When I look how far this site has come since we started it (over at KWAM), it’s hard not to take a little pride in our work. Certainly, the design elements have grown an extraordinary degree, due to the hard work and fecund talents of our co-founder and architect, Paul Smith. On the article side, one of the most satisfying aspects is that our slate of reviews has now grown large enough (with a nod to our fine contributors, Jason MacIsaac and Douglas Milroy) that connections are starting to form between our reviewed films, seemingly multiplying with every new article.
For instance, this review marks a number of multiple appearances. Notably, it marks the third appearance of Michael Caine at our fair site. Lest anyone think that I maintain some kind of vendetta against him, let me demur. I am, in fact, quite a fan of Mr. Caine’s, who has delivered a number of great performances. This is, after all, the man who has starred in such fine movies as Zulu, Sleuth, Alfie, The Ipcress File, The Man Who Would Be King, Mona Lisa, Get Carter, Hannah and Her Sisters, Educating Rita and A Shock to the System.
Yet one reason Caine has appeared in so many good movies is that he appears in lots and lots of movies. A journeyman actor, Caine will accept either lead or supporting roles, in both theatrical and television films. And accept enough of them as to be continuously working. Perhaps the only major actor in the ’90s to approach his output is fellow screen veteran Gene Hackman. However, Hackman possesses one important quality that Caine lacks: He has a superior nose for bad scripts, and thus seldom appears in truly awful movies.
Lacking this talent, Caine, by mere percentage alone, has starred in quite an array of Bad Movies. Aside from our current subject, and fellow Jabootu artifacts The Swarm and On Deadly Ground, Caine has assisted in the creation of such potential article fodder as Jaws: The Revenge, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and The Island.
The low quality of these films can seldom be laid at Caine’s feet. Still, you can’t help but notice that his performances seem to fluctuate depending on the quality of the movie he’s appearing in. This can possibly be credited to the level of direction he receives. The Man Who Would Be King, after all, was directed by John Huston. On Deadly Ground was directed by Steven Seagal. As well, he is also at the mercy of bad scripts (once he agrees to appear in them).
Most likely, Caine just knows when he’s in a film purely for the paycheck. In any case, The Holcroft Covenant contains what must be one of Caine’s worst screen performances. Like every other ‘character’ in the film, Caine’s is never believable for the slightest moment. Still, one should note that he gives it the old college try, even here. I’m sure he gave the film’s director everything he asked for.
Also making a repeat appearance is Victoria Tennant, last seen fatally fleeing a cookie in the understated family drama, Flowers in the Attic (actually made two years after this). Ms. Tennant’s career took a brief upswing upon marrying actor Steve Martin. This relationship provided her with roles in such actually decent films as All of Me and LA Story. These movies indicate that her talents lie more in comedy than suspense oriented dramas. Unfortunately, like Marsha Mason, Sandra Locke and so many others, her subsequent separation from a talented life/filmmaking partner was to deprive her of projects tailored to her strengths. Here, anyway, as in Flowers in the Attic, her acting is mighty poor.
And there’s yet another Jabootu veteran turn here, in this case a surprise to me. I’ve had this film on The List for quite some time, and knew that it marked the returns of Caine and Tennant. It wasn’t until I examined the video box, however, that I discovered that this film would mark the third appearance of director John Frankenheimer. No other director has yet to appear twice. In fact, Mr. Frankenheimer has become such a regular that I’ve added his name to my spell check list.
Now, again, I should point out that I’ve no grudge against him. As stated, I wasn’t even aware that he had directed this film. Also, his second dismantling was not at my hands, but in Jason’s review of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Finally, it could well be argued that Moreau was more the victim of Marlon Brando and especially Val Kilmer than of Mr. Frankenheimer (not that he helped, or anything).
Still, there’s no doubt that the first film of his dissected here, Prophecy, was quite poorly directed. And this film is similarly handicapped, and in the same fashion. Genre films are almost always best told in a straightforward fashion, one that cleanly lays out the story. Both our current subject and Prophecy suffered from Frankenheimer’s attempts to ‘art’ them up.
Those looking for an interesting ‘Compare & Contrast’ opportunity could do worse than to rent both Ronin and this. They share many elements, including twisting tales of treachery, car chases and European backdrops, both elegant and seedy. Ronin, however, is blessed with exactly the clean, crisp style of direction that would have benefited many of Frankenheimer’s earlier works. Watching both The Holcroft Covenant and Ronin in a single evening (as I have recently), it’s truly difficult to believe that both are the work of the same man.
In any case, I needn’t really feel mean about including another of Mr. Frankenheimer’s oeuvre here. After all, along with a number of recent Emmys for directing made-for-cable movies, Ronin marks his best theatrical effort in at least 21 years (since Black Sunday, 1977). In fact, it could legitimately be argued that he hasn’t managed to direct a film this good in 23 years (The French Connection II, 1975) or even 32 years (Seconds, 1966).
Seconds was the third of three classic films that Frankenheimer produced during the ’60s (four, if you count Birdman of Alcatraz). He also made the amazing The Manchurian Candidate and the neat-o political paranoia tale Seven Days in May. But after Seconds, he started a downhill slide. In 1969 he made his first all-out disaster, The Extraordinary Seaman, a film so bad that it was never released. The ’70s saw the production of some pretty decent action movies, although nothing up to the level of his best stuff ten years earlier.
Then, in 1979, with the release of the truly awful Prophecy, Frankenheimer seemed to lose it almost entirely. His best stuff since has been some OK genre films like The Challenge (1982; Scott Glenn as a Westerner learning the Bushido Code from Toshiro Mifune) and the gritty Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick-Up (1986), a film that I do believe is generally underrated.
Meanwhile, however, he was guilty of turning out some truly horrible movies: Prophecy (1979), The Holcroft Covenant (1985), Year of the Gun (1991; an espionage thriller starring Andrew McCarthy and Sharon Stone [!!]) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). The fact that his 1987 TV movie Riviera was credited to ‘Alan Smithee’ makes one suspect that effort as well. Still, Ronin provides one with hope that Frankenheimer is back on his game. Either that, or we’ll have to wait until 2017 for his next good movie.
On another petty side note, Mr. Frankenheimer was in the news recently. This involved him publicly berating a couple out in Utah who were editing videos of James Cameron’s Titanic. It should be noted that this pair doesn’t sell edited copies of the film. Instead, they edit copies already purchased, on the request of the owners.
This couple, who run a video store, loved Titanic but disliked the two scenes featuring sex and nudity, which they considered gratuitous. To accommodate themselves, they took their personal video copy of the film and edited these two scenes out, shortening it by under ten minutes. Others who felt the same way heard of this, and asked them to edit their copies. Soon, the word spread, and now, for five bucks, they’ll edit any copy sent to them. Since this procedure reportedly takes them about a half hour, it’s obvious that they’re not making zillions of dollars out of this.
Inevitably, this caused the Usual Suspects to cry foul. “Why, these Philistines are threatening the very survival of ‘Art’ itself! Who are they to second-guess the film’s director?” This group now very vocally includes Frankenheimer. Supposedly, he will insist that his future film contracts include a clause specifying that these two people should not be provided any film he works on for either rental or sale at their shop. Frankly, I’m not sure if this is legal. How could you stop them from buying the film through, say, Reel.Com and then renting it out? Meanwhile, Paramount is mulling suing the couple to stop them from altering tapes, presumably to keep the ‘artistic’ community happy.
I’d perhaps have more sympathy for this position if said studio wasn’t selling the rights to show a similarly (but officially) truncated version of Titanic for television broadcast (on NBC) and on airplane flights. Also, while you might think it dumb, people paid for their copies of the video. If they want it altered, I don’t see that it’s any business of the distributor. Why should people, who would otherwise enjoy a film in its entirety, not be allowed to remove elements that they deem gratuitous. By which I mean, not having any intrinsic value to the film itself?
Certainly, films like Goodfellas and Raging Bull require their omnipresent swearing to create the ‘street’ feeling that director Martin Scorsese wanted. And in a couple of movies, like The Big Easy, Last Tango in Paris and Body Heat, the sex scenes actually seem integral to the pictures. But, really, would editing the stray ‘sh*t’ from the average studio entertainment product really ruin it? (A co-worker of mine recently saw Pleasantville, and remarked that, out of nowhere, the word ‘f*ck’ popped up at the end of the movie. This struck him, as he felt it was the only element that made the film inappropriate for children. Who hasn’t seen a film and found such a strikingly pointless use of bad language, or suddenly graphic violence, or whatever?)
And again, if it’s so horrible, why don’t directors freak when these films are shown, ‘mutilated’, on television? Is it because they stand to make millions of dollars (directly or indirectly) from these broadcasts? And didn’t directors realize that once they declared their films ‘fluid’ in a sense, by releasing ‘special editions’ of their films, that this kind of ‘personalization’ was bound to occur?
After all, if Steven Spielberg feels he has the right to ruin Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I’ll never forgive him adding the ending where Richard Dreyfuss tours the inside of the spaceship) and George Lucas can screw around (or up) with the Star Wars Trilogy, well, what did they expect? That this technology wouldn’t reach the masses? Listen, in ten years people are going to be feeding Raiders of the Lost Arc into their PCs and watching Humphrey Bogart playing Indiana Jones, as directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Oh, and just to admit that I am a total hypocrite, yes, I think ‘colorizing’ movies is grotesque. (Then again, maybe I just think that intrinsically altering The Maltese Falcon is more repugnant than parsing a couple of scenes out of Titanic.)
Anyway, before I fall off my soapbox, I better start my review. We open with a faux ‘arty’ black and white sequence, in what is supposed to be Germany at the end of World War II. More to the point, it appears to be during the period when the Allies were about to seize a bombed-out Berlin. This is represented by a laughably bogus set, reminiscent of the sort of thing that might be built for a high school production of ‘Hitler – The Final Days’. Assuming, of course, that we’re talking about a high school for visually impaired students, and one that’s suffering from extreme difficulties.
In fact, the opening is even lamer than that. For the ‘stage’ is set initially with some of your standard WWII stock footage. It’s like we’re watching an episode of the old TV series The World at Bore. Er, War. Except, you know, not that good. Or interesting. Or informative. Orâ€¦anyway, after these establishing shots, we cut to the aforementioned set. This is outside a bunker. Inside, we see some envelopes being readied, then stowed in a box emblazoned with that Nazi Eagle seal.
This is shot in such a cornball style that you really suspect that you’re watching a parody, such as Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. In fact, the movie works much better as a satire of bad espionage movies than as a real one. If that was really Frankenheimer’s intent, then this is one of the most subtly brilliant movies of all time. Yeah, and maybe Prophecy was a parody, too! And maybe he intentionally let Brando and Kilmer run amok on The Island of Dr. Moreau. And maybe he designed The Extraordinary Seaman to be unreleasable. And perhaps he cast Andrew McCarthy and Sharon Stone in Year of the Gun becauseâ€¦oh, sorry.
Anyway. Three bigwig Nazi guys, Generals Kessler, Tiebolt and Clausen (who appears to be in a real pickle. Ha! I kill me!) are securing said envelopes with sealing wax. Suddenly, the score, which so far has featured generic sounding ‘thriller’ music, suddenly gains a bizarre disco beat. (Let’s be fair to the Nazis. Despite their numerous atrocities, we can’t really lay the blame for disco music on them.) This is all the more surprising when the credits reveal that the score was written by the famous film composerâ€¦Stanislas. Uh, you know. I mean, if he only needs one name, he must be famous. Right?
Completed, the envelopes are locked up in the box. This is given to a courier, who we are told is from Geneva. Why, or how, this fellow would make an appearance in Berlin, with the city bombed into rubble and the Allies soon to invade, isn’t explicated. It’s also odd to note that, despite the fact that this fellow is described in dialog as ‘the courier from Geneva,’ he proves to be dressed in a German army uniform, and rides off on a German military motorcycle. Perhaps this was just a popular look in Switzerland at the time. In any case, the courier is directed to give the papers only to ‘Manfredi’.
Back in the Bunker, the three Generals toast each other with brandy snifters. They toast, in sequence, to the covenant, their children, and ‘a new and better world.’ (Presumably, one where films like this aren’t produced.) This is all left pretty vague, all the better to ‘startle’ us when the inevitable ‘plot twists’ are later revealed. Their work done, one of the Generals picks up a pistol, asks the other two is they’re ready, then shoots them before shooting himself.
