In It For the Money

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Came back from Dublin with a rampaging Irish lurgi in my system and collapsed into bed with a fitful cough that made my head explode each time it went off. Comedies were out. I chose to watch the worst thing I could lay my hands on.

That meant the 1980s. That meant Michael Caine. Add Robert Ludlum and John Frankenheimer, during his years of alcoholic haze, and you should have a perfect storm of awfulness perfect for a state of feverish narcolepsy. But actually THE HOLCROFT COVENANT displays dim glimpses of another, better film, as if two movies were projected on overlapping scrims and the wrong scrim was to the fore.

Ludlum: “the man who ruined titles,” as a friend puts it. I have a mental image of his literature — fat volumes of inept prose — but have never read any of it so apart from the fat part I don’t know how accurate/fair that is. He does seem to have yielded very little of cinematic value, and I suspect this may be partly due to weak characterisation — the one real hit in movie terms was the Bourne series, in which the hero is a literal blank. For much of THE HOLCROFT COVENANT, Caine’s character is similarly ill-defined, though that may be partly due to his inability to suggest a New York architect called Noel Holcroft (doesn’t he play something similar in the even-more-awful BLAME IT ON RIO? And with a similar name, Hollis…) and in THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, characterisation is largely replaced by casting.

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So much for the HOLCROFT part of the dreadful title. The COVENANT is a vast bank account of pilfered Nazi funds set up supposedly to redress the Third Reich’s crimes. We’re asked to believe that it was judged wise to keep this money hidden away for forty years (Why?), that the funds shouldn’t have simply been handed over when the Reich fell, and that Swiss banks administer Nazi funds for benevolent reasons. Obligatory Euro-thriller star Michael Lonsdale plays the Swiss banker, with Lilli Palmer adding class and Mario Adorf adding sweaty ebullience.

But why do I suggest that the film is anything more than sheer rot, with an offensively inane premise? Well, the screenplay is the work of three hands — John Hopkins, who did a lot of spy stuff including THUNDRBALL and Smiley’s People, Edward Anhalt, who did classy stuff like THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH but also fun like THE SATAN BUG (which I watched the same day by sheer coincidence, mainly because I was convinced I had the titular bug) and George Axelrod, a reminder of Frankenheimer’s glory days via THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

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Axelrod tends to smuggle in humour, sometimes in so black a form it’s hard to receive it as such, and it’s his voice that predominates, or would if the film were in tune with its own best intentions. Lines about Adorf’s character having found the perfect way to conceal his Nazi parentage by becoming world famous seem to leeringly point out the absurdity of the whole story. The NORTH BY NORTHWEST device of a regular joe plunged into the mad world of espionage is entertainingly resuscitated, at least on paper.

Caine is actually very funny in his incredulity at the secret codes and meetings in public places, but his being so evidently himself (complete with blazer) wrecks all the humour the script tries to ring from him being an American fish out of water. Co-stars Victoria Tennant, Anthony Andrews and Bernard Hepton (“Mustn’t grumble”) are forced to try to be even more British than they already are in order to try to make him seem American. Or maybe it’s just that Axelrod has written them as stiff-upper-lip parodies.

(Caine’s career seemed to stagger through innumerable fatal misfires like this one, but like a zombie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, not even repeated bullets to the head could stop it.)

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Highlights of fatuity — a chase through a Berlin Carnival of Prostitution (because not only do sex workers have lots of disposable income to throw at street festivities, but the city council is keen to promote the red light district as a tourist attraction); a highly public assassination attempt on seventy-one-year-old Lilli Palmer that kills four innocent bystanders and one assassin while wiping out Palmer’s bookshop (“My shop!” she cries, oblivious to the loss of life) but misses its target; Caine constantly meeting representatives of governments and businesses away from their places of business, with no guarantee that he’s talking to the real deal (he almost never is); an eleventh-hour twist about a character’s identity which makes no difference to anything.

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The movie looks glossy and Frankenheimer seems, depressingly, committed — some of his Dutch tilts and one crash zoom on Adorf’s huge cave-in of a face are actually witty. Obviously the money ran out — the score is a pathetic synth dribble, and a series of voicemail messages early on seem to be recorded by the film’s supporting cast, doubling up as offscreen characters. One of them is Frankenheimer himself. Inspiration must have run out too — the climax reprises shots from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (much as RONIN and REINDEER GAMES would reprise the coda of THE TRAIN) and the story, finally unmasked as the great chain of piffle it is, seems beyond even Axelrod’s powers to parody.

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19 Responses to “In It For the Money”

  1. Michel Lonsdale may be a “Euro-thriller star” to you, but he’ll always be Le Vice-Consul de Franch a Lahore to me

  2. Lonsdale is all things to all men! But he does seem to be the default setting for any movie hoping for a bit of Day of the Jackal chic, as we see in Spielberg’s casting of him in Munich.

