Given the right amount of time, the natural progress of corruption can make even the lowliest tale of espionage and assassination seem relevant. Take Ken Hughes' The Internecine Project, for example. Originally penned as a freebie favor by screenwriter Jonathan Lynn for writer/producer Barry Levinson (no, not that Barry Levinson, but another guy with the same name), The Internecine Project started out as an espionage thriller about a sleeper KGB agent in the US who ‒ upon activation ‒ must dispose of the few people who are aware of his true identity. And while Ken Hughes and an unknown ghost writer or two changed much of the original story by the time it finally went into production, the general plot remained: manipulation and murder over a few dirty secrets.
Here, the late great James Coburn stars as Professor Elliott: a former secret agent in London, where he has established a fine quartet of individuals to provide him with classified information to keep him busy when he's not drinking scotch or arguing with his reporter ex-lover Jean Robertson (Lee Grant) on live TV (look, kids, it's Julian Glover!). A visiting bigwig from Washington ‒ as played by the crowned king of low-budget '70s marquee value guest stars himself, Mr. Keenan Wynn ‒ informs Prof. Elliott that he has just been tapped to become the next economic advisor to the President of the United States. Alas, due to the extensive vetting and investigating his appointment will stir up, this promotion means his four faithful flunkies will have to be "silenced."
From there, the Professor cold-heartedly sets about a devious plan to have each one of his low-level underlings ‒ who have never met one another ‒ kill each other off in the same night. Each would-be spy is then given a solemn song and dance routine about a potentially disastrous security leak, before being "asked" by Professor Elliott to remedy the situation to the best of their abilities. A cynical scientist (Michael Jayston) is asked to replace the insulin of a sniveling politician (Ian Hendry). The civil servant is tasked with offing a woman-hating masseur (Harry Andrews), who ‒ in turn ‒ is assigned with strangling a high-priced escort (Christiane Krüger). Meanwhile, the call girl herself is set to plant the scientist's latest (deadly) creation in his own apartment.
With very little time wasted establishing our characters, The Internecine Project quickly becomes the nicely-paced, well-edited thriller it is. But the most effective execution by far ‒ as well as the best supporting performance ‒ is committed by Harry Andrews, who had previously appeared with co-star Ian Hendry in Theater of Blood the previous year). Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock (who screenwriter Jonathan Lynn is an admitted admirer of), Andrews' shower strangling of actress Christiane Krüger is done so well, one might think the entire scene was lifted straight out of an Italian giallo. Ultimately, it's a darn shame very few people ever saw the picture, because even without the shower murder, it's still a fun (if very downbeat) thriller.
Much like the previously reviewed doomed spy-fy thriller Who?, The Internecine Project came and went without much notice upon its initial American release by Allied Artists (who went belly-up shortly afterward). But I supposed that was inevitable, what with the falling of its distributor (Levinson's production company didn't stay around very long, either), the fact most people probably don't know what "internecine" means or how to pronounce it (narration for the trailer amusingly refers to it as "a fancy word for multiple murder"), and the more "subtle" approach to the bloody nature of politics. When looked at today, however, in an era of shadowy corporate/industrial coups occurring within our blatantly corrupt world of politics, The Internecine Project seems all too believable. And downright scary.
Rescued from further obscurity by Kino Lorber, The Internecine Project gets a new lease on life via a new High-Definition transfer. Again, as was the case with Who?, the source material used here wasn't the best, but the video/audio aspects of this release rarely falter to the point where the average viewer will gripe. An interview with screenwriter Jonathan Lynn is included, and the filmmaker (who is, sadly, best-known to American audiences as the guy who directed Clue and The Whole Nine Yards) has much to say about the origin of the tale, despite having very little to do with the production itself. Trailers for the feature film and other Coburn/Kino Lorber releases are included, as are optional English subtitles.
With a basic premise and very little money to bring it to life with, The Internecine Project is a fetching example of "less is more." It isn't a masterful production by any means, but its stars ‒ particularly that of James Coburn ‒ definitely add their own touch.
Recommended for fans of classic espionage/assassination flicks. (Or anyone looking for prime conspiracy theory material regarding current global politics.)