Puppet On A Chain (1971)

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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.

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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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Youtube Film Club: Amsterdamned (1988)

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Great title, eh? Welcome to a mini-season of reviews of movies based in Amsterdam, because I’m off on my holidays there in a few weeks and it’s not like any of our other review series are crying out to be completed. I’ll try and throw in a little bit of local information too, and if any movie features the houseboat I’ve stayed at a few times (even if it’s just briefly), then it’s getting a thumbs up and a ticket to the ISCFC Hall of Fame.

This might come as handy information if you were worried about watching a Dutch movie, but “Amsterdamned” is remarkably similar to its American counterparts of the time and genre. You’ve got a no-nonsense cop bringing up a daughter on his own; a beautiful woman who’s inexplicably linked to the murderer; plenty of red herrings; an amazing stunt sequence; and overall both a more violent and funny experience.

A sleazy taxi driver tries to rape the sex-worker he’s driving home, and when she fights him off (although she just brushes his first attack off, really wanting that lift), he kicks her out, where she’s immediately set upon and killed by a person unknown, wearing a wetsuit. Then, really escalating matters, he hangs her from a bridge, where she’s discovered the next morning by a tour group, her bloody body leaving a red trail along the glass top before falling in and traumatising some poor kids for life. This whole sequence really lets you know you’re getting it with both barrels, and that’s before we’ve been introduced to the star, cop Eric Visser (Dutch TV / movie mainstay Huub Stapel). He’s an amalgam of every plays-by-his-own-rules cop of the 80s, and has a charming twinkle in his eye throughout.

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You think, briefly, it’s going to be a buddy-cop movie with river-policeman John (Wim Zomer), but he gets sliced up by our aquatic psychopath fairly early on. It’s Eric and his girlfriend Laura (Monique van de Ven, another TV star and former wife of Jan De Bont), a group of pretty hapless cops and Laura’s psychiatrist Vermeer (Serge-Henri Valcke). He’s such a huge red herring, but there’s no-one else in the cast it could really be, so you’ll be wondering if he’s just going to be the killer and screw the obviousness of it, but…nah, I won’t tell you. It’s fun to find these things out! Even if the justification, when it comes, is plenty dumb. Oh, and there’s the bizarre subplot of Eric’s 12 year old daughter and her best friend from school, who’s psychic and correctly traces the killer’s location on multiple occasions (but no-one believes him), but I’ve got no bloody idea what they were trying for there.

As we mentioned before, no US movie would have is the mix of extreme violence and quite broad comedy that “Amsterdamned” has. As the killer hacks his way through Amsterdam, Eric has a cop buddy who does a couple of pratfalls and is pure comic relief, and even the big set pieces have moments of comedy oddly placed in them. It’s unique, I suppose.

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It’s most famous nowadays, though, for its amazing central chase scene, as Eric finally tracks down the killer to a boatyard, then they both get on speedboats and go on a wild pursuit through the city. The sheer access they were given to beautiful central Amsterdam is amazing, and even though it goes on a bit, it’s a brilliantly shot and performed scene (they apparently had to go to Utrecht for a bit of it, as Amsterdam doesn’t have any of the low jetties that some of the stunts required). The scene is apparently a homage to a similar scene, filmed in the same city, from 1971’s “Puppet On A Chain”, which we’ll be covering as soon as we find a copy. Even down to the colour of the boats, which is an impressive touch.

It’s by no means cheap, either. They sink a boat and shoot real diving footage in the wreck, for heaven’s sake! And there’s an impressive attention to detail which a lower-budget production wouldn’t bother with – a case in point. A boat with a brass band on it is featured during the chase, and the conductor of the band is actually director Bert Haanstra, whose 1958 movie “Fanfare” (a Dutch classic, apparently) also features a brass band on a boat.

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Unlike so many movies, it doesn’t shy away from showing you the other side of the city. Now, Amsterdam has cleaned a lot of its central city up now, as money has put a premium on every square foot of land, but back in the late 80s there were some seriously derelict areas, really dirty and ignored. We see the entire city, and even if you’re not a little bit in love with it like I am, it’s interesting as an unvarnished view of an earlier time, and to see how the city, while not changing too much (lots and lots of protected buildings) has evolved. Sadly, it’s not all that interesting for any other reason – it’s a completely by-the-numbers thriller, with people acting like dumbasses just to ensure the killer has plenty of cannon fodder.

Worth watching, just. And be sure to watch the Dutch version with subtitles above, and not the English language version. The main cast actually dubbed themselves in English, but their performances are all a little stilted, as would yours be if you were acting in a language not your own. But one final thing – “Amsterdamned” has an end-credits song that describes the movie that just happened! This is one of my favourite things, and I can’t hate any movie that does it.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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