The Assassination Bureau has existed for decades (perhaps centuries) until Diana Rigg begins to investigate it. The high moral standing of the Bureau (only killing those who deserve it) is called into question by her. She puts out a contract for the Bureau to assassinate its leader on the eve of World War I.
Oliver Reed ... Ivan Dragomiloff
Diana Rigg ... Sonya Winter
Telly Savalas ... Lord Bostwick
Curd Jürgens ... General von Pinck
Philippe Noiret ... Monsieur Lucoville
Warren Mitchell ... Herr Weiss
Beryl Reid ... Madame Otero
Clive Revill ... Cesare Spado
Kenneth Griffith ... Monsieur Popescu
Vernon Dobtcheff ... Baron Muntzof
Annabella Incontrera ... Eleanora
Jess Conrad ... Angelo
George Coulouris ... Swiss Peasant
Ralph Michael ... Editor
Katherine Kath ... Mme. Lucoville
Jack London was a phenomenal writer, who came up from poverty and turned out some amazing books. These include (but are not limited to) THE SEA WOLF, WHITE FANG, THE CALL OF THE WILD. London is usually brushed aside today as a "kids" author. The same idiocy that relegates Jules Verne to be a writer for children and ignores his savage comments on politics affects London. After you are encouraged (about eighth grade) to read THE CALL OF THE WILD, you are told that London is always writing about man and animals in Alaska in the Gold Rush of 1898, with an occasional look at an exciting sea story.
Actually he's sharper than that: THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG were his attempts to tell a story from an animals' point of view. THE SEA WOLF is his attempt to attack the prevalent socio-economic doctrine of the day (1900): Social Darwinism, as practiced by Captain Wolf Larsen. He wrote one of the first good novels about America under a dictatorship: THE IRON HEEL. He discussed his early life in MARTIN EDEN. He discussed his alcoholism in his book JOHN BARLEYCORN. He was the first American novelist of real international stature to embrace socialism! A reporter as well as writer, his experiences watching the Japanese government prevent him from carrying out his job during the Russo - Japanese War turned him into a perpetually hostile critic of Japan's goals in the Pacific (although, to be fair to the Japanese, London did show some racism here).
Keeping this in mind, one realizes that THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, LTD. has to be tackled differently from say THE CALL OF THE WILD or the short story TO BUILD A FIRE. London is looking with jaundice eye at the political system that had ruled Europe (and most of the world) since 1815 or so. It was oppressive and uneven, and even in the United States (probably the best major power to live in in terms of opportunity and social mobility) it was still badly flawed.
Assassination had become a serious tool for trying to influence European affairs from 1881 to 1910 (when the novel was begun by London). Tsar Alexander II of Russia was blown to bits in 1881 by a Nihilist group called "The People's Will". Although it was captured and most of its members hanged, others copied it. Assassinations continued in Russia up to 1911 including Interior Grand Duke Serge in 1904,Minister Von Phleve in 1905, and Prime Minister Peter Stolypin in 1911. Elsewhere the other states suffered. Presidents Garfield and McKinley were assassinated in 1881 and 1901 (the latter by a self-proclaimed anarchist). President Sadi Carnot of France was stabbed to death in a public parade in 1894, in the middle of a series of anarchist attacks (including a bombing at the Chambre of Deputies). Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, King Umberto I of Italy, the Prime Minister of Spain, King Carlos III of Portugal, were all killed. So were Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke by Irish nationalists in Phoenix Park in 1882. Many smaller public figures were killed as well. The topic of an "assassination bureau" was timely - especially as some of these victims fit what the bureau decided: were the targets worthy of being assassinated.
Of course not all of them were (Empress Elisabeth for example). But London's vision was not totally flawed. It was just that being a realist he knew that the "pure" idea of the bureau would be corrupted sooner or later. So his plot involves the head of this international bureau being offered a huge reward if he orders his own assassination. Note that Oliver Reed's character is a Russian, as though the author knew who was most likely to be the head of an assassination group.
Probably due to other commitments London never finished the novel. Robert L. Fish, a successful mystery novelist, wrote a completion which was rather amusing. I tend to believe that was an error - London was seldom an amusing writer. The film treats the moral issue as a joke, and uses the characters as caricatures of the nations they represent (the doleful Russian, the gluttonous and sexually active Italian, the pragmatic Frenchmen who runs a bordello too, the English newspaper tycoon). These characters need good performers, and Philippe Noiret is on target as the bordello owner/assassin leader); and (although not Italian) Clive Revill is quite good as the Italian. The Russian (it's not Reed) is doleful, but hardly memorable. As for Lord Bostwick, Telly Savalas is not convincing as an English aristocrat (one can't even imagine him as a Canadian transplant to England, like Spencer Tracy in EDWARD, MY SON). Curt Jurgens' German assassination leader, General Von Pinck (the name suggested, perhaps, by his handiness with a sword) is either sadistically high-spirited or vicious: no other characteristics there.
