Week three of the vault’s In Memorium series focuses on the work of producer Richard D. Zanuck who passed away two months ago. Zanuck is responsible for such classics as Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy. His more recent memorable films include Road to Perdition, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd. His career featured many movies to choose from, but when I saw he was executive producer on one of the few Clint Eastwood films I’d never seen, I had the perfect selection.
Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a man of many talents; art professor, collector of black market masterpieces, accomplished mountaineer, and retired assassin. Hemlock is content lecturing to lascivious young coeds, but his old employer C2, a secret government agency headed by Mr. Dragon (Thayer David), insists he return for two more sanctions, or hits. Dragon convinces Hemlock to return by first leveraging his illegal art collection then by playing on his sympathies for a fellow assassin and close friend. For his second hit, the “Eiger Sanction,” Hemlock must train with his old buddy Ben Bowman (George Kennedy). Bowman is also the ground man for the impending north face Eiger climb. Replacing the team’s American climber, Hemlock joins three other mountaineers, Freytag (Reiner Schöne), Meyer (Michael Grimm), and Montaigne (Jean-Pierre Bernard), any one of which could be the killer he seeks.
Eastwood not only starred as the hero of The Eiger Sanction, but also directed this adaptation of the novel of the same name. At the time of its release, Sanction was panned for a variety of reasons, one being Hemlock was little more than a James Bond reject. As someone who’s an avid Bond fan, I recognize the similarities. He doesn’t have all the nifty gadgets, but Hemlock is always quick with a witty retort, he’s equally good with a gun or in hand-to-hand, his work takes him to exotic locales, and he often succumbs to his lechery. He even has a drink of choice, Wild Turkey on the rocks, which is well-known by both friends and enemies. I’m not sure what folks’ problems were since these are all reasons why I enjoyed The Eiger Sanction.
Sure it riffs on Bond at times, but it’s also Clint doing what Clint does best; kicking ass, taking names, and dominating the screen. Sharing that spotlight is George Kennedy whooping it up as the rowdy friend who’s genuinely concerned for Hemlock’s safety. There’s also Vonetta McGee who portrays, I shit you not, Jemima Brown, a relatively new C2 agent and Hemlock’s love interest. Sanction does lack in the angle of mystery that makes Bond movies so great. The thing is though, Hemlock is an assassin, not a spy, so the mystery doesn’t matter nearly as much as his mark and the quirky characters like the treacherous Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy), the sexy and silent trainer, George (Brenda Venus), and the agency douchebag, Pope (Gregory Walcott), that stand in his way of completing the job.
Far more impressive than Clint’s Hemlock or the plot is the astounding cinematography. From Zurich to the Swiss Alps to the plateaus of Arizona, Sanction has a real sense of place. Director of photography Frank Stanley’s camera work coupled with Eastwood doing all his own climbing stunts and accompanied by the stylish John Williams’ score, creates some thrilling and breathtaking moments. The scene with Kennedy and Eastwood atop the “Totem Pole” in Arizona is phenomenal, especially when it’s so easy nowadays to simply green screen such a scene.
The Eiger Sanction has its share of flaws as well, slow pacing to name one, but it’s a film I am glad to have finally watched. It’s also one I intend to happily watch again.