When I think of LSD depictions in the movies, American International Pictures immediately comes to mind with actors like Peter Fonda (The Trip), Susan Strasberg (Psych-Out) and Mimsy Farmer (Riot on Sunset Strip) blowing their minds amid the counterculture of the sixties. Of course, other more unlikely actors have been dosed with the hallucinogen on screen such as Vincent Price (The Tingler), Lana Turner (The Big Cube) and Jackie Gleason (Skidoo) but probably the most unexpected one of all is Dirk Bogarde in Sebastian (1967), a fascinating curiosity released in the waning days of “Swinging London” cinema which has been unaccountably forgotten since its release.
As a high level government specialist employed by the Civil Service, Sebastian (Bogarde) is one of the best cryptologists in the espionage business and oversees an office of women (why no men?), all of them skilled in unraveling secret messages and codes. Like a scene out of George Orwell’s 1984, Sebastian has an office that looks out over a sea of fashionably dressed female workers, scribbling away furiously at their tasks like manic crossword puzzle junkies. He could be Big Brother but his gaze is almost always directed inward, more absorbed by his own thought processes than the surveillance or micromanagement of his staff.
It’s rare for a movie to revolve around such a cerebral character as Sebastian but part of the film’s fascination and success is the way it brings this cold, analytical character to startling life. Bogarde can say more with an arched eyebrow, a slight half smile or a cynical sneer than most actors armed with brilliant dialogue by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams or Harold Pinter. And for the first fourty-five minutes of Sebastian, the movie plays a cool, dispassionate game of cat and mouse with the viewer. It is a satire? Is is a spy film? Is it simply an exercise in style?
Then, rather unexpectedly, it switches gears and drives head-on into a romance subplot but a decidedly unsentimental one. Later on, it drops that angle and swerves back into the espionage game, adding a sinister note of real danger. Yet it all ends up as frenetic and freewheeling as its fluid overhead opening shot of Bogarde racing through the streets (Dirk Bogarde running!) in a red academic gown for a university ceremony.
On the surface Sebastian is a bright, colorful bauble of a film, very much in the flashy style of its era when London was a pop art playground in such films as Blow-Up, Kaleidoscope, Bedazzled, Otley and others. Despite the light tone and upbeat, whimsical music score by Jerry Goldsmith, however, Sebastian is not set in the tourist postcard version of London but a sterile concrete, glass and steel landscape with ugly high rise buildings, mazes of staircases and walkways and hardly a tree or a park in sight (The only exceptions are a few brief scenes of Sebastian walking through a park, deep in thought). Within this antiseptic environment, the characters in the film often fail to click or connect with each other which further points out the irony of humans who are skilled in deciphering codes but less successful in “reading” each other.
The dialogue has a wonderful ping-pong quality in which characters often have exchanges where a question is answered by a different question as the response. There is also a sense of the absurd at work and some lines could have come straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A case in point is a job interview scene between Rebecca Howard (Susannah York) and Sebastian’s personal assistant, Miss Elliott (Margaret Johnston):
Miss Elliott: “Rebecca Howard, age 21. Studied mathematics at Oxford. Left without taking a degree. Why was that?
Rebecca: “I got bored with it. Would I have to work in this place?
Miss Elliott: “Do you like music?”
Rebecca: “Look, what is this job?”
Miss Elliott: “Do you do crossword puzzles?”
Rebecca: “I was born under Capricorn. I do crossword puzzles. I like music. I don’t like snakes or custard. WHAT IS THIS JOB? Who is this Sebastian?”
Miss Elliott: “You’ll find him more whimsical than predatory if that’s any comfort to you.”
Rebecca: “Well, I like them more predatory than whimsical if that’s any comfort to you.”
Miss Elliott: “Yes, I’d say you were aggressive, temperamental and quick-witted. You seem to have the knack. I think you’ll probably do.”
Rebecca: “DO WHAT?”
