The Marseille Contract (1974)


This unpretentious thriller, running just under 90 minutes and released in the US as The Destructors, was shot on location in France and features Michael Caine as a professional assassin, Anthony Quinn as a US intelligence agent and James Mason as a Mr Big in the Marseilles underworld. The score is by the great Roy Budd, the lovely cinematography by Douglas Slocombe and the car chases staged by the legendary Remy Julienne. So it should be great, right? Well …

I offer this review (in hope, and admiration) Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

John Deray: “Why not? The pay’s good, the hours are short and like the fellow says: we never touch women and children, we only kill each other.”

The main star of the film is not Caine but Quinn, who is unhappy in his desk job in Paris as he would rather be in the field trying to catch Jacques Brizard (Mason). But his attempts keep failing as Brizard is far too powerful, but he decides he can no longer sit still when one of his men is killed by the crime lord, his sense of guilt compounded by the fact that he has been having an affair with the man’s wife. Unable to get the criminal in the usual way, in desperation he asks a local policeman (Maurice Ronet) on how to contact a killer to do the job instead – and to his surprises, the man who turns up is his old friend John Deray (Caine).


John makes friends with Brizard’s beautiful daughter Lucienne (Kerwin) but his identity is blown by a corrupt cop. Just as a major shipment of drugs is coming in from Turkey, the story ultimately turns into a game of who will get who first.

John Deray: “Everyone needs a little help”

A story of middle-age malaise masquerading as a crime thriller, this film often feels rather sluggish despite the abundance of car chases and shootouts. This is mainly because the plot is forever stopping and starting and then going back on itself – thus Quinn’s characters sets up the hit but then changes his mind, Caine goes undercover to meet Mason but is discovered almost immediately; he asks Lucienne to meet him, speaks to her for 60 seconds and then sends her home again, and so on, and so on.


Which is all a bit of a shame because the basic elements, locations, cast and technical credits are all top-notch. It even has a sense of humour, with Caine trying hard not to replicate his character from Get Carter (1971), even though he is once again asked to throw a man off a highrise building in pretty much the same suit. He mostly plays it for laughs and does well – and there is a great sequence, later copied quite extensively in the Bond movie Goldeneye (1995), in which Caine and Lucienne race each other in their respective high-end cars (hers a Porsche, his an Alfa Romeo) as a form of high-speed motorised courtship.

But this film always feels undernourished with its stock, thin characterisation and extremely familiar elements. One wishes that the actors had been given a bit more to chew on, but maybe it just might have worked better with an all French cast, with Alain Delon as the killer, Lino Ventura instead of Quinn, Maurice Ronet using his own voice (he was dubbed by Robert Rietti) and Mason not having to use a silly French accent!

DVD Availability: The film is available as a no frills Blu-ray in the US (locked to region A) and on DVD in various markets on the Continent – the Italian DVD offers a terrific image, presumably taken from the same HD master as the Blu-ray, though the English language soundtracks is occasionally slightly out of sync I’m afraid. The multi-region Spanish Blu-ray offers the original audio and seems to be legit, so is probably the best choice for European shoppers who want to get the best of Slocombe’s fine cinematography.

The Marseille Contract / The Destructors (1974)
Director: Robert Parrish
Producer: Judd Bernard
Screenplay: Judd Bernard
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Willy Holt
Music: Roy Budd
Cast: Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn, Maureen Kerwin, James Mason, Maurice Ronet, Alexandra Stewart, Catherine Rouvel

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Film Noir, France, Noir on Tuesday, Paris, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Marseille Contract (1974)

  1. Colin says:

    I’ve not seen this in many years and have quite fond memories of it. I know the memory does cheat and sometimes quite brazenly when it comes to the kind of genre pieces we have a soft spot for. I’m a real sucker for 70s thrillers taking place in continental Europe (the score helps too) so I’ve probably just blanked out the sluggishness you found. So while I’ve no doubt all the weaknesses you mention are present, I still plan to pick this one up in due course.

  2. realthog says:

    Sounds like you were a bit generous with the ol’ fedora tips. 🙂

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Pity this didn’t work better, Sergio, with Quinn and Caine in the cast. It sounds as though it might have really been something. Well, as ever, I appreciate your candor and your thoughtful post.

  4. frjameson says:

    I can remember a fried from school being obsessed by this film and so I did end up watching it more than once in my formative years. All I can remember though are the scenery, the car chases and the sense that it was a bit insubstantial.
    Shamefully – as I flipping love James Mason – I had completely forgotten that James Mason was even in it.

  5. frjameson says:

    Good review as always!
    On the subject of obscure Michael Caine films of the 1970s, have you checked out PULP? A curio if ever there was one.

    • The Mike Hodges film is one I saw decades ago and do need to watch again – I do plan to shortly run a review of PEEPER (aka FAT CHANCE), speaking of lesser-known Caine …

  6. JJ says:

    I’m very much of the opinion that Caine was frequently better than the films he was in during this party of his career — The Man Who Would Be King and The Eagle Has Landed aside, the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s was a spare period for poor ol’ Maurice. And the less said about the 1990s — when he was the antagonist in a Steven Seagal movie, lest we forget — the better. Nevertheless, he’s a class act and you can always see him doing the absolute best with what he’s given.

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    Shame to waste such a good cast but it happens.

  8. tracybham says:

    It always surprises me to come back to a movie and find that I don’t like it as well as I used to. (Same with a book, of course). I like it much better when the opposite happens, and a movie that disappointed me originally hits the spot. I would probably watch this one just for the cast, if it were available very cheaply.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    (in hope, and admiration) –molte grazie, amico.
    I remain slow, but eventual. There is both a certain sadness, as others have noted, and a certain charm, as others have almost noted also, when talented people come up with simply adequate work…we can appreciate how well the artists actually can work against the odds working against them…even if James Mason shouldn’t affect a French accent…(my brother’s namesake)…

    • Your brother James? So cool! And yes, his voice was so distinctive and of course it is a convention that always pulls me up short – I liked how it was handled in HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (or however you are supposed to spell it) 🙂

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