The Eiger Sanction

Jonathan Hemlock is a government assassin — with a taste for murder.

I’m sorry, that didn’t actually mean anything.  Let me start again.

Jonathan Hemlock is a government assassin.  He’s retired, but wouldn’t you know it, his super-secret agency needs him for one last job.  He tells them, on no uncertain terms, that he’s out of the game, but his Pure Albino boss Dragon (How do we know he’s a “Pure Albino?” why, he obligingly tells us so when we meet him — “Dr. Hemlock, did you know I’m a Pure Albino?” he says, coiled up in his dark, climate-controlled lair, licking his lips from the sheer perversity of it all, looking for all the world like Jabba the Hutt’s sickly little brother) —

I’m sorry, where was I?  Oh yes, Dragon lures Hemlock (these names, I swear, and we haven’t even gotten to Pope, Jemima or Miss Cerberus yet) —

Anyway, Dragon pressures Hemlock into pulling one last — no, wait — two last jobs for the agency.  (Christ, this is turning into the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch.)  Which agency?  Oh, you know, the super-secret US spy agency that crops up all over the place in 1970s spy thrillers — Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, etc., the super-secret spy agency that was known only by its members and all Hollywood screenwriters.

ANYWAY.  Dragon pressures Hemlock into pulling two last jobs for the agency.  How?  Hemlock (who is played by Clint Eastwood, did I mention?) is a highly-trained assassin, he has nerves of steel and the reflexes of a jungle cat, what can a housebound albino Hutt throw at Hemlock to bend him to his Pure Albino will?

The answer turns out to be: art appreciation.  Yes, that’s right, Hemlock, government assassin, is also a collector of fine art, and if the IRS ever found out about his collection, boy then there would be trouble.  When the leader of a super-secret spy organization has to use the IRS as a lever against one of his agents, I think it’s time for that agency to pack up its stuff.

But, okay.  Hemlock is appropriately terrified at the notion of losing his prized art collection to the IRS (and believe me, when a trained assassin tells you to appreciate Pisarro, you appreciate Pisarro!) so he agrees to the “sanctions.”  One is no problem, killing a bald fat slob in a dingy office somewhere in Europe, hardly worth the trouble, but the second, ahh, now there’s the rub.  The second guy, the agency doesn’t even know who he is.  All they know is that he’s going to be one of a five-man crew climbing up a big scary mountain.

Um, now wait.  Your super-secret agency has got it narrowed down to five guys, all of whom are going to be climbing up a big scary mountain, but that’s as far as they’ve gotten?  It’s five people, and Hemlock is one of them.  How hard can it be to check out the backgrounds of four guys?  If three of them are mountaineers and the fourth is a spy, that pretty much answers your question, doesn’t it?

Anyway.  The idea of a suspense thriller taking place on the side of a mountain is a really good idea, and I wish that The Eiger Sanction took better advantage of it.  The actual mountain-climbing scenes are thrilling, suspenseful and appear to be utterly authentic.  The photography is gorgeous (although it is not helped by the non-restored print or the DVDs crappy transfer) and one can only get dizzy and break out in a cold sweat at the thought of a production crew attempting some of the shots done here.  If that had been 2/3 of the movie instead of merely the last act, The Eiger Sanction might have been a classic.

But on the way to the mountain, there is a lot of time-marking to be done.  Hemlock kills the guy in Europe, flirts with a stewardess (who — shock — is not what she appears to be) and then trundles off to Arizona to train for the big climb.  There, he flirts with his trainer (“A girl?” splutters Hemlock when he sees that his trainer is female) and tangles with another rival spy, Miles Mellough.

Miles, I’m pretty sure, is gay.  I could pretty much tell by the way he holds his cigarette.  But the filmmakers don’t want there to be any misunderstandings in the audience, so they heap every possible gay signifier they can think of upon him.  Miles dresses like Liberace, has an insouciant blond curl on his forehead, minces, drinks with his pinkie extended, speaks with a coquettish smile on his lips, can speak only of men in sexual terms, and, oh, let’s see, there was one other thing — ah yes, almost forgot, he carries around a Yorkshire terrier named “Faggot.”  This tiresome character, The Evil Screaming Queen Assassin (I didn’t like it any better when there were two of them in Diamonds Are Forever) is there to, well, actually, I’m not sure what he’s there to do; it’s not like we get any satisfaction in seeing Clint Eastwood kill a gay man (he does reluctantly spare the life of the dog).  He’s a trained assassin, he’s the movie’s protagonist (and director), and he’s Clint Eastwood; how is he supposed to feel threatened by a mincing queen with a dog?

The women in the movie are separated into two categories: blonde and other.  Blondes?  Forget it, Eastwood wants nothing to do with ’em.  They flock around all the time, he’s got no time for them.  On your way, dollface.  But non-blondes?  He falls for them every time.  They’re mysterious and complicated — and trouble.  (Eastwood, of course, would later marry a blonde, and sire another, and blondes and their troubles loom large in his late work.)  There are also not one but two “rape jokes,” which tend to turn up in man-man movies of the 1970s for reasons I’d rather not delve into.

