Color, 1971, 98m.
Directed by Geoffrey Reeve
Starring Sven-Bertil Taube, Barbara Parkins, Alexander Knox, Patrick Allen, Vladek Sheybal
Scorpion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) (1.78:1) (16:9), Atlantic (Sweden R2 PAL)
Back in the 1960s, nobody did men's adventure stories better than Alistair MacLean. His novel The Guns of Navarone became one of the decade's first and biggest action movies, followed by another pair of high-profile studio "guy movies," Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare. However, the '70s saw a bit of a shift as his stories got darker and grittier, focusing more often on a single man caught in a web of violence and mystery. 1971 saw two variations on this formula; the first was the excellent and sadly underrated British production When Eight Bells Toll with Anthony Hopkins, followed by its crazy international cousin, Puppet on a Chain.
That title comes from the habits of the villains, a band of nefarious heroin smugglers in Holland, who like to hang their victims on metal chains next to dangling dolls. Those dolls are crucial since they're hollow and serve as one method of delivering drugs across Amsterdam in a complicated system that also involves fake nuns, hollowed-out Bibles, and a nasty priest imposter played by Vladek Sheybal, better known as the evil chess master in From Russia with Love and, ahem, Mr. Boogalow in The Apple. Anyway, the story actually begins when three hippies are gunned down in their house by an unseen assailant, who then removes some gold counterweights from a grandfather clock on the wall. Why? You'll found out later, but in the meantime we're introduced to our hero, Swedish-accented American agent Paul Sherman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Taube), who flies in from L.A. and dives into the seedy Amsterdam milieu of swanky nightclubs, drug dealers, hookers, and those aforementioned nuns. People keep turning up dead, of course, and he has to use lots of ruthless tactics like fist fights and pistol-whipping to deal with various suspects. Joining up with the pretty Maggie (Parkins, in between her roles in The Mephisto Waltz and Asylum), he eventually untangles the complicated web, leading to a wild double climax.
Of course, the real selling point of this film is the first of those two climaxes: an insane, lengthy speedboat chase through the Amsterdam canals that must be seen to be believed. It's still one of the coolest chases in '70s cinema and clearly inspired at least two similar scenes in James Bond films (Live and Let Die and The World Is Not Enough), not to mention the very similar Amsterdamned. The fact that Mr. Boogalow is one of the guys tearing around in the boat and firing a gun at our hero (who manages to maintain one expression through the whole film) just makes it all even better, of course. Otherwise this was easily the weirdest MacLean film up to that point, and while the plot often doesn't make a whole lot of sense (good luck trying to logically piece together all the pieces of that smuggling ring), the film does deliver loads of fantastic footage of early '70s Amsterdam along with unexpected segues like a nightclub dance number involving guys and girls shaking their butts to a Hammond organ while wearing body stockings and leather vests. Speaking of which, the funky score by Italian soundtrack legend Piero Piccioni is top notch all the way, including a catchy, very groovy main theme that'll stick in your head for at least a few hours.
Perhaps the most interesting name involved with this film isn't even listed in the credits, though he was prominently noted on the theatrical poster for some reason. The boat chase and "additional sequences" were actually handled by Don Sharp, not director Geoffrey Reeve (whose only other noteworthy credit was the 1989 film Souvenir). Sharp was one of the more visually gifted directors in British mid-'60s horror films, perhaps most famous for Kiss of the Vampire but also commendable for Witchcraft, Curse of the Fly, Rasputin the Mad Monk, and two of Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu movies. It wouldn't be surprising to learn that the "hanging doll" death scenes were his handiwork, since they have that Hammer-style flair written all over them. As for MacLean, he never really had another big movie hit again despite the fact that the next film in the cycle, 1973's Fear Is the Key, remains one of the best, most overlooked thrillers of the decade. From there things just got odder with the Charles Bronson western Breakheart Pass, the so-so Golden Rendezvous, Force 10 from Navarone, and Bear Island, all of which became cable fodder for a decade or so.
Despite appearing briefly on VHS early in the format's history from Prism, Puppet on a Chain has never been the easiest film to see in many countries due to its indie status. A middling full frame Swedish DVD was the only option for a while, but the Scorpion DVD release in 2012 with a fresh transfer from the vaults at Cinerama came as quite a relief after suffering through the same soggy-looking master for decades. The anamorphic transfer looks much more vivid and restores the sometimes electric color schemes where they should be, and the night scenes which were completely impenetrable before are now clear and crisp. Some print flaws pop up here and there (mainly over the opening credits, not surprisingly), but they're very mild and not distracting. The English mono audio sounds fine throughout, and the Piccioni score actually sounds almost as good as the CD release. As for extras, you get a feature-length audio commentary with CinemaRetro's Paul Scrabo, Todd Garbarine, and Lee Pfeiffer. The background info on the production doesn't go much further than talking about the low(ish) budget and a few odds and ends about its distribution, but they do a very solid job of rattling off facts about virtually everyone in front of and behind the camera including some arcane TV credits. Their discussions of Parkins are especially interesting and shed a little light on where this interesting actress wound up when she ditched her career. Also included is an alternate full frame version of the nightclub sequence which some different, longer, and racier shots, most notably a topless waitress. Finally the disc closes out with the original British trailer and bonus trailers for Quest for Love, Girly, The Last Grenade, Skateboard the Movie, and Where the Boys Are. If there's any connection between all of those films, it eludes me completely.
Four years later, Scorpion revisited the title as a Blu-ray release for a limited 1000-unit edition sold through Screen Archives. Taken from the same excellent source, it bumps up in the usual areas with a nicely crisp, cinematic appearance without any evident grain removal, and black levels look nice and deep. No significant issues here at all, and the DTS-HD MA mono audio sounds healthy. The commentary, alternate scene, and trailer -- i.e., all of the relevant extras -- are carried over as well. Highly recommended for '70s action and crime film fans.
Updated review on May 27, 2016.