I really am a sucker for films about double-crosses, Machiavellianism and dishonour among thieves. When pulled off correctly, a heady cocktail of minds games, double bluffs, red herrings and dramatic irony supply a buzz that is rivalled by little else. While there is no real constraint on the specific context these scenarios can take place in, they tend to be at their most thrilling when played out against the backdrop of some arm of state authority, such as the police, military, or the highest echelons of government. In this woefully underrated and superbly executed classic, James Coburn plays a prominent political advisor with a very bright future and a deeply murky past, and he has concocted a most diabolical scheme to ensure that the latter doesn’t contaminate the former.
Coburn stars as Robert Elliot, an American transplant in Great Britain and a respected professor who has recently been appointed to a top advisory post within the government. Many years before, he made his living as a spy, and all facets of this other life appear to be long buried, save for his cunning and unmitigated ruthlessness. A highly confident, charming and eloquent individual, Elliot is a hot topic for British high society and media, appearing on talk shows and engaging in a playfully combative dalliance with political correspondent Jean Robertson (Lee Grant), coincidentally a former lover of his. Despite this success, Elliot has a bee in his bonnet regarding four former associates who know too much about his past life for comfort, and he’ll be damned if anybody screws the pooch for him now. The problematic quartet consists of Alex Hellman (Ian Hendry), Bert Parsons (Harry Andrews), Christina Larsson (Christiane Kruger) and David Baker (Michael Jayston), a civil servant, masseur, escort and research scientist respectively. The first three were purveyors of highly sensitive and lucrative insider information to Elliot during his espionage days, and Baker profited handsomely in his science career via a fund that Elliot operated to manufacture a weapon that kills targets via noise frequency.
Over the next 90 minutes, we are privy to Elliot’s ingenious plan to neutralise the potential hazard: he’s going to manipulate the foursome into murdering each other over the course of a Friday night. No trace, no culpability, no one left to stand in his way, life is golden. As he guilts, browbeats and cajoles them into doing his bidding with intricately fabricated tales of duplicity, the tensions mounts excruciatingly. Will the four all take each other out cleanly? Will Elliot get away scot-free, his day in the sun unclouded by past inconveniences? Will him & Jean do the nasty one more time?
What I loved about The Internecine Project is the fact that it’s a relatively small film in scale. There are no grand set pieces or ludicrous suspension-of-disbelief developments strangling it, unlike a ton of other espionage-themed nailbiters. The narrative is contained to Elliot’s slimy episodic lies and set-ups and the tension as he awaits notes and phone calls clarifying that his will has been done. Coburn’s excellent lead performance infuses the film with a creepy detachedness, there is nothing affectedly villainous about his role here. He comes across as a reasonably normal joe, albeit a highly charismatic and authoritative one, who immediately defers to extermination in response to a problem. The four bugbears are people with whom he once maintained professional and interpersonal relationships, but there isn’t the slightest consideration of something less severe, such as bribery, coercing them to keep silent lest he informs authorities of their own dirty deeds, or even telling them some little white lies in order to convince them to pack up and move elsewhere. It is immediate, murderous malignance, without a flicker of emotion. Unsettling stuff indeed.
An intelligent, deceptive and underrated thriller, its claustrophobic and daunting atmosphere is made perfect by the deft direction of Ken Hughes and the eerie, hostile score by Roy Budd, the man who also provided the theme to the outstanding Get Carter (several of that film’s alumni show their faces here). It’s spellbinding to survey the hapless foursome as they frantically scurry about attemping to annihilate the other unfortunate souls, with Coburn’s callous and slick puppet master overseeing proceedings with impatience and cruel indifference to the lives he aims to snuff out. The term Internecine refers to conflict occuring within a group, and the film’s tagline displays a tongue-in-cheek cognisance of how unusual a term it is, defining it as a ‘fancy word for multiple murder’. It’s a wonderful little portrait of betrayal and intrigue, and one that deserves wider recognition. Here’s the full film.