To be fair, the shot were the guy executes his comrades is nicely framed. The pistol looms large in the foreground, with the shadows of the victims cast against the wall in the background. Still, being fair isn’t the same as being generous. And frankly, one nicely composed shot three minutes into an otherwise horribly directed flick that runs nearly two hours hardly redeems the picture. In fact, with it’s false implication that occasional bursts of style might be forthcoming, this bit is actually somewhat sadistic.
As if to emphasize this point, we immediately cut to one of my personal bugaboos – a generic helicopter shot of some big city. Yawn. Man, if I had a buck for every shot like this from every stupid movie, well, I could afford to work on this page full time. In this case, we’re informed, the generic cityscape represents present day (well, 1985, anyway) New York City, as roughly 75% of all shots do. (Chicago and San Francisco are the next most popular sites for such establishing shots.) The camera then (as if I had to tell you) zooms down until we end up outside an office building.
We cut inside, to the kind of office that makes you suspect that we’ve landed at the corporate headquarters of Amalgamated Generico, Inc. ‘Staff’ generically stand around in ‘office’ poses that are basically the non-verbal equivalent of making ‘watermelon, watermelon’ noises. A secretary answers a phone and informs the caller (and us) that Our Hero, Noel Holcroft, is unavailable. He is, she continues, on a building site.
Yep, this whole pointless diversion was to provide us with the background info that Holcroft is an architect. A profession, by the way, that in no manner has anything to do with the plot. He might as well be a marine biologist. It’s merely ‘color,’ and a bland, beige-y color at that.
Holcroft, by the way, is never seen at his office. In other words, they built this set and hired all these extras and wasted another thirty seconds of our life when all they had to do was show Holcroft at the construction site looking over a blueprint. Or just inserted a line of dialog explaining that he’s an architect. Or, considering that it makes no difference, they could have ignored the whole issue. Anyway, having established this important fact, we cut to a stock footage construction site.
Next we see what is supposed to be an upper story in the early stages of construction, but which is pretty obviously another set. This features some laughably poor bluescreen effects of the city in the background. Here, wearing a yellow construction hat, we spot Holcroft (Caine) looking over a blueprint. Hmm, I guess he’s an architect.
Holcroft is handed a phone and told he has a call from Geneva, Switzerland (bum bum bum!). Then we cut to Switzerland. In other words, again, they built this set (although it doesn’t look like it took them that long) for what amounts to about five seconds of screentime. This might have seemed more lavish if the sets weren’t so patently, well, sets.
Over in Switzerland, we see a ferry getting ready to depart for Geneva. The camera roams around until we are inside a cafÃ©, where we see a man watching the boat. He gets up, and we soon see him come aboard the ferry. Directly, in fact, after Holcroft himself. Holcroft is introduced to Ernst Manfredi, who, I think we can safely assume, is the son of the Manfredi that was to receive the secret papers from the first scene. This ‘cleverly’ ties in with the whole plot concept, which deals with the children of the three Generals.
Manfredi thanks Holcroft for coming over to Europe on such short notice (this being the day after he got the phone call). Yeah, I’d say so. Holcroft must be a pretty whimsical fellow to jump up and fly over the Atlantic just because a stranger tells him it’s important. Especially since, as we later learn, Holcroft never bothered to inform his firm or clients that he was blowing town. Or given that he’s only been told that Manfredi has information “that will change the course of your life”, but otherwise doesn’t have a clue as to why Manfredi wants to see him. Hmm. If we’re lucky, Manfredi will begin, “In my experience, Mr. Holcroft, nothing has the potential to change the course of a man’s life like a truly fine set of encyclopedias,” and the film will be over.
No such luck. Manfredi begins by telling him that the information pertains to Holcroft’s father, by which he means his real father, General Clausen. Holcroft answers that, “I was afraid of that.” Caine seizes the opportunity to overact a bit here, which actually marks him as a professional. Seeing the large helping of clumsy expository dialog he’s supposed to serve up here, he must have figured that it’d go down easier with a thick slice of ham. Anyway, we learn that Holcroft & his mother fled Germany while he was an infant, and that he has never acknowledged Clausen as his father.
At this point, Holcroft is shouting (and probably spitting), and Manfredi nervously looks around at the nearby people who might be listening. Or, actually, this might be the embarrassed reaction of actor Michel Lonsdale, the guy playing Manfredi, to Caine’s histrionics. In any case, Manfredi suggests that they continue their conversation whilst strolling around up on deck.
Here Frankenheimer attempts, by having the actors in constant motion during the exposition scenes, to disguise how boring and stupid the dialog is. He used the same ploy in Prophecy. Remember the extended scene where Robert Foxworth explains that mercury poisoning is the cause of their problems, all the time wandering around various rooms of his cabin? Here, however, this ‘walking while talking’ technique will be utilized throughout the film. ‘A’ for effort, ‘F’ for effect.
At this point I’d like to take a second to discuss Caine’s wardrobe. There’s little doubt that Caine habitually chose the threads that his film characters would wear. That’s because it seems like he wore the exact same outfit that he’s wearing here in about ten straight years’ worth of films. By which I mean a navy blue, double breasted blazer with bronze buttons, a blue, open-necked dress shirt, worn either alone or with a cravat, and tan slacks. I always wanted to systematically go through and record for posterity the presence of the line, “This guy’s good!” in every Steven Seagal movie. Maybe to that ‘project’ list I should go through the two thousand movies Caine’s been in and see how many times he in fact wore this outfit.
Holcroft and Manfredi stroll out onto the deck. There, on an upper floor and framed directly between their heads (ooh, arty!), we see the Mysterious CafÃ© Guy. Holcroft admits that he knows that Clausen was some kind of high-up financial dude for the Nazis, but that that’s all he knows, or wants to. This leads to a rather choice line of dialog, even in this script. “Mr. Holcroft,” Manfredi replies, “your father was a complicated man [Hmm, I wonder if no one understood him but his woman?], and the word complicated doesn’t begin to describe him.” Uh, thanks. That’s very helpful.
Manfredi reveals that as a young man he knew Clausen, just as the war was ending. This is odd, as the actor playing Manfredi appears much too young to have been “a young man” 40 years earlier. Clausen, he continues, was “one of the Generals who had turned against Hitler.” Oh, one of those! Actually, by the time that Berlin was bombed into rubble and the Allies were about to make their appearance, at which point the movie started, I’m sure that many Generals “had turned against Hitler.”
Clausen, even more than that, though, actually started to feel guilty about that whole, you know, Nazi thing. So he and fellow Generals Tiebolt and Kessler decided to make amends. They took advantage of their positions to divert “Wermacht payrolls” and such. These monies were sent to Geneva to establish a secret bank account. (Yeah, like that would ever happen!) This money is now to be used to set up a foundation to help those victimized by the Nazis, as well as their descendants.
Oddly, the film never mentions the word ‘Jews’, though this is obviously what they’re getting at. Maybe because it would then even be harder to explain why none of the various groups and governments that take a run at Holcroft throughout the film are in any way connected with either Israel or Jews in general. Certainly, if British agents involve themselves with Holcroft (as they do later), you’d expect someone from the Mossad to also make an appearance.
Or, perhaps, given Hollywood’s chauvinism regarding how less progressive we all are compared to them (Barbra Streisand, you are the Light of a Weary World!), they assumed that no would one ‘out there’ would care about a movie concerned with helping a bunch of Jews. (See my article on A Stranger Among Us for a similar thesis). Of course, if Hollywood was your basic, you know, industry (Boo! Hiss!), I’d say they were worried about making money is those parts of the world where Jews are still not all that popular. But, of course, everyone in Show Biz is an Artist, and such considerations would never even enter their noble minds.
Even ignoring all that, though, there’s one major problem with the film’s basic scenario. The Foundation’s assets were derived from stolen government monies. German, to be exact. Sure, it was Nazi money, but still, they stole military payrolls and stuff. As soon as the existence of these funds became public knowledge, the foundation would be swarmed by German lawyers, demanding that these funds, and the interest derived from them, be returned to the German treasury.
Then they would be sued by individuals, and/or their descendents, who were in the German military and never got their pay because it was stolen. Then they’d be sued by the Foundation’s intended beneficiaries, Holocaust victims and/or their descendents, who would be outraged that such a fund would be administrated by the children of prominent Nazis.
In any case, Holcroft, Clausen’s only child, is to become the chairman of this foundation. He will have nearly total control over how the monies are used and distributed. Holcroft, feeling unqualified to handle such a job, turns down the position. At least until he learns the sum involved.
With forty years of accrued interest, the Foundation’s capitol has grown into four and a half billion dollars. (As opposed to this movie, which in one hundred and twelve minutes accrues absolutely no interest whatsoever.) And remember, this was in 1985, when a billion dollars was still worth something.
Apparently fearing that the audience’s math skills aren’t up to the task, Manfredi is given a little speech. The ultimate point being that, if one million seconds is twelve days, one billion seconds is thirty two years. Or, to put it another way, if one million seconds is twelve days, then one million ‘dog’ seconds is eighty-four days. Or, in yet another context, if one hundred and twelve minutes is an hour and fifty two minutes, then one hundred and twelve ‘Holcroft Covenant’ minutes is, by my reckoning, about six or seven very long, very painful hours.
Now, I find it odd that Holcroft didn’t think he was qualified to oversee a foundation’s assets because he had no financial training, until he learns that the amount of money he’ll be in charge of is gigantically huge, at which point he drops his objection. Wouldn’t he feel less qualified to oversee dispersal of four and a half billion dollars than, say, four million dollars? Anyway, we learn that he won’t have total control after all. Also on board will be the elder children of Tiebolt and Kessler. Holcroft, however, will remain chairman and spokesman for the foundation.
This leads Holcroft to ask the obvious question: “Why would I be the chairman? Why not one of the other two?” Having asked a logical question, he is given what seems to me a very illogical answer, both in its assumptions about how others regard Americans, and given the fact that Holcroft’s real father was General Clausen. “By the time the Covenant was drawn up, your Mother was in England, married to an American, Richard Holcroft. You are an American citizen, above suspicion. The others are children of Nazis.”
Just in case we forgot about him, we cut back to some shots of Mysterious CafÃ© Guy, who’s watching this discussion. Some rather goofy ‘suspense’ music plays over a close-up of him, to make sure we ‘get’ that his presence is mysterious and/or ominous. Manfredi, meanwhile, hands Holcroft a letter from his father, dead these forty years. Oddly, the envelope looks all new and spiffy. The ‘suspense’ music returns as Holcroft breaks the wax seals and opens the letter. Whew! Like the ‘shower’ scene from Psycho, you will never forget the dramatic ‘opening the envelope’ scene from The Holcroft Covenant.
Needless to say, this being a movie and all, Holcroft hears the note being read in his father’s voice. This is odd. After all, he never heard his father’s voice. We did, however, during the prologue. Sure enough, the voice reading the letter matches the voice we heard then. (Maybe Holcroft’s just a really good guesser.) While the letter is heard, the ship arrives in Geneva. I’m not sure how far away it was when it started out, but the whole journal took just seven minutes, so I guess it wasn’t very far.
The letter goes on to warn Holcroft that various people and groups and organizations and whatnot will try to stop him from fulfilling the terms of the Covenant, “by whatever means necessary.” Why? I don’t know. Anyway, this must be right, for while this very dialog is being narrated, we see an obvious spy type tuck a silenced pistol into your obligatory folded newspaper.
Holcroft and Manfredi disembark the ferry, followed by Mysterious CafÃ© Guy. Then (I swear!) we cut to another fellow, futzing with his necktie, who is watching everyone else. He is soon spotted by Mysterious CafÃ© Guy, who then also (somehow, in this big crowd) spots Gun in Newspaper Man. Soon, they are all converging on Holcroft, for no doubt nefarious purposes. (Of course, if they kill him now, then the movie would be over, andâ€¦Hey! Go, guys!! Go get ‘im!!)
It doesn’t exactly help the suspense-o-meterâ„¢ here that all this is reminiscent of the Oktoberfest sequence from The Pink Panther Strikes Again. There, Dreyfuss, an insane former boss of the inept Inspector Clouseau (who, naturally, was the one that drove him mad), comes up with a gigantic Death Ray.
As a public display, he disintegrates the United Nations building. (This makes him, along with The Giant Claw and Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters, one of the various film characters to have destroyed that edifice). He then orders the nations of the world to kill Clouseau, who is attending Oktoberfest in Munich.
