Thursday, October 02, 2008

DVD: The Holcroft Covenant (1985)

You know what I haven’t done in a while? Gas on at length about a movie that everyone else has long since forgotten about.

With the Jason Bourne series, Robert Ludlum finally got the movie franchise he deserved. It’s not surprising that the films only use the set-up of the novels, though. Ludlum was the master of the killer premise and knew how to keep you turning pages, but his books are prime examples of Hitchcock’s fabled “icebox factor.” Only when you finish reading and head for the kitchen to get a glass of milk do you start spotting plot holes.

In an interview in Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 3, Richard Matheson compared Ludlum’s style to that of a pulp writer, saying “he doesn’t really plot; he just starts out his stories and lets them roll all over the place. ... That must be why they almost never make films out of his books, because you cannot make heads nor tails of his stories.” Sam Peckinpah tried with his final film, 1983’s The Osterman Weekend. Matheson passed on the chance to adapt the novel because he “couldn’t figure it out. They finally made a picture out of it, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was incomprehensible.” Maybe that explains why I can’t remember anything about the movie other than that I saw it once on cable.

The film version of The Holcroft Covenant interested me for several reasons. A startling array of talent, for one thing. Directed by John Frankenheimer. A script labored on by a trio of writers I admire: George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt (Panic in the Streets, The Sniper), and John Hopkins (The Offence). Michael Caine at the height of what I call his blazer years, when he played a series of men caught up in international intrigue while looking smashing in navy sports coats.

Here Caine is Noel Holcroft, a New York-based architect who is the son of a Nazi general. He discovers that in the waning days of World War II his father and several compatriots, having learned about the Holocaust, began stealing money from the Third Reich and hiding it in Switzerland. Forty years later it now amounts to four and a half billion dollars. Holcroft is to administer it in trust, using it for reparations. Only there are other Nazi descendants with their own designs on this bounty.

See what I mean about the killer premise?

Once again the film deviates from Ludlum’s novel, but to little avail. Everyone has a triple agenda and there are double crosses galore; I was close to breaking out my copy of Visio so I could chart who was on what side. The movie’s tone toggles between deadly serious and antic. In 1962 Frankenheimer and Axelrod collaborated on one of the great thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate. They seem to be trying to recreate that film’s singular mood here, but it doesn’t work. (In Backstory 3, Axelrod dismisses Holcroft as “a terrible picture.”)

Yet such is the power of Ludlum’s idea that I stuck it out. A little late neo-Nazi kink helped. Rosemarie said, “It’s one of those boring movies you keep watching because you’re genuinely curious about how it’s going to end. You know, the worst kind of movie.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you miss Ludlum check out the note-perfect parody The McCain Ascendancy. You won’t look at the 2008 election the same way again.