Director: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant, Mario Adorf, Michael Lonsdale, Bernard Hepton, Lilli Palmer
Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) is a man who grew up believing that his father – his real father, because his mother remarried when he was only eighteen months old – was a Nazi war criminal, who committed suicide as Berlin fell. Growing up, now in his forties, he has had nothing to do with his father’s world. Then out of the blue he receives a mysterious phone call from a Swiss banker named Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale). Before you know it Holcroft is in Geneva and meeting Manfredi on a ferry.
Holcroft, as he grew up outside Germany and would provide a more presentable face, was selected to be the chairman of the triumvirate, and he gets to chose where and when the money will be distributed. Initially Holcroft doesn’t want to be a part of his father’s legacy; that is until that he is told that he will be in charge of four and half billion dollars.
With that kind of money involved, Holcroft believes he could actually do some could, and despite whether his father’s motives were good or bad, he will have control of how the funds are dispersed, and he will make sure it is used for good. But only if it were that simple, eh?
The two other children of the covenant are Johann von Tiebolt (Anthony Andrews) who is a journalist, and Kessler’s son, Erich, is now a world famous musical conductor known as Jürgen Mass. Each of these men’s lives are now in serious danger as Neo-Nazis, MI6, and another secret society whose purpose seems to be to stop a Fourth Reich from rising, all want a hand in controlling the large amount of money. Also along for the rise, is von Tiebolt’s sister, Helden (Victoria Tennant). As well as providing the film’s love interest, she also acts as a guide, steering Noel through the maze of lies and deception.
I want to like The Holcroft Covenant because there’s a good little idea here. It’s not a particularly new idea, but it’s good – one of my favourite variations on a similar story is in the television series Mission Impossible; the season one episode The Legacy features Roland Hand (Martin Landau) in the Holcroft role, in Zurich tracking down a vast sum of money that is intended to launch the Fourth Reich. I am sure you can think of others. But The Holcroft Covenant is undone by an underlying sense of sleaze – and that is not just the scenes in Berlin, where Holcroft finds himself surrounded by deviant fringe dwellers. There also the very unusual relationship between Johann and Helden von Tiebolt. In some ways it may present an insight into their character – and this is definitely a film where no character is quite who they seem – but the way the characters are presented, it just seems ‘dirty’. I do not consider myself a cinematic prude. In fact as a spy film fan, I’d say I am an advocate for gratuitous sex and violence in movies, but this film has a sleazy tone which I find hard to get past, and depending on your taste in movies, you may considered that to be a plus or a minus for this film.
The fact that The Holcroft Covenant is a Golan/Globus ‘Canon’ feature may explain some of the aforementioned sleaze. But the film is also a John Frankenheimer film. Frankenheimer is a master storyteller. I still get blown away each time I watch The Manchurian Candidate (I, of course mean the 1962 version with Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey – not the Denzel Washington vehicle). He also helmed Seven Days In May (1964) and Ronin (1998). But with this film it seems like his finger is not on the pulse and only one or two brief scenes really capture any heart-pounding excitement.
Over Michael Caine’s long and varied career, he has made films that I consider masterpieces and others that fall at the opposite end of the scale (crap). The Holcroft Covenant sits just below the middle. It is not Caine’s grandest moment, but it is far from his worst too. And to be fair, under the circumstances in which he was hired – as a last minute replacement for an American actor who wasn’t cutting the mustard – Caine’s performance is extremely competent and professional.
Anthony Andrews as von Tiebolt is sadly underused for the first half of the film. He pops up as the calm voice of reason for a few scenes and then disappears; his place taken by his sister in the story, played by Victoria Tennant. Tennant is the weak link in the film with a performance that seems superficial on every level – much like her character?
At the end of the day, Michael Caine is such a dominant figure in spy films – possibly only second to Connery – that any spy film that he has made has to be considered essential viewing by spy enthusiasts. The sad fact though, is that they are not all good. I would not recommend The Jigsaw Man to anyone, but The Holcroft Covenant has just enough of the Caine magic that I think that it is worth a few hours of your time, despite any misgivings I may have about the tone of the film. It’s your choice.
Finally, as a bit of trivia for spy fans, Richard Münch who plays Herr Oberst in The Holcroft Covenant, played Mr. High, Jerry Cotton’s superior in the series of German Eurospy films from the sixties.