April 1945, and Nazi Germany is on the verge of collapse. Three high ranking officers: General Heinrich Clausen (Alexander Kerst), General Wilhelm von Tiebolt (Hugo Bower), and General Erich Kessler (Michael Wolf), sign a covenant, and commit suicide, before they can be captured. The agreement the three men put forth, is that in forty years time, their heirs will inherit a large sum of money, apparently in the hopes that their children will use it for altruistic purposes. General Clausen’s son Noel Holcroft, a foreign born, American architect, working in New York City, portrayed by two time Oscar winner Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules), is to be put in charge of the money. Holcroft, was taken from Germany, to the United States, by his mother Althene, played by two time Golden Globe nominee Lilli Palmer (But Not for Me), less than two years after World War II ended. He was adopted by his step-father, who had his name changed from Clausen. Holcroft knows the truth about his father, the memory of whom, he has distanced himself from.
The highly regarded, Swiss banker, Ernst Manfredi, a role acted by BAFTA nominee Michael Lonsdale (The Day of the Jackal), asks Holcroft to meet him in Geneva to discuss an important business matter. There Holcroft receives from Manfredi, a letter written to him from his father, as well as the news that he has become the executor of the money, which amounts to 4.5 billion dollars. Holcroft’s father, as it turned out, in addition to being a general, was also one of Hitler’s financial advisors, who diverted millions of dollars in funds to a secret Swiss bank account; an account that has been accruing interest for forty years. Althene is against Holcroft taking part in anything to do with his father. She doesn’t believe that Clausen, and the sort of men he planned the covenant with, would want to do any good, or that they would have felt any shame or responsibility for their actions during the war. According to Althene, Holcroft’s father was a fanatic.
Perhaps Holcroft’s mother was right. From the moment Holcroft’s meeting concludes with Manfredi, there are nefarious individuals who will stop at nothing to keep him from being in charge of the money. Holcroft is approached by British intelligence officer, Commander Leighton, played by BAFTA nominee Bernard Hepton (Get Carter). Commander Leighton arranges it so that Holcroft meets the other heirs of the generals. Helden von Tiebolt is portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Victoria Tennant (The Winds of War), and Helden’s brother Johann is played by BAFTA winner Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited). As the film advances, Holcroft will also meet Erich (Mario Adorf), the son of General Kessler. Do the children of the other generals want to do good with the money, or do they have other ideas as to how it should be used? Not only does Holcroft have to keep his wits about himself and figure out who he can trust, but he has another problem. Oberst (Richard Munch) leads an anti-Nazi group, and he has his suspicions about Holcroft. He is not entirely convinced that Holcroft hasn’t know about his father and the generals’ plan since an early age, and been waiting for the release of the money, so he can become a Hitler for the modern age. Are Oberst’s suspicions correct? The aforementioned questions, and a good deal more will be answered by the film’s conclusion.
“The Holcroft Covenant” was directed by four time Emmy winner John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). The screenplay was written by Oscar nominee George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), two time Oscar winner Edward Anhalt (Beckett), and John Hopkins (Thunderball), based on the novel of the same name written by Robert Ludlum. Harper Collins published the book on July 27, 1978. The film premiered on July 6, 1985 at the Mystfest festival in Cattolica, Italy. Parts action, crime, mystery, and thriller, the movie has a runtime of 112 minutes.
Trivia buffs take note: Oscar nominee James Caan (The Godfather), quit the film the day before filming started. Caan’s departure caused the filmmakers to have to shoot scenes that didn’t involve Noel Holcroft, until Michael Caine, was finished filming the movie “Water,” and could arrive on set. The scenes in the film that are supposed to take place in New York City were all filmed in London, England. “The Holcroft Covenant” was actress Lilli Palmer’s last film. There is a part in the movie where Noel Holcroft is asked to drive a car and he refuses. The part was written for Caine, who in real life does not drive. During one scene Holcroft is listening to the voice of someone named Bernie Sussman on his answering machine, the voice belongs to John Frankenheimer.
I never read the book the film is based on, so I can’t offer a comparison as to which is better. This seems to be a polarizing film: on the one side are the viewers who either find the positives about it, and consider it was worth at least watching once; on the other side, are those who didn’t like it at all, and their reviews seem to overly critique what they feel the film is lacking. I wanted to see which side would triumph in the end. Furthermore, for myself, I wanted to know if there were ulterior motives behind the creation of the covenant. If there were, what were they? How were those who created it attempting to do harm forty years later? While certainly not as action packed, or as much of a thrill ride as the Bourne movies, also based on Ludlum’s work, the film held my interest from the start until its conclusion.