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Film Notes: Operation Ogre

Like a number of the films included in our States of Danger and Deceit film season, Operation Ogre manages to succeed as a tense thriller despite being based on true events – the outcome of which most audiences would likely know about before watching.

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, released in 1979, Operation Ogre tells the story of the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, carried out by members of the Basque separatist group ETA in Madrid during the winter of 1973. While his name may not be instantly familiar today, Carrero Blanco was effectively Francisco Franco’s right-hand man, and during the dictator’s rapid decline in health in the early 1970s, Carrero Blanco was lined up as his successor. In June 1973, Carrero Blanco was named the Prime Minister of Spain – the event that sets the ball rolling for the assassination plot depicted in Operation Ogre.

This tale of resistance is a Spanish-Italian co-production, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Operation Ogre is the only film Pontecorvo directed in the 1970s, and one of the handful of fiction films he made in his entire 50 years of filmmaking. Best remembered today for directing The Battle of Algiers in 1966 – one of the great political films of the 1960s – Operation Ogre shows a continued fascination for the director with guerrilla strategy and organised resistance.

It was originally planned that American studios would be involved in the production and United Artists were attached to the film for close to two years. In 1976, however, the studio pulled out due to fears that it would prove controversial among the Francoists who remained in the Spanish government.

Indicative of its final status as a collaboration between Spain and Italy, the film contains a number of actors from each of these industries, something that was common at the time. At the centre of the film is the friendship and philosophical tension between Ezarra, played by the Italian Gian Maria Volontè, and Txabi, played by the Spanish Eusebio Poncela. The former believes in patience and the importance of waiting in seeking political change, the latter in immediate action and quick results.

Well known for his outspoken left-wing leanings, Volontè is recognisable internationally for his appearances in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns but he is perhaps better known in Italy itself for his roles in highly socially and politically engaged dramas, much like Operation Ogre. One of Europe’s great political actors, Volontè has central roles in many films in our States of Danger and Deceit film season, including Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Mattei Affair.

Poncela, on the other hand, made his name in films now considered “cult” classics – particularly films like Eloy de la Iglesia’s The Cannibal Man: a Spanish horror film that made it onto Britain’s list of “video nasties” in the 1970s and 1980s. Fans of Spanish cinema will also recognise him from his appearance in Arrebato, a key film that emerged from Madrid’s La Movida movement.

While these two men take the lead roles in Operation Ogre, there are many other actors, from the Spanish Angela Molina to the Italian Saverio Marconi, both of whom play impressive supporting roles in the film, that point toward its transnational status. Marconi in particular shows impressive range as a man who is made increasingly unwell as the film goes on.

Focusing on its variety of political viewpoints, Operation Ogre is both an ambivalent contemplation on the politics of resistance and a taught cinematic thriller. While other political thrillers of the 1970s put terrorism and political resistance in the background of their otherwise “thrilling” narratives – such as The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or Knife in the HeadOperation Ogre places this in the foreground and works to balance both political inquiry with cinematic excitement.

Its ambition is mostly successful. Even for those of us who know the events of 1973 and thus the film’s conclusion from the outset, Operation Ogre develops a growing sense of tension through a number of inventively conceived scenarios that play on an audience’s expectations of success within the group.

Equally, however, Operation Ogre often seems less interested in creating nail-biting tension as it does in presenting a variety of political viewpoints: as Pontecorvo himself says, it aims to show mainly the “effects of many of these perplexities” of political strife. For all its excitement, the film regularly slows down into a measured meditation on the utility of violence as a means of protest: exploring a variety of arguments and counter-arguments through its characters, dialogue, and formal strategies.

To this end, the film repeatedly undercuts its growing tension with long scenes of dialogue and disagreements between members of the resistance; brief side plots about labour and unions; and a jumbled chronological structure that occasionally jumps forward in time to note how these tactics would not work in another period. While this variety of “perplexities” could ruin an otherwise tense political thriller, it’s a credit to Pontecorvo, his actors, and the realisation of this ambitious script that it remains engaging and nerve-wracking through to its explosive conclusion.

Operation Ogre screened as part of our States of Danger & Deceit: European Political Thrillers of the 1970s film season.

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