Don’t be so Eager to Scale This Eastwood Vanity Project.



Dangling precariously between yesteryear’s James Bond and today’s Ethan Hunt we find Dr. Jonathan Hemlock.  As played by Clint Eastwood in 1975, Hemlock boasts both a license to kill (sort of) and the unblinking wherewithal for extreme physical outdoor challenges.  The ladies can’t resist him, his confidence never lets him down, and there’s nothing he cannot and will not do.  Before the end of The Eiger Sanction, he will scale the titular mountain in a rather harrowing excursion.  That much is real.

For good measure, throw a dose of proto-Indiana Jones into the Hemlock mix.  The chiseled protagonist is also a university professor who wears glasses when he lectures to flirty young co-eds about art history.  One such girl, exploitation film star Candice Rialson in a short role and a shorter skirt, makes her way to his office after class, offering to do anything for a higher grade.  You know… anything.  We know that Hemlock is an upstanding man when he sends her on her way, telling her to spend her lonely Friday night studying.  We know that it’s 1975 because he also does all of that with a swat to her rear end.

The Eiger Sanction is post-Dirty Harry Eastwood looking to flex his stardom only so slightly as to not be a police detective.  Hemlock generally carries no gun but is still a killer.  The twist is that he does his assassinations for a steep fee to finance his pricey collection of fine art.  A strange shadowy government higher-up called Dragon (an ex-Nazi albino who must live in a closed-off room lit only with a darkroom bulb, played by Thayer David) dispatches him to kill his designated targets.  Nothing is ever made of the strangeness of Dragon other than to signal that all might not well within the U.S. world of covert ops.  Some melding of greed and independence motivates Hemlock to agree to a most convoluted and deadly global mission.  Eventually, to find his mark, Hemlock has to become part of a team of mountain climbers who set out to ascend the business side of the notoriously deathly Eiger mountain in Switzerland.  

The Eiger Sanction, an action-driven spy thriller with a prolonged mountain climbing conclusion, might just be Clint Eastwood’s most blatant vanity project of his entire career.  Having not seen every film Eastwood’s both starred in and directed, that pronouncement can’t be considered definitive.  But for Eastwood, who’s done a fine enough job evolving into a filmmaker of note in subsequent years, this potboiler seems quite beneath him.  Even circa 1975, when Eastwood had been globally famous with several thematically resonant directorial gigs under his belt, it’s still a bit surprising to find him so embracing of such a simpleminded and swaggering movie.  

More to the point of the film’s inferiority, the care doesn’t seem to be there where it matters, nor where we typically expect to find it when it comes to Eastwood as a filmmaker.  The Eiger Sanction (based on the novel of the same name by Trevanian), being about a darkly tuned man looking to turn his back on a life of violence and murder in favor of art and beauty- a fascination that his former profession has ironically enabled him to indulge in- sounds right in line with typical Eastwood concerns.  Here though, Hemlock’s internal struggle with this one last job is backburnered in favor of an overall lighter tone.  Even when the film is at its best (there are nail biting moments amid the mountain climbing finale), the film is all about how cool Clint Eastwood is.  

All throughout, The Eiger Sanction feigns self-awareness as it calls out Eastwood’s steely daring-do and demeanor.  So too does every contemporary Bond movie and Mission: Impossible movie.  Even though The Eiger Sanction never generated any sequels, it should not be ruled out that those aforementioned sequel machines have been, to some degree, inspired by it.  The cocksureness of the lead- the focal point of everyone, be it quippy supporting player George Kennedy or every lusty-eyed female extra- drives and is driven by his penchant for death-defying deeds.  A younger Tom Cruise may well have seen Eastwood doing all his own climbing, taking on the “Totem Pole” formation in Monument Valley and declared that he will do a version of the same thing in the same place, but without ropes.

On a somber note, a British climber working on the film was killed by falling rocks while risking his life to grab an extra shot.  Eastwood considered shutting the production of The Eiger Sanction down completely but was convinced to press on.  Rife with handheld sloppiness, messy framing, and a dull overall aesthetic, it’s evident that perhaps despite his best efforts, Eastwood was never quite able to fully check back into this mission.  For whatever it might be worth, composer John Williams, just off of Spielberg’s Jaws, comes through with an appropriately paranoid score.

Released to Blu-ray as a “special edition” release by Kino Lorber Studio Classics, the disc boasts several worthwhile extras.  Besides a couple of interviews with supporting cast members (a new one with actor Reiner Schöne and a vintage one with Heidi Brühl by Pepe Ludmir, who has the actress “stand up so we can get a look at you”), there’s a promotional reel from back in the day, a poster and image gallery, a trailer, and TV and radio spots.  The primary extra would have to be film critic and historian Nick Pinkerton’s new audio commentary, a thorough affair that ascends to the peak of the mountain of information about The Eiger Sanction.

The transfer may strike one as not the greatest, as it is often shadowy, uneven, and blotchy with film grain.  One suspects, however, that this might just be an accurate representation of how The Eiger Sanction looked when it was new. 

The undercover zigzags and double-crosses and perpetually rattled off names and past histories pile up and never end, yet somehow, it’s just not gripping.  If the plot makes you glaze over and the sight of 1975 Clint Eastwood in blue jeans doesn’t compel you to bat your eyes at him or flash him, there’s little more in this surprisingly untidy film to make the trip worthwhile.