Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Joseph Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky has an undeserved reputation as a terrible movie stemming from its inclusion in one of those 'Golden Turkey' critical mud-throwing books back in the late 1970s. Then again, it's also not a particularly good picture. Sticking to known historical facts and ignoring others, the picture can't generate a lot of interest about a group of old-style Marxists under attack from Josef Stalin's Soviet murder squads. Richard Burton is the standout in a strong cast, but his Leon Trotsky is an un-likeable curmudgeon. Co-star Alain Delon adds yet another introverted bore to his growing list of emotionless killers. Even fans of director Joseph Losey have a hard time recommending this picture, as its makers seem to go out of their way to avoid the dramatic possibilities in the material.
Mexico City, 1940. Leon Trotsky (Richard Burton), the exiled founder of Russia's Communist revolution lives in constant fear of assassination. Moscow shows its control of Mexico's Communist movement by encouraging anti-Trotsky rallies, and on May 24 an attempt by armed gunmen to storm his house fails by fault of its own lack of organization. Trotsky continues to call for the overthrow of Stalin while his cheerfully long-suffering wife Natalia Sedowa (Valentia Cortese) maintains a cordial household for special guests. Trotsky's followers supplement the house's defenses, and a special security man comes down from the United States to help out. Meanwhile Gita Samuels, one of Trotsky's secretaries (Romy Schneider) has a new boyfriend, a mysterious businessman named Frank Jacson (sic) (Alain Delon). Frank is actually an agent for Stalin, waiting for the right time to pounce.
The Assassination of Trotsky is really an outgrowth of the leftist Italian movement of the late 1960s. Although the publicity asserts that the actual murder house in Mexico City was used as a location, a great deal of the film was shot in Rome. Co-screenwriter Franco Solinas is practically a one-man history of activist Italian cinema starting with anti-Fascist screenplays (Kapò, 1959), proceeding through the political landmarks Salvatore Giuliano and The Battle of Algiers and continuing with a string of 'radical' Euro-westerns and historical epics: La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown), El Chuncho, quién sabe? (A Bullet for the General), Il mercenario (The Mercenary) and Quiemada (Burn!)
Steeped in the Communist traditions of three countries (Russia, Italy and Mexico), The Assassination of Trotsky is directed by expatriate American Joseph Losey, who fled Hollywood for England in 1951 and eventually made a name for himself in critical circles. Losey's older American pictures The Prowler and The Lawless were sensitive, well-observed criticisms of America at a time when anything negative was considered disloyal and subversive. The Assassination of Trotsky could use some of the subtlety of those old pictures, as it manages to make its political themes rather boring.
Richard Burton's egotistical, pompous Trotsky is a good approximation of the historical character, working up new articles from his desk by the garden window while those around him worry for his safety. The man had been a revolutionary since before the turn of the century and gone through a multitude of dangers. Valentina Cortese is convincing as his devoted wife, finding the good in life after several of her children have been murdered by Stalin's killers. That loss is vaguely mentioned, but the film assumes that we already know all about Trotsky's turbulent career and struggle against his archenemy Stalin.
That leaves half of the drama to the Frank Jacson character, and here's where the film falls down. Handsome Alain Delon is convincing as a deep-cover agent, cooly romancing the confused stenographer Gita. Romy Schneider gives the role her all but comes off as a total dupe who never reported Jacsons' suspicious activities to Trotsky's security people. Jacson claims to have business to conduct but goes off at all times to secret meetings, is extremely moody etc.. Perhaps all this makes sense if one already knows that Delon and Schneider were previously married
Delon's Jacson goes through odd psychological torments that are easy enough to decode. A graphically represented bullfight fascinates him as much as it repulses Gita, and he seems to have volunteered to murder Trotsky to exorcise some demon within himself. I say 'seems' because Alain Delon gives an extremely inexpressive performance, the kind on which directors write their own meanings through external visual devices. In this case it doesn't work, as Jacson is continually placed in situations where he has to react one way or another. When he continues with his one-stare-fits-all poker face, boredom sets in. There's nobody to identify with here.
