Clint Eastwood’s career is full of so many films that are both critical and economic successes (particularly of late) that it’s easy to forget there was once a time where his name was not synonymous with big budget prestige pictures but with “Man’s Man” action films. Eastwood’s first three directorial efforts-the successful but low-budget thriller Play Misty For Me, the spooky Western High Plains Drifter and the mid-life crisis drama Breezy did not exactly fit into the same category as the films he was known for as an actor-relatively straight forward action driven films. The Eiger Sanction brings Eastwood the director firmly into the territory he trod as an actor-aside from, perhaps, the rather spectacular climbing sequences, this film could just as easily be the work of frequent Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
Adapted from the 1972 bestseller of the same title by Trevanian, the film follows Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood) an expert mountain climber and art professor, who just happens to also be a collector of stolen masterpieces and former contract killer for an American secret agency, C2. When Russian agents murder a C2 agent to steal a microfilm containing germ warfare information, the head of C2, Dragon (Thayer David, Journey to the Center of the Earth) sends his unpleasant errand boy Pope (Gregory Walcott, Plan 9 From Outer Space) to bring Hemlock to his offices. When he arrives, Dragon blackmails Hemlock into action to “sanction” the man responsible by threatening to report Hemlock’s collection of priceless paintings to the IRS and offering him a fee big enough to purchase a painting that has just come on the black market. For his usual fee and a letter protecting his collection, Hemlock kills the men-but on his way back he meets stewardess Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee, The Great Silence). After a night of awkward love-making that includes far too much joking about rape, Hemlock awakes to find that Brown has stolen his fee-and his letter of ownership of his collection.
Back at Dragon’s offices we find out that there is a second man who set up Hemlock’s friend. C2 believes that this second man must also be sanctioned-but is not sure of his identity. All that is known is that he’s another mountain climber, who walks with a limp, and who is planning to scale the deadly north face of Eiger, a mountain in Switzerland that Hemlock tried twice to scale, and failed both times. Hemlock is reluctant to take the mission, but Dragon then reveals that the murdered agent was Hemlock’s friend and colleague Henri Bach. Hemlock agrees to take the mission for $100,000 and a chance to kill Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy, The Phantom of Hollywood), the man who betrayed Hemlock and Bach in Indochina.
Hemlock goes into training for the climb with his old climbing trainer and friend, Ben Bowman (George Kennedy, Strait-Jacket). Mellough interrupts Bowman’s training program of running and climbing after “Indian” beauty George (Brenda Venus, Deathsport) to offer Hemlock the target’s identity…for the price of his life. Hemlock is unwilling to take this deal and soon faces the threat of the deadly climb-without knowing which of the three other climbers is the target. Worse, Pope blows Hemlock’s cover-will he be able to survive the climb when his target knows who he is?
The Eiger Sanction, if judged merely on its script, is a dud. The “amusing” dialogue that is to show off Hemlock’s alleged wit falls flat every time, although at least part of the blame is the acting. The more outlandish spy fiction elements-the silly names such as Jemima Brown, Dragon and Hemlock, seem out-of-place with the very realistic action sequences. How does an albino, germ-phobic ex-Nazi head of an American secret agency fit in a film where the lead and director climbs mountains on camera? The film’s dated attitudes about gender, race and sexual orientation spring right from the pulp source material, with Hemlock sleeping with “Jemima” Brown while joking about rape and getting George as a prize for climbing the mountain as part of his training. Miles Mellough is the most flaming ex-Special Forces op you’ll ever meet. Somehow this commando and secret agent ends up hiding behind his bodyguard and shrinks from danger (he also has a dog named Faggot). Eastwood miscast himself as the suave Hemlock, though the scenes between him and Kennedy contain a suitable friendship and camaraderie, and Walcott is a proper asshole as Pope. Vonetta McGee deserved a better role than that of Brown.
The action, meanwhile, is superb. Eastwood did all of his own stunts, very little camera trickery is used, and he makes sure the audience knows it. The scenery, in the American southwest and Switzerland, is breathtaking, and Eastwood does a great job photographing it. The non-climbing action is also good, with some fist fights, a decent car chase through the desert, and Eastwood’s first assassination showing off his climbing skills while being believable and simple (essentially he climbs in a back window and guns one man down and throws the other out a window after a short Bond-style brawl). The final twist is interesting-it doesn’t make much sense, but is refreshingly different, and enjoyably human. Still, much of the plot felt like an overly elaborate excuse to get to the big climbing sequences on Eiger-one wonders if a more straightforward tale of a government agent trying to figure out which of his three climbing partners on a dangerous climb is his target while trying to stay alive might work better.