Film Score: Bill Conti Cinematography: James Crabe
Starring: George C. Scott, Marlon Brando, Marthe Keller and John Gielgud
The opening credits roll over a battle scarred Berlin at the end of World War II. With the Russians on their doorstep, German general Richard Lynch is given orders by the SS to take secret documents across the border into Switzerland to make a peace agreement with the U.S. Thirty-five years later, police detective George C. Scott is put on the case of a murdered friend of his, former police chief Robin Clarke. Apparently Clarke was friendly with corporate oilman G.D. Spradlin, sharing cocaine and hookers, and Clarke’s ex-wife Beatrice Straight also tells Scott about a connection Clarke had through Spradlin to Marlon Brando. The new police chief, Alan North, wants Scott to stay away from Brando, though, and then Spradlin conveniently connects the dead man to a drug dealer. It’s a convoluted case, but things get even stranger when, back at Straight’s house, Scott looks at an old photo of Clarke and the audience can see that he was the very U.S. Army major who’d captured Lynch during the war--then he finds Straight shot to death in her hot tub. Both of them, it turns out, were shot with the same German pistol. When Scott meets with Brando he guesses that Clarke was working as a bagman, and his guess is confirmed. Not only that, but Scott later learns that Straight had gone with her ex-husband on his last delivery to Europe, and finally learns from Interpol that Clarke was the officer who’d captured the secret German files.
The truly bizarre thing about the screenplay for the film, written by author Steve Shagan from his own novel, is how much telling there is rather than showing. It’s really weird. Every few minutes Scott relays information to other characters that the viewer wasn’t privy too. It’s rather disappointing as an audience member to be shut out of those important conversations, and rather jolting on the numerous occasions it happens. And yet, at the same time, the viewer also knows things that Scott doesn’t, not only because of the wartime prologue but also in scenes like the one in which the audience learns that Alan North is actually working for Spradlin--who in turn works directly for Brando. Scott convinces North to let him go to Germany, and meets with a cop he knows there, John Van Dreelen. Clarke’s last act before his death was to write the name of a German secret project called Genesis. Scott hopes he can put the pieces together in Europe. And it’s there that people from the prologue begin coming out of the woodwork. The secret project is, to no one’s surprise, the formula of the title, and what it promises could have a disastrous effect not only on American oil companies--like those owned by Brando--but the world economy.
George C. Scott does his usual solid job as the lead, strong and inquisitive, though the role is not nearly as interesting as others he had around the same time, like Hard Core and The Changeling. Marlon Brando loses himself in his role with heavy makeup and a lisp but, as with everyone else, the screenplay does him no favors. And John Gielgud makes a brief appearance as a German scientist, accent and all. Marthe Keller does a nice job in her small role. In just a few short years she had changed from a sort of baby-faced milkmaid in Marathon Man, to a more angular and interesting Liv Ullman type, though the roles are rather similar. Beatrice Straight has even less screen time here than she did in Network--no Oscar this time, though--and Craig T. Nelson shows up in a small role as a geologist working for Brando. Ultimately it’s a moderately interesting film, but nothing out of the ordinary. And in fact the screenplay, as well as the direction by John G. Avidsen, are decidedly ordinary. But there is one extraordinary aspect to the film, and that’s the ideas espoused in it and how similar they still are to those in our own day. Though today the corporate collusion and lies are more visible, they are just as real and just as damaging to a free society. The Formula could almost be seen as an allegory, not for energy, but for complete corporate oligarchical control of a nation. We can only hope that it doesn’t persist for yet another forty years, and that people will finally wake up to the imminent dangers they face from it every day.