Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
THE EIGER SANCTION. Universal Pictures, 1975. Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McKee, Thayer David, Jack Cassidy, Heidi Brul. Screenplay by Hal Dresher, Warren B. Murphy, and Rod Whitkaker based on the latter’s novel as Trevanian. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
On paper this sounds like a dream project; in reality it is a total mishmash, devoid of suspense or much in the way of humanity, and famously hated by its own writer, University of Texas professor Rod Whitaker writing as Trevanian who actually worked on the screenplay, to the point he wrote a footnote complaining about it in his bestselling novel Shibumi. To add insult to injury, it was a critical and box office failure that pleased no one watching it or involved in making it, and cost a man his life.
Ironically the film is almost slavishly faithful to the plot of the novel it is based on, about art professor Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood), a freelance government assassin who kills to pay for additions to his art collection under the aegis of a loathsome albino government functionary called Dragon (Thayer David). In Sanction he is given the commission to kill a traitor who will be one of the members on an attempt to climb the notorious north face of the Eiger in Switzerland, a job Hemlock as a world class Alpinist is ideally suited for, having been the only survivor of an earlier unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit.
Although it comes late in the 60s and 70s spy craze, it was based on a huge bestseller, had a popular star and gifted director, and the screenwriters included the author as well as Destroyer co-creator and suspense novelist Warren B. Murphy (who died only recently). There is even a score by John Williams.
None of that mattered.
The film falls flat on Clint Eastwood’s deadpan face.
First there is the matter of casting, and it is a major problem. Whatever his gifts, George Kennedy was not subtle on screen and even though his role as Hemlock’s friend and trainer would seem ideal for him, he plays it so heavy-handedly that he kills every word of dialogue he speaks. Then add Jack Cassidy as a murderous homosexual played just to the right of outright camp, and Vonetta McKee and Heidi Brul as the least attractive and appealing female leads you can imagine — in a film where their roles could have been written out entirely without harming the plot — and you have a huge chunk of the problem.
Then there is Clint Eastwood himself.
Eastwood is a man of rare talent and taste, but the role of Jonathan Hemlock was created with Paul Newman in mind, and at this point in his career Eastwood’s skills as a director and an actor simply were not up to the role of an existentialist Nietzschean with a nihilist streak who kills so he can possess art he feels is too good to be viewed by an unappreciative public. The role desperately needs an actor whose face could give humanity to the cold and unappealing character, not Eastwood whose youthful face made Rushmore look expressive. No one was willing to accept him in that role, and he himself seems deeply uncomfortable playing it.
He may have seen Hemlock as another of his cool headed killers like the man with no name and Harry Callahan, but that isn’t who the character was, and Eastwood’s wrongheaded casting of himself is made worse by his own direction, which lacks any real suspense, with the mountain climbing sequences the only moments the film even vaguely breathes.
There is also a bit of irony, that which was chillingly bitter in the novel just seems callous and psychotic on the screen.
My sympathy is with Professor Whitaker on this one and that footnote I mentioned earlier in Shibumi on this one. It is a flat film that never engages the viewer, marred by not one but five major bits of miscasting and weak direction, and a diffuse script that never becomes cohesive on film. It may well be the worst film of Eastwood’s distinguished career. It is somehow galling if not intolerable that someone actually died to get this film made. I suppose it would not really be more meaningful if it had been a better movie or a good movie, but that the film is this bad and cost a man’s life is somehow even worse.