If Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery, then surely Helen MacInnes is the queen of espionage stories. The Salzburg Connection is based on her novel of the same name.
The film begins with a photographer named Bryant developing shots of Lake Finstersee, then cleverly cuts to him erupting out of the water in a wet suit. In his hand he has a rope. At the other end of the rope is a heavy iron chest. He drags the chest to shore and places it in a knapsack. What he doesn’t realise is that he is being watched by two men hidden in an old World War II Nazi bunker on the opposite shore. As he turns, he catches a sunlight glint from the telescope lens – and realises he is in trouble. He quickly runs off with his haul. But it isn’t long before two men catch up with him (however, by this stage he has hidden the chest). The two men question him about the trunk, but Bryant refuses to talk. Then things get rough. Bryant is kicked backward and his head strikes a rock killing him.
The story moves to the city of Salzburg, and focuses on William Mathison (Barry Newman), a lawyer for New York publishing company, Newhart and Morris. He is walking through the streets as the church bells play. Little does he know he is being followed. He goes to Bryant’s photographic store seeking him. Bryant (as you’re aware) is not there. His wife, Anna (Anna Karina) is holding the fort with her brother, Johann (Klaus-Maria Brandauer).
Mathison explains that he is working for Newhart and Morris, and something peculiar is going on. It appears that Bryant received an advance for a photographic book about the Austrian Lakes – but the publishers have never heard of him, and did not pay the advance. Mathison, who was holidaying in Switzerland at the time, was asked if he could look into the matter. Something rather fishy is going on.
But if the publishers didn’t pay Bryant to take photos of the lake, who did? Mathison and Anna become the innocent pawns fighting, not only for their lives, but to understand what is going on around them as multiple factions all compete to acquire the chest (and the contents within).
The film starts of quite lively enough and serves up quite a few good suspenseful sequences, most notably, on a chair lift and a rather unusual car chase, after Anna had been kidnapped. But, and it’s quite deliberate on the film-makers part, the characters are ill-defined and their allegiances are never explained. This way the viewer does not know who is good or who is bad (and this is very much a film where no-one is exactly who they seem). The problem, however, with this approach, it makes it very hard to sympathize with any of the characters – and therefore care about their fate.
The Salzburg Connection is not a stinker. It is watchable, but at the end of the film, if you can explain who was working for who, then you’ve done better than me.