At which point there is a quick cut to the next scene which provides us with a visual answer to the question. The overall rhythm of the film, the competitive banter, the bright colors against the drab settings, the playful exposition of essentially serious material – all of it creates a compelling tension from scene to scene while somehow maintaining a certain emotional detachment in regards to the story’s protagonist. The emphasis on language, words, letters, anagrams, encoding and decoding is also pervasive and transforms the movie into a puzzle. (Most critics at the time didn’t get it at all).
At first the slow to boil romantic relationship between Sebastian and Rebecca seems artificially grafted onto the film as if imposed by the studio (Paramount) as a ploy to attract female moviegoers. On closer inspection though it actually adds a deeper resonance to the film because Sebastian is an indecipherable code himself and Rebecca’s seduction of him is her attempt to crack the formula.
In the opening scenes of the movie, they “meet cute” – he is dashing across a street without looking and she almost runs him over in her car. They meet again later the same day with Sebastian foregoing any introduction to ask, “How many words can you make out of thorough.” Rebecca almost scores a perfect ten and is given a card and an invitation, “If you want a job call me there.” Several months later, she does comes calling and winds up with a job in Sebastian’s high security decoding division.
Unlike some of the other free spirits who breezed through swinging London cinema like Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan! or Rita Tushingham in The Knack…and How to Get It, Susannah York’s Rebecca is no kook but a calculating, ambitious career girl who also happens to be sexy and gorgeous, even with that unflattering sixties’ do. But seducing Sebastian turns out to be hard work indeed with Rebecca playing the pursuer and Sebastian the obstinate love object.
Rebecca: “Are you scared of women?”
Rebecca: “Shall I give you some advice?”
Rebecca: “Oh. What are you doing this evening?”
Sebastian: “I shall go to a nice, quiet gaming club and play a nice, quiet game of baccarat.”
Rebecca: “I don’t think you will.”
It’s obvious Sebastian is so deeply buried inside himself that to reciprocate any kind of emotional or physical response to Rebecca after years of denial is probably impossible. Rebecca seems to realize it too but some women just won’t give up even when it’s a losing game.
When the couple finally retire to Sebastian’s dreary bachelor apartment – the wallpaper looks like old newspapers plastered everywhere – the terse conversation continues with Sebastian cautioning, “This is where we have to pick our words…very carefully.”
Rebecca: “I could ever so easily love you…like anything. Like absolutely anything.”
Sebastian: (sarcastically) “Well, I wouldn’t rupture yourself.”
Rebecca: “Did you pick those pretty words carefully?”
Sebastian: “Not very. They tend to lack the old careless charm.”
Rebecca: “Nothing you do lacks the old careless charm. (yelling) You’re COATED in the old careless charm, like bloody icing sugar. I hate your bloody wallpaper.”
Then she flies at him in a rage, he catches her, they kiss passionately, and he confesses, “I haven’t been raped for years.”
This is light romantic comedy? It’s played as such but a sense of disillusionment and cynicism underscores everything in Sebastian.
In juxtaposition to the Rebecca-Sebastian relationship is the pathetic, inert affair the master cryptologist has been carrying on with Carol Fancy (Janet Munro), a former pop singer now living in a haze of alcohol and past memories. Surrounded by images of herself in her prime (poster size photographs on her walls and reruns of herself on television), Carol also plays her old recordings repeatedly on a record player. Mirroring the film’s protagonist, the viewer is given the opportunity to decode this relationship without the aid of a backstory.
This odd sidebar is particularly poignant in unexpected ways due to Janet Munro’s presence. Once the fresh-faced, pretty ingénue of such Walt Disney features as Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain and Swiss Family Robinson, Munro looks like a true alcoholic with her once delicate features beginning to bloat. Sadly enough, in real life she was a heavy drinker and Sebastian was made at the end of her film career; it was her next to last feature. Married at the time to actor Ian Hendry, her second husband, Munro had just returned to the screen after a three year absence. She had taken time off to raise her two daughters but Sebastian was hardly a comeback vehicle and her role seems eerily prophetic, even a little cruel, considering her fate. Her marriage to Hendry, also a known alcoholic, would end badly in 1971 and Munro died of heart disease the following year at the young age of 38.
