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DVD Review

DVD cover

The Eiger Sanction (1975)
(2019 Reissue)


Starring: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee and Jack Cassidy
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £9.99
5 030697 035387
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 18 October 2019

The very mention of his name is a call to pugilistic division: his politics, his personal life, his principle of work ethic but these are all psychological cubby holes for masked resentment and jealousy over one thing: Clint Eastwood has been working in front of the camera since 1955 in Revenge of the Creature as well as behind since Play Misty For Me in 1971. Sixty-five years a Guild card carrier without salad jobs or has-been epitaphs. In a few months he’ll be ninety years old and I effing guarantee you, unless we get an announcement from Variety, he’s working.

To top it off he doesn’t need to stand on apple boxes because he’s a legitimate tall guy (6’4”). And he has a big head, not talking about egos here, but the attribute of most great stars of having a largish noggin that stands out even if he’s in the background. (Not joking here, critic emeritus Roger Ebert once essayed this point about ‘the big head school of acting’ and that Eastwood is at the head of the class. I once asked eminent actor Ray Wise what he thought about ‘the big head school of acting’ and he fired back, ‘I AM the big head school of acting,’ so don’t think I’m feeding you a line of John Huff’s codswallop.)

The Eiger Sanction is Eastwood’s sole downer in the 1970s. His body double David Knowles was killed by a falling boulder on the second day of the shoot. Eastwood had moved from the impact zone minutes earlier. Director of Photography Frank Stanley also fell in that accident and was confined to a wheelchair for a long while and blamed Eastwood for ‘lack of preparation’ describing him as “a very impatient man who doesn’t really plan his pictures or do any homework. He figures he can go right in and sail through these things.” Stanley completed filming under pressure from Eastwood. There were other injuries on the shoot that were hushed from publicity with settlements.

White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), the star’s paeon to John Huston’s lensing of The African Queen (1951) with Eastwood in the role of Huston, is nothing less than a confessional statement. Its last frame is a close up of the self-directed star ready to shoot his first day’s shot for the 1951 classic, preceded by the whole 1990 movie’s odyssey of misbegotten gestures - and death for no reason but hubris – we’re close, very tight on Eastwood’s eyes, welling with the burden of existential remorse as he rasps, “Action.” Smash cut to black screen. There has to be an autobiographical subtext here and it probably goes back to The Eiger Sanction.

Eastwood took a course in mountain climbing in the Sierras before transporting his crew to Switzerland to film on one of the most difficult peaks on Earth. What you see here is what you get, without cable removal or nets. The star assiduously does his own stunts, performing one sequence where his character hangs off the side of the mountain by a cable without the use of a stunt double. He later told movie critic Ebert that, during Eiger's release, he donned a disguise and slipped into a public screening to judge audience reactions. To his utter dismay, during the hanging sequence, a woman sitting in front of him asked her friend, "Gee, I wonder how they did that?", to which she responded, "Special effects." (Thanks to IMDb for this last account.)

Eiger Sanction falls between two smashes, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and is one of Eastwood’s rare outings as a covert assassin. His cover identity is based on the Trevanian novel’s character, art history professor Jonathan Hemlock, who’s lured out of retirement with the promise of a priceless painting he covets and a clean record with the IRS. The job is to find out which member of a climbing team is a Russian baddie while on an impending expedition up the treacherous north face of the Eiger.

After an encounter with Dragon agent Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee, under appreciated but well utilized here as a stereotypical Bond-type woman with a tricky name, but better at the quippy dialogue than Clint) Hemlock has to get in shape. He hikes to Monument Valley and a sport resort hosted by old covert teammate Ben Bowman (Kennedy) who puts him through an exhausting mountain steeplechase running after beautiful Tribal woman, George (Brenda Venus).

Also it’s no coincidence that he’s intercepted by Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy) taking time to beat up the swishy Mellough’s muscular butt-boy Dewayne (Dan Howard) in an impossible to believe take down. Here’s a rather reedy Eastwood beating the shite out of a Gold’s Gym superstar weightlifter so strong that if you hit him you’d just hurt yourself. For a long time Howard displayed a cordial photo in the gym from Eastwood inscribed: "To my friend Dan, I’ll take you any day – on film that is". Eastwood knew it was a send-up and perhaps this is the way to take the whole movie: A Bondian send-up that unfortunately pancaked, costing life and limb.

The sequence climbing ‘The Fence Post’ in Monument Valley is breath-taking. Nobody gets to climb it anymore. This is the last time anyone was allowed to go up and the price included the movie crew climbers removing all the pitons accumulated in decades of ascents. So what you see here is a historic last effort on that majestic red tower.

On to Switzerland and the Eiger. Bad things happen on and off camera as already mentioned. The surprise reveal is lame, pun intended, since Hemlock is looking for a double header with a limp.

Fabulous Films doesn’t work very hard to sell this movie. Are they paid to publicize or brandish bad attitude or what…? They include snippets of scathing reviews and have produced a print with no remastering evident. Still, the image is solid and there is nuanced detail in the shadows. Grain will show on a Blu-ray machine playback but I like grain, it reminds me of the good old days when film was emulsion on celluloid. That said, forgetting animus toward Eastwood if possible, the picture is never less than a popcorn chomper’s delight. It’s pace never slacks as if it knows it daren’t. And Eastwood knows he’s not doing Strindberg or Brecht here and to judge him for that is pure prickery.


John Huff

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