Here we have a film directed by a man better known as an actor—Maximilian Schell—and a star—Martin Ritt—better known as a director. If that’s not enough oddness, throw in Donald Sutherland in a cameo appearance as a corpse and playwright and the film’s co-screenwriter (and author of its source novel) Friedrich Dürrenmatt in his only film role. Somehow all this peculiar hat switching seems to fit this little-known 1975 film that’s most often described (when it’s discussed at all) as an “existential mystery.” That’s as good a classification as any for this misty, stylish mystery thriller set in Switzerland about a terminally ill detective (Ritt) who has spent 30 years trying to get the dirt on a man (Robert Shaw) he saw commit a murder, but could never prove. A new murder may just give him the opportunity to settle that score.
Schell crafts the film in a very mid-‘70s manner that generally serves him well. There’s a splendidly strange—and amusing—funeral in the middle of a rainstorm that makes for a very fine set piece, and numerous other clever bits that keep the movie cinematically intriguing. Ritt is surprisingly assured (in a kind of Lou Jacobi mode) as the old inspector, though his occasional stabs at a Swiss accent are just that—occasional—and seem a little at odds with the accent affected by Jon Voight. (Robert Shaw’s accent is equally dodgy, so perhaps it balances out.) It’s by no means a great film, but it’s a very good one that ought to be better known than it is.