Classic Film Review: Frankenheimer and Caine get lost chasing “The Holcroft Covenant”

One of the traps of this profession is leaning too hard into sweeping generalities. You can’t say “The Holcroft Covenant” is the “worst” film of John Frankenheimer’s career, a new low in a particularly low period for Michael Caine, or anything of the sort.

Because Frankenheimer went on to make “The Island of Doctor Moreau” and even took his name off a TV movie, opting for the mark of shame, “Alan Smithee,” as his credit instead.

And we all know about Caine missing his Big Moment at the Oscars because he was off filming “Jaws: The Revenge.”

“Holcroft” comes from that “Revenge” era in Caine’s “make sure the check clears” career. It’s like a parody of the espionage thrillers it never quite joins the ranks of. Nonsensical when it isn’t simply ridiculous, it makes poor use of Caine’s natural cool and menace, instead inviting him to joke and mock his way through a harebrained frequent flyer workout jetting hither and yon dodging unrepentant Nazis.

That was spy novelist Robert Ludlum’s thing before he settled into the deeper, more sinister and more cinematic conspiracy of the Jason Bourne books.

“Holfcroft” is about a big chunk of money a trio of suicide-pact Nazis set up in a Swiss bank at the end of WWII, money to be dispersed by their heirs at a date inexplicably set 40 years in the future.

Caine plays New York builder Noel Holfcroft, informed under sketchy circumstances that he’s to administer this trust, intended to “make amends” for the evils of the Nazi regime. His mother (Lilli Palmer) remarried and moved him abroad, far from the country of his birth and his German general’s birthname — Clausen. So Holfcroft isn’t easily convinced to get mixed up in this.

A Swiss banker, played by the estimable anchor of many a thriller’s supporting cast, Michael Lonsdale (“Ronin,” “Day of the Jackal”) breaks the news to a testy Holcroft, summoned to Geneva to be reminded his dad was a notorious Nazi.

But a barely-foiled murder attempt convinces him of the seriousness of this situation and the need to disperse this cash before it is put to evil purposes. He will meet with a mysterious German veteran (Richard Munch), and the siblings (Victoria Tennant of “L.A. Story” and Anthony Andrews of the TV version of “Brideshead Revisited”) who were the children of another member of the “covenant,” and the quite-sinister British agent (Bernard Hepton) watching and manipulating all this chicanery, perhaps for the purpose of setting a trap.

One hopes so, anyway, “But please, do not attempt anything too vividly cinematic.”

Caine, who dropped into this film after James Caan abruptly dropped out, seems wrong-footed from the start — pink and flustered and bleary-eyed (appropriate, as his character jets back and forth across the Atlantic and all over Europe).

His Noel Holcroft is the audience’s surrogate in many ways, commenting on this or that absurd situation, most of them bizarre choices for face-to-face meetings. A late night trot at an exclusive indoor riding academy for starters.

 “May I suggest, that it is extremely difficult for a man, in a gray flannel suit, to behave naturally while riding on a horse in the middle of the night, waiting for someone to shoot at you!”

Tennant’s character is ludicrously written, cartoonishly-played.

Only the legendary Palmer and the inscrutable Lonsdale acquit themselves with much honor in this.

Caine completists (like me) may want to check it out. But really, the ’80s and ’90s were so miss-and-hit-and-miss-again for him, you could almost skip from “Hannah and Her Sisters” to “Cider House Rules” and only lament the loss of “A Muppet Christmas Carol” among the lot.

Frankenheimer’s direction of “Holcroft” — BIG faces in the foreground of character-packed compositions were his “thing” — is so haphazard and plainly-frustrated that it’s no wonder we were all so thrown and dazzled over a decade later with his “comeback,” “Ronin,” one of the greatest espionage thrillers ever.

And Ludlum is luckiest of them all, a boilerplate genre novelist rescued from the remainders bin by a Matt Damon film series that, while it left him still far short of Graham Greene and John Le Carre’s standards, at least separated him from the legion of hacks who never got over Nazi conspiracy thrillers and are all but forgotten now. As indeed is “The Holfcroft Covenant,” one we’ll be sure to leave out of our Michael Caine tributes the day the man takes his final bow.

Rating: R, violence, sex, nudity, smoking, profanity

Cast: Michael Caine, Victoria Tennant, Anthony Andrews, Lilli Palmer, Bernard Hepton and Michael Lonsdale.

Credits: Directed by John Frankenheimer, scripted by George Axelrod and Edward Analt, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. A Universal release on Tubi, Amazon and other streamers

Running time: 1:52

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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