Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 08/27/18 04:38:52

"The Advertising Business Can Be Murder"
3 stars (Average)

One of those little-known movies that played out the kazoo on cable TV in the early '80s that warrants a recommendation with reservations.

A slight but entertaining Canadian oddity, Agency isn’t a product of consummate intelligence by any means, but it manages to sustain your interest throughout thanks to a functional screenplay, a good cast, and direction that is adequate enough to get things done (though barely). Lee Majors, a winning television actor best known for The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fall Guy, stars as Phillip Morgan, the creative director of a leading Montreal advertising firm that’s been recently bought out by one Ted Quinn (Robert Mitchum), a former Washington D.C. media consultant with, suspiciously, no background in advertising. Within just a month after taking over, Quinn has replaced half of Phillip’s staff with his cronies and started a new ad campaign behind his back, much to his chagrin. The atmosphere around the agency is changing, to say the least, with Phillip’s colleague and best friend Sam Goldstein (Saul Rubinek), the top copywriter in the city, suspecting something of an ulterior motive behind it all – why, he asks, has Quinn taken his deodorant-commercial jingle and completely redone it without his input; and why has Quinn concentrated TV advertising of this “No Sweat” ad in just one state, Arizona? (The agency’s airtime buyer tells Sam that saturating the networks with the ad was a tough thing to pull off being that, as it so happens, two Senate candidates campaigning in the state had already booked a good deal of prime-time spots.) Quinn has martinet control over everything, even commandeering the entire top floor of the building for himself where no one is allowed and the operations inside unknown, and deploys his people in marathon think-tanks at his secluded estate where the phones are disconnected. At first, Phillip, who used to have aspirations of being a short-story writer before selling out to produce ad copy, is willing to give Quinn the benefit of the doubt – with child support and with his ex-wife getting sixty percent of his paycheck (she calls him at the office from Hawaii if his alimony check is late), he needs the job, and Quinn has proposed an upper-management position for him in the near future; he’s not happy about toeing the rat-race line, but he has little choice, especially since he’s adamant about marrying his physician girlfriend Brenda (Valerie Perrine), who’s amused at his and Sam’s goofy abilities at coming up with obnoxious-sounding jingles that nevertheless succeed at “moving the merchandise.” (The agency also employs subliminal messages in magazine ads, like a death mask in a glass of liquor, which the client thinks will apply to heavy drinkers.) Eventually, murder figures into the equation – there’s something sinister going on behind the walls amid the creative sessions and mass-marketing figures. We can’t help but be mildly fascinated at what evil could possibly lurk in the world of placing phallic images in perfume commercials and “See if you can choose just one” slogans to push razor blades.

This is a first screenplay by Noel Hynd, based on a same-title novel I haven’t read, and it deftly peels away the layers of the plot so as to keep us reasonably interested throughout, even if we’re not exactly on the edge of our seats, which is more a directorial deficiency than a contextual one. The agency is a believable workplace, even with wild eccentrics in the waiting room and one employee pedaling a unicycle down the hall. (Amusingly, when Brenda tries talking Phillip into going to the ballet with her, he begs off with, “Something about men running around in tights makes me nervous. It reminds me of the people in our art department.”) If the movie took place in, say, a brokerage house or law firm instead, it wouldn’t have the colorfulness-giving-way-to-darkness element that gives it distinction – you keep trying to figure out what possible inimical intentions could be at play. Agency isn’t square – it’s a thriller, yes, but it also incorporates plenty of humor into the proceedings, whether it’s Sam, who makes almost fifty-thousand a year, shoplifting a carton of cream for his cat because he thinks it’s too expensive, or, later on down the line, a kidnapped Phillip in the back of a car stopped at a railroad crossing instigating rude gestures and verbal insults at a motorcycle gang to escape his captors. It’s only in hindsight that you’re disappointed, because when we’re finally made privy to the dastardly scheme behind it all (sabotaging elections through the subliminal) we’re all too aware that not nearly enough has been derived from it. You come out of the theater hungering for a lot more than what’s been delivered. And while a more capable director could’ve possibly made the central theme resonate, the one at the helm, George Kaczender, is, at the very most, rudimentary. He’s not much for fluid film language, and because of his previous work in documentary shorts the cruddy lighting and mediocre compositions shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise– it has all the visual vivacity of an industrial-training video, with a few ostentatious close-up Dutch-angle shots any film-school professor would’ve slapped Kaczender’s wrists for. Still, Agency is a swift-moving ninety-four minutes, and, though it’s completely inconsequential, there isn’t a boring minute in it. It also helps that Rubinek is sly and very funny as the cynical, neurotic Sam (when his character is killed off the movie loses a good deal of its snap), and Majors, handsomely bearded, is very appealing as the hero (which comes in handy because Phillip is a bit of a misogynist being that he’s constantly checking out the backsides of women he passes in hallways yet gets jealous when Brenda has a fellow doctor over for the evening). Unfortunately, Mitchum, who gave one of the greatest, scariest villainous turns in 1955’s Night of the Hunter, is glum in a lazy, hangdog manner – he simply doesn’t have the power for the part and attempts to ride on a charisma he no longer has. If he’d brought his A-game, Agency might’ve somewhat transcended its limitations rather than being just the acceptable time-killer that it is.

Worth a look for the curious-minded.

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