🎞 The Holcroft Covenant (Universal Pictures, 1985)

The Holcroft Covenant from Universal Pictures, 1985
The son of a German General becomes part of a mysterious conspiracy to gain hidden Nazi funds.

Directed by John Frankenheimer. With Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant, Lilli Palmer.

I expected far better than this from Frankenheimer and Caine. I didn’t realize until after watching it that it was made in the mid 1980’s. It plays far more like a 70’s plot including the music and the cinematography. I’ve not read the Robert Ludlum novel, though I suspect as is the case for others in his canon that the book was far better than the film version, particularly for late 70’s/early 80’s material.

I watched this as a poorly cropped and overly letterboxed version on Amazon Prime, so the quality was certainly lacking from that perspective.

While there was a reasonable amount of suspense throughout, it’s not the directing that creates the ride, but really the liberally applied music which, while not great, was probably the best part of the experience. Those interested in what sound can do for a plot should study this piece.

In all, the plot was a muddy and convoluted and didn’t play itself out well at all. Tom Cruise’s first Mission Impossible was clearer. Frankenheimer had a few nice films, but it’s middling fare like this that squarely peg him as passable journeyman for most of his career.

Caine had one or two nice quips in the picture and was serviceable, but didn’t have quite the personality that shines through in many other pictures. The overall cast was great, they just weren’t given much in terms of plot or dialogue.

Some of the highlight quotes for me:

[Spotting a car tailing them]
Noel Holcroft: Probably just another Sunday driver. But on the other hand, as it is Tuesday, why don’t you put your foot on the gas and see what happens.

Noel Holcroft: 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!

Leighton: Oh, dear, oh, dear. Assumption, Mr. Holcroft, is, as they say in my profession, the mother of fuck-up.

Leighton: Naughty, naughty, Mr. Holcroft. You mustn’t speak to strangers. Could be harmful to the health.

Leighton: There’s a lot of villainous characters lurking about. I’m glad to say that most of them are mine.

Noel Holcroft: I have a friend who lives in the country, and it’s supposed to be an hour from 42nd Street. A lie! The only thing that’s an hour from 42nd Street is 43rd Street!

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🎞 My review of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974) from imdb.com
Directed by Joseph Sargent. With Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo. In New York, armed men hijack a subway car and demand a ransom for the passengers. Even if it's paid, how could they get away?

A great classic film starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, and Jerry Stiller. The plot and story (as well as some great 70’s cinematography) holds up incredibly well and far better than most of its contemporaries. The score of the film does have the definite tone of the 70’s, but isn’t so overbearingly stereotypical as movies which came later in the decade.

While headed by Walter Matthau, this film is far more serious in tone and there are few, if any, bits of humor stemming from his Lt. Garber character (or they just don’t play as well now). The final freeze frame of Matthau’s which closes the film (in an early American studio feature nod to the French New Wave) does have a fantastic feel of sardonic comedy though. Matthau’s function in the film reminded me more of his turn in Charade (1963) than his extensive body of comedic work.

Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)
Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

The film does fit well into the crime/drama/thriller progression of the modern blockbuster which includes its classic predecessors: Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros., 1967), Bullitt (Warner Bros., 1968), The Italian Job (Paramount, 1969), The French Connection (20th Century Fox, 1971), Shaft (MGM, 1971), Dirty Harry (Warner Bros., 1971), and Magnum Force (Warner Bros., 1973).

The movie is set in a time period after the prison riot at Attica which is mentioned in passing by the mayor’s staff, but before the film Dog Day Afternoon (Warner Bros., 1975). It’s also obviously set in a time period when people expect airplane hijacks, but think it’s laughable that anyone would consider a subway hijack. (This likely played into the high-concept idea of the studio consider making it originally). However, none of the train passengers takes the hijacking very seriously or seems very scared by the four rough looking characters carrying high powered and automatic weapons. This may be because the terrorism of the late 70’s, early 80’s, or even early 2000s had not yet happened; it was also set prior to John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (Paramount, 1979). I find it interesting that the hijackers in the piece actually verbally explain the capacity and killing power of their weapons as if none of the everyday people on the train would understand their automatic capabilities. (This assuredly wouldn’t happen in a modern-day version.) I have to imagine that more modern actor portrayals would have been much more fearful early on. Here no one seems very upset until Mr. Blue shoots the subway car driver in the back. Until then they just seem like they’re a bit “put out”. As an aside, the perpetrators’ going by the names Blue, Green, Grey, and Brown was most assuredly the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s use of similar names for the characters in Resevoir Dogs (Miramax, 1992) which also included the quote “let’s do it by the books”.

