Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Sell-Out (1976)

          Offering a textbook definition of how much value familiar genre elements and slick location photography can add to a picture, the international-espionage thriller The Sell-Out is fairly watchable despite indifferent leading performances, sluggish pacing, and a turgid storyline. Whenever the movie seems to be running out of gas, director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job) and his collaborators unleash a chase scene, a shootout, or some other intense event. So, even though The Sell-Out isn’t particularly interesting, the filmmakers do their best to make sure that boredom is held at bay. They don’t always succeed, so most viewers will experience fatigue midway through the picture, but The Sell-Out is, more or less, a respectable enterprise. Oliver Reed, sporting a clumsy accent to play an American, stars as Gabriel Lee, a spy who defected from the U.S. to Russia but has now landed in Israel. After operatives from the CIA and the KGB try to kill Gabriel, alerting him that he’s no longer traveling incognito, Gabriel phones his old CIA mentor, Sam Lucas (Richard Widmark), who has retired from the spy game and now lives in Israel. Convenient! Things get emotionally complicated because Sam’s live-in girlfriend, Deborah (Gayle Hunnicut), used to be with Gabriel, and there’s still a weirdly sadomasochistic spark between Deborah and Gabriel. (This makes Sam understandably insecure, she’s he’s old enough to be Deobrah’s father, while Gabriel is roughly Deborah’s age.)
          The makers of The Sell-Out can’t quite decide whether they’re after a character-driven story in the mode of John Le Carre or a lusty adventure in the style of Ian Fleming, so they toggle back and forth between these extremes. Generally speaking, the cartoonish Fleming-style stuff works better, thanks to extensive use of Israeli locations (including the Wailing Wall) and thanks to a fun supporting performance by Vladek Sheybal as a cold-blooded mercenary nicknamed “The Dutchman.” Whenever the movie shifts into overdrive, with Reed grimacing in between automotive bang-ups and near-miss gunshots, The Sell-Out has a decent pulpy vibe. Furthermore, some of the mano-a-mano scenes between Reed and Widmark are tasty, with Reed overplaying per his norm and Widmark seething in comparative restraint. (Hunnicut does what she can with her poorly written role, since her character occasionally lapses into inexplicable histrionics.) Adding an odd flavor to the picture is the score by Colin Frechter and Mike Green, since they mix jazz-fusion jams with proto-disco grooves. Meanwhile, cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson uses sleek moves and wide-angle lenses to fully exploit the craggy textures of Israel’s cities and countryside—as well as the craggy textures of his weathered leading men.

The Sell-Out: FUNKY

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