July 25, 2009

PUPPET ON A CHAIN (1971) - rare Alistair Maclean action thrills

(1971, UK)

UPDATED March, 2012 - new US DVD release 

What if Daniel Craig was James Bond in the 1970s?

A brutal blond-haired tough guy using any means necessary to bring down heroin smugglers in Amsterdam. With a pistol, and brute force, he's actually an undercover agent working for the good guys, despite his destructive murderous methods. This is a personal favourite of mine for the spectacular, verging-on-reckless, speedboat chase through the canals of Amsterdam that pre-dates many of the stunts used as the centrepiece of James Bond classic Live And Let Die (1973). I was shocked to see how little attention this action thriller had on IMDB.

Movies based on Alistair Maclean novels were sure-fire hits back in the 1970s, fuelled by the popularity of his earlier schoolboy-pleasing WW2 adventures, The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, he then spawned a string of modern-day tough-guy action thrillers, like this one.

After a triple-murder in Los Angeles, a heroin-smuggling pipeline is traced back to Amsterdam and the police's top unorthodox undercover operative is brought in to track down the murderers. Diving headfirst into the seedy world of prostitutes, junkies, pimps and pushers, he murders his way through the bad guys to get closer to the truth. OK, maybe it was self-defence. There's some creepy doll moments too, adding to the weird twilight portrayal of drug-addiction.

Besides the boat chase similarity with Live And Let Die, the hero's persona is much the same as Daniel Craig's present James Bond, but with less charisma. He's not totally heartless, falling for his fellow operative on the case, but he's practically a stone killer.

It's a good opportunity to enjoy a 70s Bond-type thriller without Roger Moore's increasing lightening of the role with awful jokes. A very similar Maclean character is the downright misogynistic anti-hero played by Anthony Hopkins in When Eight Bells Toll.

Puppet on a Chain was usually cut for TV, but in the early 1970s even family audiences could see a little bloody mayhem and even the occasional topless waitress in the cinema. Go-go boys, body stockings and psychedelic nightclubs were borderline classifications, but still allowed for all ages. (The nudity is missing from the 2012 Scorpion USA DVD, though the footage is included as a 4:3 DVD extra). 

The star is Sven-Bertil Taube, who I failed to remember from The Eagle Has Landed (1976). He's excellent, but maybe too humourless for a career in action movies. Barbara Parkins usually played a suburban good girl in Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place and seems ill at ease here, but was also dipping into horror at the time, in The Mephisto Waltz and Asylum. Best of all is Vladek Sheybal whose Polish accent and cheeky acting enlivens every screen appearance (UFO, From Russia With Love, Deadfall, The Boyfriend). He and Sven also brave out much of the onscreen stunt driving.

The big chase scene makes the most of the location, with spectacular helicopter shots of the speedboats charging through the canals of Amsterdam city centre. The stuntwork, particularly the collisions, seems to exceed the bounds of safety of even Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films. The chase scene was shot, second-unit, by cult director Don Sharp (Psychomania, Curse of the Fly, Kiss of the Vampire, The Face of Fu Manchu).

The 2012 Puppet on a Chain DVD from Scorpion Releasing (pictured above) is 16:9 anamorphic, though reportedly offers less picture image than the older 4:3 releases. The film source used looks in slightly rougher shape as well, but it adds to the 'authentically seventies' look, and now neatly fits widescreen TVs. Here's another review - DVD Talk on the the new widescreen transfer...

The other best Alistair Maclean thrillers on DVD:

These include some of the most action-packed thrillers of the 1970s, paralleling the early Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood tough guy films where the hero is an anti-hero, prone to destructive, stunt-heavy action. More love wanted for the Maclean!


THE SATAN BUG (1965) Available widescreen from Warner Archive



FEAR IS THE KEY (1972) UK widescreen


Other films based on Maclean novels include Caravan To Vaccares, Breakheart Pass (Charles Bronson), Golden Rendezvous (Richard Harris) and Bear Island (Donald Sutherland) all of which I haven't seen recently enough to pass comment. But his body of thrillers obviously influenced action cinema for nearly two decades. Many of these rarer films are out in Scandinavia, but only as fuzzy-looking, non-digital, full-frame transfers.


  1. Great post. Nice to see this film get some respect and attention. You might want to check out issue #14 of Cinema Retro, in which I wrote about "Puppet on a Chain," "When Eight Bells Toll," and "Fear is the Key." (This was the second installment of a three-part feature on the espionage films of Alistair MacLean.) Nothing can touch those hard-assed seventies thrillers.

  2. Thank you very much for dropping by. I saw part 3 of your article in Cinema Retro. Now I'll have to dig back for part 2. Info about these films is inexplicably rare, as are British action movies. Cinema Retro is often my first chance to read any hard facts about the making of these fantastic films.

  3. My pleasure, Mark. And keep up the fantastic work on this blog. Love your choice of films.