Tuesday, December 15, 2009
If you’re looking for some kind of Clint Eastwood auteurist link between INVICTUS and THE EIGER SANCTION then I might not be the guy to give it to you. I just happened to see this movie right now, though I did find it amusing that I was seeing two such diametrically opposed films directed by him within a day or so. I’m not even sure what to say about THE EIGER SANCTION, released in July 1975. Part of me wants to take it as a goof on the sort of international thriller that was being made during this decade, a comment on how ridiculous they were but I’m not sure that Eastwood was the sort of person to really do that sort of thing. It’s got a plot I can barely decipher, a tone I can barely make sense of, some wildly un-p.c. elements and some genuinely stunning mountain climbing setpieces. Set on a slightly larger scale than the sort of project that Eastwood has ever done at any point in his directing career, it’s overlong but kind of fun. More enjoyable than INVICTUS, anyway though I’m certainly aware that wasn’t the point of INVICTUS.
Famous art professor/mountain climber Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is also a retired assassin for a secret government agency run by “The Dragon” (Thayer David, the boxing promoter in ROCKY) an albino who cannot be exposed to sunlight. Reluctantly, Hemlock gets dragged back in after a friend is killed to carry out a “sanction” first to Zurich, then the more treacherous task of using his mountain climbing skills to scale the mountain Eiger in Switzlerland, a treacherous face and kill one of his fellow climbers, the exact identity of which is not yet known. After working out a deal that will give him a generous payment as well as authentication of his extensive art collection, Hemlock brings on his old friend Ben Bowman (George Kennedy) to help train him but certain factions are intent on stopping him before he ever gets to the Eiger which, of course, may prove to be the most dangerous part of his mission at all.
I really barely know what to make of THE EIGER SANCTION and I’m not even certain I got all of the plot right (for the record, the screenplay was by Rod Whitaker, Hal Dresner and DESTROYER author Warren B. Murphy from the novel by Trevanian—does it all play with greater clarity in the book?). It’s such a mish-mosh of different elements and it’s possible it may not have been ideal for Clint Eastwood, either as director or screen personality. As a filmmaker the combination of tones feels uneasy like maybe even he didn’t know how to approach it all and maybe it even have had something to do with how his films became more straight-ahead as the years went on. The character plays a little bit as a reluctant American Bond (he only drinks Wild Turkey on the rocks, which everyone seems to know) and his status as art professor with girls swooning over him gives him a pre-Indiana Jones feel (Clint seems to handle the attention better). The albino agency chief kept alive by continual blood transfusions is just bizarre and the mountain climbing stuff in comparison just seems like it’s a part of, well, Clint starring in a movie about mountain climbing. The star apparently did at least some of his own stunts, which is definitely evident at times and it certainly helps these scenes. The wide array of elements means that it’s more entertaining than something like FIREFOX (which, in fairness, I haven’t seen for a few years) but it’s still tough to tell how seriously any of this is supposed to be taken. Like any type of thriller made in the 70s the overall approach feels more adult than it would be today yet everything is so ludicrous from the start it feels like the idea of taking it even halfway seriously makes it all feel genuinely strange, like Clint misunderstood what the whole thing was supposed to be. Or maybe I do. Forget about likeability—it’s tough to tell what reason there is on any level to care about a hitman who is mostly interested in his art collection. “Friends…enemies. Where do I fit in?” asks someone at one point and I guess I was continually wondering the same thing.
The film is made even more wonky by the stereotype of the gay hitman adversary played by Jack Cassidy who even has a little dog named something I won’t write here but I’ll just say it starts with an ‘f’. By my count there are also two rape jokes scattered in the movie as well as a fair amount of leering at the various girls in the film including some of the ‘swinging singles’ at George Kennedy’s climbing school—some of whom are quite something to look at, I’ll say that much, but it still gives it all a weird sort of vibe. I guess it was just the 70s. To make up for it—or hell, maybe just to confuse things—is Eastwood’s relationship with the surprisingly named Jemima Brown played by BLACULA’s Vonette McGee in a romance that is at the least somewhat progressive for the time. Considering the typical strong female presence in Eastwood’s films even then it’s possible that he was going for something unique with a role that would be pretty nondescript otherwise.
Of course, you could just ignore all this stuff and simply pay attention to everything in the movie that’s mountain climbing-related. Maybe even start the movie 40 minutes in to complete the effect and for a while it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole espionage revenge storyline since much of the exposition has already happened—it just comes off as Eastwood’s character setting out on preparing for a particularly dangerous climb with his buddy George Kennedy there to help him out. There’s also some truly striking location work at points throughout both the U.S. and Switzerland. The other climbers, who would probably be given full characterizations if the entire film were about the expedition, are each fairly nondescript and I had to try to keep reminding myself of who they were. There’s a disconnect through all this--since there isn’t much reason to be involved in Hemlock’s reasons for doing this and we barely know the other climbers involved all we can do is be involved in the basic suspense that comes out of the climb—which is, after all, nearly the final half-hour in a 128-minute film but is nevertheless extremely impressive, has the sort of careful, methodical pacing that Clint’s films excel in at his best and, with no post-production effects work to help this along, some of the best type of this sort of thing as I’ve ever seen—something like CLIFFHANGER plays pretty ludicrous in comparison. It’s appropriately impressive and suspenseful but not for any real reason related to the plot. THE EIGER SANCTION is too long, I didn’t know what the hell was going on part of the time and I would never want to look at myself in the mirror while defending it. But in its 70s way the thing is slick, exciting and when it comes to the main reason for its existence—namely, the mountain climbing—it’s pretty satisfying even if the overall effect had me scratching my head a little bit as I tried to figure out what to make of it at the end (which comes complete with a helicopter shot at the end credits similar to how the various Dirty Harry movies concluded) when certain revelations come to light.
Coming between MAGNUM FORCE and THE ENFORCER, this film gives us a Cint Eastwood who still feels most comfortable, at least in modern dress, in his Harry Callahan guise and there really isn’t much difference between the icon and Hemlock. Except that in this case I’m not sure I would actually care about seeing this character in another film. For the miscasting to work the film might have needed another director to do something with it. No surprise, but Clint just acts and directs it all as he does it. Under the right circumstances this can work great but in this context it just feels a little off. George Kennedy essentially plays the utility Joe Patroni role he excelled in and who gets to take part in one of the most impressive shots of the film but by the final third is relegated to mostly keeping tabs of things via telescope and filling us in on what’s happening. Vonetta McGee has some nice chemistry with Eastwood in their scenes together and familiar character actor Gregory Walcott has a nice supporting role as a Dragon associate, playing one scene in a particularly ugly sports jacket. The truly impressive Brenda Venus plays George, Hemlock’s trainer as he prepares for the climb and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD’s Candice Rialson and her eyes make such an impression in her brief role at the start that you wish she could tag along for the rest of the film.
Looking at it now, THE EIGER SANCTION feels like Clint Eastwood as director trying to broaden his horizons, to see what type of film he was interested in directing. I can believe that it may not have been entirely to his taste but it is an example of an expansive, if strange, widescreen epic with Clint that has him developing his style yet it’s still slightly different from the other things he was making then or now, if only because of how off-kilter it all is. Now he’s moved onto INVICTUS and if that’s your thing then, well, fine. But taking in this piece of absurdity that also includes Eastwood and George Kennedy actually on top of a particularly treacherous-looking peak while the John Williams music swells it’s hard not to get caught up in it all and appreciate it for its best moments.