Cast: Michael Caine (Noel Holcroft), Anthony Andrews (Johann Tennyson), Victoria Tennant (Helden Tennyson), Lilli Palmer (Althene Holcroft), Mario Adorf (Jürgen Mass), Michael Lonsdale (Manfredi), Bernard Hepton (Leighton), Richard Munch (Oberst), Carl Rigg (Beaumont), Andre Penvern (Leger).
Crew: John Frankenheimer (director), Edie Landau and Ely Landau (producers), George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins (writers), Stanislas (music), Gerry Fisher (cinematography), Ralph Sheldon (editor), Peter Mullins (production designer).
Synopsis: In 1945 three Nazi generals make a suicide pact, a covenant concerning a fortune stored in a Swiss bank account. Forty years later, New York-based architect Noel Holcroft is invited to Geneva to learn about the covenant. One of the dead Nazis was his father. The three eldest sons of the dead generals are to take charge of $4.5 billion, with Holcroft as chairman. The money is to be used to right wrongs done by the Nazis. In London Holcroft encounters an anti-Nazi group led by a man called Oberst. The architect also meets siblings Johann and Helden Tennyson. Johann is another heir to the covenant.
Holcroft and Helden travel to Berlin, where they find the third heir, Jürgen Mass. Holcroft and Helden become lovers. Johann murders Oberst and Holcroft’s mother, revealing himself to be a neo-Nazi. Holcroft learns of Johann’s treachery. The three heirs and Helden gather in Geneva to activate the covenant. Holcroft discovers Helden is in league with her brother. After signing the covenant, Holcroft calls a press conference and tells the world’s media about Johann’s plan to create global anarchy and launch a new world order. Johann pulls a revolver. In the struggle both Mass and Johann are killed. Afterwards, Holcroft gives Helden a choice – kill herself or kill him. She commits suicide…
Robert Ludlum’s complex thriller The Holcroft Covenant was first published in 1978 and became an international bestseller. Producers Edie and Ely Landau acquired the film rights to several Ludlum novels, but were determined to retain control of this particular project by raised the finance for it themselves. An initial adaptation was written by Edward Anhalt and John Hopkins. When director John Frankenheimer was brought on board, he recruited screenwriter George Axelrod. The pair had worked together on the acclaimed political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
American actor James Caan had already been cast as Holcroft when Frankenheimer joined the project. ‘He really was miscast,’ the director told Films and Filming during shooting. ‘Three things happened at the same time. Firstly he was miscast. Secondly he was emotionally upset at the time. Thirdly he was fighting with the producers for months and I didn’t know that. The three things really fused together and you had a situation where it just could not work.’ Caan pulled out just as the picture was entering production. The director was forced to start shooting without a leading man, otherwise the film would collapse.
‘We were terribly lucky to get Michael Caine for the role,’ Frankenheimer says on the film’s DVD commentary. ‘I sent the script to him and he agreed to do it. We were so fortunate. He’s not only a brilliant actor, he can just inspire a crew. He’s a joy to work with.’ Caine had just finished the comedy Water in June 1984 and was going on holiday. Instead he had only a weekend off before starting work on The Holcroft Covenant. ‘He really saved this picture,’ Frankenheimer says. ‘Michael came in and acted as if he’d been cast for years. He just owned the part.’
The Holcroft Covenant was filmed on location in Germany and around London, with studio work shot at Twickenham. For Caine, the project fulfilled a long-held ambition to work with Frankenheimer. ‘I get on very well with John, we have a rapport going,’ the actor told Films and Filming during production. ‘I think it is because he’s also worked with a lot of troublesome actors and I am the least troublesome of actors to work with on a movie set. I just do it and get in a car and go home.’ Caine was proud he had been thought sufficiently marketable in the US for the role. ‘Normally another American actor would have replaced James Caan, but to all intents and purposes I am another American actor!’
The film was released in Britain with a 15 rating during September 1985, but reviews were poor. Critics complained about muddled plotting and a lack of credibility in the story, but still found praise for Caine’s efforts. The picture grossed less than $400,000 in the US. The Holcroft Covenant was released on VHS in 1986 but has been deleted for some years. A DVD version was issued in America during 1999.
Caine recalled the production during an interview for Venice magazine in 2002, just a few months after Frankenheimer had died. ‘Oh, I loved John. I thought he was a great guy, very easy to work with. The film we did didn’t turn out too well, although it was done under very extraordinary circumstances, so it really wasn’t our fault.’
Reviews: ‘Robert Ludlum’s books may be confusing, but the films based upon them are well nigh indecipherable. Caine gives far more than the role of the puzzled heir deserves.’ – Sunday Telegraph
‘Michael Caine is the only dignified element in this Nazi-revival hokum thriller, which makes even the original Robert Ludlum novel look like a masterpiece.’ – Mail on Sunday
Verdict: The Holcroft Covenant is a jumbled failure, trying to turn a 500-page suspense novel into a coherent two-hour film. The dialogue is either endless exposition or cryptic comments, leaving the viewer simultaneously bored and confused. Attempts at injecting life into the one-dimensional characters are, sadly, few and far between. This story might have been better as a mini-series, but the raw material still stretches credulity far past breaking point. Caine does his best with a thankless role in a film that simply doesn’t work.