‘Assassin’ or — Precociously Pretentious?
‘Assassin’ (1973) is a deeply infuriating, frequently boring, scrappy, heavily flawed movie with ideas well above its station. It’s feels like it was made by some students not long out of film school with something to prove combined with a strong grasp of the theory but still very rough around the edges when it comes to practical execution and/or script refinement. The good news is that’s all very much part of its charm. It’s not ‘Get Carter’ (1971), even if it strives for that level, but it’s certainly a film of real, if limited, interest.
Ian Hendry plays a nameless assassin, presumably working for the British government. At the last minute he is assigned to an urgent job. The assassin sees this as his one last mission before getting out for good, his previous job having left him scarred in a number of ways.
As we watch the hitman meticulously prepare we also follow his target (Frank Windsor) as he drinks and socialises with his co-workers, one of whom is getting married in the morning. We’re not quite sure what the victim’s line of work is but we witness drunken resentments concerning promotions spilling over.
Hendry’s assassin has two colleagues/rivals/handlers who secretly keep an eye on his progress, possibly ready to step in and take over the job for themselves if he slips-up or maybe for other, more sinister reasons.
Will the assassin eliminate his target? Will the labyrinthine world of inhuman systems in which he exists ultimately prove more fatal than he does? Or maybe this assassin has more tricks up his sleeve than even we, his silent watchers, are aware of?
‘Assassin’ plays out very much as your typical study of an emotionally detached hitman on a job or mission very much along the lines of Boorman’s ‘Point Blank’ (1967), Siegel’s ‘The Killers’ (1964) or his previous ‘The Lineup’ (1958). Throw in a heavy dose of le Carré-esque secret service machinations, some Godardian ‘Alphaville’ (1965) urban, nocturnal stylings and a dash of Antonioni architectural alienation and it means that there’s plenty of influences abounding but not much originality.
The pacing is also a bit of a chore with the film frequently stopping dead in its tracks for scenes that I’m sure the director and writer thought were deeply important (we get to see an isolated hitman alone with his unspoken thoughts) but play out as deeply dull (we get to watch Ian Hendry smoking a lot with his shirt off).
The script is also somewhat amateurish often consisting of lines the writer must’ve thought constituted clever dialogue but doesn’t quite fully succeed or convince so it all comes across smart-assed as opposed to smart. I guess ‘contrived’ would be applicable here.
So overall ‘Assassin’ is no great shakes, even if there’s some decent bursts of flair, a fine cast, loads of ambition and real, if rough, genuine talent on display.
Then, in the final act, there’s a really cool and totally surprising development that suddenly turns everything upside down and recalibrates the entire movie. I won’t spoil it but it’s the sort of twist (or maybe ‘left-turn’ would be more accurate) someone like, say, Tarantino or Guy (ugh!) Ritchie would kill use in a heartbeat. Again, it’s not super mind-blowing, and is still also highly contrived, but it’s strong enough to usher a “Now that’s pretty cool!” from the viewer and propel the movie satisfyingly along to the closing credits.
‘Assassin’ is a low budget, British thriller that sporadically works, occasionally falls flat on its face and feels very much like a young director’s calling-card searching for more work. And, for its director Peter Crane, it worked! After this, he would travel to Hollywood where he would carry on his career directing episodes of er… ‘BJ and the Bear’, ‘The Fall Guy’ and ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Ah, I think all the above makes sense now.