Diana Rigg, as the budding journalist who's first job is actually as a cats-paw for Savalas (her boss) is pretty good, but her performance as Vincent Price's daughter in THEATRE OF BLOOD was livelier. She seems determined to maintain her suffragette style dignity here no matter what. However it happens to work for the film. As for Reed, his straight villains were usually far better than his heroes. He appears to be too laid back at times. A bit more jittery behavior would have been better.
One final point: One minor character, an Austrian nobleman marked for death, is killed when he cuts into a large knock-wurst (that has a bomb in it). This gag probably is not original but it was reused in the television movie MORE WILD WILD WEST with Jonathan Winters as the victim.
To enjoy and even admire this period piece, set just before the industrial revolution of the 20th century, one has to understand what it is. It's certainly not a parody of James Bond or some off cue thriller; it's high comedy, a farce of magnificent proportions, aided & abetted by fine action. You have to get in on the joke with Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas and the rest, all obviously enjoying themselves, but not at our expense. Let them amuse you and bemuse you, and you'll have a grand time. By this point, over 35 years after this was filmed, it may be difficult for younger viewers to follow along with Reed and realize when he is winking at them during one of his outrageous pronouncements. He's the head of the organization of the title - it is what you think it is, no pretensions there - its business is killing people, for money. But that is about the only thing which is up front in this picture. Everyone is not who they seem to be, usually having a decent public face and the secret hidden one - the one catering to the less moral side of all of us.
This is probably my favorite Oliver Reed performance. He grabs the role of the debonair gentleman assassin and turns it into uniquely his own. Some of his dry line delivery, particularly when sparring with Rigg, is priceless; my favorite is when they meet and she informs him who she wants killed; he soon demands her reasons, yelling "Is That it? Is That It!?!" Later in the film, she calls him annoying. "I have been told that," he replies, but never have we heard the line spoken that way. He needs to carry the picture, outsmarting and fooling all the other sneaky assassins out for his blood with disguises, role-playing and careless bravado. This is where the picture really shifts into high gear, turning into a duel among a group of master killers who, luckily, do not yet have the advantages of 20th century weaponry. The supporting cast are all terrific, including Savalas as Reed's main nemesis, Jurgens as a German general and Noiret who, besides being an assassin, also runs a brothel (no limits to the French).
The script and dialog are continually witty throughout, many of the lines classic and too numerous to mention here. Again, some of this may be lost on anyone under 30 years old; in a way, this brand of humor can now be termed sophisticated - no gross bodily function joking. It does revolve around death, so a kind of dark farce results, of course - yet it's not morbid. That's probably because most of the victims deserve their ends as presented here; they made their beds, as it were. The dialog is complemented by inventive turns in the plot; there's actually quite a bit of suspense as the story turns & twists here and there, especially during the sequence in Venice, where the order of characters being killed is not as expected. The finale is also suspenseful - you may wonder how Reed will pull it off, stopping an entire zeppelin and its crew. And please keep in mind the special FX are over 35 years old, as well. Just glorious stuff.
The big selling point of "The Assassination Bureau" is that it was based on an unfinished novel by Jack London -- "Unfinished" being an euphemism for "abandoned". Long after London's death it was finished by a lesser writer and that version is the basis for this movie.
A superb cast, headed by Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg, is underemployed.
Reed plays the chairman of the Assassination Bureau, Ltd. For a price, the bureau will undertake the homicide of deserving victims. Like a Star Chamber court they weigh each case by their own sense of justice.
Rigg, an enterprising journalist, decides to end the bureau by approaching Reed for a hit. Reed accepts, only to discover she wants Reed to assassinate himself. Amused, he accepts. The bureau, he thinks, has become too mercenary, killing whether they've carefully weighed the justice of the murder or not.
Bringing it before the Bureau, Reed suggests they clean house -- either they kill the chairman, or he kills all of them.
And this is just in the first fifteen minutes.
What follows is an episodic cat-and-mouse game and, like all episodic features, some episodes work better than others. The scenes in Switzerland and Vienna, for example, are remarkably uninteresting, while the scenes in Venice show flashes of brilliance. Best scene: Diana Rigg, swathed in only a towel, trying to discover whether there is a bomb in her room, whether it's just a clock, or whether it's altogether her imagination. The most embarrassing is an extended foray in a French bordello.
Scrumptuous turn-of-the-century sets, far better than anything in similar period features like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", make for great eye-candy. The whole feature plays light-handedly, so its treatment of death never comes off even as black-comedic, as with the superior "The Wrong Box". To accentuate the joking element is the addition of a wacky late-sixties type song about love that makes the Carpenters sound profound.
Silly as it is, and dull as it can be in spots, its high spirit is infectious. How much of it is Jack London, I don't know, but it's a far cry from "The Sea Wolf"