Fresh out of prison, professional thief Steve Wallace (Kirk Douglas) is abruptly drawn away from a reunion with his wife Anna (Florinda Bolkan) by an old associate. Miller (Wolfgang Preiss), the crime boss responsible for botching the robbery that sent Steve to jail, now offers him a bigger job. Namely rob a hi-tech bank vault in Hamburg with computer-controlled locks and a state-of-the art surveillance system. Steve turns Miller down, declaring the job impossible. He then recruits Marco (Giuliano Gemma), a skilled circus acrobat, to pull off the heist by himself.
Like many a big Hollywood star in the waning days of the studio system Kirk Douglas periodically appeared in Italian movies. Whether a sumptuous sword and sandal romp like Ulysses (1954) or glossy trash like Holocaust 2000 (1977), Kirk's European output tended to be slicker with bigger budgets. Most likely banking on his international caché. The Master Touch was his only Euro-crime thriller. True to form it is a classier production for this genre with cinematography by the great Tonino Delli Colli and a sparse but foreboding soundtrack by maestro Ennio Morricone. It is no surprise Kirk Douglas was drawn to the role of master safe-cracker Steve Wallace. The character fits neatly into his cycle of lone wolf against a hostile world roles. Here Steve risks his marriage with the loving, patient Anna to pull of one last big score, seemingly to prove he has not lost his touch. Unusually for a Euro-crime thriller the marriage is a key component of the story. The tension and tenderness evident in Steve's relationship with Anna, who repeatedly urges him to abandon the heist, adds a humane note. Florinda Bolkan, at her best portraying strong women, holds her own against a broodingly charismatic Douglas.
Probably the least developed character in the film is Marco. Giuliano Gemma, then making the transition from spaghetti westerns to more diverse roles, lands ample opportunities to show off his acrobatic skills. He handles the action sequences Kirk would have likely performed himself twenty years before. Michele Lupo, who made the frothier crime capers Your Turn to Die (1967) and Seven Times Seven (1968) and worked repeatedly with Gemma throughout the Sixties and Seventies, intersperses the drama with breakneck action sequences typical of the genre. Among them a remarkable car chase that stands as one of the most memorably outlandish of the Seventies. However, a silly subplot tracking one henchman's relentless pursuit of Marco wears out its welcome in a cycle of repetitive fight scenes. And Marco himself, for all his affable nature, emerges an inscrutable sort.
While The Master Touch (released in some territories under the alternate title: A Man to Respect) delivers action, Lupo chiefly fetishizes Steve's meticulous planning and execution of the heist. His analysis of the site and ingenious outwitting of its security system are all the more fascinating for their focus on mid-Seventies analogue technology. Heist movies involve a tricky balancing act lest the films veer towards the superficial. If Lupo gets a little too caught up in the minutiae of the heist and loses sight of the underlining themes a grim third act twist gets things back on track, underlining the story is really about the toll taken on a marriage.