British Intelligence agent Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughn) is tasked with finding the ideal anonymous, disposable assassin to eliminate an international agent on the verge of defecting to the Soviet Union. That man is Sam Laker (Frank Sinatra), an American and a former wartime colleague of Slattery’s, now widowed and making a very successful living in London as a furniture designer. Now be honest, you never expected to see Ol’ Blue Eyes play a furniture designer, did you?
Anyway, Laker is planning a trip with his young son Patrick (Michael Newport) to the Leipzig Fair behind the Iron Curtain, when he is contacted by Slattery and asked to deliver a message that could mean life or death for Karen Gisevius (Nadia Gray), a European agent who helped Sam during the war. But this is all part of Slattery’s scheme. Upon arriving in East Germany, Patrick is kidnapped and Sam falls into the clutches of one Colonel Hartmann (Derren Nesbitt), who demands he assassinate a man in Copenhagen should he ever wish to see his son alive again.
This listless spy thriller was based on a novel by Francis Clifford (a pseudonym used by Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson) and takes its title from the poem In the Wood of Finvava (“a naked runner lost in a storm of spears”). Sidney J. Furie repeats all the split-focus, wide-angle camera trickery that served his classic The IPCRESS File (1965) so well, but this time the downbeat, claustrophobic story stubbornly refuses to catch fire. It was the earlier espionage classic that got Furie this gig, since Sinatra - whose production company was behind The Naked Runner - was among its admirers. Coming off two box-office flops in two years - Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and Assault on a Queen (1966) - Sinatra badly wanted a hit and put his faith in trusted aide/producer/carousing buddy Brad Dexter - a.k.a. the actor from The Magnificent Seven (1960) whose name nobody remembers.
After negotiations for Sinatra to star in Harper (1966) fell through, the team latched onto Clifford’s novel as Plan B. Dexter was similarly eager to stem the tide of lazy performances Sinatra had given in recent years, but his uncooperative behaviour (e.g. departing the set for Vegas to marry Mia Farrow; regular weekend trips to the South of France; a jaunt to California to perform at rally for Democrat Pat Brown) badly disrupted shooting and Furie nearly walked away from the whole movie. However, the film’s problems run deeper than those caused by its tempestuous star. Adapted from the novel by actor-turned-screenwriter Stanley Mann - whose work runs from the respectable (The Mouse that Roared (1959), A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)) to the anything but (Firestarter (1984), Conan the Destroyer (1984)) - the plot is that old chestnut about a decent, honourable man slowly corrupted into performing an immoral act, variations of which range from The American Friend (1977) to arguably, The Dark Knight (2008).
Slattery’s plan is to spur Sam into a homicidal fury which he and his co-conspirators can then manipulate to achieve their deadly goal. To that end, Sam is hunted, betrayed, robbed of his loved ones and generally batted around like a ball of yarn by cat-like manipulators Hartmann and Slattery (and late in the day: James Fox as Slattery’s less competent adjutant). However, despite Sinatra’s surprisingly potent performance (for which he received good notices - ironic given his antics off-screen), events unfold in cold, clinical fashion, seemingly devoid of any attempt to engage our emotions. Even the shocking demise of Sam’s son is dealt as an almost casual aside. Sidney J. Furie has a penchant for characters trapped in fatalistic situations or else emasculating iconic stars by placing them in no-win situations. Witness The Entity (1982) wherein Barbara Hershey is doomed to an unending cycle of supernatural assaults or The Appaloosa (1966), a western in which Marlon Brando sets out for revenge and fails almost every step of the way.
Although Sinatra plays vulnerable surprisingly well, one keeps expecting him to explode into some kind of outrage that never happens. Frustration is the overriding emotion here, one we may share with the central character but still leaves The Naked Runner an one-hundred and one minute exercise in strained patience. It was a minor hit though and led Sinatra towards the slightly snazzier Tony Rome (1967), its sequel Lady in Cement (1968) and the grittier The Detective (1968), all of which better fit his persona.