Dozens of nations send their top assassins. Each country wants to be on Dreyfuss’ ‘good list’ by being the one to kill Clouseau. Therefore, the killers have orders to take out rivals as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t count on that weird indestructibility that Clouseau possesses. Soon all the assassins have managed to knock each other off, intentionally or by accident. Meanwhile, the oblivious Clouseau doesn’t even catch a whiff of what’s going on.
To my amusement, that pattern follows here ever more closely as the scene progresses. (Only here, it’s not supposed to be funny). Om-Pah music, being played by a band on the wharf, heightens the resemblance even further. Holcroft and Manfredi amble through the crowd, while extras expend much energy in not looking at the camera. Holcroft is still reading the letter. Meanwhile, we cut to shots of the various fellows that are following him.
Finally, Gun in Newspaper Man is in position, and makes his move. Before he can fire, however, Mysterious CafÃ© Guy, now obviously here to protect Holcroft, shoots him down with another silenced pistol (standard equipment, apparently). Then MCG turns to react to Tie-Futzing Guy, who has pulled a knife and is trying to get him in turn. However, MCG is too fast, and T-FG is soon taken out with his own knife. A car pulls up to take Holcroft, unaware of all these events, to safety.
Really, I dare anyone to watch these two sequences from The Holcroft Covenant and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (which was made ten years earlier, by the way) back to back and not laugh their heads off during this scene.
Cut back to New York. We get another establishing shot, as well as another inexplicable riff of the film’s ‘suspense’ music. Holcroft is at his Mom’s book store, showing her the letter. She confirms that the handwriting is Clausen’s, but warns that he had been a less than strictly honest individual. Her advice is to take the stated purpose of the Foundation with a grain of salt.
She tells him that Clausen had been a fanatical Nazi, and that she can’t believe that he experienced this kind of reformation. Holcroft, however, is already moony-eyed over the whole idea and doesn’t want to hear it. When she asks how he knows he can trust Tiebolt’s and Kessler’s sons, he replies, “this document can’t even be activated unless I sign it!” Whatever that means.
Let’s assume that the purpose of the Foundation is legitimate. What if Holcroft had grown up to become a neo-Nazi? What if he were a mental patient? Would the other two sons be able to sue him for control of the Foundation? Where? In what country, in what court? What if Holcroft is merely contrarian? What if, unable to determine if the Foundation is legitimate, he decides not to sign the document? Does the money just lie there in perpetuity, untouchable because he proved to be an eccentric? Can the others take him to court (somewhere) to force him to “activate the document”?
To assuage his mother’s fears, Holcroft repeats that, having signed the document, he will be The Foundation’s Chairman and Spokesman. He asserts that “No one can spend a nickel unless I say so!” How does he know that? The letter doesn’t spell out what the role of Chairman is. Can he override a vote by both of the other sons? If so, what is their role in the organization?
And where is all this spelled out? Not in the letter, because we heard it read aloud. Is there some universal concept of a ‘Chairman’, one that allows him to make these assumptions? And, by the way, what’s the big deal about being ‘Spokesman’ for the group? He always says ‘Chairman and Spokesman’, as if the second title somehow confirms the power inherit in the first.
In any case, despite his mother’s forebodings (and our general apathy), he decides to assume the vague, unspecified role of Chairman (and, don’t forget, Spokesman!) of the Foundation. Of course, if he listened to Mum, then the movie would be over. (I know, I know, like that would be a bad thing.)
Holcroft arrives at his apartment building to find a variety of cop cars, ambulances and such. As well, a large crowd stands outside on the rain swept sidewalk. As Holcroft waits to get cleared to enter by the cops, we spot (*gasp*) Mysterious CafÃ© Guy watching from the crowd. Having now fulfilled his job of being spotted by the audience, he turns and goes. Soon after, a detective comes out and gives Holcroft permission to enter the building.
I have to wonder about the crowd. This is New York, right? Admittedly, this is an upscale neighborhood. But it’s pouring rain out, and I really wonder if the appearance of a few cop cars and an ambulance would be enough to draw such a large number of people. Especially since they’re just standing there, quietly waiting forâ€¦what exactly?
Nobody tries to question Holcroft when he identifies himself to the police, so they’re not with the Press. Holcroft himself, as a tenant, is quickly waved in, so they’re not fellow residents. Ultimately, they’re just a crowd of anonymous people, grouped together in uncomfortable circumstances, waiting around patiently for something to happen. Hmm. Suddenly, I know what it must have been like to see this movie in a theater. Except for maybe the ‘crowd’ part.
The detective questions Holcroft in the building’s foyer. In the background we can see some extras doing ‘cop’ things around a body. Holcroft is asked if he knows a Peter Baldwin, who is, we suppose, the dead man. Holcroft says no.
Upstairs, he checks his answering machine. Given that this was made in the mid-’80s, this is a rather large and cumbersome device that comes with a remote control (!). Like the conversation on the deck of the ferry, this is used so that Holcroft can move about his apartment while listening to the messages, in order to make the scene less ‘static’. Frankly, Frankenheimer might have wanted to focus on a workable script rather than rely on all this elaborate blocking.
The messages, meant to add verisimilitude, instead make Holcroft out to be a comical jerk. This is where, for instance, we learn that Holcroft just skipped over to Europe without telling either his boss or his client that he wasn’t coming to work. Even better, we hear a message from his mother, wondering why he didn’t show up for dinner as they had planned. What, he couldn’t even tell his Mom he was leaving town? Especially given that they had plans? And given that Holcroft didn’t have any idea that he was going to return from Geneva a functional billionaire, one has to wonder at his cavalier attitude towards his job. Maybe this isn’t the guy who should be in charge of the Foundation after all.
Anyway, background ‘color’ having been taken care of, we finally get to the ‘plot’ message. The next message is an urgent one from (*gasp*) the late Peter Baldwin. Rather than call the cops, Holcroft tries to reach Baldwin at the hotel number he left, only to told that he’s “checked out.” (I’ll say!) Holcroft then continues listening to the remainder of his messages. There is a second one from Baldwin, who warns Holcroft that he’s in, yes, terrible danger.
He implores Holcroft to meet with his associate Leighton and Tiebolt’s daughter Helden the next day in Trafalgar Square, in London. He warns Holcroft, twice, not to look for Leighton. (Why?) Leighton will find him. Baldwin says that he’ll try to meet with Holcroft, but that if anything goes wrong (wow, to live the life of a secret agent, huh, constantly aware of your own potential demise), to destroy the tape containing this message.
Holcroft removes the tape and unsurprisingly, given what we know about him, calls his secretary to get him a ticket to London. This leaves one to wonder: If this his private secretary? Or his secretary from work? You know, where’s he’s blowing everybody off. If so, then he’s an even bigger jerk than I thought.
Cut to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. A shot of a clock reveals that it’s the appointed meeting time. Walking and looking around, Holcroft spots Mysterious CafÃ© Guy. In a hilarious bit, when we cut to MCG, we see a flock of pigeons suddenly erupt into the air directly in front of him. It’s like we were watching a horror movie and Satan had just materialized in their midst. Holcroft walks over and calls him Leighton, but the guy just walks off. Holcroft is then addressed by the real Leighton, who proves to be an unassuming little silver-haired fellow with glasses.
Leighton chastises Holcroft for looking for him, since he was warned not to. Now, admittedly, it seemed like a stupid instruction. Still, given the circumstances that Holcroft suddenly finds himself in, his disobedience doesn’t exactly speak well for his intelligence. For instance, what if Mysterious CafÃ© Guy was there acting as protection, as he did in Geneva. His presence would have been compromised by having Holcroft walk up and address him. And remember, Holcroft is a fellow willing to jump onto a plane and fly to Europe because of a phone message from a guy he’d never met. Twice in three days. Given that, you’d think he’d be willing to follow the more mundane instructions.
Leighton identifies himself as British Military Intelligence. OK, I guess it’s time for us to wonder why so many organizations and governments (but no Jewish, Israeli, or, for that matter, Arab ones) are interesting themselves with Holcroft. Now, admittedly, the four and a half billion dollars that Holcroft will control is a tidy sum. Still, if they’re worried that he’ll do something naughty with it, why not wait until he does and then prosecute him (or, in this universe, assassinate him). Besides, it’s not like there aren’t other organizations and individuals that have similar immense amounts at their disposal.
For instance, Bill Gates is currently worth, what, around a hundred billion dollars? Even allowing for ten plus years of inflation, he certainly has more money than Holcroft would have. Yet few government agencies (other than the Justice Department) or private organizations like KAOS or S.M.E.R.S.H. seem to have taken notice of him. Certainly, if there have been assassination attempts against him, it’s been covered up. Also, it seems likely that organizations like the John D. Rockefeller Foundation would have had (and have) similar amounts available. Harvard University has an investment fund in the billions. Are they subject to these spy shenanigans?
And, finally, in spite of the fact that Baldwin’s murder and a major act of terrorism (later in the movie) both take place on American soil, no agency of the United States ever makes an appearance here. How come? Do the European spies have more time on their hands for this kind of thing?
Holcroft informs Leighton that he’s seen Mysterious CafÃ© Guy before. Holcroft explains that, having noticed the guy following him, he’d assumed that he was Leighton. “Oh, Dear, oh, dear,” Leighton replies, “Assumption, Mr. Holcroft, is, as they say in my profession, the mother of f*ck-up.”
Leighton puts an odd emphasis on the last word (or two words, or whatever). This might have been intended to have a comic effect, given that he’s a proper old British gentleman. (Much like how films seem to think it funny to have a little old lady suddenly swear a blue streak). Perhaps it’s meant to make us realize that under this proper facade is a steely, cynical man who’s seen the worst the world has to offer. I guess that the most generous assumption is that they meant it to be stupid. In which case: Well done, chaps. Smashing, what?
Leighton identifies MCG as ‘Beaumont.’ At least, we’re told, that’s his name in England. (Wow, the shadowy world of espionage, huh, where nothing is at it seems.) Leighton goes on to describe Beaumont as, and I kid you not, “one of the highest paid hit-men in the world.” (Wow, the shadowy world of espionage, huh, where clichÃ©s come tumbling out at the drop of a hat.) Holcroft asks why he doesn’t arrest him, and Leighton replies that, as much as he’d like to, “a shoot-out in Trafalgar Square just isn’t done.” Ah, that wry British understatement. At least he didn’t reply, “In my profession, a shootout in Trafalgar Square is the uncle of all f*ck-up.”
Noting that there are a “lot of villainous characters lurking about” (in this case, he probably means directors, camera men, grips, best boys, that kind of thing), Leighton suggest that they move on. One can thus assume that, in his profession, overstaying one’s welcome is the sister-in-law of all f*ck-up. (In my profession, it’s beating a joke to death.)
He tells Holcroft that they’re off to meet Ms. Tennyson, the clever alias of Tiebolt’s daughter, Helden. Perhaps this is a sly reference to the English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. One wonders if, in another universe, Tennyson might have seen this film and written a poem about it’s director: I am Frankenheimer/King of Films/Look upon my works, ye Ed Wood/and tremble!
Leighton escorts Holcroft to a nearby church. Entering, they walk to an interior pair of doors. These feature matching oval windows, as if designed for a giant who might want to check out his visitors before letting them in. Pointing out Helden to be sitting in a pew, Leighton sends Holcroft in to converse with her.
Now we get to one of Frankenheimer’s more obnoxious ‘motifs’ for this picture. As Holcroft enters the room, the camera tilts to assume a disorienting angle. This might be more effective if it weren’t such a corny old clichÃ© that it was regularly employed on the Batman TV show as a comedic devise, twenty years before this film came out. In fact, as he enters the church, you keep waiting for Nelson Riddle music to blare out.
Presumably, Holcroft is meeting Helden here so that they’ll appear to just be two unconnected people praying in a church. This might be more realistic if Holcroft and Helden weren’t about the only people there. This calls attention to the fact that, given all the empty pews available, he sits directly in front of her.
I must admit, however, that I have seen this phenomenon manifest itself numerous times in movie theaters. You walk into an otherwise almost empty theater and grab a nice seat. Ten minutes later, just as the movie starts, one or two others enter and, of the eight hundred seats available, decide to sit in the ones directly in front of yours.
