An all-star cast in an Eric Ambler adaptation!
vt Burn Out
Canada / 95 minutes / color / New World, IFD Dir: Daniel Mann Pr & Scr: Trevor Wallace Story: Journey into Fear (1940) by Eric Ambler Cine: Harry Waxman Cast: Sam Waterston, Zero Mostel, Yvette Mimieux, Scott Marlowe, Ian McShane, Joseph Wiseman, Shelley Winters, Stanley Holloway, Donald Pleasence, Vincent Price, Alicia Ammon, Michael Collins.
Ambler’s novel was earlier and far more famously filmed as Journey into Fear (1943) dir Norman Foster (plus uncredited directorial assistance from Orson Welles), with Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio, Orson Welles, Ruth Warrick, Jack Moss and Agnes Moorehead. (Also, in 1956 the TV series Climax! made an hour-long episode out of the novel, and in 1966 a single episode was produced, “Seller’s Market,” of an intended TV series, Journey into Fear, using the character of Dr. Howard Graham and some of the novel’s ideas.)
This 1975 remake shifts the time to the present—i.e., the mid-1970s—and now, rather than an engineer who’s learned Nazi armaments secrets, our hero, Howard Graham (Waterston), is a geologist who’s discovered, somewhere in the mountains neat the Turkey/Iran border, something (it’s never specified what) of use to oil companies. For some reason this makes him a target for international terrorists.
We first meet him as he and his driver are careering down a mountain dirt-track, their brakes having failed (we assume they’ve been cut). The driver shoves Howard out of the vehicle and moments later flies off a cliff.
Howard makes his way to civilization, where he catches a train to Istanbul. Aboard that train there’s another attempt to kill him. Two men in the guise of Greek Orthodox priests spot where he’s sitting, sneak into the next compartment, which is empty, and drive a spike through the partition into his back . . . or in fact into the back of the sweet old lady (Ammon) with whom he has just changed places.
Kopelkin (Zero Mostel) is keen to treat Graham (Sam Waterston) to an evening of girls, girls, booze, girls . . .
Puzzled that his companion has fallen oddly still, Howard reaches Istanbul, where he’s met by company representative Kopelkin (Mostel). Kopelkin takes him out on the town, introducing him to nightclub chanteuse Josette Martel (Mimieux); Howard and Josette take a shine to each other, and arrange to meet in Paris, where he’ll stop over between flights en route to New York and where she has gigs to fulfill.
The lovely Josette (Yvette Mimieux) catches Graham’s eye.
Back at his hotel, someone takes a potshot at him as he opens the door to his darkened bedroom. Howard is keen to pass this off as being just that he startled a prowler, but Kopelkin treats the incident far more seriously—as, more to the point, does Colonel Haki (Wiseman) of the Military Police. Haki tells Howard there’s already one hitman in Istanbul, Møller, who has instructions to kill him. Quite why Møller has been so unsuccessful in his previous attempts is something Haki doesn’t understand. Whatever the case, Haki is going to have Howard securely escorted onto a direct flight to New York the following morning. No arguments. No rendezvous with the lissome Josette in Paris.
At first Graham (Sam Waterston) tries to brush off all the assassination attempts as mere coincidence . . .
. . . Colonel Haki (Joseph Wiseman) knows better.
At the airport, though, a gang of terrorists, led by Banat (McShane), attacks the boarding passengers and the military escort. Foiled, Haki now puts Howard aboard an ageing tramp steamer that’ll potter around the Med before depositing him in Genoa, whence he can make his way incognito to Paris. Aboard that ship Howard encounters:
- Bert Mathews (Holloway) and his shrewish, bigoted wife (Winters);
- a tobacco salesman called Kuvetli (Pleasence), about whom our suspicions are soon aroused because he doesn’t himself smoke and the company he supposedly represents seems not to exist (“We’re very exclusive” is all he can offer by way of explanation);
Is Kuvetli (Donald Pleasence) more than he seems?
- a suave Persian archaeologist, Dervos (Price), who chatters interestingly to Howard at the supper table after Mrs. Mathews refuses to sit next to him because he’s an Arab;
The scholarly archaeologist Dervos (Vincent Price).
- and, surprise surprise, Josette, who was going to go to Paris by train but has inexplicably changed her plans because she is, oo la la, French and female;
- plus Josette’s guitarist and husband Jose (Marlowe) . . . although Howard shouldn’t take the “husband” bit too seriously, Josette soon poutingly explains to him, because really she and Jose are just, flounce, business partners.
