This movie is sexist, homophobic and probably racist, in other words it is a politically incorrect entertainment from the 1970s. It is not that being these things makes the movie a blast, but it does add to the sense of time and place, and the characters don’t have to be apologetic for simply being humans with a perspective based on the times. There are a few laughs that come out of the socially charged dialogue and characters, no one is going to be hurt by any of it and people should take it for what it is. The first time I remember homosexuals being parodied for a joke in a movie was in the 1971 James Bond film, Diamonds are Forever. This is another spy film from the times that mines some of the same stereotypes for comic relief and for character development. The scene where Clint speaks in an effeminate voice with a slight lisp, to throw off the bad guys lookout is clever and funny and today would result in a boycott march in front of theaters where the movie was playing. It gets even more blatant with the appearance of a black character named Jemima. The pancake jokes and ethnic references abound thereafter. Another character is a silent Native American woman, who also evokes some ethnic humor, again not at the expense of the character, but in the way that people might kid each other about being tall or from New York. Nowadays, you don’t find many screenwriters willing to take that gamble, and there are not many major actors that would be able to get away with it. If you have seen “Gran Torino”, you know Clint is one of those with the cache to carry it off even today.
At the height of his seventies stardom, Clint casts himself as the sexy art professor who is also a reluctant assassin. I was joking with my family today that the most frequent occupation of a person in a movie these days is assassin. We have had Ashton Kutcher in “Killers”, George Clooney in “The American”, and Ray Winstone in “Edge of Darkness” in just the last few months. Throw in Uma Thurman, Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis and a dozen others from the past and you can see that it is a thriving profession. Which seems strange since the big payoff in 1975 dollars for a “sanction” was only $10,000. Hardly enough to draw in all these world class killers. I don’t know exactly where the trend of making your protagonist a paid assassin began, but Clint mines it very effectively in this movie. There is some moralizing to go along with his actions, today, that would be unnecessary because Morgan Freeman would recruit you to kill others for a higher purpose and you’d get to sleep with Angelina Jolie as a perk. It is an overused plot line, but it was still pretty fresh in the 1970s, when you could believe someone like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood killed people for money and spent their profits on art and music. Here he is Johnathon Hemlock, art professor and mountain climber as well as well heeled killer. He is given a job to do that requires him to kill a spy while climbing a treacherous mountain. We are unsure as he is of which of the other climbers is the target. There is an hour and twenty minute set up of the spy plot and potential intrigue to come before we actually get to the mountain.
While watching the training scene, Allison said she thought Clint was bad-ass enough to actually be doing the climbing. There is one peak set in Monument Valley that looked especially hard. I pooh poohed the idea, but the production notes on the DVD claim that Clint did do the climb himself. He appears to have become a proficient climber for this movie. Whether this is just production hype or the truth, it is clear that all of the climbing done on screen is real, and the vistas are spectacular. No CGI or inside sets substituting for mountain scenes. It is clearly done on location. The mountain climbing itself is plenty suspenseful, but when you add in the spy plot elements the film crackles just a little more. This is the kind of movie that would justify an Academy Award for stunts. By the way, you know you are in the climactic mountain climbing section, when it opens with a shot of Clint, staring at the Eiger, with camera moves stolen right out of “The Sound of Music”. Who else could get away with cribbing a musical starring Julie Andrews for a spy movie? I am sure I saw a similar death scene in other films, but this features a bit where a bad guy gets left in the middle of the desert to die slowly,”Quantum of Solace” uses the same tool to suggest a gruesome end to the villain. One other side note, Universal Studios Tour, had an attraction for years that was an ice-cave that rotated 360 degrees as the tram passed through it. It was re-purposed several times but my memory was that it was originally presented as an “Eiger Sanction” feature on the tour. I’m going to look around and see if I can find any info on that.
John William tossed off this score the same year that Jaws was his big hit. It is of course Jazz inflected since it is an Eastwood directed picture. There is nothing particularly memorable about it except that it kept reminding me of a Dirty Harry picture. George Kennedy hams it up as much as Clint does as his buddy who trains him and coincidentally is the ground man for the climb. Thayer David plays the head of the agency that Clint is working for, and he is supposed to be an albino, how he got to that position is never explained, it just seems that the writers were trying to outdo Bond in outlandishness. I spent a bit of time trying to recall where I knew him from. Under the make up and red lights, was a familiar face and voice. I checked and he worked a lot in television and movies up till his death in 1978, but the movie I know I remembered him from was “Rocky”. He played the fight promoter than puts Rocky in the ring with Apollo Creed. There were some actresses that were featured as the equivalent of “Bond Girls”, but none of them made much of an impression. They were pretty and adequate actresses but their parts basically required them to find Hemlock irresistible.
This opened early enough in the summer of 1975 that it is likely I saw it with my buddy Art before he went into the army. We did go down to Hollywood to see a movie and he drove, it probably was this film we saw. I remember the night he drove however because as he was going up Cherokee and turning on Franklin, he almost creamed a pedestrian while driving us in his Mom’s VW bus. It would have been a disaster if I had not yelled after seeing the person in the corner of my eye come out of a blind spot in the dark. We were like most kids still are, loyal to a star that we liked so we saw most of the Eastwood pictures. This must be the sixth or seventh on my summer list. I have one more to do before the summer ends. This may be the only non-western that Clint did in the summer queue of films I’m working on. Not the most memorable but it was plenty of fun and the climbing scenes were excellent. If you have a hard time with the scenario, skip it, but if an albino spy master, sexy mute Indians, a black woman named Jemima, and a mountain climbing assassin interest you, then this is right up your alley.