Originally released as The Marseille Contract, The Destructors (1974) is a meandering crime thriller notable for co-star Michael Caine's interesting performance as an assassin and James Mason's as Caine's drug kingpin target. Hero-by-default Anthony Quinn overacts in his offbeat part, but the French locations are good, and while Robert Parrish's direction is pretty flaccid, driver/stunt coordinator Rémy Julienne's second unit car chases are exciting and audacious.
Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" line of DVD-Rs, this British-French co-production, distributed by American International Pictures (AIP) in America but by Warner Bros. elsewhere, is all over the map in terms of picture quality. Most of it looks great but at other times, such as its nighttime pre-credits opening, the image is rife with eye-straining edge enhancement. Fortunately, this is only intermittently distracting.
Steve Ventura (Anthony Quinn) is a U.S. Embassy official unhappily running the Paris office. He's also having an affair with Rita (Alexandra Stewart), the wife of Frank Matthews, a fellow agent and Ventura's close friend. Matthews is murdered while investigating the movements of France's leading drug dealer, the untouchable Jacques Brizard (James Mason).
Ventura has been trying to nail Brizard for some time, and Matthews is actually the second agent Ventura has lost. Frustrated and hamstrung with his desk job, Ventura begs his boss, Williams (played by former John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson Administrations Press Secretary Pierre Salinger), to let him go after Brizard personally, but Williams resists. ("I want to tell him just three words," Ventura tells Williams's secretary. "The first word is 'Go.'")
Desperate, Ventura consults with Sûreté Inspector Briac (Maurice Ronet, Purple Noon), who subtly suggests the American might want to hire a hit man to take out Brizard. The assassin Briac arranges for Ventura to meet turns out to be an old friend, John Deray (Michael Caine) who, surprisingly, enjoys his job as much as Ventura hates his.
The story changes gears at this point, focusing on Deray's attempts to get close enough to Brizard to kill him and get away unscathed. In the first of two spectacular car chases, Deray flirts with Brizard's beautiful daughter, Lucienne (Maureen Kerwin), engaging in a kind of four-wheel foreplay, each driving recklessly along mountain roads, recalling Goldfinger's tamer equivalent. She's instantly attracted and invites him back to Brizard's villa. But as Brizard prepares to receive a 400kg shipment of base morphine, he remains suspicious of his daughter's new boyfriend, and has his right-hand man, Calmet (Marcel Bozzuffi, famously chased himself, by Gene Hackman, in The French Connection) check Deray's credentials.
Anthony Quinn is a bit hammy as the unhappy government agent but the role is somewhat unusual for him. Man's-man Quinn plays a weak character more in love with his best friend's wife than she is with him, and their scenes together are awkward. She's clearly resisting his blind affection, squirming as he tries to get closer. Matthews's death makes him feel all the guiltier and underscores his professional impotence.
Apparently the idea behind writer/producer Judd Bernard's script - his credits as a producer include Point Blank and Deep End - was to contrast weak and ineffectual lawman Ventura with happy seize-the-day Deray, no matter that he's a paid killer. It doesn't quite work because of Quinn's uncertain performance, and because of the film's structure, which is all about Ventura for the first half-hour, then switches to Deray for most of the rest of the picture with Ventura coming back for the climax.
However, Michael Caine is just wonderful. This may be partly because Deray's high-living and breezy attitude ("the hours are short and the pay is good") mirrors Caine's own enormous pleasure at being a famous and highly-paid movie star. He's enjoying life, and this rubs off on the audience a little. Interestingly, the following year Max von Sydow played a similarly revisionist assassin in Three Days of the Condor, a contented character who regards his work as a job like any other.
James Mason is also quite good if a little inconsistent as Brizard. A testament to his ability and palpable screen presence is his first scene, where all Mason does is listen attentively to a butler rattling off a proposed menu for an upcoming charity event. He says nothing but oozes with authority, breeding, culture, and potential menace.
The film makes excellent use of French locations, particularly the disused Beaux-Arts railway station on Orsay, with its distinctive, ornate clock. (The site was preserved and converted into an art museum in 1977.)
Video & Audio
The Destructors, bearing that title, is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen at 1.78:1. The transfer looks great during close-ups and daytime scenes, but long shots, particularly night-for-night photography, tends to expose some really bad edge-enhancement. It was distracting only intermittently, for maybe 10 of the picture's 90-minute running time, but it does grab one's eye. The region-free DVD-R disc's Dolby Digital mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is crisp and clear. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes, but no other menu options.
A U.S. trailer, also in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, is included. It does a fair job selling what was an unusually classy release for AIP at the time.
This is the kind of movie recommended less for its whole than the sum of its parts, those parts being Michael Caine and James Mason, the locations, and the above-average car chases. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.