Sebastian is a 1968 film directed by David Greene, produced by Michael Powell, Herbert Brodkin and Gerry Fisher, and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The motion picture is based on a story by Leo Marks, and Gerald Vaughan-Hughes wrote the screenplay.
The film stars Dirk Bogarde as an University of Oxford don turned chief British cryptographer, Susannah York as a member of his decoding team and John Gielgud as the Head of Intelligence. Among the many striking features of this underrated cult film are: the modernity of the cinematics of the city of London, foregrounding the contrast of new and more traditional streetscapes and architectural values, and at the same time, the lifestyles of academe and those of "swinging London"'; the confrontative style of the representation of male-female relationships; the linked themes of the psychology and science of interpretation, as the hero and heroine struggle with puzzles in cryptography and problems in human communication. Jerry Goldsmith's exciting but rarely heard score effectively captures the atmosphere of swinging 60s London. A dazzling composite metaphor forms the resolution when the hero hears in his newly-encountered baby's rattle the sound-pattern which will lead him to solve the decoding problem which is threatening national security - a problem itself treated in a composite stylistics of classic thriller on the one hand, and more complex approach to ethical-political beliefs on the other.
Mr. Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) is a former Oxford professor, who in the late 60s directs the all-female decoding office of British Intelligence. One day, while running through the streets of Oxford University to attend the awarding of an honorary degree on his friend the Prime Minister, Sebastian runs into Rebecca (Becky) Howard (Susannah York) and her jeep. After insulting Sebastian on the spot, Becky is intrigued by Sebastian and follows him to the ceremony grounds. After Becky is able to recognise Sebastian's name spelt backwards, Sebastian gives Becky a phone number to call if she wants an unspecified "job." Becky calls the number, and after Sebastian's personal assistant Miss Elliott (Margaret Johnston) describes the job as being part of the "civil service," Becky is turned off by the idea. Overcoming her concerns, she calls again, and after successfully interviewing, obtains a job deciphering codes used by secret agents and foreign spies. On her first day of work, Becky (and two other female colleagues) walk through a maze of London government structures trying to find their new office building, while Jerry Goldsmith's hip instrumental number "First Day at Work" perfectly captures the excitement of the moment. Once settled in her new job, Becky slowly starts to fall for the aloof Mr. Sebastian. However, problems arise when Gen. Phillips (Nigel Davenport), Head of Security, accuses Sebastian's senior Jewish decoder Elsa Shahn (Lilli Palmer) of being a poor security risk due to her left-wing Communist leanings. Sebastian convinces the Head of Intelligence (John Gielgud) to retain Shahn despite Phillips' objections, expressing how vital Shahn is to the decoding office and reaffirming that she enjoyed his full confidence. Eventually, Becky and Sebastian engage in an affair, which upsets Sebastian's longtime girlfriend (and washed-up pop singer) Carol Fancy (Janet Munro) (in one of her last film roles). Ultimately, Shahn betrays Sebastian's trust by providing recently decoded information to a left-wing political organization. When confronted with the security breach by the Head of Intelligence and by Phillips' watchdog Jameson (John Ronane), Sebastian tenders his resignation and breaks up with Becky, thinking she was on to him. Sebastian leaves London and returns to his teaching position at Oxford University. Months later, Sebastian is visited at Oxford by the Head of Intelligence, who convinces Sebastian to return, temporarily, to the decoding office to help the Americans decipher some unidentified signals emanating from a Sputnik-type Russian spy satellite circling the earth. To prepare for this assignment, Sebastian visits a secret British eavesdropping installation, where he meets American Ackerman (Donald Sutherland), who is working on the project. One day, while looking for Becky, who had also left the decoding department after Sebastian's resignation and break-up, Sebastian runs into Carol, who invites Sebastian to a party at her apartment "for old times sake." At the party, Sebastian is drugged with LSD and lured to the top of the building by Toby (Ronald Fraser), who unbeknownst to Sebastian, is both Carol's lover and a foreign agent. Just as the hallucinating Sebastian is about to jump off the building ledge to his death at Toby's insistence, he is saved by Inspector Phillips, who had been tailing both men, and Toby is arrested. Sebastian returns to the decoding office, and finds out where Becky lives. While visiting Becky, Sebastian discovers that he is the father of her newborn baby. During this visit, a noise from the baby's rattle provides Sebastian with the solution to the Soviet spy satellite's signals, which he eventually breaks with the help of his faithful group of decoding girls, who are summoned to Becky's apartment to decipher the Soviet code.