The Internecine Project
Kino Lorber Classics
1974 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date January 3, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: James Coburn, Lee Grant, Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry, Michael Jayston, Christiane Krüger, Keenan Wynn, Julian Glover.
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Film Editor: John Shirley
Original Music: Roy Budd
Written by: Barry Levinson, Jonathan Lynn from a book by Mort W. Elkind
Produced by: Barry Levinson
Directed by Ken Hughes
Don’t let the ugly Italian poster art on the disc box throw you — The Internecine Project is a clever plot-driven murder tale in an espionage vein that gathers a string of B+ stars from the early 1970s for ninety minutes of suspense. It’s not the kind of suspense that makes you wonder what’s going to happen next, but the kind that points to a finish that we know will employ a big surprise, a killer-diller last-minute twist. Or three.
The film is an English production from a year when the once-thriving Brit industry seemed simply to have evaporated. Even when someone made a clever crime thriller like 1969’s Perfect Friday, the distribution just wasn’t there to push it. A cult favorite from this period that was rediscovered a few years later is British Lion’s The Wicker Man.
Why is the movie obscure? The lousy title is one reason. I checked on the definition just last night, and now I couldn’t tell you what it means. I guess it was invented for lofty folk to avoid using words like Bloody and Slaughter. I think the average person will think ‘internecine’ is the name of a drug. It’s not Internicide, which Bill Clinton surely thought about committing, around 1998.
Both definitions of the word relate to this Ken Hughes- directed thriller. Suave Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is a respected economist but also the ringleader of a small group of spy operatives in London, who follow his instructions without question, no matter what laws are being broken. Elliot works freelance and is a frequent vendor to corporate bigwig E.J. Farnsworth (Keenan Wynn), helping the executive with dirty intelligence jobs. Elliot and Farnsworth are irritated by the reportage of journalist Jean Robertson (Lee Grant). She would like nothing more than to discredit them both as greedy and corrupt — but she’s also in love with Robert. Farnsworth has managed to nominate Elliot to the job of top economic advisor to the President, which would put them in a position of enormous power. But first Elliot needs to eliminate the four members of his intelligence team, so as to leave nobody alive who can reveal his secret criminal activities. Being a diabolical mastermind, Robert Elliot hatches a plan to kill all four of his associates in one night, in different parts of London, all at the same time – without even leaving his swank apartment.
The entire third act of the The Internecine Project presents Elliot’s quadruple murder scheme, which plays out mostly in silence as we watch all four of his operatives going about their deadly business. Elliot persuades or blackmails each of these trusting associates into killing one of the others. Nervous Alex Hellman (Ian Hendry) is the most cowardly of the bunch, while scientist David Baker (Michael Jayston) takes the bait as soon as he realizes that his affluent lifestyle is in jeopardy. Call girl Christina Larsson (Christiane Krüger) is amenable to her given task, and masseur Albert Parsons (Harry Andrews) volunteers to kill a supposed ‘security risk’ without having to be asked. None of these people know each other, and of course none realizes that they are a target as well as a killer.
It all boils down to a rather clever murder caper. Elliot instructs each agent to call him at each step of their mission, so he can track their progress from his den. Two of the killings will look like random homicides, one will be a medical fatality and another an apparent accident with an experimental weapon (David Baker concocts exotic killing mechanisms for the government, and sells them out the back door to Elliot). In an interview extra on the disc, the film’s screenwriter likens this half-hour of clockwork mayhem to the famous silent robbery scene from Rififi. Although nowhere near as good as that, the sequence does hold our interest very tightly. One thing that seems a mistake is that Elliot and his agents all keep complicated schedules, down to ten-minute intervals, as to the timing of their actions so each is in their appointed place for Elliot’s ultimate God Game. Should a shrewd Scotland Yard whiz obtain one of those paper schedules, he could compare it with a phone call record, and reconstruct Elliot’s evil plan.