Holcroft’s choice to sit in front of Helden necessitates him turning around to talk with her. This leads her to hiss, “Don’t turn around!,” at him, twice. Their exchange quickly degenerates into ‘movie dialog,’ by which I mean dialog that, if read aloud, you’d realize is nothing like the way people speak in real life. (See Immortal Dialog.)
Also, while Helden sits stock still so as to maintain the illusion that they’re not conversing, Holcroft bobs around while talking like an Italian with his hands tied down. (Wow! An ethnic joke! If that doesn’t get the hate mail flying, nothing will.) I think this is meant to reinforce the fact that Holcroft, unlike Helden, isn’t a trained spy. But how much ‘training’ does it take to sit still during a conversation?
We learn that Helden is the child of General von Tiebolt. Yet she also has an older brother, Johann. Holcroft points out that Johann, as the elder child, is the one he must speak with. However, upon learning that Baldwin was murdered, a shocked Helden replies that they “can’t talk here.” If this really changed things, you wonder why Leighton didn’t just escort Holcroft somewhere and set up another meeting. Proving again to be rather thick, Holcroft asks if he can’t just “buy you a drink somewhere?” (!)
Helden tells him that they must leave separately. Holcroft should wait a few minutes after she leaves, then “casually” leave. She gives him some ‘spy’ instructions, i.e., what door to exit out of, where to find a waiting car, etc. When he asks if this is all necessary, she replies that some “serious people” think so, and that he’ll meet one of them tonight. So saying, she leaves the church.
Now there’s a scene so hilarious that you again wonder if the film was meant to be a parody. Having quietly left the church as instructed, Holcroft is hailed by a guy (seen earlier sitting in Trafalgar Square) who shouts at him as he walks down the sidewalk: “Mr. Holcroft! Will you please come here and get into the car!” This, in public, while Holcroft stands a good fifteen or twenty feet away. So much for not calling attention to themselves.
As Holcroft moves to enter the car, Trafalgar Square Man leaves. Inside, Holcroft finds Helden. Having dumped her ‘disguise’ of a shawl, wig and sunglasses, Helden proves to be actress Victoria Tennant. She’s still the savvy spy, however, for now she’s wearing another, darker wig. Man, this chick’s a regular Lon Chaney.
Now we get another of the film’s comic highlights. Holcroft enters the car on the right side, which in Europe is the driver’s side. “Drive!,” Helden commands. Unfortunately, Holcroft, being your typical New Yorker, explains that he never learned how. This enrages Helden, who, one would think (being a spy and all) would have researched Holcroft prior to this meeting. (In fact, in the church, she even had to ask if he was an American!)
Instead, she takes it out on him. “Do you realize,” she snarls, “you’re endangering our lives by your incompetence!” Sure, lady, take it out on the architect. But as far as I’m concerned, in your profession, lack of research is the third cousin of all f*ck-up.
Helden, a trained professional whose very life depends on her ability to instantly adapt to changing circumstances, quickly comes up with a solution: She’ll drive. Whew! That was a close one!
With Helden at the wheel, we are provided the opportunity to watch some of Frankenheimer’s patented ‘speeding car’ shots. He’s pretty good at this kind of thing, having a long history of ‘car racing’ (Grand Prix, 1966) and ‘car chase’ sequences in his films (check out the three of them in Ronin, they’re super). However, the continuingly silly score by Stanislas manages to undercut Frankenheimer even here, with ‘driving’ music that sounds almost exactly like the Speed Racer theme played on a synthesizer.
Hours later (I assume, as it’s now nighttime), they arrive at a house out in the country. It’s surrounded by a barb-wire topped concrete wall and security lights. This is presumably the abode of some Spymaster who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. Helden now, finally, apologizes for her bad manners. She was worried, and Leighton and the rest were only trying to protect her. Holcroft asks, then why did they let her go off alone with him? What if he was one of the “bad guys?” (What ‘bad guys’? And how could Holcroft be one of them? He didn’t even know of the Covenant until three days ago.)
However, as if this were a serious question, the film provides us with an answer. (One mark of an authentic Bad Movie is Misdirected Answeringâ„¢. This occurs when much energy is expended answering questions that no one’s likely to ask, while ignoring a multitude of obvious plot holes as large as an elephant). For immediately after Holcroft asks this question, as if on cue (which it is, in fact), the rear door of the car opens up, and a sore looking Leighton pops out.
Yep, we’re to believe that he spent the last number of hours lying on the floor of the back seat, ready to spring into action should Holcroft prove to be a ‘bad guy.’ (It also doesn’t say much for Holcroft’s burgeoning ‘survival’ instincts that he rode in a car for hours and never noticed a full grown man hiding in the back seat.) And if Holcroft had managed to take Leighton out? There’s still the midget in the glovebox.
Helden take advantage of the moment to remove her wig, revealing her blonde locks. Holcroft smiles his approval, suggesting, in case anyone doubted it, that these two are destined to become romantically entangled. Helden informs him that the house belongs to her boss, Herr Oberst. It turns out that she works for a private organization and not the British Government, as we may have assumed.
We cut inside the house, where Oberst proves to be an old man in a wheelchair. He is watching their little group enter the gate via a small black & white monitor. This is hidden in a cabinet, whose door he can open or close via a switch on the control pad of this chair. Gee. Wow. You know, it’s not like I expect James Bond-type gadgets in a straight espionage film, but if we’re meant to be impressed by his cutting edge, high-tech security system, well, I’m not.
By the way, there’s a bit in Ronin where somebody asks Robert DeNiro (I think) who sent him. He replies something to the effect that it was “the man in the wheelchair.” If that’s meant to be a sly reference to this movie, then it’s funnier than any of the (intentionally ‘funny’) material to be found here. And even if it’s not, the coincidence still lends a certain humorous aspect to the line.
Using another of the ‘amazing’ switches on his wheelchair, Oberst electronically opens his front door. (OK, so it’s not a secret terrorist base hidden in a volcano. Still, thoughâ€¦) After asking Holcroft to sit down, Oberst ascertains that he doesn’t speak German. He then explains that ‘Oberst’ is German for ‘Colonel’. This isn’t his real name, he reveals, but a code name he’s used for a number of years. (Gee, thanks, Mr. Screenwriter, that really added a lot.)
Holcroft interrupts at this juncture (as well he might). He proceeds, finally, to express some anger over the way he’s been shuttled all over the place by people he doesn’t even know. Particularly, he wants to know why he’s been brought to this particular locale. Oberst responds that he is here to satisfy him (Oberst) that the foundation’s monies will not be spent supporting anything that Oberst doesn’t approve of.
An increasingly ticked off Holcroft asks how he even knows of the Covenant. Leighton replies that, given the difficulty of hiding such a vast sum, pretty much everybody knows about it. (This, again, makes us wonder why neither the German government or a group of Concentration Camp survivors have laid claim to the money yet.)
Oberst reveals that he’s the head of an organization that exists to “make sure the horrors of the Third Reich are never repeated again.” Given the number of dictators who have committed mass murder on a genocidal scale since the War ended (Pol Pot, Idi Amin, etc.), we can only assume that either they don’t do a very good job, or just don’t care, as long as the mass murders are committed by, say, Communists, rather than Nazis.
Oberst wants to be convinced, ultimately, that Holcroft isn’t the “anointed leader” of the “neo-Nazis” (oh, them), and that he doesn’t plan to use the foundation’s resources to “create a Fourth Reich.” This, of course, seems a bit unlikely.
For instance, history indicates that to establish a Reich you need the following: First, a nation with a sizable industrial base and a disciplined and military oriented populace. Said country should also have been recently humiliated after losing a war, and currently experiencing a horrific economic downturn. It’s also helpful if this economic plight is due to excessive amounts of ‘reparations’ demanded by the winners of said war.
Then the foundation would have to provide a monstrously charismatic lunatic/genius to exploit the tensions so created. This leader would first get the economy knocked back into shape. Next, he repair the country’s shattered national pride. The final step would be to convince the citizens of said country to launch military attacks against the nations that had humiliated them.
Those other countries, by the way, would perforce have to be extremely frightened of getting into another war. So much so that they would choose to allow this first country to rearm. This despite having the strength to crush them at any point early in the game, until said country grew strong enough to threaten, literally, pretty much the entire world. Admittedly, this has been done before (once), but even then, it probably cost more than four and a half billion dollars.
All this allows actor Caine to erupt into one of his patented ‘anger fits.’ Holcroft explodes at being told to explain himself, and basically tells Oberst to kiss his ass. Oberst, however, really wants an answer. Reaching under the blanket that covers his legs, he withdraws a pistol. He tells Holcroft that should he fail to convince them of his good intentions, he will be immediately killed. I should mention that we get a slew more ‘Batman’ camera shots here, all of which fail to invest the scene with the ‘tension’ that the director apparently intended.
Holcroft, seeing that Helden and Leighton aren’t going to come to his aid, just stares back at Oberst. He finally reacts with what is supposed to be a mix of fear and anger, but his ‘belligerent’ speech fails to make the grade. Noting that the gun is “doing wonders for your eloquence” (this guy really needs to get out more), Oberst tells him to continue.
Holcroft finally starts spouting some generic ‘worthwhile’ donations: endowing medical schools in Poland and Israel (the closest the film comes to mentioning the whole ‘Jew’ thing), or starting Universities in Africa (?). At this, Holcroft runs out of steam. He hasn’t really had time to think this through yet (and it shows). Apparently, though, this oration has relaxed their guard to some degree. Holcroft manages to get close and grab the pistol from Oberst. This leads to some further ‘humor’, with Holcroft waving the gun around, while proving unable to tell them what he wants them to do.
Aware of how ludicrous the situation is, Holcroft notes, “Some kind of Nazi, huh? Got a gun, and I can’t figure out what to do with it!” There’s no reason for him to be embarrassed, though. After all, substitute the words ‘director’ and ‘script’ for ‘Nazi’ and ‘gun’, and it might be Frankenheimer himself speaking. Still, having convinced everybody of his good intentions (presumably, they’ve realized that such a massive chowderhead doesn’t pose much of a threat to world peace), Holcroft surrenders the gun to Leighton. Oberst tells Holcroft that Helden will take him back to London.
Then, in a scene so bizarre that it’s literally surreal, Oberst manages to stiffly stand up out of his wheelchair, for no other reason than to bid Holcroft farewell. I mean, who is he, Guy Caballaro? The film treats this like some big, mouth-dropping surprise, but, c’mon, this guy’s only been in the movie for the last five minutes. It’s not like Ironside suddenly got out of his chair after five seasons. In fact, especially given Oberst’s comically thick German accent, your reaction would probably be the same as mine: To stare gape-mouthed until he’s standing, and then shout “My Fuehrer! I can walk!”
Holcroft and Helden leave. Their absence sets up a scene meant to remind us that this is a hard-nosed espionage movie. As in The X-Files, no one is as he seems, or should be trusted. Leighton addresses Oberst in German, noting that he believes that they misjudged Holcroft. He’s now glad, he continues, that they failed to kill him in Geneva (bum bum bum). Oberst agrees, noting that they now must work to keep him alive, in hopes that he’ll lead them toâ€¦(bum bum bum)â€¦”The McGuffin!” Oops. Sorry. I meanâ€¦(bum bum bum)â€¦”The List!” (Not that I was wrong the first time.)
Back in the city, Helden pulls the car over to a curb. (I wish I could describe the music here. It consists of a repeated series of little riffs, like something they’d play in a commercial about a sunny housewife discovering just how clean Calgon got her glassware.) She tells Holcroft that they’re parking in a “non-existent parking spot” (?) at the foot of Albert Bridge. (Actually, she parks behind two other cars, and there’s no indication that this isn’t, in fact, an utterly legal parking spot.) She asks if Holcroft has a umbrella, since it’s raining. Of course, he doesn’t have one. (He’s been with her all day. How could she not notice that he’s not carrying one?)
Still, she must be loosening up a bit, since she fails to shriek that his incompetence could get them all killed. In any case, they continue to exchange cute looks, and dialog that apparently is considered witty, presumably in the anti-matter universe for which this film was intended.
She notes that there’s probably an umbrella in the trunk (since it’s Leighton’s car, and he’s, you know, British and all), and sends Holcroft out to get it. He jogs out in the rain and, sure enough, pulls a bumbershoot from the boot. Amusingly, Caine doesn’t even pretend to ‘look’ for the umbrella: With the trunk half open, he just sticks his hand in and grabs it, as if he knew right where it was.
