George C. Scott plays a retired mob guy in Spain. It’s a beautiful, sleepy coastal town, and he’s got a fishing boat and a warily sentimental yet hardbitten prostitute (Colleen Dewhurst) for regular assignations. He’s not happy. His marriage ended with the death of their child. He’s got nothing to live for and feels he’s only pretending, just going through the motions and waiting to die, so he accepts a job that of course goes wrong—springing a young punk (Tony Musante) from prison who stops to pick up a girlfriend (Trish Van Devere). Her calculating, sympathetic, ambiguous character is a piece of work. The sizing-up that goes on between Van Devere and Scott is of course acting required by the story, but we can’t help imagining we see the electricity that would quickly make them a real-life couple with several more shared credits.
This is a film of doomed characters with the weight of imagined yet largely unexplained backstories, brought to life by good actors and spiced with excitingly staged violence that bursts into carefully paced setpieces. The young criminal is unlikable yet gradually opens up, gaining some respect for the old man while always considering him useful and expendable. It’s a road movie, and a “driver” movie (like The Driver a few years later) as opposed to a “hitman” movie (like The Mechanic, which I mention out of the million others because it has a kind of mentor/apprentice thing), and it’s kind of a Hemingway movie. Sven Nykvist shot it with an eye for placing people in limpid landscapes. Jerry Goldsmith’s moody score features a lush yet melancholy piano theme for Scott’s character.
You could say the set-up makes no sense, because why would the mob spring someone from stir in an elaborate manner in order to kill him? Perhaps he had some info they wanted to torture out of him first. Even so, why take it so far and involve so many third parties? Why not make the information a condition of springing him instead of spinning a yarn about needing him for a job? This whole premise feels as though it won’t stand up to intense scrutiny, which is perhaps the film’s weakest point. It makes the practical aspect of the plot subservient to the existential. Be that as it is, this lean, pretty, low-key, unsentimental item, so redolent of the early 70s, has its own existential and professional satisfaction. Like Scott’s character, it doesn’t want to say much; it just wants to take pride in getting a job done, even when it all goes to hell.