HARD CONTRACT(director/writer: S. Lee Pogostin; cinematographer: Jack Hildyard; editor: Harry Gerstad; cast: James Coburn (John Cunningham), Burgess Meredith (Ramsey), Lee Remick (Sheila), Lilli Palmer (Adrianne), Patrick Magee (Alexi), Sterling Hayden (Michael Carlson), Claude Dauphin (Maurice), Helen Cherry (Mrs. Carlson); Runtime: 106; producer: MPAA Rating: NR; Marvin Schwartz; Twentieth-Century Fox; 1969)
“James Coburn is too stiff for the part of the hit man.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A film that could have been an interesting study about a cold-blooded hit man, but instead ends up without much to say that isn’t banal. What it best offers is a colorful but artificial touristy look at Spain and Belgium. James Coburn is too stiff for the part of the hit man. Lee Remick is bouncy as an eccentric socialite, but her part has few lines that sparkle. Lilli Palmer is a social butterfly who plays Cupid for Coburn and Remick, but her part is underwritten. The remainder of the supporting cast has little to do. The script by S. Lee Pogostin is a weak one, as is his original screenplay, as is his flat way of directing. The film belabors its point about how violence is killing the world and preaches to a snoozing audience how love can soften even the coldest of individuals.
John Cunningham (Coburn) is a loner, an assassin who accepts a hard contract from Ramsey (Burgess Meredith) to go to Europe and within a month must kill three men. In Torremelinos, Spain, he hooks up accidentally with four selfish jet-setters and can’t shake them. Adrianne (Palmer) overhears the newly arrived hotel guest Cunningham ask the manager for a prostitute and she tells this to her best friend, the young widow Sheila (Remick). Cunningham’s thing is that he only goes with women he pays for. Her thing is to pretend to be a prostitute, as she gets the handsome American to pay $100 for her. Sheila falls madly in love with the reticent, controlling, and mysterious Cunningham and when she discovers he has disappeared she gets her Nazi friend Alexi (Magee), who served prison time for killing gypsies in a concentration camp but is now remorseful, to get his people to follow Cunningham. In the meantime Cunningham has disposed of one of his targets by tossing his dead body in the ocean. Maurice (Dauphin) is the fourth member of this tribe. He wears dark sunglasses and has a cane which would indicate blindness; but, his part is so underwritten that he’s not explained at all, he’s just around to be part of the scenery.
In Brussels, the hit man disposes of number two by tossing him out a window in the middle of a loud demonstration about whether French or Flemish should be the country’s national language.
Cunningham calls Sheila from Brussels and tells her he’ll be in Madrid, where his third victim is living. He turns out to be a former numero uno hit man like Cunningham, who has retired with his family to a ranch just outside of Madrid. The 55-year-old Michael Carlson (Hayden) is aware that Cunningham has come to get him next, as he has already gotten his other two associates. When they meet, they talk philosophy. And, Sterling says: “Murder is like going through a tunnel, once you go through it you have gone past it.” Sterling tells the hit man that 15 years ago his life changed, he read a book for the first time and couldn’t kill anymore and won’t kill now even for self-defense.
Coburn rejoins his jet-setters and Ramsey, who came over to vacation in Spain and to make sure Coburn finishes the hard contract. But Coburn has different ideas, as the extended family tours Madrid by limo he realizes that he loves Sheila and doesn’t have to be with a prostitute. He even says, “Murder is obsolete.”
This should have been a noir film, but one with a different cast, script, director, and cinematographer. Just about everything about this film is wrong.
REVIEWED ON 4/10/2001 GRADE: C-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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