A strange conspiracy film that is not exactly a top-shelf paranoia pot-boiler, but fun to watch anyway. The story is muddled beyond comprehension, which is no doubt the point, and oddly mixes the 1967 Edgar Wallace film “Der Mönch Mit Der Peitsche” (The Monk with the Whip) with Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” – to surprisingly less credible effect (in both cases).
This 1977 film – from former actor Adam Kennedy’s 1975 novel – looks and feels anachronistic in every respect. It’s over-lit, like a 1960s Technicolor film (emphasizing that such dark deeds all happen in broad daylight), and its Carter-era origins suggest a time when Americans – and filmgoers and film studios – were exasperated with this sort of thing and no longer believed such conspiracies could exist (even though the House Select Committee on Assassinations was convened the year before).
In the age of “The Conversation,” “Night Moves” and “Taxi Driver,” “The Domino Principle” feels hackneyed (the opening montage isn’t as scary as it is silly – like one of those ephemeral films from the fifties), cliched (the constant Kafka references are pedantic in the extreme) and, frankly, so overcooked and underwhelming as to be unbelievable.
Who organizes all this and, more importantly, who pays for it all? How come everyone has a ready rifle, handy getaway cars and loads of briefcase bombs? We don’t even know who the assassination target is, which, of course, suggests that anyone can be killed (duh), but also doesn’t give the audience much of a chance to get concerned about whatever’s going on. Director Stanley Kramer, who directed more than a few big-budget hits in the fifties and sixties, just doesn’t seem to have a feel for the story he’s telling here and seems unable to connect with a seventies audience. The result feels like an overpriced and overlong episode of a TV show.
Even Gene Hackman seems out of place, like he wandered into some Clint Eastwood movie. Apparently, he turned down several very important roles in much more memorable films just to do this one. Still, it is only Hackman who delivers a compelling performance. Richard Widmark seems competent enough in his underwritten part, though he doesn’t have the handler’s necessary tension of promise and threat or hope and menace (think of Richard Boone, Cliff Robertson or even Donald Sutherland).
Edward Albert (in his first bad-guy role!) is always fun to watch, but he, Ken Swofford, Candice Bergen and Mickey Rooney all seem to think they’re in some other kind of movie, perhaps a (black) comic conspiracy like “Winter Kills,” the 1974 novel that had been two-thirds filmed by 1976, but not released until 1979. It would have been better if it were played for laughs. But, here, you get into San Quentin and see real prisoners – and the Costa Rica scenes are all nicely shot. The aerial scenes are all impressive and it looks like Hackman did his own stunt work.
As it is, you may well lose all patience two-thirds of the way in, but you’ll probably wait it out until the bitter but far too predictable end. Like all wrecks, you can’t help but watch. And this is one slick wreck of a movie.