Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) has spent his forty-three years on this planet without knowing something vital about himself. He is well aware that his mother Althene (Lilli Palmer) had married a high-ranking Nazi during the war, and that he was Noel's parent, but the officer had committed suicide in 1945 and as far as Noel was concerned that was all he had to do with his natural father, as soon after his mother had taken him to America and started a new life there. But when he is contacted by Ernst Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale) and invited to go to Switzerland, he cannot imagine what he has to tell him...
Author Robert Ludlum won a renewed charge of popularity when his Bourne novels were adapted for a series of blockbusting action thrillers starring Matt Damon, but that success arrived a little late for The Holcroft Covenant, a largely forgotten effort from the eighties which attempted to condense his plotting into under two hours of suspense. The result, as is so often the case, pleased few, with the Ludlum fans unimpressed and not much in the way of critical or audience acclaim, many complaining that what they had watched made little sense. It's not impenetrable, but in these hands it was hard to believe.
Production hit a snag when original star James Caan deserted them and the distinctly non-American Michael Caine was an eleventh hour replacement: in the Sean Connery manner, he doesn't have a go at the accent, which leaves the frequent references in the dialogue to him being from the United States somewhat baffling to those who are unaware of why he was chosen for the role. Actually, Caine suits this kind of spy thriller, so it wasn't him who was at fault, but the script which too often falls back on having Noel show up at some location and have the plot so far explained to him; by about the fifth time this occurs you start to feel understandably restless, as when the entire story could have been reduced to a series of telephone calls excitement isn't on the cards.
OK, it's not all like that, as every so often there are bursts of action, but they're not enough to generate pulse-pounding tension. The news that Holcroft receives turns out to be that he is due to inherit quite a bit of money thanks to his father's machinations, four-and-a-half billion dollars to be exact, which surprises him to say the least. But it's not a case of signing a piece of paper and having the cash handed over to him - oh, wait, it is a case of signing a piece of paper, it's just that the Nazi had two other officers in on this scheme and their offspring have to sign on the dotted line as well. This would be far less complicated if someone simply told Holcroft the whole story on that first meeting, of course.
But then the film wouldn't have the excuse to jet around Europe as Holcroft visits yet more contacts, and you can kid yourself you're watching an adventure on a James Bond level of international allure. But James Bond never ended up at a Berlin sex parade, one of the more bizarre sequences in the film where Holcroft and one of the other inheritors, Helden (Victoria Tennant) wind up amidst some barely clothed (and some completely starkers) bodies as the bad guys attempt to track them down. That's not all that odd about this, as not only does a lot of it not ring true, after a while you might begin to wonder what the filmmakers were thinking. Director John Frankenheimer had handled some classic thrillers in the past, but there was no sign of that assurance here, what with Bernard Hepton trying to swear without sounding self-conscious and Stanislas Syrewicz's score weirdly lapsing into two tunes playing at once. The Ming the Merciless motive for the bad guys at the end didn't help credibility, either.