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Film / The Eiger Sanction

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"One of our agents has been killed in Zurich by two men. We want you to sanction them."

A 1975 thriller directed by, and starring, Clint Eastwood, based on the novel by Trevanian, with the script adapted by Warren Murphy, co-creator of The Destroyer series.

Art professor Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a retired government assassin who is coerced into doing One Last Job for his former employer C2, the sanctioning of the two enemy agents responsible for the murder of Agent Wormwood (actually Henri Baq, an old war buddy of Hemlock's). While one agent is known and quickly dispatched by Hemlock, the only thing known about the second agent is that he will be on an expedition to climb the notorious North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland. Hemlock enlists his former climbing partner Ben Bowman (George Kennedy) to get him in shape for the climb, but finds himself in the sights of Miles Mellough, another old war buddy turned Double Agent. And even should he survive this, Hemlock still has to confront an unknown killer on the deadly mountain itself.

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This movie has the following tropes:

  • Albinos are Freaks: Dragon is a pure albino who has to be kept in a temperature-controlled room. Any direct light causes him intense pain, and he has to have his blood changed twice a year.
    Miss Cerebus: Mr Dragon does not like to be kept waiting.
    Hemlock: The impatient albino.
    Miss Cerebus: I don't think Mr Dragon's affliction is a joking matter.
    Hemlock: I thought it was rather humorous myself. A spy network run by a bloodless freak who can't stand light or cold.
    Miss Cerebus: Or germs! Are you healthy?
    Hemlock: Shall I turn my head and cough?
    Miss Cerebus: No known infections?
    Hemlock: Nothing other than the usual. Syphilis, running sores and clap.
  • All for Nothing: Turns out the microfilm stolen from the courier was phony information being leaked to the enemy, and the killers are only being sanctioned to keep up the charade. Also none of the climbers were enemy agents; the culprit is Ben Bowman who runs the expedition support team.
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  • Artistic License – Law: Hemlock says the germ warfare formula is against the Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of prisoners of war. Presumably he's referring to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but that only bans the use of such weapons in warfare, not their development or stockpiling.
  • Artistic License – Military: It's hard to believe that the openly-homosexual Miles Mellough would be accepted in the US Special Forces in the 1970's, or that he would be as easily shocked by violence as he appears after serving in the Vietnam War.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Just so we don't feel sorry for Pope when Hemlock roughs him up, Pope makes a number of racist comments about Jemima beforehand.
    • The Cuban hitman Kruger is said to have brutally killed several C2 operatives, and kills Wormwood even though the original plan was to have his colleague con him out of the microfilm.
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  • Audit Threat: Jon Hemlock is coerced back for One Last Job after Dragon threatens to tip off the IRS about his art collection bought on the black market. He then follows this up with an even worse threat!
    Dragon: I should think your collection would be interesting material for the Internal Revenue people. How does an underpaid professor buy rare paintings? Masterpieces worth millions.
    Hemlock: I wonder what the tax people would say if I revealed how I made the money—by killing people for the government.
    Dragon: True, but of course, no one will believe you. More importantly, it won't do anything for your paintings. What do you think would happen to them? I imagine they'd be seized and...auctioned off, made available to everyone. Perhaps Mr. Pope would be able to buy one. Won't it do your heart good to think of one of your paintings...in Mr. Pope's hands?
    Hemlock: Dragon, you have a talent for describing the indescribable.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: An attractive blonde student drops a hint that she'll sleep with Hemlock in exchange for a better grade. Hemlock asks if she will be alone in her room tonight...so she can study her ass off for that test tomorrow.
  • The Bait: Pope makes open contact with Hemlock in Switzerland, exposing him as a C2 agent. Hemlock is not amused, knowing that this is done in the hope of flushing out the killer by inciting him to attack Hemlock.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: Miss Cerebus, who attends to Dragon.
  • Big Brother Is Watching You: Right after Hemlock throws Pope out of his office, the phone rings. Hemlock doesn't ask who the caller is—he just picks up the receiver and says hello to Dragon.