Holcroft and Helden end up walking across the bridge, yakking. Why? I don’t know. For ‘characterization’ purposes, I guess. (Though it fits in with Frankenheimer’s motif of staging conversations with the participants strolling around.) As a plot point, Holcroft asks Helden if she can get him a gun, given all the wackos that are after him. Then he notes that he really must meet with Helden’s brother, Johann. (Remember?) Helden explains that he’s a journalist who “writes brilliant but mysterious articles on international finance.” (??)
She boasts that he’s “the world’s second foremost authority on the price of the Pound.” Then, as a truly odd follow-up, she notes that “â€¦it means is that he’s not easy to find.” Yep, a guy like that would have to stay on the run. You know what it’s like: You wander from town to town, no sooner stopping to buy a drink or take a bath then some punk seeks you out, trying to establish a reputation by outguessing the world’s second foremost authority on the price of the Pound in regards to the conversion ratio via the Yen.
We cut back to New York, where Holcroft’s Mom receives a late night call in her book store. Answering the phone, she responds in German. She talks a small bit, ultimately agreeing that she’ll hop on a plane and be in England the next afternoon. (I guess this explains Holcroft’s behavior – it’s genetic.) She also concurs that “My son must be stopped.” (bum bum bum!)
Back in London, Holcroft and Heldon emerge from the other side of the bridge, where Helden’s car is parked nearby. (It took me a second to figure out that this was a different vehicle.) Helden tells Holcroft to wait in the car. She’s going to jog over to a nearby phone booth and call Johann.
A suspicious Holcroft asks why Johann is suddenly so easy to find. Helden notes that it’s now exactly one hour since they left Oberst’s place (which hardly jibes with the implied travel time of the trip to his house). The fact that her car is still parked here is a sign that Holcroft has passed some sort of test (no, I don’t know and I don’t care), and that it’s considered safe for him to meet with Johann.
OK, at this point I have to ask: Does anyone else think that this is probably not how real spies conduct themselves?
Helden and Holcroft are next seen driving up to one of those all-night horse riding joints. (You know the kind.) This is established with a rather silly shot, as we watch them park their car from a high position behind a neon sign shaped like a horse. (You know the kind.) Inside the lobby we can see a restaurant area off to the left, while giant bay windows reveal Helden’s brother trotting around on a horse. (So much for being in hiding.) Helden notes that she and Johann had horses when they were children in South America. (This is kind of a toss away clue to “Return of the Third Reich” aficionados.)
Helden tells Holcroft that she’ll get him some gear, then pauses, asking if Holcroft knows how to ride (again, she seems to make a lot of assumptions for a spy). This is followed by a ‘comic’ scene where Holcroft hotly argues that no one goes horse riding at 11:30 at night. Then he spots Beaumont (Mysterious CafÃ© Guy) sitting at a nearby table, whereupon he suddenly smiles and notes that he always wanted to go horse riding at 11:30 at night. (Ha ha! Whew! My sides are achin’. Well, OK. My head is achin’.) Sure enough, we next see them on horses, joining Johann is the oddly non-secret fishbowl riding area.
More ‘humor’ is mined from the fact that Holcroft isn’t a really great horseman. (“Are you sure this is the slowest horse they’ve got?” he asks.) Holcroft tells Johann about Beaumont, and suggests that they find someplace private to hold their conversation. Johann, however, notes that the best thing to do if they are being watched is to act natural. Holcroft’s reply is an apt example of the awkward ‘dialog’ that the actors are forced to treat like normal speech: “May I suggest, that it is extremely difficult for a man, in a gray flannel suit, to behave naturally, while riding on a horse in the middle of the night, waiting for someone to shoot at you!”
To make Holcroft more comfortable, they dismount before continuing their conversation. Johann confirms that they are all in danger. (Again, why? Does any of this really make sense? Does four billion dollars really threaten the stability of the world?) He reveals that he’s been aware of the Covenant since he was a child, although he never knew about the vast amount of money involved. He notes that their job now is to ascertain if Kessler’s son is still alive, and, if so, where he is. (If Manfredi kept track of Holcroft, how come he didn’t keep track of Kessler’s kid?)
Johann explains that the best place to learn the current name and location of Kessler’s son would be in Berlin, in the “central archives.” He suggests that Holcroft and Helden fly out to Berlin the next day. He adds that they should, of course, “travel separately.” (Wow, those wily spies, huh?)
When Holcroft questions this, Johann replies that “I’ve been on the run and hiding for most of my life,” and thus claims expertise. Whether he’s been on the run as the son of a prominent Nazi (of course, so is Holcroft) or rather as a writer of brilliant but mysterious articles on international finance is left to our imaginations.
Oddly, the scene ends with Johann noting that “none of us are safe until the Covenant is signed.” What does that mean? Why would people stop trying to kill them merely because they’ve signed off on the Covenant? If this is true, why doesn’t Johann suggest that he and Holcroft sign it now. Then, once Holcroft locates Kessler’s kid and gets him to sign, they’d be immediately safe. Right?
Or would they? Is the document set up in such a way that it can’t be ‘activated’ if one of the kids dies prior to signing it? If so, isn’t that rather stupid? If not, again, why would signing the Covenant keep them safe? Let’s just say that if you were stuck in a room as airtight as this script, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about suffocating.
Back in New York, we watch Holcroft’s Mom close up her bookstore, prior to leaving for England. Across the street, a young woman, obviously up to no good, is watching her. As Mom futzes with the door, the woman signals a parked car by pulling a newspaper out from under her arm. (In the world of espionage, apparently, few items are as multifunctional than your common newspaper. And we haven’t even seen anyone engage in the ‘switch newspapers to exchange documents’ bit yet.)
The signal given, the car roars to life and swerves into the street. Obviously intending to run over Mom, the car manages to snag three or four other people on the way. Mom, however, is saved when a bystander pulls her to the side. This leaves the car to crash into the storefront. Gazing over at the corpse ridden tableau, Mom shouts “My shop!” (No ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ awards for this woman.)
Meanwhile, Newspaper Woman steps across the road, reaching into her small handbag as she comes. This she tosses into the shop, whereupon, needless to say, it explodes. And how! I don’t know what kind of explosive she was supposed to be carrying, but the smallish purse results in an absolutely gigantic explosion and fireball.
This is what I’ve personally entitled the ‘Atomic Grenade’ effect, referring to those devices of destruction that somehow produce explosions all out of proportion to their size. Feel free to shout “Atomic Grenade!!” at your TV the next time you view this phenomena.
Also, there seems to be little rationale for blowing up the shop. For example, she’s seen that Mom was pulled to the side. Therefore, she couldn’t have thought that the explosion would knock her off. And there isn’t anything actually in the shop that anyone would want destroyed. (Unless she was actually a Muslim out to destroy copies of The Satanic Verses, and this whole thing is a big coincidence.) The closest I can figure is that she wanted to make sure that her bumbling assistant, still laying unconscious or dead in the driver’s seat of the car, would tell no tales. But you’d really think a simple pistol would have accomplished that task.
Also, wouldn’t you really think that, at this point, some quarter of the United States government would get involved in this mess? I mean, first a member of Britain’s Military Intelligence is assassinated on our soil, then a terrorist attack (I don’t know what else you’d call it) takes out a major portion of a commercial block in downtown New York City. The film has already established that everybody and his brother knows about the Covenant, so where are our guys? (They’re probably too busy overestimating the economic health of the Soviet Union.)
Cut to Berlin. A car is driving down a downscale street. Noticeable nearby are a bunch of women, standing around wearing elaborate lingerie. Next we see guys positioning a parade float, which features a giant red high heeled shoe. (Maybe this will drawn by a ‘toe’ truckâ€¦Get it? Big Shoe? ‘Toe’ truck?! What? Oh, yeah? Sure, everybody’s a critic. Well, screw you then! It’s not like you freeloading bastards are paying for these reviews.)
The car parks in front of a sleazy hotel. Holcroft pops out, and is immediately swarmed by whores, who appear to be the German equivalent of shoe salesman. To be fair to the film, though, the hookers are realistically lumpen. Just in case Holcroft is so lonesome as to take some comfort here, Helden runs up to save him, dressed herself in hooker-ish leather dress and leopard skin jacket. Inside the hotel, they are given a room by a guy who looks much like Dennis Franz, at least if he were a flamboyant homosexual.
Their room proves to be rather exaggeratedly gross, although it does come with a big mirror over the bed. The phone rings, but Helden tells him not to answer. The caller, she notes, is Johann. He will ring three times, hang up, then call back in sixty seconds. (Wow, those wily spies, huh?) Holcroft reacts to this much like we probably would, leading her to reassure him that these precautions are, in fact, quite silly. Er, I mean, quite necessary.
On cue, the phone rings again. “How nice of you to call,” she answers, telling Holcroft that this is the signal that it’s safe to talk. (Oh, brother!) She quickly laughs at his news, then tells him she’ll call him back. “Three rings, thirty seconds, two rings,” she finishes. Holcroft, rather realistically, rolls his eyes at this. This causes her, again, to emphasize how vital all this stuff is. She notes that, in her profession, it’s known as “The Drill.”
Presumably, Holcroft’s attitude here is meant to represent our own incredulity. Helden’s lines, meanwhile, are meant to reassure us, as well as him, that the situation here is really, really serious. We might be more successfully persuaded, however, if any of the portrayed elements of ‘The Drill’ were more sophisticated than rapping out ‘Shave and a haircut – two bits’ on somebody’s door.
Heldon continues to list even more ingenious rules of The Drill, like changing rooms every day, and never using your real name. (Wow, those wily spies, huh?) Meanwhile, she’s reached into her suitcase and begun to nonchalantly assemble a semi-automatic pistol from parts. To be fair, actress Tennant handles this chore much more competently than Melanie Griffith managed the far simpler task of inserting a magazine into her weapon in A Stranger Among Us.
Gun assembled, she hands it over to Holcroft. (Although she fails to rack the slide on the gun, which would chamber a shell and ready it to fire. Nor does she explain the gun’s safety mechanisms. So let’s hope that he has an elementary knowledge of firearms.)
Johann’s news was that he has managed to find Kessler’s son, meaning that she and Holcroft needn’t go to the Berlin Archives. We cut to outside an auditorium, where Trafalgar Square Guy (if you don’t remember who that is, don’t sweat it) is looking over a poster featuring orchestra conductor Jurgen Mass, aka Erich Kessler. Inside, we see Mass rehearsing his orchestra.
This scene is somewhat interesting (at least compared to everything else in this picture) in that it recalls certain motifs from other Frankenheimer films. For instance, we also watch an orchestral performance in Prophecy (the hero’s wife is a cellist), while scenes taking place in auditoriums are featured in Prophecy (the same scene), The Island of Dr. Moreau (the Speaker of the Law’s hall) and, more prominently, Ronin and The Manchurian Candidate.
In fact, the latter two both feature snipers killing people in auditoriums. Black Sunday, meanwhile, takes that idea to it’s furthest extreme, with terrorists planning to ram an explosives-filled zeppelin into the attending crowd of the Super Bowl. Said crowd, by the way, including the President of the United States. Which ties back into The Manchurian Candidate, as that movie’s sniper is at an auditorium to assassinate a Presidential candidate during a political convention. Presumably, had I a greater knowledge of his work, I could provide further examples.
Unfortunately, I should probably get back (*sigh*) to our present topic of conversation. Helden and Holcroft enter the auditorium to wait for Kessler. Now, of course, the General’s kids were meant to be in hiding, right? (Or something. I don’t know. I really just don’t want to think about it any more, OK?) So how to explain the fact that Mass turns out to be a famous personage? Simply by giving Helden another expository line. “What a brilliant way at hide,” she notes. “Just become a world famous public figure!” Here the scriptwriter is obviously counting on our numbed inability to process any more raw stupidity to get that line past us.
This is my favorite scene in the movie, by the way. For real. Probably because you can’t really find anything inept in simple footage of a professional orchestra. This means that this is the only part of the film where I can watch entire tens of seconds straight through without having to stop to note some random bit of idiocy. I mean, this is the fifth night I’ve worked on this stupid review. Yet, I’ve still got fifty five minutes, over half the film’s running time, facing me before I’m finished. I swear, somebody should make this an Olympic event and give me a medal. Now! (Oh, and let those Johnny-come-latelies Jason and Douglas fight over the silver and bronze.)
