Puppet On A Chain (1971)


Our Amsterdam cinema season continues with the movie that partly inspired “Amsterdamned” (and a section of “Live And Let Die”), and a damn entertaining one it is too. There’s more of the filthy old city to enjoy, along with beautiful co-stars, exciting chases and a surprisingly clever plot.


Alistair MacLean was at the height of his fame when he wrote the book of “Puppet On A Chain”, and it was sold quickly and turned into a movie just two years later. His books remind me of boring trips to charity shops and car boot sales and the sort of thing Dads in the 1970s would read, but credit where credit’s due, the boy could write action. He wasn’t big on romance in his novels, feeling it distracted from the plot, and specialised in calm, cynical heroes up against crazy-insurmountable odds; while there’s a smidgeon of romance in this, US agent Paul Sherman is your classic MacLean-ian hero.


Hippies! Three filthy hippies are gunned down at the beginning, due to them intercepting a shipment of heroin – better get used to marijuana being every bit as bad as heroin in this story. The authorities trace the shipment back to Amsterdam and send Sherman, who grew up in Holland (played by Sven-Bertil Taube, a Swede who also spent a lot of time in England and the USA), to get to the bottom of things. There’s a CIA agent, who’s also his ex-girlfriend, Maggie (the ridiculously beautiful Barbara Parkins, “Valley of the Dolls”, “Peyton Place”), the stuck-up Amsterdam chief of police (Alexander Knox), and local cop Inspector Van Gelder (British “That Guy” Patrick Allen, not even pretending to do the faintest hint of a Dutch accent). Van Gelder has a niece, 22 years old with a mental age of 5 or 6, who fell into a coma after using heroin, which is the reason he’s so determined to help Sherman bust the smugglers.


While it’s an entirely solid thriller, when the reveals come, you’ll be a bit “huh?” Rather than a sensible method of drug distribution, it’s some insanely complicated plan involving hollowed-out bibles, the toy dolls made by Morgenstern, a company that’s been there for 150 years (re: the title, they’re also used by the dealers. When they kill someone, they also hang one of the dolls next to the body, with the dead person’s face, which just seems like they’ve got too much time on their hands. Spend the time you were taking on the face and use it to sell more drugs, guys!


It’s also a lot of fun seeing the streets of Amsterdam once again. The medieval centre of the city is beautiful, and I’m surprised more international movies don’t film there (although perhaps it’s too expensive these days, and why so many movies come from Vancouver or Eastern Europe). If you want local flavour, there’s even a truly nightmarish early disco dancing scene which will leave you perplexed. Tell you what, here’s a photo because I need to share it with you:


And, of course, there’s the famous boat chase, which is even better than the one from “Amsterdamned” – partly because it’s shorter (the later one did drag a bit) but mostly because the stunt pilot they hired were amazing. Some of the turns and movements they do are just jaw-dropping, and the conclusion is both completely earned and quite shocking. The guy who directed the boat chase gets his own large credit at the beginning, which is about right.


You might quite reasonably think of James Bond when watching this movie, as Sherman is incredibly resourceful, smart, good at fighting (how he finishes off the assassin and makes sure he has a million alibis is a lovely bit) and even has time for some amorous fun with Maggie. But Sherman is a tougher character, less gregarious and certainly a bit happier to let someone plunge to their death. Perhaps a bit more of a 1970s Jason Bourne. One thing both Sherman and Bond share, though, are villains who have a predilection for placing them in weird torture/death devices then leaving the room, giving our heroes ample time to escape.


So, it’s a trifle convoluted in places, with some clunky exposition, but overall splendid good fun. It’s the sort of thing that, with a few trims, could be a Sunday afternoon sleepy TV thriller, so if you see it you might not want to pass it up. And, okay, Taube isn’t the world’s most charismatic hero (his relative lack of other credits, being happier as a singer, is testament to this), so I understand why it’s not as well-remembered as the Bond movies of the era.


Before I bail, a quick word about Roger Ebert’s review of this. He gives it a miserable 1 ½ stars, and says that in the world of Alistair MacLean, there are no normal towns or people, only dens of intrigue and criminals. Er, isn’t that just because he’s a thriller writer? Would you expect a thriller writer to set his books in leafy suburbia and populate them with mild mannered accountants? It’s a bit like saying “funny how zombie movies always have zombies in them”, and is a weirdly weak bit of analysis from the great man (he clearly didn’t like the movie or the author, which is fine. Not too many people do, it would seem).


Rating: thumbs in the middle



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