The Internecine Project begins with a burst of Roy Budd ‘spy’ music reminiscent of The Third Man or The Ipcress File. As a shaggy dog story it bears some resemblance to James Coburn’s more elaborate and more sophisticated heist picture Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. Film noir adepts will also see a relationship between this film and Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, at least at the conceptual level. Gregory Arkadin hires an ambitious young fool to help him ‘erase’ his unsavory past, while Robert Elliot is more of a do-it-yourself kind of guy.
The tension builds as Robert Elliot’s plan apparently goes off without a hitch — in a standard caper, what happens when things go wrong is what makes or breaks the story. Then Alex Hellman gets cold feet en route to his murder rendezvous, and Robert suddenly has Jean Robertson at his door begging to be assured that he loves her. The film’s pace is slow enough that we have plenty of time to figure out at least three possible twists to the story — although the ending is sure to be a surprise. It’s also time for us to wonder if Scotland Yard can link the simultaneous murders together, and perhaps connect up the killers-victims to their puppet master. The diabolical Elliot certainly seems to spend enough time with all four to pop up in an investigation. If anything goes wanting in Internecine, it’s more depth to Coburn’s characterization. A spymaster as sneaky and ruthless as Elliot should either be a nastier person… or so sociopathically likeable that he’d be electable to public office, the kind of guy who would brag about being immune to prosecution, even if he shot someone on a public street.
The Internecine Project must have been an economical shoot. The actors appear with Coburn one at a time, and then are seen mostly in shots that could have been filmed by a second unit, from a storyboard. Reviewers have already noted that Coburn spends the second half of the movie sitting around listening for the telephone, which is quite an accomplishment considering the suspense that’s generated. Most of the roles are underwritten, with the great Michael Jayston (Nicholas and Alexandra, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Zulu Dawn) convincing us that there’s more to his character than what we see. Lee Grant is fine in a somewhat miscast role — the actress projects too much independence and grit to convincingly play a woman at the mercy of her own emotions. Ian Hendry has a fine failure of nerve, and Harry Andrews is enjoyably over-ripe as a misogynistic brute. When Andrews attacks (Top, big photo) he reminds us of Rondo Hatton’s The Creeper. Keenan Wynn walks through his brief part. Perhaps cast for German audiences, Christiane Krüger also has little to do but act seductive and play the victim in a Psycho– like shower scene.
The movie can boast top rank English tech talent, with Geoffrey Unsworth on camera and other respected names like David Bracknell and Peter MacDonald in the credits. The cinematography is professional but director Ken Hughes arranges his scenes simply and goes for no particular stylistic touches. One gag is so dated, it almost throws off the film’s tone. Hughes freezes on each of the characters for an ID check, as in the old TV show Mission: Impossible. The gimmick comes complete with a mug shot file picture for each of the four operatives. [We also have to ask, if some law enforcement body keeps these files, the job of tracing the murders to Elliot is halfway done.] If you like clever murder thrillers, The Internecine Project is a good example from the 1970s. It’s not a classic, and in terms of ambition it aims rather low, but it works perfectly well.
The Kino Lorber Classics Blu-ray of The Internecine Project is a good HD transfer of this not-well-known thriller. The disc looks and sounds fine, an improvement over the rather grainy DVD. The synchronization is perfect, fixing the issues that Kino was having three or so years ago. Retained from the earlier disc is a very good, if overlong, interview with screenwriter Jonathan Lynn. He talks about this early credit in his career and what it was like to work for Barry Levinson. The Coburn character was originally planned to be Russian or German, an idea that was dropped early on. Lynn says that the original story was more political, but the message here is political enough: large corporations capable of hiring private ‘security’ firms are now more powerful than government agents acting within the law.
An original trailer is included as well.
Internecine also establishes an odd ‘first’ for Savant — I just watched it all the way through not knowing that I had seen and reviewed it just six years before, on DVD from Scorpion. Mother of Mercy, is this is the end of Savant? — previously, I’ve always been acutely aware of EVERY film I’ve seen, and can’t imagine forgetting about one completely.
I’ll ready my reservation at the funny farm, in case I lose it completely. If the worst happens, just put Major Dundee on in a loop, and bring on the chocolate chip cookies. I’ll be fine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Internecine Project Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with Screenwriter Jonathan Lynn, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson