Thursday, 14 February 2013

Movie Review: The Eiger Sanction (1975)


A brooding action thriller which condemns the world of secret agents that it inhabits, The Eiger Sanction is a smart take on the Cold War's tit-for-tat assassination games. Clint Eastwood directs himself in an intricate yet taut literal cliff-hanger set against the world of mountain climbing.

Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood) is a retired assassin for the secretive C2 US government agency. Now a university art professor, his weaknesses include an illicit fine art collection and a barely contained lust for women. A reluctant Hemlock is called back into action by his former boss "The Dragon" (Thayer David), a light-sensitive albino, to "sanction" one of two enemy assassins responsible for eliminating Hemlock's former colleague Henri Baq (Frank Redmond) in Geneva. After completing the mission, The Dragon uses the sultry charms of agent Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee) to manipulates Hemlock into yet another assignment.

Dragon: [Hemlock has walked in while Dragon is hooked up to a transfusion device] Forgive me, Dr. Hemlock. Twice a year I have to have my blood completely replaced. 
Hemlock: [through gritted teeth] With what?

This time Hemlock has to pursue the other assassin, whose identity is vague but who is known to be part of four-man team planning to climb the treacherous Eiger mountain in the Swiss Alps. To get back into mountain-climbing shape, Hemlock trains at a resort run by old friend Ben Bowman (George Kennedy), where he tangles with slippery double agent Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy) and the phenomenally fit but silent trainer George (Brenda Venus). In Switzerland, Bowman and Hemlock join up with Frenchman Jean-Paul Montaigne (Jean-Pierre Bernard), German Karl Freytag (Reiner Schöne) and Austrian Anderl Meyer (Michael Grimm) to climb the dangerous Eiger. One of the men is Hemlock's target; he just does not know which one.

The Eiger Sanction pours vinegar over the James Bond style secret agent mystique. For Hemlock the spy battle has long since lost its lustre, and he sees the killings and retaliatory strikes for what they are, juvenile games played by shadowy masters sacrificing the lives of others for no meaningful gain. Hemlock is a proud art snob, protective of his illegal collection, and not satisfied with one weakness, can just hardly turn down the overt advances of one his students, but nevertheless sends her on her way with a bum slap.

Hemlock: Are you busy this evening?
Art Student: No.
Hemlock: You live alone?
Art Student: My roommate's gone for the week.
Hemlock: Good. Then... go on home, break out the books and study your little ass off. That's the best way to maintain a "B" average. Don't study it all off.


Once coerced by The Dragon back into action, Hemlock pursues the missions without joy, almost botching the first sanction and demonstrating an overt tiredness in tackling Eiger and the mysterious second assassin. Eastwood brings his laid-back persona to Hemlock, but this time the relaxed approach masks a keen intent to remain uninvolved, his eagerness to complete the missions driven by the desire to return to retirement rather a belief in any cause.

[Bowman watches the climb through his telescope]
British Tourist: I say, old boy, are you using your scope? Do you mind if my wife has a peek. 
British Tourist's Wife: Darling, tell him we'll pay for it. 
British Tourist: We can pay for it, you know. 
Bowman: Get out of here. Either of you friggin' vampires ever touch this telescope, you're gonna need surgery to get it out of your ass!

The Eiger Sanction script, adapting the best-seller by Trevanian, is filled with sharp dialogue exchanges, but also dances with a string of potentially questionable attitudes that could now be deemed insulting towards albinos, blacks, gays, women, the elderly, Europeans, and Natives. In the pre-politically correct context of the mid-1970s the film is bold if perhaps also unapologetically and intentionally crass.

Woman Journalist: Tell me, Mr. Bowman, in your opinion do these men climb to prove their manhood, or is it more a matter of compensating for inferiority feelings? 
Bowman: Lady, why don't you go get yourself screwed. It would do you a lot of good.

Eastwood directs with relatively slow pacing, allowing the many characters to take shape and find their niche. At just over two hours The Eiger Sanction never rushes, and indeed builds to a majestic final forty minutes, an ill-fated but magnificently photographed assault on Eiger by four men who neither trust nor like each other. In the pre-special effects era all the breathtaking mountain climbing sequences were real and filmed on location in Grindelwald, Switzerland, with Eastwood performing all of his stunts. The filming logistics were difficult and sometimes next to impossible, with one photographer losing his life in an accident. A soaring yet poignant John Williams music score adds immeasurably to the drama unfolding on the formidable mountain.

Jemima: Is this hotel always so crowded? 
Hemlock: Only when there's a climb. Then the Eiger birds start flocking in. 
Jemima: Eiger birds? 
Hemlock: Yeah, jet setters, assorted zombies, come here to watch a climb. If they're lucky, they get to see a man die on the mountain. 
Jemima: That's grim. 
Hemlock: So's the Eiger.

The supporting cast is memorable for Thayer David's short but blood-curdling turn as The Dragon, a man without colour and without a soul controlling a global army of pawns. George Kennedy enjoys a more prominent role than usual as Ben Bowman, a mentor and confidant of sort for Hemlock. Jack Cassidy creates another enduring character as the exceedingly annoying Miles Mellough, a man aggravating enough that Hemlock has to weigh the pure pleasure of killing him against the crucial information that he may possess. Vonetta McGee as rookie agent Jemima exploits Hemlock's fondness for women but also becomes the only other foot solder who may develop a healthy distaste for Cold War bloodshed.

Miss Cerberus: I was expecting you before this. Mr. Dragon does not like to be kept waiting. 
Dr. Jonathan Hemlock: Oh, the impatient albino. 
Miss Cerberus: I don't think Mr. Dragon's affliction is a joking matter. 
Dr. Jonathan Hemlock: I thought it was rather humorous, myself. A spy network being run by a bloodless freak who can't stand light or cold. 

The Eiger Sanction is a thoughtful thriller with serious attitude and serious altitude, an overlooked peak in Eastwood's career.






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