Archive for January, 2020

What I’ve Been Watching:  The Holcroft Covenant (1985).

Who’s Responsible:  John Frankenheimer (director); George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt, John Hopkins (screenwriters); Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Several reasons, most notably Frankenheimer.

Seen It Before?  Apparently so.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  9.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  4.

And?  If you were The GREAT John Frankenheimer (TGJF), having directed some of the cinema’s best thrillers—e.g., The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Black Sunday—and were adapting one of the mega-bestsellers by Robert Ludlum—e.g., The Osterman Weekend, The Bourne Identity—whom would you get to write the screenplay?

  • A: George Axelrod, your Manchurian colleague, an Oscar nominee for—of all things—Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
  • B: Edward Anhalt, who worked with John Sturges on the Cold War thriller The Satan Bug, based on a pseudonymous Alistair MacLean novel, as well as the underrated O.K. Corral sequel Hour of the Gun?
  • C: John Hopkins, whose espionage credentials range from adaptations of Ian Fleming (Thunderball) to John le Carré (Smiley’s People)?

The answer is “D: All of the above,” yet alas, regardless of their, um, caliber, the old adage about the inverse relationship between a script’s coherency and the number of scenarists remains true here.  (Technically, per Wikipedia, Hopkins was rewritten by Anhalt, and then in turn by Axelrod—injecting humor—when TGJF came on board.)

Architect Noel Holcroft (Caine, replacing James Caan, who mercifully walked just prior to shooting) was spirited out of Nazi Germany as a baby by mom Althene (Lilli Palmer, long admired by TGJF)—now a NYC bookseller—to escape biological father Heinrich Clausen.  Summoned to Geneva by banker Ernst Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale, later of TGJF’s Ronin), he gets astounding news:  a troika of generals who turned against Hitler siphoned off a fortune, now earmarked as recompense for the crimes of the Third Reich.  The titular document, giving Noel control of $4.5 billion to be used for good, will only be activated when signed by the sons of that suicidal triumvirate, who must now be located.

You buying it?  Nope, nor is Althene, who regards her ex’s last-minute conversion as a bunch of hooey.  Arrayed on her side are a secretive, wheelchair-bound Oberst (Richard Munch, whom I finally recognized as the bespectacled war-games planner in The Longest Day) and a pixieish MI5 agent, Commander Leighton (Bernard Hepton, indelible as Toby Esterhase in the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People).  But Noel really wants to believe, so the hunt is on for Erich Kessler (Mario Adorf from the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians), hiding in plain sight as a famous orchestra conductor Jürgen Mass, and journalist Jonathan Tennyson (Andrews, in a slimy mustache that cannot be trusted).

Tennyson ( von Tiebolt) has spent his life on the run with sister Helden (Tennant, in a role conflating two Ludlum characters), who soon bonds—and beds—with Noel on his whirlwind European tour.  We’ve seen Tennant do the sultry sidewinder routine before, betraying Steve Martin in All of Me, so it comes as no surprise here, with the added kink of incestuous-sibling sex.  Turns out the whole thing was a scheme to facilitate the Fourth Reich by, if I’m understanding this convoluted plot correctly, using the dough to fund and consolidate the world’s greatest terrorists, sowing sufficient anarchy to create a need for a strong controlling hand, which Führer von Tiebolt et al. will be only too glad to provide.

To be blunt, my gut reaction was that I didn’t like the way this movie looks, sounds, or feels.  I was ready to attribute the first to the cheesy, sleazy touch of Cannon Films, for whom TGJF next made the Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick-Up, until I realized they were just the home-video distributors.  In our interview, he said the producers “couldn’t afford to have [the film] come out and do well because there was so much crap that went on with EMI and all that that you just don’t know….[U.S. distributor] Universal saw the picture.  They loved [it and] said, ‘We want to really give this a hell of a ride, but what we need as a backup, just in case it doesn’t work, we need to have the ancillary rights.’

“In other words, we need to have the cable and cassette rights to back up the expenditure we’re going to do on prints and ads, and EMI said, ‘No, you can’t have those.’  Now, don’t ask me why they said that, because I don’t want to get sued, but the point is that Universal said, ‘Well, then, how can you ask us to spend all this money to publicize this picture if we don’t have any backup to protect our investment on the down side?’  So Universal then just fulfilled its contractual obligation and opened it in, like, a hundred theaters and then put it onto video.  It was just so disappointing, because I thought the picture was pretty good, and Ludlum loved it,” so maybe it’s just that ugly ’80s patina.

The film benefits from many Berlin and London locations, while cinematographer Gerry Fisher, a frequent collaborator of Joseph Losey’s making his first of three for TGJF, was no stumblebum.  John agreed that it “had a lot of stylistic similarities to The Manchurian Candidate,” including frequently tilted camera angles, if perhaps not used as successfully here.  As for the soundtrack, mono-monikered composer Stanislas provided just the type of tinny synth score that also helped to give ’80s movies a bad name, but my reservations regarding the overall feel are tougher to quantify; much of it has to do with the efforts by John and Axelrod to add humor, which in my opinion give it an uneven or uncertain tone.

Outright comedy is unequivocally not Frankenheimer’s forte (see—or better yet don’t—his bombs The Extraordinary Seaman or 99 and 44/100% Dead), but while leavening an espionage thriller with humor is a time-honored m.o., notably in the Harry Palmer series Caine kicked off with The Ipcress File, they just don’t seem to mesh here.  I share John’s admiration for Caine, one of my favorite actors, yet everything seems slightly off and I’m not sure whom to blame.  Adding to the bizarrerie, Helden tries to stay under the radar by concealing Noel amid the depraved demimonde of Berlin, including a Weimarian carnival concocted by Frankenheimer, which also allows for some presumably commercial nudity.

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