Uh, looking at that last paragraph, I realize that I might be coming off as a little bit self-indulgent. All I can say is that after you spend a certain amount of time watching this stuff, the brain starts craving distraction. Still, time to get back to the task at hand. Uh-huh. Here we go. No more time to waste. Back to the tape. Yep. Jumpin’ right in. Not even lookin’ to both sides of the street. Right-o. Just plowing into it. (*sigh*)
Mass finishes and comes out into the seats to converse with Holcroft and Helden. Either the director or the actor (Mario Adorf [!]) must have thought that, since Mass is a conductor, he should be played in a broadly flamboyant manner. By which I mean that Adorf serves up the ham and serves it up thick. Mass is just aglow to meet up with our leads, and prattles on in a ‘humorous’ fashion. (Actually, ‘tumorous’ would be a more apt adjective, given that rather than making me laugh, he just makes my head hurt.)
I won’t bore you with a more in-depth description, other than to note that Mass is allowed to ramble on for what seems to be hours (but probably isn’t), interrupted only by an occasional cut to one of the other characters smiling at one of his ‘witty’ remark.
As my associates and I have indicated in other reviews, Bad Movies will often feature characters praising another’s talents (say, as a singer or dancer). This is meant to communicate that they are considered to be good at this activity, even when we can plainly see that they aren’t. Likewise, the reactions of Holcroft and Helden are meant to convey to us that, in this universe at least, Mass is an extremely likable chap who people instinctively gravitate to.
Mass expresses some excitement at the idea of the Covenant. Holcroft, however, warns him that there are those who would, and I quote, “like to stop me, and probably you and Johann, from signing the papers and putting it all in motion.” Again, though, if this whole thing is a race to get the papers signed, why didn’t Johann sign them earlier? Then Holcroft could have had Mass sign them right now, and then the whole thing would be done with, and the movie would be over, andâ€¦Hey, does anyone else hear a Heavenly Choir all of a sudden?
Unfortunately, this being an ‘espionage’ movie, there are many ‘exciting’ ‘twists’ and ‘turns’ yet to come (mostly in the viewers’ stomach cavities). In any case, the script takes advantage of this new character to allow Holcroft to indulge in a little “this is what’s happened up to now” expository dialog. This is probably meant to allow those of us in the audience who’ve been confused (or asleep) a chance to ‘catch up.’ Unfortunately, the events and characters sound as stupid and illogical the second time around as they did the first, so it doesn’t really help any.
Then, after just telling the guy that people are willing to kill in order to keep them from signing the papers and “putting it all in motion,” Holcroft suggests that things are moving too fast, and that maybe they should just let the money sit there a while longer.
Now, I have to ask, given that my brain turned off quite some time ago, but doesn’t that, uh, not make sense? Wouldn’t waiting to sign the papers give the people who are trying to kill them to stop them from signing the papers, well, more time to kill them before they sign the papers?
Taken with this idea, Holcroft runs with it, talking about taking six months or a year, whatever, before signing the papers. In the meantime, they could get advice from various experts on how to spend it, get to know one another better, etc. Of course, this all makes total sense, but since this movie takes place in an apparent ‘anti-sense’ universe, it doesn’t make sense here, if you know what I mean.
First of all, how will they conduct these meetings and such when various groups of assassins are trying to kill them all? Again, given the fact that we don’t know how the foundation would function; what Holcroft’s powers as chairman (and spokesman!) would be; what effect it would have were he, or any of the others, killed before (or after) signing the document; among many other questions, it’s a little hard to follow whether any of this makes sense or not. And since it’s all really boring, it’s even harder to care.
As Holcroft and Helden leave, we stay to watch the sweaty Mass towel himself off. The camera zooms to a close-up shot of him, and the camera rotates for another of the film’s perennial Batman off-kilter shots. Mass looks up, and we see another man enter the otherwise empty auditorium.
This proves to be Beaumont, and Mass runs over and harangues him for his sloppy job in failing to kill Holcroft’s Mom at the book store. (While listing the assets Beaumont had at his disposal, such as the bomb, Mass oddly includes “a high powered motor car,” whatever that means. The car appeared to be your generic Buick or Chevy to me.)
Gee, so Mass is a bad guy. What a shock! I mean, in the entire five minutes we’ve known him, he’s seemed like such a great guy! Who’d a thunk it?! Anyway, Mass is worried that Holcroft wants to delay signing the papers. Now, why would killing Holcroft’s mother have helped avert this situation, as Mass asserts here?
Admittedly, she’s wary of the Covenant. Yet, wouldn’t her sudden, mysterious death would most likely prompt Holcroft to take her fears all the more seriously? Anyway, Mass tells Beaumont that if he hadn’t blown the hit, “tonight’s adventure would not have been necessary.” So get ready, folks, there’s more excitement to come!
Back to the sleazy hotel area where Helden and Holcroft have a room. A debauched festival of some sort is going on, like Mardi Gras, only raunchier. I can’t tell if it’s the yearly Prostitute’s Parade, or what, but we see floats featuring naked women going by. Members of both sexes are dressed up like Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and mobbing the streets.
One spectacled freak looks exactly like Martin Short’s Nathan Thurm character, only in drag; he even has the de rigueur cigarette. We watch this fellow spray paint a woman’s exposed nipples (wow, how decadent). These must be the Continental Sophisticates that we keep hearing about. You know, the ones laughing it up over how childish and puritanical the rubes are for being disgusted by President Clinton’s having rogered an intern with a cigar in the Oval Office. Yep, these Europeans could certainly teach us a thing or two about being so-fist-y-kated.
Helden and Holcroft leave the hotel, presumably to head back to London. Helden, who earlier felt it necessary to greet Holcroft here in a ‘hooker’ disguise, now leaves with him dressed in a quite normal fashion. Uh, oh, I think she’s ignoring ‘The Drill’!
We now learn that this is, in fact, a festival in honor of prostitution, and that it will be followed by an orgy. Man, nobody knows how to have good, clean fun like the Germans! We spend some minutes looking at the festival, featuring miscellaneous shots of bare breasts and butts that are undoubtedly meant to, like, blow our minds. Instead, the whole thing looks like one of those Cops: Too Hot for TV!! tapes. Still, the fact that the event is European is confirmed when we spot the obligatory midget.
Our couple, dressed like hicks from Peoria and wandering around with “Garsh, look at that!” expressions on their faces, are soon hailed by a typical lingerie-clad freakazoid. This fellow notes that “I really want to direct films,” and then punches Holcroft in the stomach.
Now, that bit about him wanting to be a director was supposed to be a droll joke (please, everybody, contain your laughter). I explain this because your natural instinct would be to take him at his word. If so, it would be logical to conclude that he was punching, not Holcroft, but actor Michael Caine for his performance in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. That’s certainly a reasonable hypothesis. However, in fact, he did punch the character Holcroft to distract him while his comrades spirit away Helden.
This kicks off some more extremely atrocious music as Holcroft regains his feet and takes off in pursuit. As if the rancid score wasn’t bad enough, we have yet more ’tilted camera’ shots inflicted on us here. Running into an alley, Holcroft finds Trafalgar Square Guy (again, if you don’t remember who this is, don’t worry about it) standing over the corpse of the guy who punched him. TSG identifies himself as an ally, and tells Holcroft to go back to the hotel. Holcroft, however, spots goons dragging off Helden in the distance and takes off after them.
Holcroft’s pursuit takes him through a bar (or something) featuring a live sex show. (Alright, we get it! Germany is into sex! ‘Nuff said, already!) Trafalgar Square Guy catches up, noting that keeping him alive is a difficult task. Much like keeping the audience awake, I should think. Seeing Holcroft’s pistol, he grabs it, noting that “you’re not going to be shooting anyone with this!” He quickly dismantles it, and shows Holcroft that the pistol’s return spring is incorrectly inserted.
How could he have possibly know that?! The spring is on the inside of the gun, so unless he has X-ray vision, or is psychic, there’s just no way he could have known this. Still and all, in two shakes he has the gun fixed and returns it to Holcroft. (I guess we’ll just have to assume that he racked the slide and thus chambered a shell to be fired, although we don’t see him do so.)
Now, I don’t want to ‘blow’ it for anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ it, but if you think about it, the fact that the gun wouldn’t work kinda ruins the film’s final plot twist, still almost forty minutes off. I know that I immediately went, “Well, duh, then that meansâ€¦,” although it isn’t mentioned as among the clues when that final ‘twist’ is eventually explicated.
Anyway, gun fixed, the chase is resumed. Holcroft runs up to a fat woman wearing a military hat and a breast-baring dress. “Have you seen a man and woman?” Holcroft rather vaguely asks. “Many, many times,” the woman salaciously purrs, waving a nail studded club. This reply is punctuated with a bizarre burst of “ominous” music, one of the perhaps three most inappropriate musical cues I’ve ever heard in my life (and remember, we’re talking my life, here). Anyway, following the gesturing club, Holcroft and TSG run down a nearby hallway.
They exit onto a platform. From here they spot what are apparently the world’s slowest kidnappers still hauling the still screaming Helden across yet another courtyard. Frankenheimer pulls out all the stops here: Aside from the expected, really bad “This is Exciting!” music and the inescapable tilted angle shots, the (fake) lights of a nearby (fake) elevated train cast a strobe-light type effect over the ‘action.’ Man, all we need now are cranked up dry ice machines and we’ll be ready to rock!
Holcroft and TSG run around the deserted, rain swept streets (for that obligatory ‘noir’ shiny road effect). Meanwhile, we try to make heads or tails out of the confusing editing while attempting to block out the increasingly annoying background music. Luckily for Our Hero, the kidnappers allow Helden to continue to scream once in a while. Finally, a car (no doubt a high powered motor car) pulls up about thirty or forty yards in front of Holcroft, who’s hiding behind a pillar.
TSG runs in front of Holcroft, motions him back, and ducks behind a convenient pile of rubble. Amazingly, given that it’s night and that the distance isn’t conducive to effective pistol marksmanship, TSG manages to tag one of the kidnappers as they hustle Helden into the car. Beaumont (who’s the other kidnapper) even more amazingly retaliates by shooting TSG through the head, the only part of his body exposed, again from the same distance. Then he hops into the driver’s seat and starts to take off.
Now, let’s be extremely generous here, and say, hey, Beaumont is one of the world’s premiere assassins, and TSG was a veteran spy. So, as professionals, we’ll grant that they are both conceivably very, very very good with guns, and might, just possibly, have been capable of the feats portrayed here.
Again, though, the film doesn’t know when to stop. For as Beaumont’s car starts forward, Holcroft steps from behind the pillar, raises his pistol and fires without steadying the gun with his other hand, or even pausing to aim. And, with one shot, mind you, he manages to shoot Beaumont in the head through the windshield of the moving car! This, from a guy who’s apparently a complete amateur when it comes to firearms. Ah, well. Beginner’s Luck, I guess.
The car plows into a convenient pile of garbage and comes to a halt. Helden, unharmed, pops out of the backseat. They manage to escape back to the hotel (in spite of the fact that ‘The Drill’ demands that they change rooms every night) just before the police arrive. The next shot shows Holcroft writhing in his sleep, reliving the film’s events in a nightmare. This is indeed a powerfully disturbing scene. For who among us, having seen this movie, doesn’t fear the exact same fate befalling them?
His nightmare concludes, as all movie nightmares must, with him suddenly sitting forward and shouting, “No!” (Has anyone in real life ever awoken from a nightmare in this manner?) Helden comes over to comfort him. Holcroft babbles, coming to the realization that the events just shown actually happened, and weren’t a terrible dream. (No, only a terrible movie. Besides, dreams usually follow some skewed sense of internal logic, which is a lot more than you can say for this mess. )
Holcroft is aghast, horrified that he’s been forced to take a human life. This is certainly a legitimate idea, but it’s not as well utilized here as in, say, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (to say the least). Helden, meanwhile, starts cooing about how brave he is, declares her love for him and, ultimately, bestows upon Holcroft the ‘hero’s reward.’
This forces me to say, and I’ve had this confirmed by other people, that it is a matter of some great relief that we are spared a more explicit portrayal of this coupling. Maybe it’s just that the rest of the movie is so distasteful and stupid, or perhaps that the characters are so, well, off, but we have very little interest in seeing any more of this activity than we have to. Instead, once they start making out, we cut to a wall, where the shadow of a passing train (!) is being cast. Brother! I mean, what, they couldn’t have cut in shots of fireworks going off, or champagne corks erupting from foaming bottles?
