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In search of a breakthrough international audience, Euro producer Kurt Unger contributes a doggedly conventional but energetic thriller to the Euro-crime genre. Puppet on a Chain has a name author, excellent location photography and an exciting boat chase that became its calling card to distributors everywhere. Although not a big hit in the states, it played all over America in 1972 before slipping into obscurity. Critics blamed not the generic plotline but the lack of a name actor in the leading role. Handsome Swede Sven-Bertil Taube is a satisfactory action figure, but Americans didn't accept him in the role of a Yankee undercover agent.
Agents are murdered trying to round up heroin smugglers in Amsterdam, so crack U.S. operative Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertil Taube) comes to town. Local top cop Col. De Graaf (Alexander Knox) is resentful of Paul's presence but his second in command Inspector Van Gelder (Patrick Allen) helps the resourceful agent get his bearings. Paul soon puts paid to the assassin (Peter Hutchins) but can't convince the girlfriend of a murdered agent (Ania Marson) to help him, despite the fact that her own brother is a drug addict. The effects of Big H are also evident in poor Trudy (Penny Casdagli), a twenty-something left with the mind of a child. With the help of girlfriend Maggie (Barbara Parkins), Paul connects the dots between importer George Lemay (Stewart Lane) and drug kingpin Meegeren (all-purpose villain Vladek Sheybal). He eventually traces the crooks to a castle a few miles from the Amsterdam harbor. But agent Sherman doesn't realize that the baddies are onto him -- and will use Maggie as bait to lead him into a trap!
Like a leap backward to 1964, Puppet on a Chain shows us an intrepid independent agent bringing down a criminal conspiracy, through derring-do, the help of a girlfriend and a boost from the evil Mr. Big's incompetent assassin. It's almost refreshing to see a spy hero make a big deal out of low-tech intrigues like sneaking around hotel roofs, playing tag with bad guys in a narrow alley and sending the corpse of an enemy on an elevator ride to the lobby of a hotel. Most of the fights are acceptable and the main action scene with the speedboats in the narrow Amsterdam canals is very exciting. The Bond people probably worked hard to out-do this action scene for their Live and Let Die. At the very least 007 and Co. took a close look at shots where the boats zip over low obstacles in the water, including little spits of land. However, when the hero's boat vaults a barge by skipping over a large log in the water, we'd more likely think that he'd just bust out the entire bottom of his Fiberglas hull. Just the same, it's a nice scene mostly free of impossible stunts. Anybody who has piloted a boat of this kind will be impressed by the high-speed tight turns in the constricted canals.
The downside to Puppet is a script constructed almost exclusively from overly familiar plot points. Guess what the dope is being smuggled in? (Hint: read the title.) Main cop Alexander Knox worries about a traitor in his department, and we don't have to play Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy to figure out who it is. All the bad guys are incredibly obvious, starting with the marvelous Vlaydek Shebal. When Shebal's sadistic but sensible Meegeren captures Paul, he ties him up, tells him too much about his operation and then leaves him alone. Do you think Paul will escape?
Alastair MacLean interrupts this lightweight, escapist genre offering with some brutal touches, some of which are rather cruelly directed at the film's women. The sexist equation is that Dolls = Puppets = Women. Barbara Parkins is the only star face at the top of the cast list and the only "normal" person in the movie, and the script is rather callous with her character. Hero Sven-Bertl Taube is competent but not the kind of hero we invest our emotions in. Our sentiments bend toward Ms. Parkins, and after her exit the movie must run on action momentum alone.
The producer of Puppet on a Chain gathered some good collaborators for his crime thriller. Alistair MacLean's screenplay is clearly the bankable item that attracted top personnel. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard had just worked with Hitchcock on Topaz, Bill Lenny was Val Guest's favorite editor, etc. As with typical Euro-spy and Euro-crime films of the time, location filming in various exotic cities is a major plus. Puppet takes us all over Amsterdam, and augments its local color with one of those wagon sized hand-cranked music boxes, a prostitute displayed in a store window and various settings involving the city as a focus of the drug culture. The masses of young drifters hanging out at a public fountain are real.
Not so the phony drug crash pads and clubs painted with terrible flower power artwork. A dance troupe provides a risible "with it" bit of choreography for a floorshow, redeemed by some great keyboard-driven Euro-lounge soundtrack cues from Piero Piccioni (The Tenth Victim). Puppet shows its conservative tilt by having Patrick Allen's cop character treat drug crime expert Paul Sherman to an educational look at the local vice, scene, featuring various miserable victims of illicit substances. Bob Lawrance's makeup for the needle tracks are excellent, but we know something's afoot when Van Gelder claims that Heroin made a young woman regress to an infantile state. I haven't heard of that symptom; we can't tell whether it's a trick of the plotting or just ignorance on the part of the scriptwriters. 1
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of Puppet on a Chain is a good transfer of this attractive action thriller. Colors can be cold and blacks occasionally bunch up in the encoding, but overall the show looked fine on a large monitor. I have to admit I watched Sven-Beril's hair all through the picture. I'm part Nordic but I never liked the slicked back Rik Von Nutter type blonde hair considered the thing for Norwegians and Swedes. Taube's hair looks great, and I usually never notice such things. 2
Scorpion has anted up for some interesting extras. The editor of Cinema Retro magazine Lee Pfeiffer invites Todd Garbarini and Paul Scrabo to confab for the commentary track, imparting interesting facts about the show. If the opening scene "26 miles from Los Angeles" doesn't look right, it's because it was of course filmed in Holland. An original trailer is included, along with a racy Continental alternate scene in the swingin' hippie bar (the one habituated by middle-aged drug goons).
The package text isn't lying when it says that the boat chase in Puppet on a Chain was compared to the car chase in Bullitt. We college kids of 1970 or looked forward to chase scenes and assumed that filmmakers after our patronage would try to top what came before. The Las Vegas chase in Diamonds are Forever was lame but had one great stunt gimmick. The original Gone in 60 Seconds tops everything for realism, but when the knockout boat race began in Puppet we knew that our puerile desires were being indulged, big-time. Vroom! Zoom!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Puppet on a Chain rates:
1. When I say conservative in this context, I mean to imply hypocrisy -- taking a shallow look at a serious problem. The movie gleefully exploits a salacious story about drugs and sex, yet wants to reassure us that its stance on drug use is a moral one.
2. Off topic, huh? Right now I'd settle for more hair of any kind ...
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