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: Bowman says he's now working as an impresario, and has to check with Hemlock that it's not a dirty word.
  • Camp Gay:
    • The flamboyantly-dressed and openly homosexual Miles Mellough, who owns a little dog named Faggot.
    • Hemlock puts on a prissy voice while posing as a delivery man, so his target will not think he's a threat.
  • The Cassandra: Hemlock points out that Karl Freytag's plan for climbing the Eiger has no retreat plan in case things go wrong. Karl smugly dismisses the idea that he would need one. An unexpected storm comes in and makes it necessary.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder:
    • Miles Mellough offers to betray the identity of the second enemy agent in exchange for Hemlock calling off his vendetta. This turns out to be Ben, who was recruited by Miles himself.
    • Dragon switched sides from the Nazis, and Hemlock thinks he'd have no problem betraying the US government too—he certainly has no qualms about setting up his own men to take the fall to further his schemes.
  • Climbing Climax: C2 still hasn't established the identity of the second target by the time the expedition is due to go, so Hemlock has to climb the Cliffs Of Insanity not knowing which of his fellow climbers may be out to kill him.
  • Compensating for Something: It's suggested that Montaigne is climbing mountains to make himself appear youthful to his younger wife, who is a serial adulterer. The trope is lampshaded by a female journalist who approaches Ben.
    Journalist: Tell me, Mr. Bowman, in your opinion do these men climb to prove their manhood, or is it more a matter of compensating for inferiority feelings?
    Ben: Lady, why don't you go get yourself screwed? It would do you a lot of good.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: Lampshaded when Hemlock throws Pope out of his office, then throws his raincoat after him, saying he won't be recognised without his disguise. Justified Trope with Agent Wormwood in Vienna though, as it really is raining.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The man Hemlock gets to put him in shape for the Eiger happens to be the enemy agent he's looking for. Justified however given that Miles would want to keep tabs on Hemlock, so would go to a lot of trouble to recruit a friend who was Beneath Suspicion.
  • Courier: Agent Wormwood is carrying a microfilm, and decides to Eat the Evidence when he realises he's Being Watched.
  • Cut the Safety Rope: A variation; to get pulled to safety Hemlock attaches a rope thrown to him by his rescue party, then has to cut his own line holding him above a thousand-foot drop. However Hemlock has just realised that Ben (who is holding the other rope) is the second target, and naturally worries if Ben is going to 'accidentally' let go.
  • Deadly Delivery: Downplayed; Hemlock poses as a courier to verify the presence of his target, but then enters by climbing a drainpipe.
  • Deadly Euphemism: 'Sanction' meaning officially-approved assassination.
    Dragon: One of our agents has been killed in Zurich by two men. We want you to sanction them.
    Hemlock: I'm sorry, you're going to have to get someone else to do your wet work.
    Dragon: Please! That is a distasteful phrase.
    Hemlock: Call it what you want: wet work, terminations, sanction...it all adds up to the same thing. Killing.
    Dragon: It is what you do best.
  • Destination Defenestration: How Kruger dies.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Miles (an enemy spy who is an Arch-Enemy of Hemlock because he betrayed Ben and Henri Baq when they served together in the Army) is killed by Hemlock before going to the Alps.
  • Drink-Based Characterization: Hemlock has a Wild Turkey on the rocks while Miles has a frozen daiquiri. Bowman prefers beer, and hides a six-pack in Hemlock's backpack so they can have a drink on top of the Totem Pole.
  • Due to the Dead: After Montaigne dies in the night, Meyer and Hemlock insist on taking his body down with them.
  • False Reassurance: When Miles points out that he didn't actually kill Henri Baq, Hemlock replies that he probably won't actually kill Miles, who correctly notes that's very little comfort.
  • Fate Worse than Death: After Miles tries to kill him, Hemlock drives him out into the desert and abandons him there, despite Miles begging to be shot instead.
  • Fanservice
    • Ben's climbing school is now used by single men and women seeking partners, so there are plenty of young men and women relaxing by the pool in swimwear.
