What follows is a complex plot involving an ill Russian general, a corrupt Tory MP and a denouement on the ice in the Arctic where Armstrong narrowly escapes being killed. Linking back to the earlier Harry Palmer films, the Soviet Colonel Stok makes another appearance in this film.
It was originally billed in the film’s PR material in the following way: “stunning, cunning, spy-thrilling...in this deadly game of east-west politics, ‘superspy’ Armstrong is an expendable man.” Despite the excellent PR spin, the film by all accounts did little with theatre audiences in the UK and overseas.
The book draws parallels with the so-called 'spy with no name' films; however, Deighton has corroborated that the Patrick Armstrong character is not the unnamed spy who became Harry Palmer. As such, it’s not as widely recognised as one of the Harry Palmer films and there is little dramatic connection back to the earlier films.
Michael Petrovich, a relatively unknown actor, plays the main character with a new identity and role outside of the secret service - it appears - doing war gaming for a London-based defence research agency. Petrovich does try to replicate the character of a tough-guy spy. His work on the film isn't bad and there are performances from a range of British actors which add something.
Similarly, the actor playing Colonel Stok is fine, but lacks Oskar Homolka's bulky, vodka-fuelled bonhomie and knowing expression from the earlier films. The film script is quite labyrnthine at key points and the viewer is not always clear who's doing what to whom, why, or what their back-story is. But, the narrative of the original story is followed pretty closely and it is a good solid drama.
Visually, this has the appearance of a TV series rather than a feature film, which means this film lacks some of the dramatic impact you'd hope for. Nevertheless, it feels very much of its time and has a lot of seventies style and panache to it.
This film has never, as research seems to indicate, been released commercially on DVD in the UK or the US markets since its release - suggesting that the audience response in 1976 was an arbiter of an future audience interest in buying or renting this movie. Interestingly, it did come out in the UK briefly on Betamax Video. It has rarely if ever been shown on terrestrial TV.
Deighton wrote Spy Story after a letter from a wargamer, who thought that Bomber would make a very good basis for a wargame. They exchanged a few letters and Deighton became interested in the idea of a story in which people were playing a wargame. He thought it would require a sort of massive board to explain it to the audience (sort of like the boards used by the RAF in the Battle of Britain. This is the aspect of Spy Story that professionals have pointed out to Deighton is inaccurate, as there would be only a lot of data being churned out by machines.
The director, Lindsay Shonteff, who died five years ago, was quite a cinematic maverick who fell out with a number of studios but continued to make a wide range of films.
This YouTube-linked video links to a YouTube video showing a two minute Australian teaser promo for the film, featuring a number of scenes from the movie accompanied by a voiceover and music from the film. Even allowing for the age of the film, the evident lack of Hollywood polish in the film is clear from just this trailer, though it does still have some charm.