Slick and watchable but badly lacking in narrative tension, this European heist thriller stars a suave Kirk Douglas as Steve, an expert thief who has just been released after a three-year prison term that stemmed from an unsuccessful robbery arranged by a wealthy criminal named Miller (Wolfgang Preiss). Immediately after leaving jail, Steve is seized at gunpoint by Miller’s goons, because Miller has a new job for Steve. Unwilling to trust the man twice, Steve refuses, and subsequently reunites with his beautiful wife, Anna (Florinda Bolkan). Initially, Anna’s thrilled to have Steve home, but then she detects that he’s itching to resume his life of crime—which pushes her over the edge, because the thought of waiting while her husband does another long stretch behind bars is more than she can take.
Meanwhile, Steve takes on an apprentice, trapeze artist-turned-thief Marco (Giulana Gemma), and Steve hatches a scheme to commit Miller’s crime without Miller’s participation, doubling his potential take but also doubling his risk. Especially with the added element of a dogged policeman (Rene Kolldehoff), who is determined to catch Steve red-handed, the basic architecture of The Master Touch should be sufficient to support a proper thrill ride. Unfortunately, director Michele Lupo and his collaborators are more interested in style than substance. Major plot threads—such as the detective angle and the hint of a romantic triangle comprising Anna, Marco, and Steve—are malnourished, and far too much screen time is consumed by nicely shot but pointless chase scenes, as well as sleek but tedious montages of Steve surveiling potential crime scenes and/or preparing equipment for the big heist. Additionally, Douglas disappears for long stretches,with Lupo padding the running time through the inclusion of solo scenes featuring Gemma.
As a result of all of this narrative diffusion, the main thrust of the piece gets obscured at regular intervals, even though the whole movie is attractively filmed at various picturesque German locations. (Lupo makes especially good use of Third Man-style Dutch angles.) Still, the movie pays off well with a zippy action finale, and Douglas provides ample low-key charm by relying on his innate charisma instead of falling into his customary ’70s trap of overacting.