“Who will be alive when the hands stop?’ is the shrill question asked by the poster for The Internecine Project, an unusual British thriller from 1974. It’s about a US official who is promoted to a high-ranking government post; in order to cover his tracks, he arranges for a masterful cover-up, which almost works. Ken Hughes’s film is one that requires substantial concentration, but the depiction of black ops, corrupt officials and US interference in foreign affairs is one that time has been kind to.
With a who’s who of Bristish character actors employed here, it’s a welcome touch of class to have James Coburn take the lead here as Robert Elliot, who concocts the fiendish plan to free himself of the mechanism of his success. Coburn was a renaissance man, but his charisma and dynamism is tamped down for a John le Carre lite narrative; if you enjoy watching James Coburn ticking off a to-do list on typed paper, then you’re in luck, since that’s largely what The Internecine Project is mainly comprised of. Amongst those Elliot is hoping to dispose of are Harry Andrews as a cat-loving woman-hating hit-man, Ian Hendry as a bespectacled diabetic civil servant and a prostitute.
Sex and violence are largely kept off-screen, but attitudes to woman are consistently awful. ‘Look, you’re a beautiful lady, why don’t you find something to do that fits your talents, like write a cook-book?; says Elliot to Lee Grant’s journalist, who suspects him of all kinds of corporate malfeasance. This is a sophisticated film, and yet, like 1975’s The Eiger Sanction, it catches male-female relations at something of a low. Meanwhile, Michael Jayston plays a scientist experimenting with sound as a means of murder; Hughes’ film is prescient in a number of ways, not least in the depiction of inter-departmental espionage.
The Internecine Project has fallen into some kind of disrepair, but it’s a very original film that substitutes the most complex of plotting for action, and leads to a final, downbeat twist that takes some beating. This would be well worth a remake; there’s a clever idea that gets let down by some of the period detail, but the whole concept would work well in a 2020 setting.