pelham-123-subway The film includes a fantastic (though possibly stereotypical) portrayal of 70’s culture through the characters of multiple ethnicities and cultural types. These are borne out in the credit sequence with character “names” which actually include: The Maid, The Mother, The Homosexual, The Secretary, The Delivery Boy, The Salesman, The Hooker, The Old Man, The Older Son, The Spanish Woman, The Alcoholic, The Pimp, Coed #1, The Younger Son, Coed #2, The Hippie, and The W.A.S.P. One of my favorite stereotypes (which the film may have first immortalized) was the hippie woman calmly chanting “Om” and then later “Om stop” on the runaway subway hoping it wouldn’t crash.

As an indicator of racial change, there’s an odd exchange (that may have been funny at the time), but to a more modern viewer is now just awkward:

Lt. Garber: [looking for the inspector] Inspector Daniels?
Inspector Daniels: [identifying himself] Daniels.
Lt. Garber: [realizing DCI Daniels is African-American] Oh, I, uh, thought you were, uh, like a shorter guy or – I don’t know what I thought.

There’s also a nice indicator of the growth of stature in women in society as the lead character posits (several times) that a plain clothes police officer might in fact be a woman, a fact that one of Garber’s colleagues failed to contemplate. This is offset by a zany statement by an old, gruff (and somewhat marginalized) subway supervisor (following a prior litany of profanity, by almost everyone in the room):

Caz Dolowicz, subway supervisor played by Tom Pedi
in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

 

I’ll have to go back and rewatch the remake again to further compare the portrayal of the two time periods. I will note that the mayor’s deputy comes in at one point in this incarnation and says to him, “Pull your pants up Al, we’re going downtown.” I can’t help but sadly imagine that in a remake, the mayor wouldn’t be laying sick in bed getting a shot in the ass, but would more likely be sitting behind his desk with a woman in a compromising position to get the cheap laugh.

The film also includes some great, but short character actor turns by Tony Roberts as the Mayor’s assistant, Doris Roberts (almost unrecognizable to modern day Everybody Loves Raymond fans) as the mayor’s wife, Kenneth McMillan, and a middle-aged Joe Seneca.

I also noticed an obscure, early production office coordinator credit for Barbara DaFina, better known as Barbara De Fina, much later a well-known and prolific producer and production manager, known for Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and Hugo (2011). She was married to Martin Scorsese from 1985 – 1991, though she had a nice body of work even prior to that.

Another quote that I can’t help but mention not only for its sheer joy but because it’s also one of the first lines of spoken dialogue of the film:

The Pimp played by George Lee Miles, referring to his clothing, confidence, and swagger on the dark, dank subway platform
in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

 

In the pantheon of first lines of poetry, this captures the tone of its time incredibly well.

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Brief Review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

My brief review of The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (2004, Dial Press)

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice little thriller about an obscure text from the Renaissance (quattrocento) set in modern times. This falls into the genre of historical fiction that’s similar to Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon series or films like the Nicolas Cage National Treasure series, though not quite as “rompish.” I have to imagine that those who liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Gentlemen and Players, and The Thirteenth Tale will enjoy this quite a lot.

Those who are fans of historical fiction, cryptography, puzzles, books about books, and history in general, are sure to enjoy it.

Spoilers follow:

The Vincent Taft character could have been a better “heavy” but was pretty functional in the story given his limited appearances in the actual plot. I saw the Savonarola portion of the plot a mile away, but to most unaware of this part of history this will be an interesting historical diversion/lesson. I thought the ending was a bit too literary given the more plot-motivated feel of the rest of the narrative, but in all, it was relatively satisfying given Tom’s full back-story. I can see this being adapted into film, but it will take some creative ideas to better linearize the plot and to make the ending a bit bigger for the screen.

View all my reviews

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