Jan 23, 2013

DVD Review: The Holcroft Covenant (1986)

For an author who dominated the bestseller lists for three decades, there have really been surprisingly few film or television adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s novels over the years. Of the ones there have been, John Frankenheimer’s film of The Holcroft Covenant stands as what I would call the “Ludlumiest” of them. Which is to say that, while not exactly faithful to the word of the book (review here), it retains that essential Ludlum feel as a film. In fact, it might even Ludlumier than the novel! ("Ludlumier" might be my favorite word ever, so expect me to use it a lot.) By which I mean that it checks most of the boxes that I expect from a Ludlum adventure: There is an innocent man—an amateur—thrust into the world of international intrigue. There is globetrotting. There are lots of great European locations—including the requisite Geneva—and there is Swiss banking. There are multiple parties after our hero for unknown reasons. There are double-crosses. There are triple-crosses. There is sex. There is violence. There are gunfights and car chases. And there is a plot so labyrinthine that I’m not sure even veteran spy screenwriters George Axelrod (The Manchurian Candidate, The Fourth Protocol), Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, The Salzburg Connection) and John Hopkins (Thunderball, Smiley’s People, Codename: Kyril) could explain exactly what happened.

Their script departs fairly radically from the book’s plot in specifics, but keeps the basic overall premise intact: Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) is told by an enigmatic Swiss banker (Moonraker’s Michael Lonsdale) that his father, a notorious Nazi, left him a fortune ($4 billion) to be used to make amends for the Nazis’ horrible crimes. This money is the product of a covenant between Holcroft’s father and two other Nazi officers who supposedly turned on Hitler in the final days of the war. The terms of the covenant dictate that Holcroft must locate the eldest offspring of the others to access the vast sum, but as the only British-born American citizen of the trio, he will be the chairman. The book was not one of Ludlum’s finest, its plot dense and clunky. Most of the changes are expedient and necessary, some really improving the storyline. A lengthy sojourn to South America is excised altogether, keeping the action limited to New York and Europe. The various factions after the money (there were tons of them in the novel) are condensed into a manageable few (though it’s still not entirely clear who is working for who), and a messy subplot involving an international assassin is wisely cut, along with the uncharacteristically clumsy setpiece it culminated in in the novel. I was disappointed, however, with the decision to conflate the two daughters of the Nazi Von Tibault (another member of the Covenant) into one character, Helden (Victoria Tennant), as their characters were very distinct in the book and would have worked well on film. Caine’s Holcroft is also, happily, a far less annoying protagonist than his literary counterpart! He whines a little, but overall he’d prefer to take action against his predicament than to complain ceaselessly about it.

Caine himself is, of course, the consummate spy movie actor, and even when he’s just doing a picture for the money (as one suspects he was with some of his Eighties spy flicks), he still elevates any material he works with. James Caan was originally slated to star, and he would have probably been great in the role, but Michael Caine nails it. In Caine’s finest moment here, following a grisly murder that hits close to home, a trained agent assures Holcroft that he’ll kill the person responsible. Seeing the look on Holcroft’s face, he amends his offer, “Or you can, if you like.” A bereaved Caine glowers up at the camera, and growls, “I like.”

Caine is ably supported by an ensemble of the caliber that could be described as too good for this movie, but like Caine they elevate the material to their own level by their presence. Tennant is not only ethereally beautiful, but convincing in a part made much trickier by the screenwriters’ decision to roll two very different characters into one. Anthony Andrews is in full sneering villain mode, but what else would you expect of a man who wants to bring about a global Fourth Reich? The august Lilli Palmer (Hitchcock's Secret Agent, Lang's Cloak and Dagger) stands out as Holcroft's strong-willed mother, Althene, and Eurospy veteran Mario Adorf (The Dirty Game, That Man in Istanbul) lends a commanding presence as the final member of the present-day Covenant, Erich Kessler. A lot of spy vets round out the cast, including multi-picture Bond alumnus Shane Rimmer (who turns up in the small role of a New York cop who played a much larger part in the book), Carl Rigg (the assassin who tangled with Timothy Dalton in the opening of The Living Daylights, here playing a very similar part), Andy Bradford (Octopussy’s ill-fated 009, as an agent attempting to help Holcroft) and Bernard Hepton (Toby Esterhase to Alec Guinness’s George Smiley; The Contract) as a slick MI-5 operative whose role is successfully expanded from the book.

Caine’s real co-star, however, is director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin). Like Caine, Frankenheimer could frequently be found slumming in the Eighties, but, like Caine, he brings his all to this film—mostly, anyway. The director’s gritty style and sharply honed sense of pacing are perfect matches for Ludlum’s story, and I credit Frankenheimer with translating the spirit of the author’s work so directly to the screen. It’s too bad he didn’t do more Ludlum titles in that era. In a stroke of genius, Frankenheimer relocates the book’s carnival chase scene to Berlin’s infamous Love Parade (though he could perhaps be accused of dwelling a tad longer than necessary on all the glittery, naked flesh), creating the film’s most successful setpiece bearing his unmistakable imprint.

Reflecting the director's sense of humor, the man who attacks Holcroft in that scene (one of the book’s many interchangeable, faceless hitmen working for various factions) is now a scantily clad transvestite named Fritzl!

