The Eiger Sanction (1975)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1975. , , . Screenplay by , , , based on the novel by Rod Whitaker. Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , , . Costume Design by , . Film Editing by .

Clint Eastwood is an awkward fit as both star and director of this spy thriller whose trappings are not necessarily meant to be have the sincere and serious tone with which he delivers them. A film he made to clear out his contract with Universal before beginning a legendary, decades-long relationship with Warner Brothers, it stars the perpetually grizzled hero as a handsome professor of classical art who bats away the lovelorn students by day while moonlighting as an assassin for a top secret government organization.

Thinking he has put his contract killing behind him, Eastwood is angered by a demand from his vampirish superior that he come in for a new assignment: a fellow spy and friend has been killed in Zurich and he is to locate and “sanction” (i.e. bump off) the two men that did it. The identity of one of the killers is known and he is dispatched easily, but the only information on hand about the second assassin is that he is one of a group of climbers who will soon be on a scaling expedition of the dangerous Eiger peak in the Alps, and Eastwood’s own past as a mountain climber (who tried and failed to make it to the top of Eiger twice) makes him the only man who can do the job.

After demanding a high cash settlement and a Pissarro original to add to his secret dungeon collection of fine art, Eastwood heads to Arizona to train with his former climbing mentor , giving us some breathtaking views of Monument Valley before flying to his ultimate, snowier European destination to get the job done. Along the way he beds a few beauties, outwits a villainous and models more swanky suits and flashy ski wear than a professor could ever afford.

The novel by Trevanian (the pseudonym for author Rod Whitaker, who was also himself an academic) was published in the spirit of simultaneously capitalizing on and spoofing the popularity of the James Bond series, and there’s the sense here that Eastwood, while already developing a great deal of skill as a director, doesn’t quite get the joke. Character names are supposed to be funny (Urassis Dragon, Hemlock and Jemima Brown) and character types are drawn straight out of a comic book, such as Cassidy’s unapologetically queeny gay villain who goes everywhere with a dog named Faggot.

As always, Eastwood presents his brutal masculinity with a sexy confidence and without the kind of castration panic that was prevalent in mainstream cinema at the time, but his being so unperturbed by the people around him also contributes to his missing out on the opportunity to have a good time with this one’s jovial flavour. By the time we get to the very dangerous climbing scenes, which feature some pretty exciting stunts (one of which cost a climber his life during production), we’re both enthralled by the action while also understanding that this film has abandoned the pure silly escapism with which it began, trying in vain to find something much more meaningful in its plot than is there (Whitaker agreed, and had nothing nice to say about this adaptation).

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