We continue our look back at the 1970s films of Michael Caine – this time it’s 1974’s The Marseille Contract, also known as The Destructors.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’m taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for The Marseille Contract lay ahead…
Directed by: Robert Parrish (Fire Down Below, The Bobo, Casino Royale (1967 version, and only the scenes featuring Peter Sellers and Orson Welles) and, the delightfully named, A Town Called Bastard)
Tagline: The upper class of the underworld…they play the game of sudden death!
Other Featured Geezers: Anthony Quinn as Steve Ventura, James Mason as Jacques Brizard, Maurice Ronet as Inspector Briac, Alexandra Stewart as Rita, Maureen Kerwin as Lucienne and Catherine Rouvel as Brizard’s mistress.
What’s it all About, Alfie?: Steve Ventura (Anthony Quinn), the French station head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, resorts to hiring a hitman to assassinate Jacques Brizard (James Mason), an untouchable drug baron who recently killed one of Ventura’s men. To Ventura’s surprise this assassin turns out to be none other than his old friend John Deray (Michael Caine). Deray accepts Ventura’s “Marseille contract” and thus becomes embroiled in Brizard’s glamorous yet dangerous criminal world of sexy car chases, ten pin bowling and casually pushing blokes off tall building sites.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Caine-ness: Caine is first billed but doesn’t appear onscreen until around 25 minutes in. We get an intriguing description of him right before we first see him; “a very cautious man, we know of several killings that he was involved in, when he works he gets good money, he has many women, he lives alone, drives fast cars…”
Then the film cuts to Caine’s John Deray with a magnifying thing bunged in his eye, tinkering with a record player, and rocking the double denim look.
At this stage in Caine’s career, I would have expected to have seen him in the more central Quinn role (and not wearing double denim), but instead he’s effectively the second lead. However, the odd way that the film is structured does mean that the film becomes Caine’s story for the middle 30 minutes as Quinn’s character disappears from the narrative before popping up again for the last act.
John Deray is arguably the most James Bond-y that Caine has been, especially since his own famous spy character, Harry Palmer, was very much the down to earth anti-Bond. He’s stylish (okay, maybe that aforementioned denim is debatable), suavely cocky and a brutally efficient killer. In an extremely Bondian scene Deray flirts with an attractive young woman through the medium of sports car racing on winding French country roads, which evoked strong memories of a similar sequence in Goldeneye many years later.
Deray also gets to deliver his fair share of tasteless quips directed at corpses. After a man tries to kill him by asking for directions, whilst hiding a gun under their map, Caine twigs what’s going on and, just like Han Solo, shoots first before saying chirpily to the dead bloke; “it’s right there” and pointing at the map. Later when he’s on the phone and a dead body falls out of his cupboard he says calmly; “Somebody just dropped in”. Classic top-drawer hitman banter.
Caine, or at least his stuntman, gets a fair bit of action to do in this one too. There’s motorbiking down lots of steps, speedy van driving, blowing up cars and a spot of bowling too. “You should see me tap dance”, he says at one point…but sadly doesn’t follow through on that particular promise.
Caine seems particularly energised in this film and appears to be having fun. Unless I’m forgetting, I don’t think that we actually get any signature shouty Caine in this one. His John Deray is a very calm and unruffled smooth operator. I found the Quinn sections of the film mostly dull but things really do liven up whenever Caine is onscreen.
One of the film’s darkly comic highlights is when Brizard hires Deray to carry out a hit just moments before meeting the target at the end of a short lift journey. In perhaps the most laid-back assassination put to film, Deray simply saunters over to the guy (who appears to be in fancy dress as Starsky of Starsky and Hutch) at the edge of a tall building and casually pushes him over, without saying anything, and wanders off again. The scene gets even better when we then see the man falling from the building and who, judging by his wildly flailing, physics defying legs, appears to have turned into a Muppet mid-fall.
Sadly, Deray ultimately gets killed at the end of the movie and Caine isn’t given the opportunity for some similarly dramatic leg flailing death acting. It’s actually a bit underwhelming (he doesn’t even get any blood on him). Perhaps they didn’t want to show him definitively dying to keep their options open for a sequel.
Does Michael Caine Call a Little Goblin Statue “Sunshine” in this Movie?
Yes, and here he is…
Anthony Quinn was also Caine’s co-star in The Magus (1968). In another connection, both movies are equally a bit pants.
This is the fourth 1970’s Caine movie that has a Roy Budd soundtrack after Get Carter, Kidnapped and The Black Windmill. Get Carter’s score is by far Budd’s greatest achievement out of these, although his contribution to The Marseille Contract is decent.
*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie
Most Unappetising Bar Snacks:
Just look at the disgust on Quinn’s face as he clocks that pile of sad crisps accompanied by a plate of massive 1970s peas and some baked beans sans sauce. He’d had his heart set on a scotch egg and a packet of Wheat Crunchies, bless him.
