Cynical paranoia was a big cash cow for best-selling thrillers in the 1970s, and one of the biggest of those bestsellers was Steven Shagan's The Formula. Reacting to the oil crisis of the mid-'70s, when the OPEC nations banded together to manufacture oil shortages, push up gas prices, and create anguish, grief, and gas lines throughout a gas-guzzling United States, Shagan hatched a conspiracy plot involving a non-polluting, synthetic fuel formula. Developed by the Nazis during World War II, the formula fell into the hands of the Allies and was suppressed by the American oil conglomerates to prevent the destruction of the oil industry. (After all, if the economic power of the U.S. is in free fall, it must have something to do with the Nazis). Brought to the screen by Shagan (as writer and producer) and enlisting the services of director John G. Avildsen (then a hot few years after his smash Rocky), the film version of The Formula features the casting coup of the decade with George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in the lead roles (an earlier version of Righteous Kill's teaming of past-their-primes De Niro and Pacino, only more fun).
The film begins disconcertingly in the middle of a hellish battle during the final days of World War II, a chaotic prologue featuring gargantuan explosions, fleeing Nazis, and stampeding elephants. Then in a whiplash inducing segue, the film settles in to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, where Scott plays loner LAPD detective Barney Caine ("There's only two things that matter to me -- my son and my work. The rest of my life is a complete zero."), investigating the killing of his old pal Tom Neeley (Robin Clarke). The crime scene is laid out like the opening scene of a Charlie Chan movie with mysterious clues all about -- a voodoo doll, a map with the name "Oberman" scrawled on it, a folded newspaper with the letter G-E-N-E written in blood -- and Caine falls for the setup to avenge the death of his friend.
Most of the film involves Scott seeking out suspects, questioning them, and then, after Scott leaves and the camera dawdles behind, the viewer watching as the subjects get shot by unseen killers. The questioning goes on and the bodies pile up and Scott reacts by making his eyes get more beady, and resolute and he becomes more determined than ever to question the next sucker on the suspect list. Marthe Keller is one hand in a role that she had honed to perfection in the 1970s, that of the double-dealing tempter of the protagonist, and she quickly snares Caine in her web, seeking nocturnal comfort from the LA dick after an interrogation session in a Nazi sex bar gives her nightmares -- a floor show right out of a Mel Brooks film featuring the tune "Deutschland Uber Alles," Nazi pole dancers, and rear-projected clips of Hitler. No wonder Keller is having nightmares and no wonder she remarks at one point in the film, "There is no more music in my head."
The Formula is as convoluted as its plot, at odds as to what it wants to be. Shagan makes his presence felt in flogging his big themes of U.S. decline, OPEC greed, and big business conspiracies, while Avildsen sticks to formulaic thriller conventions. With Shagan and Avildsen butting heads, they cancel each other out, and the film plays like a tedious checklist of murders without a score card.
But the main reason to see the film is the dueling match between Scott and Brando. Brando plays Adam Steiffel, a powerful oil magnate in an unbecoming gray suit, giving him a goofy expression of pouting and pursed lips that make him look like he has the head of a puppet. Scott is earnest and impassioned and both grounds the film and sets a baseline. When he parries with Brando, it is like a call and response pattern in jazz. Scott sets the tone while Brando takes flight like Charlie Parker.
Brando is in only three scenes. He first makes an appearance 30 minutes into the film, in a brief confrontation with Scott in front of an oilrig. He appears again in a comedy routine in front of his swimming pool, where he fishes a dead frog out of the water and suggests the frog apply for Blue Cross. He then exits, slipping in a puddle of water. The final scene is a conventional detective film wrap-up, and Scott, more subdued than usual, has to deal with a jokey and comradely Brando who remarks, "I wish you brought me back some knockwurst -- I love that stuff," and offers Scott a piece of candy with the endorsement, "Milk Dud? They're good." The Formula is post-The Missouri Breaks Brando, a Brando who has abandoned acting for teaming up with top-of-the-line acting talent and reducing their scenes together to a Leroy and Skillet routine from the Chitlin Circuit. Brando is clearly not taking any of this seriously, but he also appears to having a good time, and it's infectious (see also The Score), bringing some life into a film entombed with sincerity and convention.
As an aside, in one disturbing note in the film, Caine is chastised for being an American by a European crony and admonished, "You have been fortunate in America so far. You haven't experienced organized terrorism." I won't say Shagan is prophetic, but he obviously knew something we didn't. I'm still waiting for the synthetic fuel.
The DVD also features a lively audio commentary with Avildsen and Shagan, along with a Marlon Brando movie trailer gallery.
Also likes Skittles.