Director: Robert Tronson
Screenplay: Frank Launder and Peter Barnes
Starring: Bernard Lee, William Sylvester, Margaret Tyzack, David Kossoff
Running Time: 87 mins
BBFC Classification: PG
Bernard Lee plays Harry, a hard drinking naval clerk, who gets sent back to England after causing a scene at an embassy party in Warsaw. He’s given a second chance by his superior and is slotted into a low-ranking clerical job working at the secretive Portland Down research facility.
Out of work he’s approached by a colleague of a Russian woman (that he used to blab secrets too back in East Germany), who has a proposal for him – to supply them with top secret information from the records department he’s currently working in. He realises that he can’t do this alone and seduces a work colleague, Bunty, to help him extract papers from a safe, after everyone else has gone home, since she has the keys.
Things go well for them to start with and they are able to perform bag swaps with Russian agents and start to accumulate a nice amount of money to put towards their dream house together. But the authorities start to become suspicious and realise they might have traitors in their midst, hence start to monitor the couple closely, and everyone they, and their ‘drops’, come in contact with including an antiquarian bookseller and his wife and a Soviet agent who assumes the identity of a dead Canadian citizen.
Ring of Spies is based on a true story set during the height of the Cold War between East and West where daily duels plays out between Soviet Intelligence and British counter-espionage and deadly secrets are secretly traded for money in a high stakes game of cat and mouse with the authorities.
I think it is because this film is based on facts that it doesn’t really ever gain the giddy heights of similar spy stories from that era, competent though it is. Harry is never particularly sympathetic – he’s more of an over-bearing, drunken oaf – and his partner in crime, though more sympathetic, is a fairly drab figure who never really elicits our empathy as perhaps she should, particularly when she begins to like what she’s doing because it makes her feel important.
Filmed in and around Shepperton Studios, Ring of Spies is directed in a fairly pedestrian way by Tronson and feels a bit too much like a film made for TV, even though it wasn’t. However, I must admit there are moments of tension and dry humour and I did enjoy it as something completely different to what I might usually watch. It’s interesting to see how ‘real’ espionage actually works, with a lot of screen time devoted to the details of how the spy ring actually operated. Both traitors were eventually caught and the film ends revealing what happened to them once the authorities got a hold of them. Sobering, but solid viewing.
Ring of Spies has recently been released on DVD and is being distributed by Network Distributing who are, to their credit, currently releasing lots of these rarer British film titles.
If you’re listening Network, other films you might want to track down are Quentin Lawrence’s The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Cash on Demand (1961); Dilemma (1961) – directed by Peter Maxwell; and I Start Counting (1969) – directed by David Greene.
The only extras on the review disc were 19 images in a gallery, including a poster for the film, plus a cool Rank trailer for the film.