Professor Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is a powerful political mind who is willing to offer his advisory services to governments, and his influence only seems to be growing as fresh opportunities arise. Tonight he is on a television discussion programme, opining on the economy of the world of which he is something of an expert, when one of the other panelists is American journalist Jean Robertson (Lee Grant) who has been hounding him for a story for some time now. Though Elliot is interested in her, he is reluctant to take their professional, never mind social, relationship too far, and while he is happy to give her a lift, even as they talk he's giving nothing away...
But four people who might give something away are about to be of great concern to Elliot in The Internecine Project, a modest but satisfying thriller with outlandish and occasionally science fictional touches which only made the results more amusing. The main setpiece didn't arrive until the film was about halfway over, but it lasted practically the rest of the running time with it proving worth waiting for as the anti-hero, who was really more of an out and out villain, put his carefully crafted plans into action. The question remained: would he get away with it, or would the toppling dominoes he had set into action fail to achieve the goal he wished for?
Before you reached that, we were truly in post-Watergate territory. Elliot, you see, has been selected for a high position in the United States Government which may see him reach even higher, to the top job if possible, but as he plays golf with a colleague (Keenan Wynn) who is in the know, he comes to realise should any skeletons be in his closet they may well lurch out at the worst moment in the future. When Wynn tells him informally but with no less conviction for all that he would have no qualms about killing Elliot off if he were to become a problem, the Professor knows what he has to do: those four people he has been using as agents to get his own way must now be taken out of the picture.
But how to do so with methods which ensure he has no chance of being implicated? Here's the clever bit, he will implement that tactical supermind of his to orchestrate the deaths of each of the quartet, who don't know each other, by their own hands. No, not four suicides, but have them murder one of their counterparts in such a way that by the end of one night they will all be dead, and that high concept provided the main impetus for the intrigue, if only to find out if such a grand scheme could be pulled off. Director Ken Hughes, best known these days for making Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (an experience he hated), appeared to be on more confident footing with a considerably smaller scale than his then-recent works, and the final conception would not have been out of place in one of those television anthology series of the day.
Except this was considerably more violent in places than you would get on the box, what with a hammer murder and a strangling in the shower among other things to contend with, all carried out with the aplomb of a criminal mastermind. Barry Levinson, but not that Barry Levinson, was producing and co-screenwriting here, adapting a spy novel, although even with those imported Americans The Internecine Project was a British-West German co-production, and looked resolutely European in spite of Coburn and Grant taking the leads. He applied his accustomed intelligence to an ideal role, though his character didn't take part in any action sequences or similar, while we wonder if she is a red herring or knows more than she is letting on, and they were supported by a fine selection of British thesps such as a woman-hating Harry Andrews and an ineffectual Ian Hendry, with German import Christiane Krüger taking care of the glamour. It all goes swimmingly as a thriller - until the ending, which quite frankly is silly and should have been changed. Groovy music by Roy Budd.