A pretty terrific (and unambiguously Eighties) synthy soundtrack by Russian-born composer Stanislas (that’s right, just one name) perfectly complements this sort of sleazy opulence. (I would love to get my hands on that score, but it was sadly never released, not even as an LP.) Where Frankenheimer lets us down, unfortunately, is in the car chase department. A promising setup involving a speeding Mercedes, a helicopter, and several motorcycles sadly never builds to what we know the director is capable of. (Perhaps Ronin was his apologia.)

The film’s ending is radically altered from the book’s unforgettable finale… but then the book’s conclusion probably wouldn’t have worked in a movie. The drama in the film’s closing moments, unfortunately, depends a little too much on a largely unconvincing (and until that point underdeveloped) love story. But that doesn’t detract too much from what’s really a pretty enjoyable viewing experience. Overall, The Holcroft Covenant is fairly great spy entertainment if you’re looking for that unique Eighties European flavor, for Second Stage Michael Caine spyishness, for underrated Frankenheimer direction, or for some rare, genuine, on-screen Ludluminess.

This is one of those odd titles that's recent and fairly big, but somehow ended up in the public domain, probably because someone at the studio didn't do their due diligence. That means that there are a lot of budget DVDs available, but all the budget versions I've seen should be avoided. Most are fullscreen. The version to get is the official MGM DVD . It isn't anamorphic, but it is at least widescreen, and it looks decent enough. (That said, this film could really stand a new high-def transfer!) Also, it's got some good special features, including an audio commentary with Frankenheimer, the original theatrical trailer, and one of those 8-page booklets MGM used to include with all their DVDs, which is actually quite informative.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.


Bob said...


Name two other films, Michael Caine portrayed a German?

Mark said...

Bob, The Eagle Has Landed and The Last Valley ;)

Caine is remarkably honest about why he took this one on; the money, the locations and the chance to work with Frankenheimer. I don't think he rates it as one of his best, but its far better than The Jigsaw Man...but then anything is!

Bob said...

Continuing with Caine; How bad are his last two Harry Palmer films:
Midnight in St Petersburg
Bullet to Beijing

I always have been reluctant to buy these dvds.

Bob said...

I forgot about another Michael Caine movie "The Statement" where he played a German. I found this dvd, a year ago, in a store bargain bin and it is terrific. The film is directed by Norman Jewison and I believe is still available on Amazon.

Mark said...

He's French working for the Germans in The Statement isn't he?

Re the Palmer updates; very bad. Bullet, the first one isn't totally terrible, but it is naff. Midnight is just pathetic. They're the worst kind of euro pudding and play out like a wannabe TV series with Palmer as a PI with a host of former colleagues in post Glasnost Russia

Bob said...

You are correct about 'The Statement". Thanks for the info on the two Palmer films. Your opinion is shared by many.

Tanner said...

The Eagle Has Landed came to me right away, Bob, but I have to admit I didn't think of The Last Valley as quickly as Mark did... even though I love quoting him in that movie and doing the accent.

Caine says that about most of the movies he did in the 80s. In his first autobiography, he claimed that his working class childhood left him with a feeling that he should never turn down work. I understand that, but I also think he was being slightly tongue-in-cheek. But even doing paycheck movies, he generally brings his A-game. And The Holcroft Covenant stands head-and-shoulders above other such movies like Jaws: The Revenge (about which he made similar comments regarding paycheck and locations, if not director) and On Deadly Ground.

I suspect it was actually a little bit more than a paycheck that lured him back to Harry Palmer, but it's a real shame how those movies turned out. The Dieghton Dossier has done some excellent interviews with Len Deighton, but I don't think (off the top of my head) that they've yet covered those films. I wonder what he thinks about them?

My own memory of seeing them once, a long time ago, is of them being huge disappointments. But I've meant for a while to revisit them. Perhaps with different expectations they'll play better. It's been my intention ever since starting this blog in 2006 to do a Harry Palmer Week looking at all of those movies (including Spy Story), but like many of the themed series I've had planned, it hasn't happened yet. It will though, eventually. This Ludlum series is also one I've had on the cards since the beginning, and that only took six or seven years to get off the ground...

Mark said...

I'm a HUGE Caine fan so it came to me embarrassingly quickly.

Yes he has a great affection for Palmer and was still talking about a hope to get him off the ground once more only a few years ago - with someone mooting Susan Sarandon to play Palmer's wife! - referring to the previous attempts as great disappointments. The money essentially ran out for Midnight, as most of it was ploughed into Bullet and the companies behind it began to bail out and go for easier options (straight to TV and rental when Caine signed on for a cinematic release) Ludicrous.

Ah yes, Spy Story, another dud film. I've blogged about that one myself. Despite its poor quality I treasure the scarce DVD I have of it.

It's a shame Caine realised too late how much affection he had for Palmer as it would have been nice to have seen Horse Under Water and An Expensive Place To Die filmed in the 70s. Indeed, he was on record as hoping someone else would take over the reins, as was the case with Bond, with Nigel Davenport briefly being mooted before Saltzman gave up on the idea.

Simes said...


Never mind Michael Caine and the extensive list of duds he's appeared in....

Where's Victoria Tennant nowadays?


Mark said...

@Simes, she's making even more duds; Will and Kate, 2011. Royal biopic

Simes said...


Oh dear....Victoria! What are you DOING?!!!!!