Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Atmosphere is essential in a crime film....you can forgive a number of flaws if you can feel and taste the atmosphere, and ORDER TO ASSASSINATE has atmosphere to burn. Released in Europe in 1974 and then issued in the US in 1975 under the name ORDER TO KILL (the VHS tape from which my DVD-R was copied has a cheesy video title of MISSION TO KILL...and the film is also known as HEAD OF THE SERPENT), ORDER TO ASSASSINATE was shot in the Dominican Republic, which gives it a fresh flavor and distinctive and atmospheric tropical locations. A number of Euro-crime films have used the general Caribbean area well, from VIOLENT CITY with Charles Bronson to MEAN TRICKS with Charles Napier (and let’s not forget some of the Terence Hill and/or Bud Spencer films which were shot in Florida or the islands).

In this one, Helmut Berger plays an American Army deserter who has become involved with a crime organization operating out of Santo Domingo (led by head mobster Kevin McCarthy! yes, of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS fame), and when he hesitates on a hit of a friend he’s ordered to do, he gets on McCarthy’s kill-list. At the same time, he’s being courted by US law enforcement heavy-hitter Jose Ferrer (I’m not sure what government agency he works for....as an FBI officer, he’d have no jurisdiction in the Dominican Republic--although he talks of “orders from the Embassy”--and he does not seem to be CIA as he’s more of a police sort than an intelligence sort, but hey....who asks questions like that for a film like this...settle back and enjoy the ride!), who is in this film A LOT and has the requisite gruff badass authority needed (and who dubs his own voice, fortunately, as does McCarthy).

Helmut Berger has always been a one-of-a-kind film presence. Rocketing to stardom in Luchino Visconti’s THE DAMNED, he pretty much cornered the market in the field of bored, jaded, debauched, formerly aristocratic characters who had fallen from grace. Think of him as a willowy, upper-class Austrian version of Joe Dallesandro or a more desperate and dissolute Fabio Testi who hasn’t eaten for a few weeks. He has a magnetic presence in anything he’s in, and his long career has shown him to be a very versatile actor and a man who still has the same magnetic presence in his 70’s that he had in his 20’s. A non-traditional documentary was made about him a few years ago--HELMUT BERGER, ACTOR--which I need to see, and which was labeled by John Waters as best film of the year. Here, he’s just right as the man without a country, and even without a clear identity. Dressed in the light colors you’d expect in a tropical area, with his shirt always unbuttoned 2/3 of the way down, he’s not so much a typical tough guy but a man who has checked out of conventional life-as-it-is-lived (and both the cops and criminals are playing on opposite sides in the same game, a game which Berger has drifted beyond) and has nothing left to lose. He’s quite convincing and charismatic as the anti-hero here.

With the usual Italian 70’s crime-funk-jazz soundtrack, a gritty look and feel to both the photography and the locations and sets, a plot where pretty much everyone winds up dead (oh, pardon me....spoiler!), and the gravitas brought to the film by such heavyweights as Jose Ferrer and Kevin McCarthy and Renato Rossi (aka Howard Ross, aka Red Ross), ORDER TO ASSASSINATE delivers the goods. I’m surprised to see it get mediocre or negative reviews among the few writeups found for it (mostly by Eurocrime completists). Let me put it this way, anyone who would get excited about the prospect of seeing Helmut Berger circa 1974 as an existential hit-man in an Italian crime film shot in the Dominican Republic with Jose Ferrer as a burned-out cop and Kevin McCarthy as a gleeful mob boss....and I would assume we could count many BTC readers in that category....will get EXACTLY what you’d want from this film. Since I have two hands, I’ll give it two thumbs up.

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