Searching for obscure spy movie gems is one of my favorite hobbies; sometimes I’ll unearth an overlooked classic, more often a mediocre dud. The Sell-Out (1976) is a rare find: an acutely awful film. It almost, but not quite, makes it into the So Bad It’s Good Category (Spy Movie Division).
Set during the height of the Cold War, The Sell-Out imagines an amicable assassination exchange program between cynical U.S. and Russian intelligence officers. The latest target of their horse trading is Gabriel Lee (Oliver Reed), a traitorous CIA operative who defected to the Soviets. Lee is such a loose cannon he’s gotten on everyone’s bad side, including his former mentor, Sam Lucas (Richard Widmark), now retired and running an antique shop in Jerusalem. When Lee narrowly eludes a bomb plot while vacationing in Israel, he seeks out Lucas to help save him from the assassins. Lucas is reluctant but can’t turn away his old protege in a time of need, much to the dismay of his lover Deborah (Gayle Hunnicutt) — who also happens to be Lee’s old flame. This fraught love triangle is soon tangling with the CIA, the KGB, and Mossad, leading to collateral damage and tragic revelations.
It doesn’t sound too horrible. And really it’s not without assets. Widmark makes a credible old-hand-coming-out-of-retirement type, and extensive location work in Israel lends geographic credibility to the affair. The core set-up has dramatic promise. But in the end The Sell-Out is an ugly, incoherent mess. Oh, the plot is a muddle, the dialogue meh, and the acting wildly uneven; while Widmark is solid, the rest of the cast can’t match his presence, although Hunnicutt has some nice moments. Reed, meanwhile, feels weirdly cast as a roguish American bad boy. The cinematography is grubby and the editing is quirky and random, suggesting unwarranted artistic pretensions, kind of a third-rate French New Wave feel, but without the necessary mystique. Similarly, the story action reaches for dark thematic resonance in the mode of le Carré, but the glaring lack of artistry severely undercuts that ambition.
What makes The Sell-Out fun — well, sort of — is a tone that is spectacularly wrong. A number of factors contribute to that weird ambience: stilted performances in key supporting roles, muddy sound, the clash of lofty artistic ambitions with clunky craft. But chiefly responsible is some awful, awful music: the soundtrack exemplifies the worst of the seventies, from insipid, flowery jazz to incongruous, string-filled disco-funk during the action sequences. Indeed, the music is just so totally, fatally wrong that I think it actually calls attention to flaws that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.
So there’s very little to like about this one, unless you happen to be in the mood for something a little trashy and sloppy. I must have been in that kind of mood, because for some reason I sort of enjoyed it. But would I recommend it? Uh, no.