Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Double Man (1967)

High ranking US intelligence agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) has given the education of his son into the hands of his old friend - as far as a man like Dan can have friends - and former intelligence man Frank Wheatley (Clive Revill) who is now running a school in the Austrian part of the Alps. Consequently, and because Dan's a jerk, he hasn't spoken to his teenage son in two years. Still, when news reach Washington that his son has been killed in a skiing accident, Slater takes the next flight to Austria in the conviction somebody murdered his son to get to him.

Slater is just too right with this theory: his son's death is the first step in a needlessly complicated plan of Stasi agent Berthold (Anton Diffring) with the goal of replacing Slater with a surgically enhanced double.

Very, very slowly, Slater begins to investigate the circumstances of his son's death, following clues to a woman named Gina (Britt Ekland) who may be a witness or may be part of communist spy ring. However that may be, Slater's whole investigation is part of Berthold's plan, and every step he takes only leads the US agent further in the direction his enemies want him to go.

On paper, The Double Man is sure-fire satisfaction. A spy film starring a customarily intense Yul Brunner playing an agent who is also an utter bastard with stunted emotional development (or who just has locked away all of his emotions so securely it's questionable if he's even still human), confronted with his failings as a father and falling victim to a complicated conspiracy sounds pretty awesome on paper to me; alas, large parts of the film turn out to be just dull. For too many scenes in the film's first hour nothing much of interest is happening, unless you're very interested in watching a scowling Yul Brunner traipsing through an Austrian ski resort and stalking Britt Ekland; it doesn't help that the bad guys' plans on how to kidnap Slater seem just needlessly complicated, and not in an interesting silly spy movie way (the film's tone is too earnest for that) but in a "how can we fill these twenty minutes without having anything actually happen" kind of way. Frankly, it's just not very interesting at all.

That part of the film - most of its first hour - isn't really helped by the more often than not intrusive soundtrack, nor by the fact that an Austrian ski resort is not a location that provides much visual excitement (and I say that as a lover of snowy landscapes).

Director Franklin J. Schaffner may have directed some memorable films, but The Double Man again shows him to be an unmemorable director, a man whose films are technically perfectly fine, yet which lack any kind of personality; the film might as well have been directed by a robot.

The Double Man gets better in its last thirty minutes, when things start happening that are at least a little exciting. Suddenly, Schaffner even puts the rather dull ski resort and its strange social rituals to somewhat effective use, and the film culminates in a climax that is as cynical as anything I've seen in a spy movie. In how many other spy films, after all, does the hero survive the final confrontation because he didn't even really love his own son, or would at least never admit it?

For my tastes, these final thirty minutes are not quite enough to rescue the movie as a whole. The first hour is just too dull, everything in it too needlessly stretched out to be excused by the climax. I just can't shake the impression that The Double Man's script only ever provided plot for an hour-long movie, and Schaffner decided to just add forty minutes of filler to get the film up to feature length.


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