Assignment To Kill may not have a very high profile, but it is a very tight little package with a great sense of atmosphere. It’s major drawback is the lack of a major star. Patrick O’Neal is a fine journeyman actor – you’ll recognise his face as soon as you see him – appearing in hundreds of productions, but he is hardly a marquee drawcard. The supporting cast, however is exceptional, with John Gielgud, Herbert Lom, Eric Portman, Oskar Homolka and Peter Van Eyck.
The film actually belongs to that small sub-genre of spy films that are not actually spy films. It is a film about a high-flying insurance investigator – in the same vein as Deadlier Than The Male. In this film Patrick O’Neal plays Richard Cutting a hard-as-nails investigator who is only called in on the toughest case. His direct and brutish manner offend a lot of people, but he is effective in achieving the desired result.
The film starts off in the Engadin Valley in Switzerland, and three people are tearing up the fresh powder on a ski run. One of the party falls over. As she goes to put her ski back on, she finds a hand in the snow. Actually there’s a whole body under the snow, but the hand is near the surface.
After the title sequence, the film cuts to New York. It’s a rainy day, and Richard Cutting enters the building of Security International Underwriters. He has been called in to finish up an investigation into four sunken ships. The backstory is explained: Four ships belonging to wealthy industrialist, Kurt Verlain (John Gielgud), mysteriously sunk a year ago. There only lead that sabotage was involved was a man named Walter Green (Peter Van Eyck). Green died when a plane he was travelling in disappeared in the Swiss Alps. Without Green’s information or testimony, the insurance companies had to pay out. But the body frozen in the snow belongs to the pilot of Green’s plane. In fact the whole plane is under the snow. Cutting is sent to Switzerland.
Now Cutting isn’t the only man interested in the wrecked plane. Matt Wilson (Herbert Lom) is Verlain’s right hand man, and he too is trying to find out the fate of Walter Green. It’s not long before both Cutting and Wilson find the answer. The search of the plane and the surrounding area does not find Green. It appears that he survived the crash and is in hiding.
Cutting is the first to put two and two together and makes his way to the local police station. There, the town’s police chief recounts the tale of a man who claimed to be in a car accident – then caught a taxi to Zurich. Cutting heads off to Zurich and goes to Green’s old address. The landlady has had no contact with Green but supplies the contact details for Green’s girlfriend, Dominique Loren (Joan Hackett). Cutting catches up with her at nightclub. Naturally by this time, Wilson too has made his way to Zurich and attends the same nightclub. There he warns Cutting to leave the case alone. After Wilson has left, Cutting asks Green to contact him. She says that she has no idea how to contact him. But later that evening Cutting receives a call from Dominique, saying that Green has agreed to meet him at the train station.
Later at the train station, Green confesses that Verlain’s ship were sabotaged. He was the man behind it, under the orders of Matt Wilson. Green says he is willing to testify. Cutting leaves with Dominique, and Green makes his own way home. Unfortunately Wilson’s men are onto Green and follow him. Green tries to flee but Wilson has men everywhere. Green is killed.
It looks like the case is closed. Cutting prepares to leave and head back to America. Dominique, on the other hand pleads with him to stay. He says no Green – no testimony. As he packs, Wilson pays a visit to gloat over his victory. At this point, Dominique claims she possess a sworn affidavit from Green which relays Green’s duplicity in the matter. Of course, this has just put her in harms way. Now Wilson is forced to find the affidavit and silence Dominique. Now there is no way Cutting can leave.
Assignment To Kill is a first rate thriller with a clever resolution. Genre favourite, Oscar Homolka – who played Colonel Stok in the Harry Palmer films – plays Inspector Ruf a Swiss detective who watches from the wings. Ruf gives Cutting just enough rope to operate throughout the story. Cutting will either hang himself, or wrap the case into a neat little bundle.
The film is not particularly action packed. There’s a few good fights, and small scale chase sequences, but the strength of this film is its atmosphere and European locations. If you haven’t heard of, or seen this film, it is well worth the time of seeking it out.