    • George in her shorts and Bare Your Midriff shirt turns out to be Going Commando when she strips off for Hemlock.
  • Flirtatious Smack on the Ass: Given that they're in The '70s, a professor can get away with smacking a female student on the ass while telling her to go home and study it off, while Bowman gives a playful pat to a bikini-clad employee called Buns.
  • Foil: The young and idealistic Jemima Brown is used to contrast with the older and cynical Hemlock.
    Hemlock: Here's to the selfish killer and the patriotic whore.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Hemlock curb-stomps Pope (who allegedly is a black belt in Karate) when he gets truly fed up with Pope's incompetence by grabbing him by the shirt and whaling on him. An emphasis must be made in Pope being an "alleged" expert.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both sides of the Cold War are involved in illegal germ warfare and sanctioning each other's agents, and justifying it because the other side is doing likewise.
    Jemima: And you don't see any difference between their side and our side?
    Hemlock: Yeah, I see a difference. As long as we have Dragons and Popes working for us, how bad can the other side be?
  • Honey Trap: Hemlock is seduced by a sassy Sexy Stewardess called Jemima Brown, only to find the bed empty the next day and his safe open. His payment for the first sanction ($20,000 and an IRS statement saying his paintings are legit) has been stolen, to ensure Hemlock will take the second sanction.
  • Hostile Weather: A foehn blows up from the other side of the mountain (where the climbers can't see it until it's on top of them) creating hazardous ice conditions.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Miles and his Manly Gay bodyguard are pursuing Hemlock on a dirt road. Hemlock hits the brake lights to fool them into slowing down, then when he's out of sight he does a U-turn that kicks up a huge cloud of dust that obscures his vehicle until he's right on top of them and can blast the bodyguard with a shotgun. He then takes Miles a long way out into the desert and abandons him there to die of thirst.
  • Incoming Ham: Bowman pulls up in a pickup in a cloud of dust to collect Hemlock from the airport, talking a mile-a-minute.
    Bowman: Goddamn my eyes, how the hell are ya? Goddamn you're looking good! A little soft maybe but goddamn I'm glad to see ya! (Bear Hug) How the hell are you been? Boy, are we gonna to drink a lot of beer! Wait till you see the goddamn place! How the hell are you? Jesus Christ, Jon, don't you ever say anything?
    Hemlock: Well, I'm waiting for your mouth to get tired.
  • Indecisive Parody: The novel was written as a satire of the James Bond-type thrillers—hence the over-the-top villains like Miles and Dragon—but the changes Clint Eastwood insisted on (and his snarky delivery of Hemlock's lines) make this less evident.
  • Instant Sedation: Averted; George is massaging Hemlock when she suddenly sticks a morphine syringe in his back. Hemlock wrestles it off her, they have a brief fight and only then does he pass out.
  • It Has Been an Honor:
    Meyer: Jonathan, you're very good. I have enjoyed climbing with you.
    Hemlock: We'll make it.
    Meyer: I don't think so. But we shall continue with style.
  • It's Personal: Clint Eastwood didn't like how Hemlock in the novel had no emotional connection to the Plot-Triggering Death, so the murdered courier Henri Baq was written to be an old Vietnam War buddy of Hemlock's. As a sweetener Dragon also allows Hemlock to sanction Miles Mellough, though he only has a peripheral involvement in the courier's death. Miles betrayed both Hemlock and Baq to the enemy during the Vietnam War.
  • Jerkass:
    • The German expedition leader sleeps with the wife of a member of his climbing team, disparages Hemlock's warnings despite his prior experience, refuses to develop a retreat plan in case things go wrong, fails to warn of falling rocks that he has dislodged and then doesn't turn back to help when the rocks hit Montaigne.
      Hemlock: Where's Freytag?
      Meyer: He felt he wasn't needed.
      Hemlock: Thought he wasn't needed? FREYTAG! YOU ASSSSSSSSSSSHOLE! (echo) HOLE...HOLE...HOLE...HOLE...