Later that night, our lovers (ewwww!) are lying in bed when the phone rings. They are soon attending a late night rendezvous with Johann. Worried by this latest attempt at violence, Johann argues that it’s imperative that the Covenant be signed at once, before the mysterious hostile forces can prevent it.
Let’s stop for a minute and think about this. Why would their opponents, who we now know to include Jurgen Mass, want to grab Helden? Presumably, so as to blackmail Johann and Holcroft, but to blackmail them to doâ€¦what exactly? To not sign the Covenant? If so, couldn’t Mass just not sign it himself? Man, this stuff is giving me a headache.
After Holcroft agrees, Johann lays out another of the film’s ridiculously elaborate plans, still meant to convince us that important ‘spy’ stuff is going on here. This one is to culminate with him, Holcroft and Mass meeting in Geneva in three days to sign the Covenant.
We cut away to Oberst’s house, where Holcroft’s Mom is a guest. Mom is moaning that this Covenant thing is going to mess up her son’s life. Nor does she believe that she can stop him from signing it. Oberst, however, points out that someone must think she can, otherwise they wouldn’t have tried to kill her. (Again, though, wouldn’t killing the one person telling him not to sign the document actually make him less likely to do so?)
Mom and Oberst continue with some excruciatingly boring ‘character’ dialog, mostly remembering the bad old days in Hitler’s Germany. Since we don’t really care about either of these characters, and since they are, on top of it, somewhat poorly portrayed (and that’s being kind), all we can do is grind our teeth as they babble on, adding to the film’s already interminable length. I mean, do we really wonder why Mom married Clausen? Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn. Please, just get on with it!
Cut back to Holcroft and Helden, driving on their way to Geneva. Suddenly, the score’s driving music (the stuff that sounds like the Speed Racer theme) kicks back in. I have to say, this film has one of the twenty or thirty worst musical scores I’ve ever heard. And I’ve seen Lost Horizon (the musical) and Jonathon Livingston Seagull, among hundreds of others. It’s the kind of music where you find yourself wishing it were only banal, because then at least it would be unobtrusive. Instead, like every other element of the movie, it’s constantly calling attention to how bad it is. It’s like a noisy four year who intentionally acts obnoxious so that we don’t ignore him.
A helicopter soon makes its appearance over their car. Then, another car appears in the side rearview mirror. (Warning: Objects in movie are less interesting then they appear.) Here, we get an example of both Holcroft’s wit and newfound aplomb in regards to danger. When Helden informs him that they’re probably being followed, he looks behind them via his vanity mirror (?). “Probably just another Sunday driver,” he dryly notes, setting up the punchline. “But on the other hand, as it is Tuesday, why don’t you put your foot on the gas and see what happens.”
Actually, you don’t have to be Henry Ford to know what happens: Their car speeds up. But so, then, does the car behind them, confirming that they’re being followed. (Holcroft, you sly devil!) This is all communicated by very low angle shots of the road. We watch the center white markers flying past, leading those of a certain age to break out with, “Burning down the House!”
Anyway, long scene short, the car and helicopter continue pursuit. Then the road is cut off with a truck, forcing them on a dirt semi-circle. Coming down this are two other cars to block their escape, with the car following them bottling off retreat. Finally, a guy on a motorcycle pulls alongside their car and holds a gun on them. (Can anyone say “overkill.”) Now, settle down, kids. I know what you’re thinking: Perhaps it’s a commando squad of film critics, who will jump out, beat Caine and Tennant to death, and end the movie. Alas, no. Instead, Holcroft and Helden have merely been captured, another pointless event to pad out the film’s running time.
A helicopter delivers someone to a big European mansion. Inside, Holcroft and Helden are being watched by guards. Holcroft whiles away the time by swearing at them in an angry fashion, a pursuit both useless and somewhat juvenile. Then the man from the helicopter, who turns out to be the British agent Leighton, makes his appearance. Holcroft attempts to attack him, only to be thwarted by the dozen or so guards in the room. Leighton replies with perhaps the most unnecessary bon mot in film history: “But please, do not attempt anything too vividly cinematic.”
Here, Caine goes from his patented ‘hot anger’ to his equally famous ‘cold anger’ mode. Holcroft is even more surprised when Helden expresses relief that they’ve been grabbed by Leighton. It turns out that Leighton merely wanted to catch up with them. He asked his German allies to detain them until he could arrive, not aware that they would utilize such inordinately over the top (and yet, at the some time, monumentally boring) measures to do so. Disarmed (or anesthetized) by Leighton’s drollery, Holcroft settles down.
Helden asks Leighton why he wanted to catch up with them. He replies that Oberst wants to see them. This gets Holcroft’s dander up, until he learns that his Mum is there as well. Helden, however, now objects. She notes that they have to get to Geneva, where she’s supposed to contact Johann in his hotel room the next evening. Leighton tells her to proceed, then. He’ll get Holcroft to Oberst’s, then get him to Geneva in time for the signing.
Cut to Johann, who’s not in Geneva, but outside Oberst’s place. A guard with a dog comes to the gate and radios Oberst about his guest. Recognizing Johann to be Helden’s brother, Oberst allows him entrance. Holcroft’s Mom is a little worried by his appearance. Oberst reassures her, although he takes the precaution of tucking his pistol back under his blanket. Johann enters, apologizing for his coming unannounced. Oberst demurs, noting that since Helden is part of ‘the family,’ so then is her brother.
Mom is surprised to learn that Johann knows her son. He proceeds to lay on the charm, telling her of how he and Holcroft went horseback riding together. Seconds later, though, Johann whips the blanket off of Oberst’s lap and steals his pistol. He drops the gun a distance away, then returns to the table where Oberst and Mom are sitting.
In case we don’t get that something weird is happening, the camera angle, yet again, starts tilting. This ‘technique’ has been used so often now that I’m beginning to wonder if it was in fact purposeful on Frankenheimer’s part, or if, perhaps, he merely got stuck with a narcoleptic cameraman.
Johann begins acting in an obviously villainous manner, as if he were in a (very poor) James Bond type fantasy rather than a ‘serious’ espionage thriller. He expresses his displeasure at Oberst’s and Mom’s efforts to stop Holcroft from signing the Covenant. To show what a cool bastard he is (*yawn*) Johann proceeds to dine from their laid out lunch as he stretches out the movie with yet more extraneous dialog.
This scene, I presume, with Johann switching from affected politeness to sudden bursts of anger and back again, is meant not only to reveal him the villain of the piece (along, presumably, with Mass), but to imply that he is somewhat mad. However, if he were as nuts as shown in this scene, it’s hard to believe that he could maintain the ‘suave’ facade he’s shown for the rest of the picture. Not, really, that anyone cares.
Besides, we shouldn’t get distracted from the film’s central, and crippling, plot flaw. “The Covenant cannot be activated,” Johann expositories, “without [Holcroft’s] signature.” We learn that, yes, the Covenant was the work of three, not repentant, but rather fanatical Nazis. They intended the money to, as Oberst guessed, set up a Forth Reich. Johann and Mass have been raised to this work. Meanwhile, they’ve waited for Holcroft, meant to be their cover, to come of age and for the Covenant to be activated. After this, Holcroft will become useless, and can suffer a fatal accident.
OK, where to start? Let’s cut to the heart of the matter: Three Nazis steal money from the doomed Reich; bank it so that it can be used forty years later to establish a new one; raise two of their kids to be in on this plan, and, then, finally, make the whole deal contingent on another son, a duped innocent, signing the Covenant. Otherwise, should he simply fail to do so, the funds can never be accessed, and the whole plan literally collapses. Does this sound right?
What if Holcroft died before reaching the age of forty one, the stipulated time for Manfredi to inform him of the Covenant? If there’s a mechanism that allows Johann and Mass to access the funds in that event, then why not just kill Holcroft and do so? In fact, Johann makes it sound like they can’t ever access the funds without his signature.
But if Holcroft is a true innocent, meant to divert suspicion away from the Foundation, what happens when he suddenly dies soon after the Covenant is signed? Wouldn’t that redouble the focus on Johann and Mass? And if all these governments and groups became aware of the money while it was simply sitting in a supposedly secret Swiss bank account, how is it possible for Johann and Mass to spend it on nefarious purposes without being caught?
In what is obviously supposed to be a shocking manner, Johann draws his own pistol and shoots Oberst twice. The impact causes his wheelchair to roll back about ten feet until it smacks into some furniture. I really don’t think this is in accordance with the Laws of Thermodynamics, especially the one about equal and opposite reactions, but whatever. However, since there’s still more expository dialog to come, Johann keeps Mom alive for a bit, so that he has an excuse to fill in the audience on what’s going on.
Johann goes on to give a mad little speech about how the world has been worse off since the Nazis lost the war. Some of his individual points make sense, especially a line about President Roosevelt signing over a third of Europe to be tyrannized by the Communists. Most, of course, including his rabid racism, do not.
This, I think, is meant to show us, not that his views have any real validity, but that a madman can twist some legitimate points to shore up his inherently nutty beliefs. This is probably the closest the film comes to achieving something it intended to do. Unfortunately, given that all the characters and events here are so unbelievable, we fail to be chilled by this speech in the way we undoubtedly would if the rest of the movie were better.
Anyway, we finally get to the film’s McGuffin: “The List,” as mentioned earlier by Oberst. Johann admits that he has it right there in his pocket. It’s a list of a thousand names (what, exactly?), but, as he says, “the right thousand names.” Apparently, we’re to believe that there’s a simple recipe for establishing a Fourth Reich: Take four and a half billion dollars (again, not really that huge a sum, when you think about it) and add a thousand names, “the right thousand names,” and presto, the world is ruled by Nazis.
And, again, this whole elaborate scheme is designed so as to fail if one guy doesn’t sign off on a piece of paper.
Cut to later that night. Holcroft and Leighton drive up to Oberst’s house. Obviously something is wrong, as the security lights are off. Conveniently, Leighton has a remote control for the gate in his pocket, and they enter.
When you think about it, Oberst didn’t have much of a security system for a guy that ran this gigantic private spy network. One man hiding in a closet could have taken out Johann. Then Oberst would still be alive and have The List in his possession.
Thinking of it that way, Johann comes off pretty poorly as well. Had he been captured or killed, not only would the Covenant scheme have failed, but all one thousand of his comrades would have been exposed to the world.
As they approach the house, they find the body of the guard, conveniently left where a spotlight would accent it. Inside, they find Oberst dead and the guard dog’s body left up on the dining table. (How the heck did it get up there?) Johann didn’t stop, however, with leaving animal corpses on furniture (as he presumably did). Instead, he paused to decorate the room like some demented, evil Martha Stewart (assuming that’s not redundant), painting the walls with swastikas drawn in (*gasp!*) blood.
Conveniently, (and I mean conveniently), Oberst’s security camera came with a VCR attachment. Scanning the tape, Holcroft and Leighton learn that Johann was the killer. (Didn’t Johann even look for such a set-up? It was contained in a cabinet six feet from where he was sitting, for Pete’s sake. I guess he was too busy finger painting Nazi insignia and heaving dead canines around.) Holcroft expresses worry for Helden, who’s due to meet with Johann later. Leighton advises him to inform her of the murder, but not that Johann was the killer.
Now it’s time for another boring revelation, as Leighton admits that he doesn’t for the British Government, but rather for Oberst. (Wow, the topsy-turvy world of spies, huh?) He’s the group’s assassin. Holcroft, meanwhile, spots a couple of legs sticking out from under a curtain. Pulling it aside reveals Mom’s body. Leighton advises the bereaved Holcroft to go forward with the signing. (What?!) As soon as that’s done, Leighton will kill Johann. Holcroft, however, wants that job for himself. (See IMMORTAL DIALOG.)
We cut to Helden arriving in Geneva. She hops out of her cab and enters a hotel, and soon is in Johann’s room. Johann is arrayed in Hugh Hefner-esque fashion, wearing a bathrobe and sipping a martini. Here we learn a last, (supposedly) shocking truth: Helden is one of the bad guys. Of course, I was instantly aware of that like half an hour ago, when Trafalgar Square Guy had to fix the gun she gave Holcroft before it would fire. In fact, I rolled my eyes at the time, as this seemed to me a veritable neon sign exclaiming, “Helden’s a Bad Guy!”
