Skip to main content

Don’t you realise you’re endangering our lives with your incompetence?!

The Holcroft Covenant
(1985)

(SPOILERS) There’s something oddly comforting about 1980s Michael Caine spy thrillers, not because they are any good – most aren’t – but due to his sheer reliability in simply showing up, baring his teeth at some point while grimly enraged, and generally behaving as if he’s still a viable lead in such fare. Caine came on board The Holcroft Covenant late in the day when James Caan fell out, and it might have seemed at first glance to possess a very faintly promising pedigree; an admittedly past-his-prime John Frankenheimer was helming, it was adapted from a Robert Ludlum novel (pre-Bourne and lacking cachet but another of his having provided the source material for Sam Peckinpah’s last, The Ostermann Weekend) by George Axelrod (who hadn’t worked on anything acclaimed in about twenty years, but did have The Manchurian Candidate on his resumé) and Edward Anhalt. The result? Well, see my opening remark about Caine spy thrillers made in the ‘80s, only even less so.


Caine (ostensibly) made the movie to work with Frankenheimer and didn’t much like the end result (quite a common refrain on his part during that period). He also found the screenplay incomprehensible. I don’t know that it’s actually incomprehensible so much as the fiendishly evil plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Noel Holcroft (Caine), along with the children of two colleagues of his late Nazi father (as in dead, rather than a former Nazi), is left $4.5bn to use philanthropically to right the wrongs perpetrated by Hitler’s hordes, or so it goes (I kept wondering that such a stash wouldn’t instantly be confiscated, even given it’s in Switzerland, but let it go). Turns out, though, that dad – Herr General Heinrich Clausen (Alexander Kerst) – wasn’t such a repentant schweinhund after all; he was quite content to sacrifice his son as revenge on his missus (Lilli Palmer) for forsaking him, and in so doing laying the paving stones for the emergence of the Fourth Reich.


Tennyson: Can you imagine a hate so strong that it can wait years for revenge?

Accordingly, the concerns of Oberst (Richard Munch) that Noel was planning on using the loot to establish a Fourth Reich weren’t so balmy after all. In fact, the other members of the foundation, Mario Adorf’s Jurgen Maas (really Erich Kessler, son of Michael Wold’s General Kessler) and Anthony Andrews’ Jonathan Tennyson (Johann von Tiebolt), accompanied by his sister Helden (Victoria Tennant), have precisely that goal in mind, albeit somewhat goofily, via “a wonderful idea to consolidate every terrorist group in the world into one cohesive overwhelming force to create international crises”. This will throw the entire globe into anarchy and panic and so create the mood to accept a new leader. One might forward an argument that something not wholly dissimilar has been attempted with ISIS, but it still seems like something of a stretch. Better for a Bond movie, really.


Caine really does not give a toss in this one. He claims he’s always professional and… Well, he’s always watchable, but he seems indifferent to playing a nominal American (German-American) here, and if you didn’t notice his less-than-half-hearted approximation of a twang in various scenes, that wouldn’t be at all surprising. He’s also supposed to be a decade younger than he is, and while some can pull that off, he’s not really achieving it where it counts. Motivation-wise, it isn’t clear why Holcroft, a highly successful architect (“Sorry, I’m an architect, not a financial genius”) should want to get involved in the foundation at all, except to combat some sense of generational guilt (which isn’t remotely telegraphed). Holcroft’s also entirely passive, except, bizarrely, when called on to momentarily engage in an exchange of gunfire (his first time firing a weapon, and he shoots someone in the head, through a windscreen) or with a skilled assassin (turning a gun on him during a grapple).


Leighton: A shootout in Trafalgar Square just isn’t done.

The screenplay is nigh-on terminally exposition heavy, which means it takes the likes of Bernard Hepton (as Oberst’s cohort Leighton: “More often than not, I’m on the right side”) to deliver the goods. Frankenheimer stages a nice little assassination in crowd early on, as “highly respectable banker” Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale) leads an oblivious Holcroft to his car, but he seems most inspired by a sequence at a Berlin carnival, which seems to be there entirely for the director to leer with his camera at T&A.