  3. My favourite Lonsdale is probably Smiley’s People. He’s very funny and seems to make everyone else funny too.

  4. He has that effect! There’s a brilliant short by Jean-Claude Carriere called The Nail Clippers which is Concentrated Lonsdale. One the one hand it’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, on the other hand its fifteen minutes of Lonsdale dithering in a hotel room. Bliss!

  5. Absolutely love The Nail Clippers! I think it was you who showed it to me. And talking of Kafka, wasn’t Lonsdale in The Trial as well?

  6. Yes he plays a priest. But being a Welles film it’s probably not his voice.

    Most recently he’s starred for the world’s oldest living film director, alongside fello deities Jeanne Moreau and Claudia Cardinale.

  7. I’m certain that’s not Lonsdale’s voice in The Trial. Just how many people did OW dub with his own voice in that film? It may set a record even Mel Blanc or Daws Butler couldn’t top.

    At least Welles didn’t dub Akim Tamiroff’s voice.

  8. How could he? I think he dubbed most of the men, including a couple lines of Perkins’ which Perkins supposedly couldn’t spot.

    There’s a scene with Perkins and three men in a closet and it’s possible Welles is all three men, and maybe even Perkins too.

  9. I thought that about the closet scene. It was one where I kinda cocked my head sideways like a dog thinking his master’s voice is coming from all the wrong places.

  10. Welles did that frequently. There’s a scene early in Touch of Evil in which all the voices are Welles>

  11. He dubbed at least one major character in Othello, and I’m sure lots (Fernando Rey?) in Chimes at Midnight. John Gielgud was probably taking notes, preparatory to Prospero’s Books.

  12. I remember that about Touch Of Evil, even dubbing Cotten’s voice with his own when we first see Cotten.

  13. jiminholland Says:

    ‘I remember that about Touch Of Evil, even dubbing Cotten’s voice with his own when we first see Cotten.’

    A line — ‘And now you could strain ‘im through a sieve’ — which for some reason I always first remember as, ‘Drown ‘em like puppies.’

    Did Welles ever substitute for Jim Backus on Mr Magoo?

  14. I love The Holcroft Covenant, for all the wrong reasons; the 1985 press show was legendary – started out with a respectful hush appropriate to a director of Frankenheimer’s standing, followed by fidgeting as the critics realised it was a load of old tosh, ending in mass hysteria and the yelling of unruly comments at the screen.

    That botched assassination attempt on Lilli Palmer was a highpoint; also the protracted and pointless discussion about umbrellas, also Caine explaining in detail why he doesn’t have a driving licence only to be interrupted by Tennant snapping “Do you realise you’re endangering our lives by your incompetence?”, the love scene where Tennant goes, “No… no… YES!”

    Also, holding secret meetings in the middle of Trafalgar Square or in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Anthony Andrews writing “brilliant but mysterious articles on international finance for the Guardian.” And “Drive to Geneva… take the back roads as much as possible.”

  15. Wow, you remember EVERY LINE!

    Also liked the porno chase where he asks the big dominatrix, “Have you seen a man and a woman?” “Yes, many times…”

  16. Ha! I WISH. I wrote a book called My Name is Michael Caine (not a biography, more like a resumé of his films) and just copied them down from that.

    I like to think the book anticipated the late-1990s critical reassessment of Caine as a serious actor and national treasure that followed films like Little Voice and The Cider House Rules, and the new wave of horrible British gangster movies which revived interest in Get Carter and The Italian Job. Back in 1991, and despite Hannah & Her Sisters, he was still routinely (and lazily) dismissed as a joke, someone who just played himself all the time in bad films and had a couple of catch phrases, so I was trying to correct that impression.

    It’s true he’s appeared in quite a lot of turkeys, but on the other hand he was a British film star who had managed to keep working non-stop whereas contemporaries such as O’Toole, Stamp, Harris, Bates, Hemmings etc either dropped out of sight in the 1970s and 1980s, or made just as many turkeys without getting stick for it the way Caine did.

    Only Connery managed to maintain a certain amount of quality control throughout that era, though it’s my contention that his performances became increasingly phoned-in.

  17. I always gave Stamp a pass because I assumed he had to take what was offered. Caine did stuff seemingly DESIGNED to hurt his reputation. But he was never less than professional, and the odd thing is that asides from not bothering to sound American, he’s very good in Holcroft.

    Yeah, later Connery only really comes to life when given funny lines, and he stopped trying to make interesting films as producer. It’s so sad that LoEG was his last, but he CHOSE it, I guess. I think Cuba marked the point where he gave up taking chances with his image.

  18. A grievous error on my part that I have not yet seen this film. Years ago I saw the umbrella scene — I can’t even remember why or where — and jotted this down on my to-watch list, then promptly forgot about it.

    Also, the best part of this post is that you now have a Bernard Hepton tag.

  19. Yes! Now I need to find some other use for it. I think he maybe gets a mention in my post on Smiley’s People, but otherwise it’s been a Hepton-free zone around here.

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