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