Sticking close to the facts, the final act is a repetitious series of visits to the Trotsky compound, with Jacson unable to pull off his infamous deed. When he does finally deliver the mortal blow with a climber's axe, The Assassination of Trotsky lumbers on for another reel's worth of inconclusive scenes. Jacson 'finds his identity' as 'the man who killed Trotsky,' a lame freeze-frame ending that was done better in Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James.
Leon Trotsky is a fascinating read on Wikipedia, with a life story so amazing, we're surprised that the filmmakers could find no way to fit some of it into their movie. We see several famous Orozco and Diego Rivera murals, but we aren't told that Trotsky lived with Rivera and Frida Kahlo during his earlier exile in Mexico. The anti-Trotsky banners at the beginning refer to Stalinist slurs that Trotsky was a counterrevolutionary allied with big money interests in America. That false claim was given credence by the fact that Trotsky was for a few weeks scheduled to speak before the Dies Commitee of the House of Representatives, a forerunner of HUAC. When the congressmen realized that Trotsky wasn't going to help them outlaw the Communist Party with a simple denunciation of Stalin, the speaking engagement was hastily called off. Trotsky had prepared a speech championing the old Marxist ideal of a world Communist revolution!
The film sticks with its uneventful assassination plot and stays away from evaluating Trotsky's proposed "Fourth International." It was actually more threatening to capitalism than Stalin's brutal dictatorship: Trotsky envisioned a Communist Revolution that would transform the entire world and continually re-invent itself.
The movie implies that assassin "Frank Jacson" was never fully identified. In 1953 it was made known that his real name was Ramón Mercader, a Spanish-born radical trained in spy work in the Spanish Civil War. His mother, Eustacia María Caridad del Río Hernández was an even more dedicated Communist than he, and may have been involved in the unsuccessful May assault on Trotsky's house! Mercader served twenty years in a Mexican prison. Upon release he immediately moved to Cuba, then in the first months of Fidel Castro's revolution. He split his years between Cuba and the USSR, where he (an axe-murderer!) was given the nation's highest honor. Mercader died in 1978.
Not that writers Salinas and Mosley had to incorporate all of that story, but their invented Franc Jacson isn't half as interesting as the real thing ... If one has to play with history, the assassin could have been conceived as a Hitchcock-like villain with Mother issues! Mercader may actually have seen the movie in 1972.
The Assassination of Trotsky is for the most part indifferently filmed, and Losey insists on including many slowly-paced scenes that verge on art-movie parody. The supporting cast includes some interesting names, although we see a few too many Italians passing as Mexicans: Enrico Maria Salerno, Duilio Del Prete. Classic Mexican actor Claudio Brook has a nice role, but Roger Corman alumnus Michael Forest's Indiana Jones look-alike security consultant is only in a couple of quick scenes.
Lance Entertainment's DVD of The Assassination of Trotsky is an okay enhanced transfer of a grainy and variable print with slightly washed-out color; we can't tell if that specific look was intentional. The only audio track is the English dub, which is probably the best as it retains Richard Burton's vocal performance. There are no subtitles, which makes it difficult when occasional unarticulated lines are lost in the mix.
The DVD extras touted on the packaging lead us to skimpy text bios of the stars. The quasi-grammatical text notes on the cover sell the movie as being about Stalinist 'terrorism', telling us that hearing "the actual words of Leon Trotsky, the first to warn the world against the monster of Moscow, spoken as only Richard Burton could deliver their message, is an experience to be treasured." That blurb makes it sound as if Trotsky is a campaigning anti-communist! I'd more accurately say that hearing Alain Delon plunge a metal ice pick into Richard Burton's skull is a real experience to be treasured!
Savant has reviewed a very good Spanish documentary on this subject from 1996, Storm the Skies (Asaltar los cielos).
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Fair ++
Video: Good --
Supplements: Text bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 16, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson