At once intriguing and disappointing, The Internecine Project (1974) is a cynical spy-cum-caper film - a slickly-executed puzzle of a movie that's nonetheless reasonably entertaining thanks to its above average cast and their performances, and a generally intelligent, serious approach.
This Scorpion release sources a somewhat dog-eared and greenish 35mm theatrical print, but it's 16:9 enhanced and its various scratches and reel change cues only reminded this reviewer what watching movies was really like in third-run theaters back then, in run-down venues that used to specialize in second-tier movies like this. The label has also assembled an impressive, Blue Underground-ish lineup of extra features, and these add to the fun.
The Internecine Project doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. It's a decent enough title for, say, a John le Carré novel, but the popcorn crowd was probably scratching their heads wondering how to even pronounce it - it's "inter-knee-seen" - let alone know what it meant, even after the film was over. James Coburn stars as Robert Elliot, a former spy now a respected London-based economist/world affairs expert. E.J. Farnsworth (Keenan Wynn) offers Elliot a desirable, highly lucrative post as Special Adviser to the President, but there's just one problem: Elliot's muddied past. Conferring with Farnsworth, Elliot plots to murder the four people aware of his former identity: Albert (Harry Andrews), a masseur feeding him information overheard at the exclusive club where he works; Christina (Christiane Krüger), a high-class hooker with a rich and powerful clientele; Alex (Ian Hendry), a nervous diabetic and possibly alcoholic government functionary; and David (Michael Jayston), a scientist developing a top secret weapon that kills via sound waves.
Essentially Elliot hatches a plot akin to a circular firing squad, goading or manipulating each of his one-time colleagues into murdering one of the others. It's an intricate scheme necessitating carefully timed steps. The suspenseful execution of the plan has Elliot at home anxiously checking off everyone's movements once the plan is set into motion. He monitors everything puppet master-style, with the four reporting in as they go via telephone calls to Elliot; he doesn't answer these calls, but rather counts the number of rings (two rings for this step, four rings for that one, etc.) as each murderer/victim closes in on another.
The script by Jonathan Lynn and Barry Levinson (not the Baltimore-born writer-director), from Mort W. Elkind's novel, is like an episode of Mission: Impossible in that the audience knows up front what Elliot needs to do, but exactly how he'll achieve this isn't revealed until relatively late in the story. And, like both Mission: Impossible and the caper genre generally, things go wrong, some having to do with Elliot's concurrent relationship with an old flame (Lee Grant); this and other unanticipated curveballs threaten the operation. And there's the expected twist ending, which in this case seems inevitable yet arbitrary, and isn't very satisfying. Of course, the film doesn't hold up to any scrutiny: Why doesn't Elliot quietly kill everyone off himself? Why plan an elaborate mass murder that could go wrong a million different ways?
But overall The Internecine Project works reasonably well. Around this time Coburn suddenly became more ambitious, doing interesting work in interesting films like Harry in Your Pocket (1973), Bite the Bullet, and Hard Times (both 1975) while pursuing a directing career in films (he directed much of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, an underrated film) and TV, including one of the all-time best episodes of The Rockford Files, "Irving the Explainer." Robert Elliot is like a darker Derek Flint, the breezy James Bond knock-off he played in two '60s films. Coburn is much more substantial here and what's most interesting about the film is watching how he manipulates his four victims in four different ways: threatening Alex, reasoning with David, and in Albert's case, subtly playing up on the masseur's hatred of women, and also letting him think he's more in control of the plan than he actually is. (Harry Andrews, who seemed to turn up in just about every A and A-minus British film from about 1950-1980, is excellent here, and Ken Hughes suspensefully directs Albert's murder of Christiane.)
Ian Hendry also stands out as Alex. Reportedly severely alcoholic himself at this time, the prematurely aged actor's panicked, almost incoherent state is unnervingly authentic. Roy Budd's ominous score and Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography help a lot also.
Video & Audio
Probably shot for 1.66:1 projection, The Internecine Project is presented here at 1.78:1, 16:9 enhanced, but the image never feels overly cropped. Though the box claims a "brand new...high-definition master from the original interpositive," it looks as if a 35mm theatrical print was actually used. There's a lot of age-related wear: scratches, worn heads and tails of reels, reel change cues, etc., and the print is on the greenish side, but overall it looks okay, and for a relative obscurity such imperfections are forgivable. The English mono audio is okay; there are no other subtitle or alternate audio options but the disc is region-free.
The impressive list of supplements include two good featurettes, "Decoding the Project: A Conversation with Writer Jonathan Lynn," and the much shorter "Reflections from Star Lee Grant," along with an audio-only "Family Thoughts" featuring Coburn's daughter, Lisa. Included is a 16:9 trailer for this and lots of other intriguing Scorpion obscurities I confess, in most case, to films I never even heard of before.
It's not great, but The Internecine Project had me riveted during the climax. The performances by Coburn, Hendry, and especially Andrews, coupled with the sometimes clever script and its execution make this worthwhile. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.