Not all of the spy thrillers that followed in the wake of the James Bond craze, which began in 1962 with Dr. No, were pale imitations or grade B action-adventure fare. There were exceptions in this burgeoning genre and one of the best was Agent 8 ¾ (1964, aka Hot Enough for June). Instead of relying on high tech gadgetry, special effects and slam bang action sequences, this British import took a droll, tongue-in-cheek approach to the spy genre and had fun parodying the politics of the Cold War era in its tale of an aspiring novelist being used by British Intelligence as a pawn in their spy games with Communist foes in Prague.
The fast-paced satire begins when unemployed writer Nicholas Whistler (Dirk Bogarde) is forced to take the government job he is offered in order to keep his benefits. Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley), his new employer, deliberately keeps Whistler in the dark about the nature of his new work as a translator (he speaks fluent Czech) for an international glass company. Sent on assignment to Prague, he quickly learns he is being used as a courier and that his Czech guide book contains top secret information for his anonymous contact behind the Iron Curtain.
Once he realizes he is being used as a dispensable dupe by Colonel Cunliffe, he takes matters into his own hands and tries to make his way to the safety of the British Embassy before Simoneva (Leo McKern), head of Czech Intelligence, can capture him. Complications arise when Whistler falls in love with his alluring chauffeur Vlasta (Sylva Koscina), who turns out to be a secret agent and the daughter of Simoneva.
Agent 8 ¾ was a joint collaboration between producer Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas; together they had worked with Dirk Bogarde as their star numerous times before on such films as Doctor at Large (1957), Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) and A Tale of Two Cities (1958). After the excellent critical notices he had received for Victim (1961) and The Servant (1963), Bogarde was becoming more particular about his film roles and he didn’t want to do Agent 8 ¾. He initially passed on the part and Tom Courtenay agreed to play the lead but then financial obligations made Bogarde change his mind.
After the first draft of the screenplay by Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler was rejected by the producers, a new screenplay by Lukas Heller (based on the novel by Lionel Davidson) was approved and production began with Bogarde reporting for work at Pinewood Studios where most of the interiors were shot. The cast and crew also traveled to Padua, Italy for some location shooting – a stand-in for Prague – since the filmmakers were not allowed to shoot in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia.
British critics were not very receptive to Agent 8 ¾ and felt it didn’t work as a comedy or an espionage thriller. One writer, commenting on Bogarde’s performance, wrote “He is the sort of secret agent who looks as menacing as a pop gun and probably isn’t even licensed to kill grouse.”
Part of the disappointed expectations could be blamed on the film’s promotion which boasted the tag lines, “She’s an Eye Catcher…He’s a Spy Catcher in the Comedy of the Year!” and “He’s a Special Kind of Spy…he doesn’t know enough to come in from the cold” (an in-joke reference to John le Carre’s much more somber espionage tale, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965).Yet Agent 8 ¾ was not a broad comedy at all but a subtle, witty look at East-West relations in the context of a secret agent satire. The cast is first rate with Robert Morley and Leo McKern in superb form and the romance between Bogarde and the sexy and delightful Sylva Koscina draws favorable comparisons to the similar themed Ninotchka (1939) with its capitalist/communist love match in the form of Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas.
In the U.S. where Too Hot for June (a reference to a secret code phrase in the film) was released under the title, Agent 8 ¾, the critics were more complimentary with Variety calling it an “amiable enough spoof of espionage,” adding that, “Most of the humor comes from witty prods at the expense of the Foreign Office and the Iron Curtain Party system.” Still, the film was no box office smash but it stands out as an intelligent entertainment compared to some of the silly spy parodies that followed and it looks even better now.
Agent 8 ¾ was first released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the U.S. by VCI Entertainment in August 2011. In February 2016 the UK distributor Network released a PAL Blu-Ray version under the original title Hot Enough for June (You will need an all-region DVD to view this). Neither version offers much in the way of supplements other than the theatrical trailer and a photo gallery but it is good to see high definition transfers of this rarely screened title. * This is a revised and expanded version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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