Monday, February 11, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Eiger Sanction" (1975)


Watching "The Eiger Sanction," I haven't been this embarassed for Clint Eastwood since the chair speech at last year's GOP convention.

This 1975 spy thriller is like a time capsule of every misogynistic, racist and fascist impulse going around the country at the time, an ego buffer for a big movie star. It's the sort of picture where every single female the protagonist encounters wants to sleep with him, and all the male characters are opponents who must be defeated and/or sexually humiliated.

It's like two hours and nine minutes of gooey testosterone slathered across the screen.

In 1975, Eastwood was already 45 years old. He was an established star who didn't break out until his mid- to late 30s -- a pretty common phenomenon in Hollywood. (See Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, etc.) He'd already been an iconic Western gunman and brutal cop Dirty Harry, and was starting to direct his own pictures. I wasn't very familiar with this section of his oeuvre, and thought I'd take a peek.

"The Eiger Sanction" was his fourth stint behind the camera and, I hope, his worst.

The screenplay by Hal Dresner, Warren Murphy and Rod Whitaker was based on the novel by Trevanian, Whitaker's pen name. It involves a college professor/art collector/mountain climber/assassin by the name of Jonathan Hemlock -- which must represent some sort of pinnacle (or nadir) for Ridiculously Conceived Fiction Characters With Even More Ridiculous Names.

It seems that, at the ripe old age of 35, Hemlock has retired from a storied career climbing mountains to teach art at the local university, where he's hit on by an endless stream of co-eds who are willing to trade favors for better grades or whatnot. On the side he buys up famous paintings by Matisse and Pissarro off the black market for $10,000 a pop, which is a pretty good discount even nigh on 40 years ago.

It also seems Dr. Hemlock is a dual retiree, having hung up his wetboy credentials for C-2, a mysterious quasi-government agency headed by a man named Dragon (Thayer David), who is a "pure" albino who can't abide any light whatsoever and must have his entire bodily supply of blood replaced every six months. His number two is Pope (Gregory Walcott), a clownish creep who's always smiling at the wrong things and spouting hateful insults, preferably against blacks and women.

Hemlock is arm-twisted into performing two last "sanctions," or assassinations. He's convinced to do so because these men killed an old spy friend of his, plus the $20,000 he's getting paid. (I guess spies, like paintings, went for a lot cheaper back then -- even adjusted for inflation, that's only about 85 grand.)

The first hit is carried out relatively painlessly, a standard fight scene in a European hotel that ends with some guy taking a short walk out a tall window. What's interesting about it is that Hemlock pretends to be a swishy deliveryman -- if you ever wanted to hear Eastwood do a coquettish accent, here it is -- to scope out the place. Then he goes outside, daringly climbs a drain pipe to an apartment window next door, so that he can then ... walk through the exact same door he just knocked on.

Somewhere in here, Hemlock gets seduced by another C-2 agent named Jemima Brown, which immediately knocks Jonathan Hemlock down a peg on the Ridiculously Named Characters list. Vonetta McGee as Jemima is one of the film's few high points, drawing some real sparks in her scenes with Eastwood. Jemima beds him and then betrays him, but reappears in the final act to cheer him on.

Also showing up is Jack Cassidy as Miles Mellough, an old Hemlock chum-turned-traitor who helped sell out the dead spy friend. Even for 1975 Miles is an egregious homosexual caricature, right down to wearing a reflective shirt unbottoned down to his navel, and carrying around a little frou-frou dog named, I am not making this up, Faggot. Hemlock seems to take a special delight in taking Miles out.

This brings us to the finale of "The Eiger Sanction," the inspiration for its title and the only reason I'm not giving this giant turd one star.

It seems that C-2 can't pinpoint the other killer, other than he's a member of an international team of mountain climbers set to tackle the north face of the Eiger -- one of the most notoriously hard climbs in the world. The idea is to slip Hemlock onto the team, let him figure out who the killer is, and then take him out, making it look like an accident.

Now, think about that for a second. How could a spy agency know the killer was a member of the climbing team, but not know which one? There's only three other guys besides Hemlock, so it's not like they have to investigate an entire troop of suspects. One of the story's many problems is that the spooks, from Dragon on down to Hemlock, seem to be absurdly ineffective at their spycraft.

The mountain climbing scenes are pretty spectacular, featuring some gorgeous cinematography and a few harrowing sequences. "The Eiger Sanction" was one of few Hollywood films before 1980 to depict mountain climbing -- 1956's "The Mountain" with Robert Wagner and Spencer Tracy being one of the rare exceptions. It became something of a fad in the late 1980s and '90s, mostly in awful thrillers just like "Eiger."

I'm just glad Clint Eastwood survived the early, tawdry portion of his career behind the camera long enough to learn better.

1.5 stars out of four


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