    • While Ben is peering through his telescope and fretting over the danger to his friend, he keeps getting bothered by Eiger Birds (tourists who Come to Gawk at the climbs and maybe see someone die) and a Straw Feminist journalist who thinks the climbers are Compensating for Something.
    • When Hemlock discovers Jemima set him up, he makes a point of criticising her naïve patriotism and compares her to a whore.
  • Mister Muffykins: Faggot, an annoying yappy dog with a tendency to hump legs without invitation. After Hemlock abandons his master in the desert to die, Faggot leaves him without hesitation to hitch a ride back in Hemlock's pickup.
    Hemlock: Pretty quiet now, aren't you? You little prick.
  • Only in It for the Money
    • When George tries to give Hemlock an overdose on Miles behalf, Ben says she did it for the oldest reason in the world. When Hemlock says, "Love?", Ben retorts, "Money!" It turns out George is Ben's daughter, so 'love' was the reason after all, as she is trying to save her father's life by killing his would-be assassin. She also owes Miles for getting her off drugs.
    • When Hemlock demands to know why he wasn't told right away that "Agent Wormwood" was his old friend Henri Baq, Dragon says that he would prefer Hemlock took the sanction for his usual motives of greed and avarice.
  • The Only One: Justified as an experienced climber is needed to go on the expedition the sanctioned target is believed to be on.
    Dragon: You are the only man who can do it.
    Hemlock: Well you can train Pope. He would be ready in about forty years.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Agent Wormwood is killed in Vienna for a microfilm he was smuggling. As per standard policy, the two killers are sanctioned by C2.
  • The Pornomancer: Subverted; Hemlock is an attractive man, but the women who want to sleep with him all have an agenda. A student wants Sextra Credit, the Sexy Stewardess is actually working for Dragon, and George has been bribed to give him a drug overdose.
  • Punny Name: Jemima Brown. Hemlock actually asks for her driver's license to be reassured that it is her actual name.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Clint Eastwood mentioned in an interview that during filming he would have to dangle off the side of a cliff upside down with a rope tied to his leg. Eastwood insisted on doing the stunt himself, because he wanted the camera to zoom in on his face to show that it actually was him. Later, he snuck into a screening of the film to gauge the audience reaction, and most of them thought that the scene was done with special effects.
  • Red Herring: The killer isn't a climber; he's a former climber working on the support team. And he only limps when his leg is cold, aggravating a previous frostbite injury.
  • Revealing Skill: After Hemlock sucker-punches Miles' muscular bodyguard, Ben notes that he set his target up like he'd done that before.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Both sides sanction each others killers for deterrence, even though it doesn't deter anything and just creates a meaningless Cycle of Revenge. Averted when Hemlock discovers that Ben is the enemy agent he's hunting; as Ben saved his life and C2 assume one of the dead climbers was the target, he lets Ben live.
  • Scaling the Summit: The expedition is to climb the notorious North Face of the Eiger.
  • Scenery Porn: While the film's merits as a thriller are debatable, there is no doubt as to the beauty of the climbing scenes. As well as the location filming in Switzerland, the production got permission from the Navajo tribal authorities to film a scene on top of Totem Pole in Monument Valley, by agreeing to remove the pitons and other equipment left by previous climbers, and Eastwood cites Watching the Sunset over Monument Valley as being one of his best experiences of making movies.
  • Shaking the Rump: Hemlock turns down an offer of sexual bribery from a student, telling her to "go home and study your little ass off." As she walks off in a snit there's a Male Gaze view of her rear end that causes Hemlock to add, "Don't study it all off."
  • The Snark Knight: The presence of either Dragon or Pope brings out the classic Clint snark.
    Pope: My superior wants to see you.
    Hemlock: Your superior... Well that doesn't limit the field much, does it?
    Pope: C2 isn't too interested in what amuses you, pal.
    Hemlock: That's odd, seeing as your organization has spent so much time and effort in trying to give the rest of the world a laugh.
    Dragon: Twice a year my blood must be fully replaced.
    Hemlock: With what?
