The Holcroft Covenant
There’s something oddly comforting about 1980s Michael Caine spy thrillers, not because they are any good – most aren’t – but due to his sheer reliability in simply showing up, baring his teeth at some point while grimly enraged, and generally behaving as if he’s still a viable lead in such fare.
Caine came on board The Holcroft Covenant late in the day after James Caan fell out, and it might have seemed, at first glance, to possess a very faintly promising pedigree. An admittedly past-his-prime John Frankenheimer was helming. The source was a Robert Ludlum novel (pre-Bourne and lacking cachet, but another of his had yielded Sam Peckinpah’s last, The Ostermann Weekend). And the adaption came from by George Axelrod (who hadn’t worked on anything acclaimed in about twenty years, but did have The Manchurian Candidate on his resumé) and Edward Anhalt. The result? Well, see my opening remark about Caine spy thrillers made in the ’80s, only even less so.
Caine (ostensibly) made the movie to work with Frankenheimer; he didn’t much like the end result (quite a common refrain on his part during that period). He also found the screenplay incomprehensible. I don’t know that it’s actually incomprehensible, so much as the fiendishly evil plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Noel Holcroft (Caine), along with the children of two colleagues of his late Nazi father (as in dead, rather than a former Nazi), is left $4.5bn to use philanthropically, to right the wrongs perpetrated by Hitler’s hordes, or so it goes (I kept wondering that such a stash wouldn’t instantly be confiscated, even given it’s in Switzerland, but let it go). Turns out, though, that dad – Herr General Heinrich Clausen (Alexander Kerst) – wasn’t such a repentant schweinhund after all. Rather, he was quite content to sacrifice his son as revenge on his missus (Lilli Palmer) for forsaking him, and in so doing laying the paving stones for the emergence of the Fourth Reich.
Tennyson: Can you imagine a hate so strong that it can wait years for revenge?
Accordingly, the concerns of Oberst (Richard Munch), that Noel was planning on using the loot to establish a Fourth Reich, weren’t so balmy after all. In fact, the other members of the foundation, Mario Adorf’s Jurgen Maas (really Erich Kessler, son of Michael Wold’s General Kessler) and Anthony Andrews’ Jonathan Tennyson (Johann von Tiebolt), accompanied by his sister Helden (Victoria Tennant), have precisely that goal in mind. Albeit, somewhat goofily, via “a wonderful idea to consolidate every terrorist group in the world into one cohesive overwhelming force to create international crises”. This will throw the entire globe into anarchy and panic and so create the mood to accept a new leader. One might forward an argument that something not wholly dissimilar has been attempted with ISIS (by TPTB, obviously), but it still seems like something of a stretch. Better for a Bond movie, really.
Caine really does not give a toss in this one. He claims he’s always professional and… Well, he’s always watchable, but he seems indifferent to playing a nominal American (German-American) here, and if you didn’t notice his less-than-half-hearted approximation of a twang in various scenes, that wouldn’t be at all surprising. He’s also supposed to be a decade younger than he is, and while some can pull that off, he’s not really achieving it where it counts.
Motivation-wise, it isn’t clear why Holcroft, a highly successful architect (“Sorry, I’m an architect, not a financial genius”) should want to get involved in the foundation at all, except to combat some sense of generational guilt (which isn’t remotely telegraphed). Holcroft’s also entirely passive, except, bizarrely, when called on to momentarily engage in an exchange of gunfire (his first time firing a weapon, and he shoots someone in the head, through a windscreen) or with a skilled assassin (turning a gun on him during a grapple).
Leighton: A shootout in Trafalgar Square just isn’t done.
The screenplay is nigh-on terminally exposition heavy, which means it takes the likes of Bernard Hepton (as Oberst’s cohort Leighton: “More often than not, I’m on the right side”) to deliver the goods. Frankenheimer stages a nice little assassination in crowd early on, as “highly respectable banker” Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale) leads an oblivious Holcroft to his car, but he seems most inspired by a sequence at a Berlin carnival, which seems to be there entirely for the director to leer at T&A with his camera.
That aside, Victoria Tennant is pretty but entirely forgettable as love-interest-cum-cold-blooded-killer Helda, not really pulling off the hooker gear in Berlin. Something was evidently amiss when she announced to Noel, “You’re wonderful. I’ve never met a man like you before”, but you’d be forgiven for assuming it was the flatulent dialogue that had been haunting the picture every step of the way, rather than necessarily her attempting to manipulate her mark (earlier, she berated Noel’s lack of a driving licence – mirroring Caine’s – with “Don’t you realise you’re endangering our lives with your incompetence?!”, so one might just have wondered if she wasn’t a bit loopy).
All that said, the reveal of an incestuous affair with her brother is, at least, a late-stage surprise (“My love, my sister, my spouse”). Talking of whom, Andrews far and away steals the show as a Nazi who works for The Guardian – so what’s new, right? – and sports a silly tache but also gets the single best scene in the movie.
Tennyson: You see, the world must not be run by the frightened and ignorant and weak, and because of my father, and because of Kessler and because of Klausman, it will not be much longer.
Tennyson holds the list that Oberst and Leighton want (the thousand names that will change the world, of terrorist contacts). Late in the game, he drops in unannounced on Oberst, who’s entertaining Noel’s mum Althene. Tennyson’s instantly commanding, disarming his host, airily complimenting Althene on the potato salad and sending a plate spinning into a wall above Oberst’s head (“Just keep your nasty, trembling, liver-spotted hands away from those buttons”, referring to Oberst’s wheelchair control panel). There’s a charming ruthlessness to Tennyson that Franhenheimer would have done well to have tapped more, as the director immediately ups his game when he’s got someone putting some welly in.
The Film Yearbook Vol 5 pronounced The Holcroft Covenant one of the Turkeys of the Year, with Harlan Kennedy offering a particularly sturdy takedown of Ludlum’s rep (if this was the common view, it may explain why it took another decade and a half to make a success from one of his works, and that one did so by stripping the source novel of all but premise): “another doomed bid to film a book by that master of cinematic prolixity”.
Over-explanatory dialogue aside, The Holcroft Covenant’s pretty clunky and forgettable, alas. It fits loosely into the very minor subgenre of nascent Fourth Reich endeavours that includes The Boys from Brazil, but fails to really draw on the potential of the scenario. In the pantheon of ’80s Caine thriller fare, I’d take all the other contenders (The Jigsaw Man, The Whistle Blower, The Fourth Protocol) over this one.