As his popularity in the 1960s faded, Marlon Brando was often called upon to save, or greenlight, a picture unworthy of his talent. Except that director Hubert Cornfield failed to extract enough tension from a kidnap thriller with an inbuilt deadline and a double-crossing sub-plot this might have been one to rise out of the mediocrity.
It’s not unknown for strangers working together on a robbery to adopt pseudonyms, colors in the case of Reservoir Dogs (1992) or cities as in Spanish television hit The Money Heist. Here they are known by their designated tasks, which seemed a nod towards artistic pretension at the time. Even so, the gang have too many frailties for taking on a caper like this, the pressure of a deadline and the publicity their crime attracts exacerbating the situation. So kidnapping a millionaire’s daughter (Pamela Franklin) are: Chauffeur (Marlon Brando), in on the job because he owes a favour to Friendly (Jess Hahn), whose sister Blonde (Rita Moreno) is also the chauffeur’s drug-addict girlfriend, the psychopathic Leer (Richard Boone) and a pilot (Al Lettieri).
All except the pilot are holed up in a remote beach house in France. The first signs of cracks show when Blonde is so drugged up she fails to collect her colleagues from a small local airport and, when suspecting the chauffeur of having sex with the girl, she explodes in to a tantrum. And because she can’t get her story straight she attracts the attention of a local cop (Gerard Buhr). Despite making a good job of calming down the terrified girl, Leer has other plans for her which the Chauffeur is constantly trying to thwart. At various points various people try to quit. At various points romantic and family ties are pulled tight.
The details of the cash hand-over are well done as is the unexpected double-cross and the diversion allowing them to escape but about ten minutes of the running time is people driving around in cars, only at the later stages to any useful dramatic purpose, time that would been better spent filling us in on the characters. Most of the tension derives from a gang with two loose cannons and certainly the wait for the confrontation between Chauffeur and Leer is worthwhile.
The biggest plus point is Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and even – perhaps because of – sporting a blonde wig and black tee-shirt remains a compelling screen presence. He might have been slumming it but he is certainly believable as the minor criminal way out of his depth. It’s a mistake to think of him as intended to exude menace along the line of Quint in The Nightcomers (1971) because this is actually a complicated role. On the one hand he clearly never wanted to be involved, participation triggered by a sense of honor, trying to keep his girlfriend and the kidnappee safe while at the same time happy to resort to considerable violence to achieve his ends.
The malevolent Boone (The Arrangement, 1969) almost steals the show, beginning as the voice of reason and gradually succumbing to his inner vices. The love interest benefits from Brando and Moreno (West Side Story, 1961), also in blonde wig, being ex-lovers in real life and it takes little to ignite the anger in Moreno. But her portrayal of the addict who cannot stay off her chosen poison long enough to carry out a simple task is excellent. Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1968) has little to do except look scared and she has one revealing scene when in attempting to seduce the Chauffeur sets up the prospect of a different kind of liaison with Leer.
Hubert Cornfield had not directed a picture since Pressure Point (1962) which acted as a decent calling-card and showed how good he was at creating tension between opposing individuals. Instead of focusing here on the characters, Cornfield seems more interested in the visuals, none of which as it turns out are particular arresting and in one instance virtually impossible to see what is going on.
Not so much a curiosity as a masterclass in how to blow a once-in-a-lifetime gig with Marlon Brando and what not to do with a thriller.
CATCH-UP: Marlon Brando had a wayward time of it in the 1960s and you can follow his career through these previous reviews in the Blog: The Ugly American (1964), Bedtime Story (1964), The Chase (1966) and The Appaloosa (1966).