  • Smug Snake: Dragon is a smug jerk, but the true-blue example is his Number Two for Brains Dragon Mr. Pope, who showcases enraging amounts of incompetence as a spy even when part of the sanction's plan is to let the enemies know that Hemlock is around, tries to lord it over Hemlock, and doesn't so much constantly smiles as he constantly shows his teeth and assumes he's smiling.
  • Stab the Scorpion: While Hemlock is resting the Austrian climber Meyer pulls a Sinister Switchblade of the kind used to kill Wormwood, but just uses it to remove the frayed end of a rope. Later Hemlock is struggling to stop Montaigne from falling off a cliff when a hand appears behind him, apparently preparing to shove him off the cliff too, but it turns out to be Meyer who grabs hold of him instead.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: When Hemlock is the Sole Survivor of the expedition, Dragon assumes that he decided to Kill Them All and Make It Look Like an Accident, and congratulates Hemlock on this "extravagant but effective" solution. Meanwhile Hemlock has discovered that Ben was the second target, but as Ben saved his life Hemlock just plays along with Dragon's assumption, though when Jemima asks if the climbers really did die accidentally he avoids the question.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: All C2 knows about the killer is that he's a man with a limp. However an intercepted message also reveals that he's an accomplished mountain climber due to go on an expedition to the Eiger.
    Hemlock: Well, that's fine. Now all I have to do is kill every mountain climber with a sore foot.
  • Swallow the Key: A C2 courier is transporting a microfilm, but on realising he's Being Watched he swallows it. Cuban hitman Kruger gives him a Slashed Throat to cut it out of him.
  • Talk to the Fist
    • Miles has a face-to-face meeting with Hemlock to offer a deal, but Hemlock knows he wouldn't risk doing so unless he was covered. Sure enough there's a Manly Gay bruiser with a gun in his pocket watching them from the bar. Hemlock says he needs a couple of minutes to think over Miles' offer, then offers his hand acknowledging how We Used to Be Friends. He then walks over to the bar for a drink and tells the bodyguard that he accepted the deal as shown by the handshake, only to inflict a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown the moment the bodyguard has lowered his guard.
      • Earlier Miles insults the dead Baq as "a sloppy drunk" and Jon punches him on the spot, despite his bodyguard.
      Miles: (waving his bodyguard off) I'll allow you that. It's the price I must pay to get you to listen.
    • Pope brags that he has a black-belt in karate. Hemlock fakes a What the Fu Are You Doing? reaction, then punches him in the face.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted; Montaigne is hit by a falling rock and claims to be alright, but dies of a concussion that night. Or did he...?
  • The Tease
    • Women hitting on Hemlock usually make a point of crossing their legs in his eyeshot.
    • When Hemlock balks at climbing further, Charlie takes off her top (and she's not wearing a bra) to give him incentive to keep climbing, but by the time he gets up there she's vanished, much to his annoyance.
  • Tempting Fate: Several times during the climb such as "Only the weather can stop us" and "The worst is behind us now."
  • Tired of Running: This is why Miles approaches Hemlock with a deal—he's tired of looking over his shoulder for him, in constant fear that Hemlock was coming to avenge his old betrayal.
  • Training Montage: Hemlock getting in shape for the climb. With a full pack he has to run up and down mountains with Charlie sprinting lithely ahead of him.
  • Title Drop
    Dragon: Good luck Hemlock, on your latest assignment. The Eiger Sanction.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The expedition appears to be based on the disastrous 1936 attempt to climb the Eiger's north face. However, in real life everyone on the expedition was killed—while one climber did end up dangling within view of his would-be rescuers, he was too exhausted from exposure to secure the rope that could have been used to pull him to safety.
  • The Voiceless: George. When she slips into Hemlock's room and starts to casually remove her clothing, Hemlock jokingly provides both sides of the seduction dialogue.
  • Wham Line: "Ben, you're limping..."
  • You Need to Get Laid: Apart from Ben's comeback to the journalist, there's this line.
    Montaigne: Ask Anna. Every night for six months I perform two hours of exercise before bed.
    Hemlock: By now, she must be very anxious to see you climb the mountain.
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