Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) doesn't know how to use a gun when The Holcroft Covenant begins. By the film's conclusion, not only can he hold one with the kind of cool poise expected of spy heroes, but he's also sharp with pistol disassembly and reassembly. This education dovetails with a plot that finds Holcroft, an honest New Yorker in the commercial construction business, becoming the victim of a transnational terror scheme and ultimately learning enough about it to singlehandedly upend its fulfillment of a prospective Fourth Reich. The year is 1985 (“Now,” as a title urgently informs us), a time in which the United States was still using counterintelligence to sniff out Soviet influence. Yet director John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod look at espionage and find the very concept a destructive breach of privacy and a route to anarchy, something for which active resistance—in this case, prowess with a firearm—must come into play.
World War II may have been formally terminated long prior to The Holcroft Covenant's contemporary world, but Frankenheimer suggests its evils are still very much alive and well. The film opens on a simulacrum of an Old Hollywood war picture, with “Berlin, 1945” evoked in black-and-white images of archival combat and behind-the-front-lines negotiation. Three Nazi officers silently seal up a mysterious document and proceed to blow their brains out, at which point the film leaps ahead to a color-soaked Big Apple, where Holcroft will soon receive an unanticipated call from a Swiss banker requesting his presence in Geneva for matters of considerable importance. (Terse, laconic issuances over phone lines of rather uneconomical requests are common throughout the film, and Caine, with his naïve-everyman disposition, does a decent job of making unsound decisions seem like necessary steps toward a perceived greater good.)
Holcroft beelines to Switzerland and the film swiftly adopts the paranoid atmosphere of Cold War picture. The scheduled meeting between Holcroft and high-profile banker Ernst Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale) takes place aboard a ferry at a crowded port, and Frankenheimer shoots the whole conversation, which starts at an inconspicuous dining table and moves to the open air of the boat's bottom deck, in crystalline deep focus so that we can see menacing onlookers (spies with as-yet-unknown motives) strategically planted in the background. Also unmistakable is the public activity around the harbor, the festivities of the yachters and the preparations of the boating crews. The crowding of stimuli sets up an essential tension that Frankenheimer visually exploits throughout: the unwelcome place of high-stakes big business in the public sphere, and the ways in which the reckless activities of those above the law intrude upon innocent lives.
Manfredi's news involves a sum of 4.5 billion dollars handed down by Holcroft's father, one of the officers seen in the film's prelude and a man from whom Holcroft has proudly distanced himself, with the alleged intention of being used to fund reparations for German atrocities. Holcroft is startled to learn that he must be the primary signee and inheritor, but before any sense of humanitarian duty can take hold, various special interests intervene. World-class hitmen are set to work, mysterious deaths occur, and more impromptu continent hopping is ordered of Holcroft via telephone. “Very serious people” must be met—first Helden von Tiebolt (Victoria Tennant), the co-inheritor daughter of one of the other Nazi officers seen in the 1945 segment, then Oberst (Richard Münch), a wheelchair-bound mansion owner with an interest in the money's use, and then still many more stoic professionals with unclear affiliations and sympathies.
As the plot thickens, the action diverts to London and Berlin with stops back in the U.S. and Switzerland along the way, but the geographical separations prove illusory. Frankenheimer sees everywhere as belonging to the same canted-angle danger zone, a place where information is as sensitive in seeming safe havens like churches and community parades as it is behind locked doors and at gunpoint (though, in a few flubs, the characters communicate loudly in wide open spaces as if having forgotten their obligations to secrecy). At one point, Holcroft and von Tiebolt are in an auditorium for a meeting with the third heir to the royalties, Erich Kessler (Mario Adorf), who's been undercover as distinguished composer Jürgen Mass. As Holcroft begins disclosing his knowledge of the contract, Frankenheimer cuts to a slow lateral dolly shot high up in the rafters above them, reinforcing a suspicion of eavesdropping eyes that lingers over every one of the film's high-pressure exchanges.
Off-balance compositions, hard directional lighting, and extreme or uncanny perspectives are all hallmarks in the lexicon of '60s-era paranoid thrillers; Frankenheimer's ploy is to gradually over-crank these elements until the film enters the realm of psychological horror. Hysteria—aesthetic and narrative—peaks in a chase sequence triggered by von Tiebolt's kidnapping in the middle of a Berlin red-light district, where Holcroft, sprinting through a nighttime maze of neon-lit debauchery and urban scum, is able to locate his target, fire a bullet clean between his eyes, rescue the woman with whom he's falling in love, and subsequently have sex with her in an expressionistically lit hotel room. For all its cathartic heroics, however, there's something off about the scene, an ironic distance presented through the flashy, heightened technique that seems to mourn Holcroft's increasing personal involvement in the quagmire even amid the glorification of the rescue.
Commander Leighton (Bernard Hepton), one of the special agents tailing Holcroft, summarizes the feeling dredged up by this scene shortly after: “Do not attempt anything too vividly cinematic,” he urges the protagonist in a moment of high tension, though of course the previously inexperienced American already has. In The Holcroft Covenant, the “vividly cinematic” leads to psychological torment. Frankenheimer finds his main character at a point where he's been emptied of his original identity and reconstructed as a grieving action hero, a victim of a world in which dangerous networks of capital, power, and access undergird daily life. With his gun Holcroft can stop them, but not without inadvertently getting his existence ruined.
Whispering is common in The Holcroft Covenant's intel-sensitive world, but unfortunately all the exposition delivered at this level requires some proactive volume adjustment to comprehend. The mix here has the kind of loud-soft dynamics appropriate more for a theater than a living room, and it becomes detrimental to the experience because of how crucial the film's dialogue is to full understanding. Fortunately, the images are given equal weight by John Frankenheimer in the film's emotional and thematic design, and the digital scan here is bright, sharp, and contrasty without sacrificing celluloid texture.
Frankenheimer's commentary is a fairly typical director's track: one that downplays higher intentions, expresses reverence for actors at every opportunity, and dwells on practical production details. When it comes to isolated aesthetic gestures, Frankenheimer's common refrain is a variation on "It seemed a good way to do this" or "It was the best thing I could come up with." Such excessive modesty can be unsatisfying, but it's still interesting to hear the director recall the logistics behind some of the film's more complicated action setups. The rest of the disc is filled up with trailers for other Frankenheimer films and Michael Caine vehicles.
Nothing much to write home about here in the home-video department, but The Holcroft Covenant, a political thriller from director John Frankenheimer's spotty late period, is a much richer film than its reputation implies.