Bert Mathews (Stanley Holloway) proves more resourceful than we thought at first.
They stop off in Athens, where there’s a further attempt to kill Howard. Back aboard the ship, Howard discovers there’s a new passenger, whom he recognizes as Banat, the same terrorist as tried to kill him at the airport. Obviously the fact that he’s still alive is because it’s Banat who’s been trying to kill him, not the far more efficient Møller. And could Møller too be aboard, disguised as one of Howard’s fellow passengers?
Howard takes his fears to the purser (Collins), who dismisses them derisively and refuses to pass them on to the skipper. Somehow Howard must survive the rest of the journey with no protection except his wits and the revolver that Kopelkin gave him back in Istanbul. Except that someone’s stolen the revolver.
Graham’s first sight of Banat (Ian McShane) aboard the ship.
It’s then that the dreaded Møller reveals himself to Howard . . .
With the exception of Mrs. Mathews, none of the passengers turn out to be who they appear to be; even her cowed, downtrodden husband Bert proves to have unexpected resourcefulness when it comes to slipping the reins.
You have here a stellar cast and all the ingredients for a splendid action thriller, and yet somehow the result simply doesn’t work. The opening sequences are tremendous and there’s a fine buildup of suspense in the concluding fifteen or twenty minutes, but that leaves quite a lot of movie in the middle where things do seem to, well, drift.
And we’re not helped by the fact that so much of the plotting seems arbitrary. As noted, we’re never told what the secret information is that Howard holds in his head; there’s nothing taboo about using a MacGuffin, of course, but here we’re not given even enough to imagine the MacGuffin. To add to the irritation, all sorts of characters in the movie seem to know roughly what the secret is—Howard himself, Colonel Haki, Kopelkin, the various factions who want to see Howard dead . . .
Which leads us to another imponderable: Why do they want to see him dead? Are they environmentalists eager to forestall drilling of pristine mountainsides? Quite clearly not—they’re obviously driven by ideology and economics and most likely both.
Once Banat’s aboard the ship, why does he hold back from killing Howard? Shooting him would be risky; heaving him over the side one dark night would be simple enough. Yet all Banat does is look menacing. And why doesn’t Møller kill him, as he’s been paid to do? He’s a ruthless assassin, renowned internationally, yet decides he “likes” Howard and so proposes an expensive, cockamamie scheme whereby Howard’s life will be spared if he agrees to be hidden away for a few weeks until Møller’s employers can put to use the secret knowledge about the oil reserves (whatever that knowledge is).
And so on, and so on.
Jose (Scott Marlowe), guitarist and . . . pimp?
I’ve come across reviews of this movie that criticize it on the grounds that the famous supporting stars are just phoning their parts in, but that simply isn’t true. Marlowe offers a fairly two-dimensional performance as the bottom-feeder Jose and Winters and McShane don’t really have a lot to do (unless I missed a word or two, McShane has no dialogue at all), but Mostel, Mimieux, Pleasence and most especially Wiseman bring a lot to their roles, while Price is obviously reveling in his—and even Holloway impresses in his small turn.
The real weak link, so far as the cast is concerned, is the central performance of Waterston. Since Waterston is no slouch as an actor, I puzzled over this for some while and came to the conclusion that the problem isn’t so much the actor as the characterization. The portrayal of Howard Graham is wildly inconsistent. One minute he’s totally blasé about being shot at; in another he’s reduced to hysterical terror by the sound of echoing footsteps. He’s a self-confessed wimp and geek yet sees nothing odd about the sultry chanteuse immediately falling for him hook, line and sinker. There’s a sense of STRAW DOGS (1971) in the emergence of Action Man from the ashes of Soppy Walter in the final sequences, but Soppy Walter’s soppiness has been far too inconsistent earlier for this to work effectively, or for us to believe in the character.
There are some odd cuts in the movie, but these may be artifacts of the VHS. So far as I can establish there’s never been a DVD release of this. My copy of it, picked up at a yard sale for maybe 25¢, is an ancient VHS released by Lightning Video; the sound’s pretty muddy and the reds bleed all over the place. I’m not grumbling too much, since the Amazon-listed Warner Home Video VHS—which presumably has far higher audio and video standards—costs a pretty penny more than 25¢.
Yet again, although it’s a matter of coincidence rather than plan, this could be seen as a dress rehearsal for my contribution to the O Canada Blogathon, set to run February 3-5 — i.e., in about ten days’ time. Click the image below to find out more details.