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The Internecine Project is a clever plot-driven murder tale in an espionage vein that gathers a string of B+ stars from the early 1970s for ninety minutes of suspense. It's not the kind of suspense that makes you wonder what's going to happen next, but the kind that points to a finish that we know will have to employ a last-minute twist. Or three.
The film is an English production from a year when the once-thriving Brit industry seemed simply to have evaporated. Even when someone made a clever crime thriller like 1969's Perfect Friday, the distribution just wasn't there to push it. A cult favorite from this period that was rediscovered a few years later is British Lion's The Wicker Man.
If you look up "internecine" you'll see that both definitions of the word relate to this Ken Hughes- directed thriller. Suave Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is a respected economist but also the ringleader of a small group of spy operatives in London, working freelance but also helping out corporate bigwig E.J. Farnsworth (Keenan Wynn) with dirty intelligence jobs. Elliot and Farnsworth are irritated by the reportage of journalist Jean Robertson (Lee Grant), who would like nothing more than to discredit them both as greedy and corrupt -- but is also in love with Robert. Farnsworth says he's managed to nominate Elliot for the top economic advisor's job to the President, which would put them in a position of enormous power. But first Elliot needs to eliminate the four members of his intelligence team, so as to leave nobody alive who can reveal his secret criminal activities. Being a diabolical mastermind, Robert Elliot hatches a plan to kill all four of his associates in one night, in different parts of London, all at the same time - without even leaving his swank apartment.
The second half of the The Internecine Project presents Elliot's quadruple murder scheme, which is played out mostly in silence as we watch all four of his associates going about their deadly business. Elliot persuades or blackmails each of his trusting associates into killing one of the others. Nervous Alex Hellman (Ian Hendry) is the most cowardly of the bunch, while scientist David Baker (Michael Jayston) takes the bait as soon as he realizes that his affluent lifestyle is in jeopardy. Call girl Christina Larsson (Christiane Krüger) is amenable to her given task, and masseur Albert Parsons (Harry Andrews) volunteers to kill a supposed "security risk" without having to be asked. None of these people know each other, and of course none realizes that they are a target as well as a killer.
What this boils down to is a rather clever murder-caper. Elliott instructs each agent to call him at each step of their mission, so he can track their progress from his den. Two of the killings will look like random homicides, one will be a medical fatality and another an apparent accident with an experimental weapon (David Baker concocts exotic killing mechanisms for the government, and sells them out the back door to Elliot). In an interview extra on the disc, the film's screenwriter likens this half-hour of clockwork mayhem to the famous silent robbery scene from Rififi. Although nowhere near as good as that, the sequence does hold our interest very tightly. The Internecine Project begins with a burst of Roy Budd "spy" music reminiscent of The Third Man or The Ipcress File; as a "shaggy dog story" it bears some resemblance to James Coburn's quirky, more elaborate heist picture Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. Of course, film noir adepts will immediately see a relationship between this film and Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin, at least at the concept level. Gregory Arkadin hires somebody to help him 'erase' his unsavory past, while Robert Elliot is more of a do-it-yourself kind of guy.
As in Dead Heat, the tension builds as Robert Elliot's plan apparently goes off without a hitch -- in a standard caper, what happens when things go wrong is what makes or breaks the story. Then Alex Hellman gets cold feet en route to his murder rendezvous, and Robert suddenly has Jean Robertson at his door begging to be assured that he loves her. The film's pace is slow enough that we have plenty of time to figure out at least three possible twists to the story -- although the ending is sure to be a surprise. It's also time for us to wonder if Scotland Yard can check phone records to notice the interesting pattern of phone calls from murder victims direct to Elliot's apartment. Perhaps there's not enough connection between the killings to merit that? Or is the villainous Elliot taking a big chance?
The Internecine Project must have been an economical shoot. The actors appear with Coburn one at a time, and then are seen mostly in shots that could have been filmed by a second unit. Reviewers have already noted that Coburn spends the second half of a movie listening for the telephone, which is quite an accomplishment considering the suspense that's generated. Most of the roles are underwritten, with Lee Grant and Michael Jayston convincing us that there's more to their characters than we see. Ian Hendry has a fine emotional breakdown but Harry Andrews is as broad as ever as a predictably misogynistic brute. When Andrews attacks he reminds us of Rondo Hatton's The Creeper. Keenan Wynn walks through his part. Perhaps cast for German audiences, Christiane Krüger also has little to do but act seductive and play the victim in a Psycho- like shower scene.
The movie can boast top rank English tech talent, with Geoffrey Unsworth on camera and other names like David Bracknell and Peter MacDonald in the credits. The cinematography is professional but director Ken Hughes arranges his scenes simply and goes for no particular stylistic touches. He freezes on each of the characters for a Mission: Impossible- like ID frame, complete with a file picture. Too bad that the faces come at us too fast to remember all the names. If you like clever murder thrillers, The Internecine Project is a good example from the 1970s.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of The Internecine Project is an acceptable enhanced widescreen transfer. The color is somewhat variable, with shots often switching from a slight greenish tinge to something much warmer. But the image is sharp and clean (except during optical sections, like the lengthy title sequence). Some sequences exhibit more grain than others.
Scorpion's extras begin with a very good, if overlong, interview with screenwriter Jonathan Lynn, who talks about this early credit in his career and what it was like to work for Barry Levinson. The Coburn character was originally planned to be Russian or German, an idea that was dropped early on. Lee Grant also appears in a brief interview that consists of little more than an anecdote. James Coburn's daughter Lisa offers an audio appreciation of her father's work on this film and others, and tells us that she thinks he's best when playing a bad guy.
An original trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Internecine Project rates:
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