Skip to main content

You’re a regular little CIA all on your own, aren’t you?

The Internecine Project
(1974)

(SPOILERS) I underrated Ken Hughes’ sharp little spy thriller last time I saw it; probably, the quality of the battered, pan-and-scanned print didn’t help any. In pristine form, The Internecine Project – I think it’s a great title, in contrast to Glenn Erickson’s appraisal – reveals itself as commendably oddball and unlikely, but also politically shrewd picture, if in a manner that is anything but heavy-handed. Plus, it has James Coburn, being magnificently James Coburn about everything.

Coburn’s Robert Elliot is ostensibly the bad guy, but in the best Hitchcock fashion, the tension of the piece derives from our wanting that bad guy to succeed in his nefarious scheme. Particularly so as, logistically, he’s entirely unlikely to do so. Elliot is referenced as a former secret agent by various sources, including the Wiki synopsis, but I’m not sure this is explicitly stated in the movie itself. Certainly, he’s up to his neck in shady business, but on the surface he’s a legitimate and respected professor, author, lawyer, senior lecturer on economic studies at Harvard University and Special Advisor on Financial Affairs to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He just also happens to run a European industrial espionage network and knows everything about everyone, it seems, including Keenan Wynn’s EJ Farnsworth, who brings him the offer of becoming Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisory Committee. Admittedly, this would lend credence to the former secret agent angle. That and his almost complete lack of hesitation when Farnsworth informs him he will have to get rid of any loose ends in order to accede to the position. Those leads being the four associates in his network, and the plan Elliot devises to get rid of them being titled “Internecine”.

This is an ingenious, if reliant on torturously precise timing, scheme for each to bump the other off, on the basis that the chosen individual in the network has become unreliable, leaving no trace remaining to Elliot. There’s Ian Hendry’s Foreign Office civil servant Alex Hellman, Michael Jayston’s research scientist David Baker, Christiane Kruger’s high class call girl Christina Larsson (one of whose clients is Bergerac’s Charlie Hungerford, Terence Alexander) and Harry Andrews’ masseur Bert.

Each must call Elliot at appointed times on the night in question – calls he is not scheduled to answer, and from public call boxes, no less – in order to assure they are keeping their schedule, and again when they have completed their part. Hendry’s required to bludgeon Andrews, Jayston’s due to give Hendry an overdose of insulin, Kruger to kill Jayston with his own sonic weapon and Andrews to strangle Kruger. Wynn’s objection “I don’t know, four murders in one night. Doesn’t seem a very reasonable way to approach this thing, I mean” at least puts that up front.

One of the great pleasures of the picture is how well cast it is. Hendry and Andrews stand out in particular. As soon as we see the former, sweaty and nervous at the prospect of getting his hands dirty, we know he spells trouble (making Elliot’s decision to give him such rough work the more surprising). It’s another great Hendry role, whose days of heroic leads were long since behind him at this point, but he was proving a remarkably reliable character actor, whatever his problems with alcohol (see also The Hill and Get Carter). Andrews needs no persuasion to do his deed, revealing a psychotic misogyny (“Yes, women. They’re all the same… They’re unclean, sir. Unclean… I hate them. I hate them… They’re all whores, sir!”); the picture becomes a slasher for this vignette, perhaps pointing the way to Hughes’ final credit Night School. Jayston’s demise is perhaps the biggest stretch (since presumably Elliot didn’t know for sure he’d be using that method until Jayston delivered it to him).

There are various impingements on a smooth-running process, including Elliot’s unwise dalliance with Lee Grant’s journo Jean Robertson, who is doing a story on him (he even allows her into his house during the crucial night). Hughes throws in red herrings that come to nought: her suspicion over his phone call is only about thinking he is seeing someone else; Jayston is seen leaving Hendry’s floor; Hendry leaves a footprint at the scene of Andrews’ demise.

The big surprise is that Elliot pulls his conceit off, relatively hitch free; no police come to his door, and Grant doesn’t expose him. I half wondered if it might be revealed that Wynn had been getting him to do dirty work so he could be bumped off in turn, but in the end, Elliot succumbs to a poisoned notebook posted by the suspicious Jayston (himself quite capable of self-deception, protesting his work is “creative, not destructive” and that the device he created for Elliot is a deterrent only).

It’s a satisfying, concise turnaround (the picture runs to less than ninety minutes, with the first forty taken up by Elliot positioning his pawns). Hughes, a genre gadfly who, in the previous decade, had made family musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, historical epic Cromwell and was one of the six directors who worked on Casino Royale, delivers tone-perfect staging for the thriller genre; every shot in this Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey) lensed picture is lean, taut, precise, perfectly complemented by Roy Budd’s percussive score.

In his review for Time Out, Chris Petit observed “the film gains weight thanks to its topical implications”, adding that it “offers more food for thought than most such unashamedly commercial movies”. I’d agree with that. The picture opens with Elliot as a guest on The World This Week (presented by Julian Glover), offering justifications for unchecked inflation (not a problem today) and the free market, and for overthrowing regimes in developing countries at the behest of US corporations; it’s quite clear whom he believes is in charge – it isn’t the US President, but rather Wynn, the VP of International Oil, Acting Attorney for the EDC, Transmutual Copper, AG Industries Inc, and Chief Advisor to the Central Committee of US Foreign Economic Relations, amongst a long list of other appointments, who offers him his job.

Underlining this, Wynn may need to improve his golf game but he is clear that “You know, power’s no damn good unless it comes from the top”; Elliot spells it out for Jean in parting, when she accuses him of taking the stance that the ends justify the means; he protests that he has ideals he believes in very deeply, and that his appointment, bypassing political process to gain influence is warranted because of it: “Yes, the whole world’s run by a bunch of democratically elected amateurs” he tells her. When she protests “There’s a lot us poor downtrodden peasants who don’t happen to agree with you” he responds “That’s why you’re peasants”. It’s the entitled attitude of the one percent.

Elliot even has his swipe at the fragile notion of truth (as well as, more mildly than Andrews, the women’s movement; crusading lady journalists drive him up the wall) He scoffs at the very illusion of her profession, or that such a tenuous idea can be connected with in a meaningful manner: “For five thousand years, men and women all over the world have been trying to discover what the truth is. You’re telling me your paper prints it?

Coburn is pure class throughout, of course. Ruthless, charming, effortlessly commanding the screen. His character is entirely confident when presiding over his small sphere, but he isn’t unassailable. Wynn can pierce his armour, when he affirms “I wouldn’t even think about it” in response to Elliot wondering aloud if he would kill him if he stood in his way. And while he appears implacable, such that Grant’s conscience-troubling role (“You used to be such a nice guy”) appears for nought, when he does have to get near to the messy business of death, upon visiting the expiring Hendry, his façade breaks ever so slightly. It isn’t so easy, up close.

Purportedly, the picture was more politically skewed in the first instance, but I’d say it gets the balance about right, without belabouring its point. The script is credited to producer Barry Levinson and Jonathan Lynn (his first movie, though he claims little of his script was used) from Mort W Elkind’s novel Internecine. Apparently, Coburn didn’t think his character should die; not for vanity, presumably, as he did little else in movies around that point. Rather because, in real life, such a character would get away with it, rather than succumb to very movie justice at the last moment. If that was it, he has a point, but The Internecine Project is, nevertheless, a cut above and stands as a fine example of the 70s paranoia thriller.



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

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.