Best Non-Caine Actor:
Anthony Quinn as Steve Ventura (who is no relation to Ace Ventura and so, disappointingly, never pretends that he’s speaking out of his bottom at any point) is, at least for the beginning and the end, the lead of the film.
I like Quinn, but unfortunately there’s something off about his performance in this. He seems miscast as the womanising irascible DEA agent and, it’s admittedly a miniscule hill to die on, but he really doesn’t strike me as a “Steve”.
He never manages to sell any of his cynical quips, they all just come off as forced and awkward, such as after being told “I can read you like a book” retorting with “don’t tell me the ending”. The worst instance is when a character talks about Brizard “leading a charmed life”, and Ventura responds; “so did my cat…before somebody killed him”. Quinn delivers this line with no trace of irony and instead plays it as if he’s revealing a tragic backstory of cat murder that presumably was the spark that spurred him to fight crime.
Quinn was pushing 60 when he made this film and the positioning of him as a sexy macho lead doesn’t really work (especially when we see his sweaty armpit stains). We first see Ventura smoking, presumably post coitus, as a woman does up her blouse in the background. He then proceeds to kiss this poor woman like a hoover that’s caught on the curtains.
I don’t want to be too mean to poor Quinn though. In his defence, despite his age, he does believably sell his few action beats. Caine might be James Bond in this but Quinn is a proto geriatric Jason Bourne when he uses his newspaper as a weapon by jamming it in a guy’s eye so that he can do a runner. What follows is a pretty decent chase sequence where Quinn gets to kick over some conveniently placed barrels, run up steps, and do some high kicks (all whilst inexplicably still hanging onto that newspaper throughout the whole chase).
James Mason isn’t stretching himself in this, other than occasionally remembering that he’s meant to be French and so having a quick go at the accent before slipping back into his familiar voice. He’s entertaining, but it’s really just a lesser variation on the charming villains that he’s played before in much better movies such as North by Northwest. He does have some nice coloured sunglasses though.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
I knew that I was perhaps in for trouble right from the very opening in which we see some shady men in a car very slowly pursue a man down an alleyway and then ram him into a fence (which he very clearly could move out of the way of, but chooses to just die instead).
My hopes picked up a bit when the title then appeared and it looked a bit like it was in the Scooby Doo Where Are You font. However, my initial instincts unfortunately proved correct as The Marseille Contract is ultimately a bit of a stinker. It feels like this may have been inspired by 1971’s The French Connection but all they took from the success of that film was; you need a cop who is a bit irascible and it needs a connection to France.
Some positives are that they do make the most of the French location shooting. There’s a nice shot atop a building showing off the Paris skyline, and the sequence in the deserted backend of the train station, where we see Quinn’s silhouette running behind the glass on one of the top floors behind a big grand old clock, whilst henchmen search for him below, is visually striking.
I’m not sure if this is the case (there’s very little info I can find about this film online) but it feels as if perhaps the film ran out of money during the shoot, or it had its budget slashed, as it doesn’t hang together as a whole. It feels as if there are integral parts missing.
The plot isn’t complicated but I still sometimes found myself confused as to what exactly was going on and what people’s motivations were. The odd structural decision to switch the film’s focus from Ventura to Deray midway through didn’t help either.
The intriguing conceit that the film introduces of a lawman whose old friend is now a hitman is never developed in any meaningful way as Deray and Ventura are kept apart for the duration of the runtime. What we get instead is just very generic crime thriller stuff.
It’s only a 90 minute film but there’s quite a lot of padding. There’s an unbroken static shot where we see Ventura walk away from the camera down a dock whilst some stereotypical French music plays in the background. This goes on for 35 seconds (I timed it). Nothing is going on in this shot, there’s no reason for it to be there. And then we get the same exact shot set-up (but in the evening) playing over the end credits. Someone clearly wanted to get their money’s worth out of that location shoot.
Trivia: This is the first of Caine’s 1970s films that I’ve been unable to find any interesting trivia for whatsoever online, which in and of itself, is kind of a piece of trivia.
Although you might be interested to know that on the menu of the DVD copy that I purchased it plays ambient seagull noises whilst you wait.
Overall Thoughts: This is a less than the sum of its parts 70’s Euro action/thriller. Caine is a lot of fun as a suave hitman but Quinn lets the side down as the film’s dull lead. It’s not terrible, but the odd structure and unfocused storytelling make this a bit of a disappointment. It’s not worth seeking out but, if it’s on late at night after you’ve got back from the pub, it will do as a passable piece of pulpy fluff.
Rating: Double Double Denim (2/5)
Where You Can Watch This: This isn’t currently streaming, and the DVD appears to be out of print in the UK, but DVD and Blu-ray versions are available second hand as well as in international formats.
Up Next: Caine continues his hot streak of films with titles that start with “The”, with The Wilby Conspiracy alongside the late, great, Sidney Poitier.
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