Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Bourne Identity (Alan Shayne Productions, 1988)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked for a recent (more or less) DVD and found it in The Bourne Identity — not the 2003 theatrical film starring Matt Damon but an earlier TV miniseries from 1988 with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne, exciting thriller direction by Roger Young and a script by Carol Sobieski that reportedly (I couldn’t tell because I’ve neither read the book nor seen the Damon version) sticks closer to the original novel by Robert Ludlum than the more recent theatrical film. The Bourne Identity stars Richard Chamberlain (“back then it was legally required that Richard Chamberlain be in every mini-series!” Charles joked) as a mysterious man who, when we’re introduced to him, is being fired upon by gunmen whom he can’t get away from because they’re all on a boat sailing off the coast of southern France. He falls off the boat and ultimately floats to the surface, barely alive, where he’s discovered by Geoffrey Washburn (Denholm Elliott), an alcoholic doctor who lost his license when his drunken malpractice killed a patient.

Washburn takes all the bullets out of his body and also extracts, from an implant under the stranger’s skin, a piece of microfilm that contains the name of a Swiss bank and the number for one of its secret accounts. Once he recovers, the stranger travels to Zürich (for an American film, it’s surprising to see the umlaut where it belongs!) to access the account and see if he can discover who and what he is — and for the first half of this surprisingly compelling movie the plot seems like Ian Fleming meets Franz Kafka. He shows up at the Carillon du Lac hotel (for a while I misheard the soundtrack and thought they were saying “Carrion du Lac,” which would have been considerably kinkier), where he pretends to have a sprained hand and therefore unable to fill out the registration, so the hotel clerk, who recognizes him, obligingly writes down the name “J. Bourne” and he finally has at least the shard of an identity. He also finds out that just about everyone he meets in the movie is out to kill him, and that he’s able to keep himself alive because the one skill he has — which he preserves by instinct even though he still only has the haziest idea of who and what he is — is to shoot people.

Eventually he gets embroiled with a Canadian economics professor, Marie St. Jacques (Jaclyn Smith), and he takes her hostage when his enemies ambush him in the hall where she’s supposed to give a lecture about international trade. From there the action of the movie moves to Paris and then New York (where a passing shot of the two World Trade Center towers evokes a twinge of emotion), as he discovers that his first name is Jason and fears that he’s really Carlos the terrorist. Carlos — also known as “Carlos the Jackal,” after the assassin in Frederick Forsyth’s book The Day of the Jackal — was a real-life mercenary who was born in Venezuela in 1949 (his original name was Ilich Ramirez Sánchez) and, like Ludlum’s fictional version of him, was considered a terrorist of almost superhuman powers until he was finally apprehended in Sudan in 1994 and extradited to France, where he’s now serving a life sentence for murder. In the movie, Carlos has just assassinated the U.S. ambassador to France and Bourne wonders whether he is Carlos, but in the end he turns out to be David Webb, the son of a close friend of CIA bigwig David Abbott (Donald Moffat), who tapped him for a secret assignment: assuming the identity of a psychopathic ex-agent the CIA had dispatched, he was supposed to travel around the world and take out America’s enemies, posing as a hit man doing this work free-lance, and copy Carlos’s M.O. so closely that the real Carlos would get pissed, come out of hiding, go after Webb/Bourne and thereby enable the CIA either to capture or kill him.

The Bourne Identity isn’t a great movie, and it suffers from the miscasting of both Chamberlain (he’s too nice an actor to be credible as a man of mystery — which is not to suggest that Matt Damon was likely any better!) and, even worse, Smith (one would expect that her previous stint as one of Charlie’s original angels would have suited her better for a thriller role than the panicked pouting she falls back on through most of this film), but it’s a well-constructed story (even though it starts to drag in part two, after most of Bourne’s secrets are revealed, and instead of a collaboration between Ian Fleming and Franz Kafka it starts seeming like one between Fleming and Marcel Proust!) and director Young shows a flair for suspense and action far beyond some more prestigious feature-film directors working with more important stars! Interestingly, this film ends with a major shoot-out in which Bourne kills Carlos — definitely a departure from Ludlum’s books, which kept Carlos alive through two sequels and rematched him and Bourne in book three, The Bourne Supremacy — and the feature-film series based on all three of Ludlum’s Bourne novels omits Carlos as a character altogether.