She tells Johann that his ‘plan’ worked: “Whimpering over his mother,” as she generously states it, he’s fully committed to signing the Covenant the next day. (Yet again, wouldn’t the death of his Mom, who opposed the signing, logically lead him to not wanting to sign it?) Sure that Holcroft suspects nothing, the twosome exchange pleasure in the culmination of their evil plans, stopping short only at twirling handlebar mustaches and crying “Nyah-ha-ha,” in a dastardly fashion.
Now comes the films most gratuitous and distasteful twist. For not only are Johann and Helden murderous Neo-Nazis committed to bringing about the Fourth Reich. They are, that’s right, incestuous murderous Neo-Nazis committed to bringing about the Fourth Reich (“tomorrow night, on Jerry Springer!”). You have to admit, just when you thought the film couldn’t achieve a higher anti-entertainment rating, this scene comes along and launches it to another level.
“Take me,” Helden breathily commands. “Take me in your arms and say the words!” She continues to exhort him to “say the words” until finally, with her skirt up and both hands fondling her ass, he replies, “Helden. My Love. My Sister. My Spouse.” In response, she murmurs, “I slept with him. I had to. But I pretended it was you!” (Man, and I thought her sex scene with Caine was unpleasant!) At this point, the film even more pointlessly inflicts us with footage of their passionate necking, although thankfully nothing more.
Back at the beginning of this article, I mentioned that connections were forming between the movies we’ve reviewed here. I noted that Victoria Tennant was making her second appearance here. What I failed to disclose, for fear of blowing this ‘plot point,’ was that this is her second appearance here playing a character who has incestuous proclivities. How Tennant ended up as the mid-’80s poster girl for incest roles is beyond me. It’s not like she does them well. Maybe she’s the only one who would do them at all.
Mercifully, we eventually cut away to Leighton pouring a drink. “I can only conclude he has The List on his person,” he notes. This deduction is apparently based on the fact that otherwise they couldn’t wrap things up into a nice package when the film’s long awaited climax finally occurs. Otherwise this conclusion makes no sense. Johann would have to be a moron to carry it around with him like that (of course, given the universe we’re visiting hereâ€¦).
Holcroft is worried that they didn’t warn Helden, who’s meeting with the murderous Johann. Just then, though, we hear a knock on the door and Helden enters. Keeping the act up, she tells Holcroft that Johann was bummed out upon hearing the news about Oberst and Mom. However, and I’ve talked about this before, Helden then gives herself away in the most obvious and infuriating fashion possible. “I described the scene the way you described it to me,” she explains, even including “the business with the dog.” She then goes to her room, and a heartbroken Holcroft explains to Leighton that he (*gasp!*) never told her about the dog!
This, it must be said, seems to be a pretty stupid mistake for someone who’s been trained to be a double agent all her life. Imagine James Bond making such an elementary blunder. Also, note how the line is written. So that Holcroft (and we) can’t come to the conclusion that Johann let the dog thing slip, Helden says that she described the scene to him, including the dog.
But then, the end of the movie (finally) approaches, and we’ve got to start tying things up. This also, by the way, answers my question of why the dog was up on the table. So that we couldn’t fail to notice it and recognize the reference when it was revealed to be a plot point.
The next morning, we see Manfredi arriving at the suitably impressive bank building. Going to retrieve the Covenant, he walks through a series of steel gates and doors. However, the scene’s supposed solemnity is again undercut by Frankenheimer’s lack of genre knowledge. Meant to build tension, the scene instead inspires laughter. It’s simply impossible to ignore its resemblance to the opening of the Get Smart! TV series, with Max going through all those doors to reach the phone booth. This is accentuated when the last door proves to be a massive steel jobbie, exactly like on Get Smart!
Entering the vault, Manfredi opens a security box, exposing the dispatch box that we saw at the beginning of the movie. So, after forty years, do events finally come full circle (and I’m just talking about the apparent length of the movie). We next see Manfredi in a luxurious conference room, with the four children of the Generals in attendance. Manfredi, who isn’t aware of the real purpose of the Covenant, bores everyone with a speech about this great and momentous day. Finally, Johann, who after all has a world to conquer, interrupts and suggests that they proceed.
Of course, at this point the tension is supposed to be especially thick. We in the audience, no doubt, are now spellbound. Hearts pounding, we will frantically wonder who will win, the noble Holcroft or the evil Nazi Babies. And it is tense, as we tensely sit forwards in our chairs and tensely mutter through tensed jaws, “Alright, just end the damn movie already! OK?! Just let me get on with my life, would you?!!”
So (*sigh*) to drag out the ‘suspense’ to the breaking point, we watch as champagne is handed out while Manfredi readies the document. I might as well note that, while Holcroft has seen the letter explaining the Covenant, no one has read the actual document itself.
It’s been, after all, locked up in that vault we just saw. Yet, as the signing commences, no one bothers to read it. No one brought a lawyer. Nothing. Apparently, everyone feels that they have a good enough handle on this legal document to which they’re affixing their names.
Finally, the document is sent around the table, in such a manner so that Holcroft is the last to be given the opportunity to sign. Johann signs and toasts his father. Boy, the tension, huh? Mass signs and toasts his father. Whew, is the suspense getting to you yet? Finally, the document is laid before Holcroft, andâ€¦andâ€¦andâ€¦!
And he signs it. (Oops! Anti-climax Alert!) Helden and Johann exchange charged glances, twist their handlebar mustaches, and cry “Nyah-ha-ha” in a dastardly fashion. Well, OK, maybe not. I think we’re all supposed to be shocked here. ‘Could the Bad Guys have won?,’ we’re no doubt supposed to be worrying.
The group leaves the meeting room and heads downstairs. There, the evil threesome are dismayed to find a congregation of the Press waiting. To make sure that we don’t ‘miss’ this, we cut to a close-up of Johann wearing an expression of exaggerated ‘shock.’ Holcroft, as the Foundation’s designated Spokesman (told you that was important!) has taken it upon himself to hold a press conference to announce the signing of the Covenant.
This is really funny. I mean, the reason they kept emphasizing the ‘Spokesman’ thing earlier was obviously to set up this ending. Butâ€¦what? If Holcroft hadn’t been appointed Spokesman, would he have been unable to call a Press Conference? Would his nefarious partners have cried ‘no fair!,’ pointing out that he wasn’t appointed spokesman and thus had no authority to talk to the Press, and so have won the day?
Wow. It’s ironic, when you think about it. By making Holcroft ‘Spokeman,’ this elaborately brilliant and virtually foolproof scheme contained the very seeds of it’s own destruction. Thus does Evil fail to triumph in a just world.
Holcroft addresses the Press, announcing who he is and who his father was. This elicits gasps from some of the reporters, who instantly know who he’s talking about. (How many Generals were there in Nazi Germany? Were they all famous?) Even more improbably, when he mentions the amount of money at their disposal, members of the Press watermelon “How much?! How much?!”, in total shock, as if no one had ever heard of such a sum of money before.
Mass doesn’t get it yet, but Johann watches in horror as Holcroft destroys all their plans with his impromptu press conference. (Yep, quite a sturdy scheme, huh?) Holcroft notes that when he sighed the Covenant, he also signed his death warrant. The Press, apparently made up of parrots, begins watermelloning again. “Death Warrant?!! Death Warrant?!!” they shriek. Anyway, Holcroft just basically spills the beans, and ends the threat of the dreaded Holcroft Covenant.
Except (and there’s no way he could know this) that he goes on to explain that the money would have been used to “consolidate every terrorist group in the world into one, cohesive, overwhelming force, in order to create international crises, and political chaos.” (Yeah, like the world needs help in those departments.)
Now, there’s a number of problems with this concept, but I’m only going to hit a couple of the really large ones. First, establishing a Fourth Reich, as I pointed out earlier, would require a political and geographical base, like a country, and an actually military capability, not a bunch of terrorists. Second of all, while four and a half billions could fund a lot of terrorism, it’s not much money for trying to take over the world.
Third, terrorists terrorize for all sorts of different causes. You’d be rather unlikely, to say the least, to turn them into one big organization, especially one whose goal was to reestablish Nazism. Would, say, all the Communist terrorists in the world go along with that? How about the Weathermen, or other Black terrorist organizations? Fourth, just how does Holcroft know that this is the goal of the Covenant, anyway?
The speech paints a picture where enough terrorist acts and assassinations would bring the entire planet to a state of anarchy, just waiting for a “strong leader” to take over. I’m not even going to bother to attack that notion. And anyway, now that the Covenant has been exposed and the plot is done with, it’s time to tie up loose threads.
Holcroft tells the Press about The List, and that Johann has it in his pocket. Johann, his plan exposed, finally pulls out a revolver. Mass, seeing that it’s all over, tries to stop him and gets shot a couple of times. (One plot thread.) Holcroft, by this time, makes it over and keeps from getting shot by grabbing the cylinder of Johann’s revolver.
This would actually work: The cylinder, or drum, holds the cartridges. Pulling back on the trigger or the hammer of the gun rotates the drum, bringing a fresh cartridge up to be fired. So keeping the cylinder from rotating would keep the gun from firing. Of course, the gun would be rather hot after two shots, and second, we’d have to believe that Holcroft suddenly has sufficient knowledge of guns to know this.
Taking his revenge, Holcroft twists the barrel until it faces Johann, whereupon Johann takes the bullet. (Two plot threads.) Then he grabs The List from his pocket and gives it to the Press. Since the List contains the names of the leaders of every one of the world’s terrorist organizations, I guess that that pretty much ends terrorism for a while.
Yet we still have one big Plot Thread left. Back we go to Holcroft’s hotel room, where he and Helden are watching the coverage of the events on the tube. (Oddly, the telecast is in English, although the hotel is in Switzerland.) Helden, still attracted to powerful men, blathers on about how they’ll get married and such. But Holcroft announces his knowledge of her involvement, speculating that her marrying him was always the plan, a way to keep him occupied until he could be safely killed.
Now comes the big emotional ending. Holcroft admits he did indeed fall in love with her, and that he would have married her. Then he mentions that she gave herself away the night before. Helden thinks back, and with a shocked look on her face, replies “The dog.” By which she means not the script, but the actual thing with the dog. Holcroft evens admits that he still loves her, but that it can never be. (Yeah, that whole ‘You killed my Mom’ thing would always hang over them.)
Helden, cornered, pulls a gun, but sits still while Holcroft walks over and takes it away from her. He, you see, reversed the spring on her gun, just as she did on his. He reassembles the gun and returns it to her, after which he walks over to the window and looks out at the stormy night sky. There now follows a long pause (over forty seconds!) that stretches the boredom, er, tension to the breaking point.
As we slowly pull closer to Holcroft’s back, the camera for the last time twists so as to assume a final Batman off-kilter shot. There. Now we’ll never forget why we hated this film so much. Finally, a shot rings out. Holcroft, unharmed, turns back around. Presumably, Helden has killed herself (or is a very bad shot). The camera pulls in for a tight close-up of Holcroft, as tears well up in his eyes. Ours, too. Free at last. Free at last.
Holcroft first meets Helden, cleverly wearing a shawl and sunglasses as a disguise, in a church:
Helden: “Don’t turn around.”
Holcroft, not hearing her, turns around: “What?”
Helden, hissing: “Don’t turn around!”
Holcroft faces forward.
Helden: “Don’t speak for a moment, just listen. These precautions may seem foolish to you, but they are necessary, I promise you!”
Holcroft: “Listen, lady, three days ago, I was forty stories in the air, over New York, in a gale force wind, hiding from an insane building contractor. Let me tell you something. I felt safer then than I do now. So any precautions you want to take are OK with me!”
Holcroft and Leighton find Holcroft’s dead Mother at Oberst’s. Leighton lays out what they must do next, as Holcroft swears his vengeance against Johann:
Leighton: “You must go to Geneva, as sheduled [Note: That last word isn’t a typo. Leighton’s British, remember?] And you must face the bastard. When the Covenant is signed, I will kill him, of course. Or you can, if you like.”
Holcroft, looking up from Mom’s body, face seething with anger, answers in a strained whisper: “I like!”
Correspondent ‘M.J.’ writes: [I wanted] to provide you with a little bit of useless information. In Germany the movie was retitled as Der 4 1/2 Billionen Dollar-Vertrag” Now you must know that the German “Billion” is identic to the English “Trillion”. If I’ve read your review correctly, they messed up the translation. It should be “Der 4 1/2 Milliarden Dollar-Vertrag” (The 4 1/2 Billion Dollar Contract). Which means the movie is even worse than I thought…