They never really say why Hemlock has got to kill the guy on the mountain.  Why can’t he kill him before the climb starts, or after it’s finished?  There is a serious lack of a ticking clock in The Eiger Sanction, a fact openly acknowledged by the players.  We’re told, more than once, that this whole operation is pointless, and the protagonist knows it’s pointless, and yet he’s got to do it.   This is intentional, and it’s where the mountain comes in.  The Eiger Sanction, in the end, isn’t about cold-war shenanigans or stolen microfilm or germ warfare or “pure albinos” or any of that stuff.  It’s a movie about men and and how they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do, in spite of the fact that it’s utterly pointless.  I’ve got to write screenplays, Hemlock has to kill guys on the sides of mountains (he doesn’t even get a cool gun — he’s  a super- spy with a snubnose .38.)  That, I think, is why Miles is a threat that needs to be eliminated — he’s not “man” enough.  Half-men sit behind desks or recline coiled up in their dimly-lit lairs or mince around with little dogs.  Real men climb mountains and get seduced by raven-haired vixens and kill without asking why and fear the IRS, you know what, they also appreciate fine art, buster.  You got a problem with that?

It all comes back to the moutain thing.  Hemlock doesn’t care about the job, he wants to climb that mountain (we’re told, many times, that he has failed twice before to climb it.)  He just wants to climb it for money and maybe kill a guy in the process.

Why does a man climb a mountain?  A woman asks George Kennedy this question toward the end of the movie and his answer is “Lady, you need to go get yourself screwed.”  “Because it’s there” sufficed for Mallory in 1924, but I suppose times have changed since then.
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15 Responses to “The Eiger Sanction”
  1. black13 says:

    I always wondered about was why they decided to put a retired assassin on the mountain-climbing team, instead of sending one who was still active out to kill all four suspects.

    That’s what they’d do in the real world.

    Of course, then we wouldn’t have had the novel the movie is based on, and we wouldn’t have had the movie. But the world wouldn’t have been poorer for that.

    • Todd says:

      I accept that they have to hire Hemlock because he’s the only man who’s ever climbed the mountain, but I don’t understand why he has to kill the guy on the mountain.

      But at least Hemlock doesn’t have amnesia. That would have just been silly.

      • black13 says:

        Precisely. Just use one of your regular assassins to kill all four before they even get to the mountain.

        You might even want to send Remo Williams if you want it to look like a series of accidents. 🙂

        • Todd says:

          I buy that Eastwood doesn’t want to go around indiscriminately killing people. What I don’t buy is why he doesn’t say to his agency “You don’t know which one the guy is? Fine, I’ll wait ’til you do.” It only makes sense for him to kill the guy on the mountain if there’s a giant bomb hidden at the top of the mountain and he’s going to blow up the world when he gets there or the president is also climbing on the mountain and the guy is going to kill him or something like that.

          There’s a scene in Act III where Eastwood’s agency contact, Pope, shows up and blows his cover, forcing him to do the job, because now the guy knows who Eastood is. So Eastwood is, theoretically, now acting in self-defense. This would have been a great scene — in Act I, when Eastwood is having doubts about the job. In Act III it’s too late, it feels artificial.

  2. teamwak says:

    Ooo. Subtle!

    I especially like the blackmailing the assassin with the IRS for his art collection. All I could think of was Phantom Limb from VB when I read that lol.

    You say Eastwood directed this? This must be before Play Misty. How does he do? Suprised he took a mountain shoot.

    • Todd says:

      Misty is 1971, Eiger is 1975 — in between are High Plains Drifter and the little-seen Breezy.

      I would say that Eastwood’s direction here is really confident. The attention to light that I associate with Eastwood is here a lot and as I say, the mountain stuff is spectacular, he really knew what he was doing there.

      He just needed to work a little bit more on getting performances from his fellow actors. But if you look at the performances in some of his earlier starring vehicles, especially the Leone pictures, the acting can be pretty broad in them as well.

      • teamwak says:


        The man sure isnt afraid to have a go at stuff. I saw Bird many years ago. I always loved that movie.

        I think as a kid Eastwood in the Leone movies was my ultimate movie hero. The epitome of cool. I still rate Good, Bad, and the Ugly in my top 5 films.

        Always loved Where Eagles Dare too. Eastwood, Burton, Mountains, Gadgets, and Nazis. Can any movie offer more?

        • Todd says:

          You think less of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly than users of the Internet Movie Database, who place it at #4.. Under The Godfather and (!) The Shawshank Redemption.

          • dougo says:

            This reminds me to update my list on


          • teamwak says:

            I wonder what the exclamation mark denotes? 🙂

            Shawshank is real chicken soup for the soul movie. Its been a mainstay of the top 3 since forever. Do gems like “Get busy living, or get busy dying” not make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? 😉

            Glad to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has climbed a few places since I last checked. And my 2nd favourite comedy Dr Strangelove is doing well as well.

            As much as I enjoyed last year The Departed, it didnt deserve the Best Picture Oscar nor position 66. Above Raging Bull and Aliens!! Bloody Hell!!

            • Todd says:

              Hey, I love Shawshank. I was just shocked to see it at number four. Above, you know, Citizen Kane for instance. How many times did Frank Darabont get to vote, anyway?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Acclaimed actor Jack Cassidy really confused audiences by holding back on his better-known hard, macho side and playing something more theatrical with flourishes – “gay”. Who would have guessed it?

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    This is a thriller I avoided back then because (among many reasons) I knew ahead of time that there was no secret underground lair within the mountain.

  5. perich says:

    Believe it or not, the straw that broke my suspension of disbelief on this movie: how an albino gets to be the head of a spy agency. Which college did he go to? How does he network at Arlington dinner parties? Was there no qualified candidate who could go out in daylight?

    • Todd says:

      Well, this particular spy network doesn’t seem to have hired from the usual talent pool — the guy running Clint’s spy network seems to have gone to Evil University and majored in Slimy Demeanor with a minor in Malevolence.