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Retro Review: THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1985)

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THE HOLCROFT COVENANT
(UK - 1985)

Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins. Cast: Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant, Lilli Palmer, Mario Adorf, Michael Lonsdale, Bernard Hepton, Richard Munch, Carl Rigg, Shane Rimmer, Michael Balfour, Andre Penvern, Andrew Bradford, Tharita Olivera De Sera. (R, 113 mins)

A misfire that reunites director John Frankenheimer with his MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE screenwriter George Axelrod (who shares script credit with two other respected scribes in Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins), THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is an intriguing conspiracy thriller that just never finds its footing. Adapted from Robert Ludlum's novel, the film has a fatally miscast Michael Caine as Noel Holcroft, an American architect who gets involved in a decades-old plot hatched by his biological father--a high-ranking Nazi and member of Hitler's inner circle--to pay reparations to surviving Holocaust victims and heirs to those killed using a secret Zurich bank account that's ballooned to $4.5 billion in the 40 years since the end of WWII. Certain parties have other plans for the money, like creating a Fourth Reich, which requires getting rid of Holcroft, who has completely disavowed his father and whose mother (Lilli Palmer, in her last big-screen role before her death in 1986) fled Germany when he was 18 months old and settled in America where she married the man who would adopt Noel (Holcroft's repeatedly proclaiming "I'm a foreign-born American citizen!" seems to be Caine trying to explain away his distinctly Michael Caine accent). Holcroft isn't alone in this inheritance. He must share the proceeds with the children of two other Nazis who entered this "covenant"--the Von Tiebolt siblings (Victoria Tennant and Anthony Andrews) and famed conductor Jurgen Mass (Mario Adorf), which of course leads to numerous double and triple crosses and assassins lurking in the background and foreground of scenes, constantly making attempts on Holcroft's life.






Made during a several-year stretch when he was turning absolutely nothing down (how can we forget his triumphant turn in 1987's JAWS: THE REVENGE?), Caine finished shooting the comedy WATER on a Friday when he got a call to begin work on HOLCROFT on the following Monday, a last-minute replacement after a disagreeable James Caan bailed the day before shooting was to begin. In his memoir, Caine wrote that he arrived for his first day of work on HOLCROFT without seeing even a page of the script, so he had no idea what he was doing, only that it was thriller and that he wanted to work with Frankenheimer (and, presumably, the pay was good). Nobody seemed to consider that Caine was completely wrong for the part and early scenes find him doing some weird thing with his voice where he's trying to sound American but quickly throws in the towel (Caine is one of the all-time greats, but his American accent, which sounds like someone doing a bad Michael Caine impression, wasn't any better when he tried it again on 2013's LAST LOVE). Frankenheimer spends too much time doing some distracting camera trickery and weird zooms and pointless Dutch angles instead of creating a suspenseful story. The script is a mess--it almost seems like none of the three credited screenwriters looked at what the others wrote--and Holcroft's transformation from a clueless dolt to a coldly lethal manipulator who becomes a crack shot when the movie needs him to never seems plausible. Coming soon after 1983's equally scattershot Sam Peckinpah swan song THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, this would be the last big-screen Ludlum adaptation (other than a couple of TV-movies) until Hollywood finally got it right with THE BOURNE IDENTITY in 2002. For a globetrotting international thriller, it also looks surprisingly cheap and sloppy at times, with a London backlot doing a piss-awful job of portraying a Manhattan street, looking almost Bulgarian in its utter lack of conviction. And one laughable process screen shot shows Holcroft with some construction workers atop a skyscraper backed by a bush-league NYC skyline that looks edited in with all the cutting edge technology of your local TV weather forecast.  Also, why does Noel Holcroft need a remote control for his answering machine?  Is it that important that he put his bag on a chair ten feet away that he can't stand there and press "skip"?






THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is also the kind of film that gives away its surprises when you realize a prominently-billed actor has been given almost nothing to do and is barely in the first 3/4 of the movie, so of course, he has to end up being the chief villain (also, are we to believe that Caine, Tennant, Andrews, and Adorf are all roughly the same age?). There's some good work by Bernard Hepton as a British agent who helps Holcroft and the sluggish film finally comes to life with a climactic press conference that has a nice wink-and-a-nudge from Frankenheimer that's an obvious self-referential nod to a memorable scene in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. But all in all, THE HOLCROFT COVENANT is one of the great director's most forgettable films--not terrible (we're not talking THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN or YEAR OF THE GUN here), but by no means essential, unless you never miss a Mario Adorf vehicle. Universal picked up the British-made HOLCROFT for the US but pretty much buried it, releasing it on just 73 screens in the fall of 1985 before it quickly turned up on video store shelves.

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