That aside, Victoria Tennant is pretty but entirely forgettable as love interest-cum-cold-blooded killer Helda, not really pulling off the hooker gear in Berlin. Something was evidently amiss when she announced to Noel, “You’re wonderful. I’ve never met a man like you before”, but you’d be forgiven for assuming it was the flatulent dialogue that had been haunting the picture every step of the way, rather than necessarily her attempting to manipulate her mark (earlier, she berated Noel’s lack of a driving licence – mirroring Caine’s – with “Don’t you realise you’re endangering our lives with your incompetence?!”, so one might just have wondered if she wasn’t a bit loopy). Although, the reveal of an incestuous affair with her brother is a late-stage surprise (“My love, my sister, my spouse”). Talking of whom, Andrews far and away steals the show as a Nazi who works for The Guardian, who sports a silly tache but also gets the single best scene in the movie.


Tennyson: You see, the world must not be run by the frightened and ignorant and weak, and because of my father, and because of Kessler and because of Klausman, it will not be much longer.

Tennyson holds the list that Oberst and Leighton want (the thousand names that will change the world, of terrorist contacts), and late in the game he drops in unannounced on Oberst, who’s entertaining Noel’s mum Althene. Tennyson’s instantly commanding, disarming his host, airily complimenting Althene on the potato salad and sending a plate spinning into a wall above Oberst’s head (“Just keep your nasty, trembling, liver-spotted hands away from those buttons”, referring to Oberst’s wheelchair control panel). There’s a charming ruthlessness to Tennyson that Franhenheimer would have done well to have tapped more, as the director immediately ups his game when he’s got someone putting some welly in.


The Film Yearbook Vol 5 pronounced The Holcroft Covenant one of the Turkeys of the Year, Harlan Kennedy offering a particularly sturdy takedown of Ludlum’s rep (if this was the common view, it may explain why it took another decade and a half to make a success from one of his works, and that one did so by stripping the source novel of all but premise): “another doomed bid to film a book by that master of cinematic prolixity”.


Over-explanatory dialogue aside, The Holcroft Covenant’s pretty clunky and forgettable, alas. It fits loosely into the very minor subgenre of nascent Fourth Reich endeavours that includes The Boys from Brazil, but fails to really draw on the potential of the scenario. In the pantheon of ‘80s Caine thriller fare, I’d take all the other contenders (The Jigsaw Man, The Whistle Blower, The Fourth Protocol) over this one.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

A drunken, sodden, pill-popping cat lady.

The Woman in the Window (2021) (SPOILERS) Disney clearly felt The Woman in the Window was so dumpster-bound that they let Netflix snatch it up… where it doesn’t scrub up too badly compared to their standard fare. It seems Tony Gilroy – who must really be making himself unpopular in the filmmaking fraternity, as producers’ favourite fix-it guy - was brought in to write reshoots after Joe Wright’s initial cut went down like a bag of cold, or confused, sick in test screenings. It’s questionable how much he changed, unless Tracy Letts’ adaptation of AJ Finn’s 2018 novel diverged significantly from the source material. Because, as these things go, the final movie sticks fairly closely to the novel’s plot.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Maybe back in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way, but today you got to play ball.

From Here to Eternity (1953) (SPOILERS) Which is more famous, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf in From Here to Eternity or Airplane! spoofing the same? It’s an iconic scene – both of them – in a Best Picture Oscar winner – only one of them – stuffed to the rafters with iconic actors. But Academy acclaim is no guarantee of quality. Just ask A Beautiful Mind . From Here to Eternity is both frustrating and fascinating for what it can and cannot do per the restrictive codes of the 1950s, creaky at times but never less than compelling. There are many movies of its era that have aged better, but it still carries a charge for being as forthright as it can be. And then there’s the subtext leaking from its every pore.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you got yourself killed.

Bloodshot (2020) (SPOILERS) If the trailer for Bloodshot gave the impression it had some meagre potential, that’s probably because it revealed the entire plot of a movie clearly intended to unveil itself in measured and judicious fashion. It isn’t far from the halfway mark that the truth about the situation Vin Diesel’s Ray Garrison faces is revealed, which is about forty-one minutes later than in the trailer. More frustratingly, while themes of perception of reality, memory and identity are much-ploughed cinematic furrows, they’re evergreens if dealt with smartly. Bloodshot quickly squanders them. But then, this is, after all, a Vin Diesel vehicle.