Sunday, 27 July 2014

Puppet on a Chain (1971)

Puppet on a Chain is an underrated 1971 British thriller based on the novel of the same name by Alistair MacLean (who also provided the screeenplay). A modestly budgeted affair, it failed to ignite the box office at the time. If it’s remembered at all it’s for the spectacular boat chase towards the end.

Sven-Bertil Taube plays American narcotics cop Paul Sherman who has been sent to Amsterdam to assist the Dutch police in the investigation of a major heroin trafficking operation. In fact the senior Dutch office on the case, the rather crusty Colonel de Graaf (Alexander Knox), is not at all pleased to have to work with Sherman although his subordinate Inspector Van Gelder (Patrick Allen) is slightly more accommodating. Unbeknownst to the Dutch Sherman will also be assisted by another American undercover cop, Maggie (Barbara Parkins). 

Sherman knows he’s making progress on the case because people keep trying to kill him. The trail will lead him to a medieval castle on an island in the Zuider Zee, and to a criminal organisation that leaves sinister warnings in the form of puppets hanging on chains. It’s a criminal organisation that has already shown its willingness to commit murder.

Sherman encounters a number of rather disturbing characters, including Trudi, a 24-year-old woman who thanks to drugs now has the mind of a 4-year-old. 

Sven-Bertil Taube is a rather dour actor but the character he’s playing is a rather obsessive and very serious cop and his performance is quite effective. Although he does a very competent job it is possible the movie might have performed better at the box office with a name actor in the lead role. Barbara Parkins is also quite competent although it has to be said that there’s not a great deal of chemistry between the male and female leads.

The two leads are overshadowed by some excellent character actors in the supporting roles. Patrick Allen is exceptionally good as Inspector Van Gelder. The wonderful Vladek Shaybal as the rather creepy priest Meegeren steals every scene he’s in (as he did in every movie and television show in which he ever appeared.

This movie was largely shot on location in the Netherlands and it makes superb use of the Amsterdam locations. The presence of ace cinematographer Jack Hildyard goes a long way to ensuring that this movie gets much higher production values than you’d expect in a modestly budgeted feature.

The movie’s main claim to fame is the speedboat chase, which inspired the more famous boat chase in the Bond movie Live and Let Die. Puppet on a Chain’s boat chase can stand comparison to any similar scene in any other movie, and overall it’s actually superior to the Live and Let Die boat chase. Interestingly enough, while Geoffrey Reeve directed the movie Don Sharp (who had a reputation as an action director) was brought in to helm the boat chase. It’s a very exciting sequence that makes the best possible use of the Amsterdam canals.

The boat chase is a hard act to follow but Puppet on a Chain’s climactic warehouse showdown scene is another well-mounted action sequence.

The only real weakness of this movie is that it probably needed a slightly more charismatic lead actor, not just to boost its commercial prospects but to keep the audience interested during the movie’s slower moments. Not that this movie has any great problem with slow moments - on the whole it’s very well-paced by first-time director Reeve. And while the hero may not be very exciting it does have a truly magnificent villain. In fact it has three major villains and and they’re all memorable and impressive.

Scorpion Entertainment’s DVD release provides an extremely good 16x9 enhanced transfer plus a few extras including an audio commentary. Considering the very modest price being asked this DVD is great value for money.

Puppet on a Chain is a thoroughly enjoyable and very well-crafted action movie. It’s a product of an era when action scenes had to be done for real rather than lazily relying on CGI and it demonstrates the superiority of the doing-it-for-real approach. Highly recommended.

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