[Spoiler alert] Her final scene in the film requires her to betray Sebastian after being threatened with bodily harm by Toby (Ronald Fraser), a sinister espionage agent. She gives him a glass of champagne spiked with a hallucinogen like LSD, and the movie morphs into a bizarre, decadent party scene observed through Sebastian’s stoned eyes. While not quite as outlandish as the drug-induced Fellini segment of Spirits of the Dead, this memorable freakout sequence ends on the rooftop of Carol’s penthouse with Sebastian tettering on the edge of the high rise and Toby encouraging him to fly.
Reportedly Michael Powell was originally slated to direct Sebastian before it was taken away from him and given to David Greene instead (Powell stayed on as a producer on the film). The once revered director was still finding it difficult to get work after the critical and commercial debacle of Peeping Tom (1960) and we can see why he was attracted to this project. It was co-written by Leo Marks, who penned the original story and screenplay for Peeping Tom, and Sebastian is just as compulsive and obsessive a character as the latter film’s psychotic photographer.
Marks was the head of code development and security for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during WWII and, in the film Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), which focused on the real-life espionage exploits of Violette Szabo, one of his coded poems figured prominently in the plot.
While it’s hard to imagine what Powell would have done with Sebastian, David Greene’s direction is undeniably impressive. The film has a playful visual style (cinematography by Gerry Fisher, his debut film) and percolating pace that is deceptively casual and lightweight and just as often at odds with what is actually happening on the screen.
Greene would go on to direct a visually jazzy version of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shuttered Room and The Strange Affair (1968), a stylish urban crime thriller starring Michael York, Jeremy Kemp and Susan George that had many critics predicting great things for Mr. Greene. Despite a few other feature films, including the ludicrous anti-drug melodrama, The People Next Door (1970), Greene seemed content to specialize in TV movies and series and some may remember his contributions to Roots, Rich Man, Poor Man, and the made-for-TV camp delight Madame Sin (1972) starring Bette Davis, Robert Wagner and Denholm Elliott.
One last thing to mention about Sebastian is the excellent supporting cast. Nigel Davenport makes an ideal adversary, a by-the-book fellow colleague at the Civil Service who resents Sebastian’s rarefied treatment. Donald Sutherland turns up in a bit toward the end as an American computer whiz of some sort and John Guilgud, in little more than a cameo as Sebastian’s boss, is as unflappable and sarcastic as always. He also gets one of the best lines in response to news of Sebastian’s LSD trip: “Well, we all need taking out of ourselves from time to time.”
Lilli Palmer and her portrayal of Elsa Shahn, a former communist who jumped sides, is also a welcome addition to the storyline and provides further insight into Sebastian’s character with whom she has a “history.” During a cigarette break between her and Rebecca, we get more clues, even if they’re obvious.
Rebecca: “What’s Sebastian like?”
Elsa: “He’s a poor lost lamb like the rest of us. He has a freak talent. Trouble is it’s making a freak out of him. He’s been in the trade too long. Can’t stay.
Rebecca: “They can’t keep him here.”
Elsa: “They don’t have to. Be careful or you’ll end up like one of us.”
When Sebastian was released in England in late 1967 (it opened in the U.S. of January 1968), it was generally perceived as a weak spy parody and quickly dismissed. In the U.S. the reception wasn’t any better. Roger Ebert announced his bafflement over the film in his opening review in The Chicago Sun-Times: “Early in the production of “Sebastian,” somebody should have called a meeting to figure out what the movie was about. I guess nobody did. What we are stuck with, then, is a movie that moves confidently in three directions, arriving nowhere with a splendid show of style.”
Renata Adler, in her New York Times review, wrote “…one of the problems with this sort of movie is the enormous pressure that it puts on the audience to have a good time over almost nothing…The put-on, of course, consists in never really letting the audience know what level of seriousness the film is at, and the movie itself sometimes seems unsure.”
But nothing in Sebastian is as unsure as Ms. Adler’s review. Sometimes less is more and in this case, it works brilliantly most of the time. I hope to see it again someday but unfortunately, it isn’t available in any format and is rarely programmed on TV. Here’s hoping it will get remastered on Blu-Ray and become rediscovered in the near future.
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