Robert Tronson (director)
Network On Air (studio)
90 min (length)
21 September 2020 (released)
11 September 2020
This 1964 film dramatization is a pretty true account of the Portland Spy Ring Affair which operated in England between the late 1950s to 1961. Back then this was indeed a major ‘cause celebre’ still spoken about today and which, more or less, prompted the hackneyed phrase 'Reds under the bed'.
Civil servant and lecherous drunk Harry Houghton (Bernard Lee, who always gave that impression anyway) gets the sack from his position in Poland where he has been 'black marketeering' for some time. He is now posted back to Old Blighty and given a job at Portland Naval Base as a clerk. In case you are unaware of it: at that time many top security governmental plans would have been stored at this headquarters on the South Coast just below Weymouth.
Within no time the old drunk, while indulging in his double scotch intake, is chatting up the female clerks (old habits die hard) and gets lucky with fickle Ethel Elizabeth Gee (Margaret Tyzack) - she must have been pretty damn desperate for a bloke if this film is anything to go by! Ethel Elizabeth has access to the office safe where the very important papers are kept. Within no time Houghton is contacted by a Russian foreign agent (George Pravda) - this would have been as a result of his activities in Poland and offered a substantial amount of money to obtain these papers so they can be photocopied, micro-dotted and handed onto to the Russians. Harry has no qualms about this whatsoever (we must assume like most low ranking civil servants Harry is drastically underpaid - one of the other employees at the Naval base has a sideline as a photographer, say no more). His only trouble is persuading his new girlfriend Ethel to open that safe though it doesn't take him long to persuade the gullible but initially un-cooperative woman to become in effect 'a traitor'.
Soon Harry is put in touch with Canadian Gordon Lonsdale (William Sylvester). Despite his accent he is in fact a Russian-born KGB agent whose real name is Konon Molody (the real Lonsdale apparently died as a teenager in Finland in the early 40's). Lonsdale is in cahoots with fellow spy contacts Peter and Helen Kroger (David Kossoff and Nancy Nevinson respectively) though Kroger is just another pseudonym - their real name was Cohen. Now this seemingly harmless middle-aged couple who live in the London suburb of Ruislip are doing all the ‘office work’ from a hidden cellar in their house where the secret meetings with Lonsdale take place. Houghton is soon spending the extra money foolishly on booze which puts him under suspicion from MI5. His home gets bugged - he doesn't even ask the bogus gasman for identification and just lets the bloke walk about his flat planting bugs. Shouldn't he have known the rule ‘Don’t trust anyone’ by then? It doesn't take MI5 long to get the dirt on Harry Houghton and they soon pick up the entire Portland Spy Ring after an initial undercover operation was put into action and various members including Lonsdale were caught red-handed as secret papers were about to be exchanged in a public place.
Stiff sentences were handed out and for anyone interested in the case you can read up on this fascinating story on the internet – where else? The real Henry Houghton and Ethel Elizabeth were sentenced to 15 years and got married in 1971 having been released early after 9 years. While the real story of the Portland Spy Ring remains thrilling, the pace of this adaptation occasionally simply plods along and could benefit from some incidental music to get the tension going. Still, thanks to the convincing performances of all the cast this film is entertaining enough and keeps us guessing how long it will actually take before the spy ring is busted. Looking at Bernard Lee's performance it is a comparative wonder that he (or rather the real Henry Houghton) was not under suspicion years before all this business came to a head or that anyone could find this perennial womanizer even remotely attractive. A lesson to all, is it? Leave the spying to the professionals! Another interesting aspect is the brief appearance from an actor called Edwin Apps playing the notorious British double agent George Blake.
Bonus Features of this newly restored Blu-ray release include Trailer and Image Gallery.