Paris, and a U.S. drugs agent has just been murdered by the men he was meant to be spying upon when they crushed him against a bollard with their car and retrieved the evidence he was carrying. Making things tricky for his co-worker at the embassy Steve Ventura (Anthony Quinn) is that while this is happening, he has been sleeping with the deceased’s wife Rita (Alexandra Stewart) for they have been conducting an affair for some time now and the husband never suspected. He leaves behind his wife and their young son, and Ventura is the man to break the news to them, wracked with guilt and ready to pack the whole job in, but something makes him pause before doing so: he knows who was behind the killing, and may be able to exact revenge…
The Marseille Contract was also called The Destructors, though the original title was presumably used to make the potential audience think of the exciting time they had watching The French Connection three years before, though it did sound a little staid hence the renaming to something more dynamic later. It was a co-production between Britain and France, with Quinn as the regulation imported star to Europe, and he suited the glum tone of a thriller whose downbeat demeanour tended to work against the tension that may have been possible with such a second hand plot. It was merely one of any number of would-be gritty crime dramas that spread like a rash over European cinema of the era.
Quinn as Ventura was ostensibly our leading man, but what was this? After about half an hour he had a rival to his protagonist status in the shape of Michael Caine, who was top billed and once the movie had gotten into the latter half, you would understand why. In its favour, director Robert Parrish offered up some muscular action sequences (assisted by Rémy Julienne for the vehicular scenes), though they were too few and far between, but Quinn escaping his assassins by racing through a Paris railway station and its surroundings in the early stages promised more thrills than the film was eventually able to deliver. Nevertheless, if he was somewhat dour and not as vital as he could be, Caine certainly took up the slack when he had his chances to shine.
As the amoral hitman John Deray, Caine brought a genuine charisma and dark humour to the character that the proceedings just about capitalised on, brought in by Ventura to perform the killing on the sophisticated crime lord Jacques Brizard, who was played by James Mason putting on an Inspector Clouseau accent (Caine didn’t bother with that, he was his usual Cockney self). We know Brizard is enjoying a lavish lifestyle because he was regularly contrasted with the down at heel lifestyle of Ventura, living it up in a large country mansion with his family, hosting dinner parties and dances, and only occasionally ordering his underlings to go off and orchestrate their big money deals in cocaine and heroin.
Deray insinuates himself into this world after a spot of motorised flirting with Brizard’s daughter Lucienne (Maureen Kerwin), racing along rural roads in the South of France until she is interested in him. Being a cold hearted sort, he is willing to seduce her as a method of inviting himself to her father’s home where he hobnobs with his family and friends, getting into a loaded discussion about what he thinks about threats to the environment: “Overpopulation” is his reply, and he thinks the solution isn’t contraception or abortion but simply killing people who he thinks are surplus. If this didn’t set alarm bells ringing in Brizard’s mind who knows what would, and so it is he twigs Deray has been sent to kill him, so tries to buy him for his side. Caine demonstrated why he was sought after for parts such as this, stealing the film from everyone else with deceptive ease in spite of spending some of it in double denim, but not quite enough to lift what was more or less one example of hundreds in much the same vein. Still, his fans would appreciate him. Music by Roy Budd (sounding a bit Get Carter in places, as was only fair).