“The Formula” No Recipe For Spin

Cramming a movie with heavyweight talent doesn’t necessarily produce a memorable work. Mark Fraser looks back at an American film which well and truly failed to live up to its pre-release hype.

“The Formula” No Recipe For Spin - Top 10 FilmsBack in 1980, MGM’s public relations team promised audiences they were soon going to experience “one of the screen highlights of the year” – a cinematic event so significant it would “always be remembered for the electric on-screen confrontation between two superstars”[1]. This clash of acting titans, it said, would be set against an exciting conspiracy thriller involving Nazi scientists, American greed and the enigmatic global energy sector post World War II.

The film was The Formula, the second movie from John G Avildsen since he won the 1976 best director Oscar for Rocky, while the onscreen talent was none other than George C Scott and Marlon Brando. Like Avildsen, both actors were Academy Award winners. Furthermore, the pair had controversially thumbed their noses at Tinsel Town the previous decade by turning down their best actor gongs – Scott for Patton in 1971 and Brando two years later for The Godfather.

In The Formula’s promotional blurb, the MGM hacks said getting these high-powered names together for the anticipated “confrontation” was a coup for the story’s author Steve Shagan, who had not only penned the bestselling book on which the movie was based, but was also acting as its screenwriter and producer.

At the time Shagan was something of a hot property, having had his first novel Save the Tiger made in 1974 (it was also directed by Avildsen), his second one converted into the screenplay for Robert Aldrich’s sluggish Hustle (1975) and his third turned into the script for Stuart Rosenberg’s 1976 star-studded opus Voyage of the Damned (for which he and fellow scribe David Butler were nominated for an Oscar).

“I needed good actors for the movie,” the writer explained in MGM’s press material. “It was an honour to have George C Scott and Marlon Brando saying my words.”

On paper this all looked like it was going to be an exciting moment to behold. The eventual result, however – as seen in The Formula’s woeful climatic scene between the two screen giants – turned out to be something quite different.

Promising start

Oddly, for the turkey it eventually becomes, The Formula has a reasonably strong premise – one that eventually outdoes the rest of the script. In a piece of exposition set during the final throes of World War II – in which African elephants roam the streets of Berlin as the city (and its zoo) is being bombed by the advancing Russians – Nazi General Helmut Kalden (a perpetually sneering Richard Lynch, who, during his brief appearance, surprisingly deliver’s one of the film’s most interesting performances) is ordered by a Gestapo captain (Jan Niklas) to take a truckload of secret documents to the Swiss border.

This paperwork, which includes chemical formulas and rocket diagrams, represents Germany’s last chance to negotiate with the Americans for an amnesty. “If we are successful, we will save the German nation from the Soviet hordes,” the SS officer explains.

A man of honour, Kalden accepts the mission, but not before dishing out a final angry reprimand as he leaves the room. “All my life I have served the German nation,” he snarls. “Your service has been to yourself and the party.”

The disillusioned general, however, doesn’t reach his destination. Instead he is intercepted by an American unit in the snow, where he is introduced to Major Tom Neeley (Robin Clarke), who tells the Nazi that the war is over and “from now on the world is going to be one big happy corporation” in which there will be “no more secrets, no more enemies – just customers.”

Thus the stage is set for what should have been an intriguing yarn about the establishment of the post war US global energy hegemony. Unfortunately things didn’t quite pan out this way.

Thirty years later

“The Formula” No Recipe For Spin - Top 10 FilmsAvildsen then cuts to modern day Los Angeles, where detective Barney Caine (Scott) is assigned to investigate the violent death of Neeley who, it transpires, was the policeman’s erstwhile boss and one of his oldest friends. While the murder appears to be a drug deal gone wrong, Caine suspects otherwise as there are too many clues suggesting something else is afoot. Early in the investigation the detective establishes a link between Neeley and a German called Obermann (David Byrd); meanwhile, the dead man’s ex-wife Kay (Beatrice Straight) seems unnecessarily worried when questioned by Caine and his partner Sergeant Louis Yosuta (Calvin Jung).

This eventually leads the policeman to energy tycoon Adam Steiffel (Brando) who, it turns out, had been using Neeley as a go-between when dealing with business interests in the Middle East. It’s at this moment that the screen giants meet for the first time – a scene so lacklustre it doesn’t come close to delivering any signs of the aforementioned “electric on-screen confrontation” as promised by MGM’s press jockeys.

Indeed, Brando looks awkwardly ridiculous as the 70-year old oil man. Donning a southern accent and three-piece suit, the actor also “insisted on shaving his skull and combing a few remaining strands of hair over the bald patch”. In addition he wears nostril plugs, false upper teeth, rimless glasses and a hearing aid.

“Rumour has it that the latter was less for visual effect than for his own convenience,” MGM giggled. “It seems that he had all his lines radioed to him via the hearing aid so that he did not have to be bothered learning them!” (This scuttlebutt is verified by Avildsen and Shagan in the DVD voice-over commentary – except they say Brando was carrying a small tape player which he could switch on and off by moving his stomach muscles.)

If anything this helps explain the actor’s somewhat stilted performance as he fumbles his way through a brief diatribe during his first encounter with Caine. “What the hell has happened to the America that I have known and loved?” Steiffel pointlessly asks the detective. “Christ – we sent rockets to photograph the rectal passages of Jupiter, and the kids wind up in porno films. They violate the laws of Newton and Christ, and now we wonder why a bunch of bandits with towels on their heads have got us by the nuts.”

It’s a baffling set of observations given Steiffel later tells Arthur Clements (GD Spradlin), one of his business cronies who is caught up in the whole affair, that “we are the Arabs”.

Trail to nowhere

Caine goes to Germany, where he meets Obermann (David Byrd) in a zoo just before the German is murdered. He is then contacted by the man’s “niece” (Marthe Keller), who eventually leads him to Dr Abraham Esau (John Gielgud), a scientist who was heavily involved with all of the secret Nazi stuff at the start of the movie.

Speaking with an accent that even Laurence Olivier may have found a bit over-the-top – Esau pretty much spells out what the whole film is really about. Basically the Nazis had devised a chemical formula which could convert coal to synthetic fuel. This potential energy source, however, was being kept under wraps by the global oil cartels, which considered it a major threat to their balance sheets.

Later the audience finds out, via Steiffel during his climatic showdown with Caine, that this veil of secrecy was threatened after the oil crisis of 1973 when Kalden – who is now known as Tedesco – tried to reunite Esau and the other German scientists initially responsible for coming up with the titular formula (known as the Genesis Project) to recreate it.

As a result Neeley was employed by Steiffel and his shadowy business associates to help broker a deal with Tedesco. Then, after he was murdered, Caine (in a development which suggests the presence of quite a bit of police corruption) got the job of investigating his death to help divert attention from the energy cartel as it bumped off members of the Genesis team in order to keep the formula a secret.

Lost opportunity

“The Formula” No Recipe For Spin - Top 10 FilmsAlthough all this riveting skulduggery sounds like it should have been interesting, unfortunately it’s not. Indeed for a thriller The Formula is downright convoluted and dull, thanks mainly to its preference for talk over action. While this might seem a strange criticism for a movie which was primarily sold on the idea that it contained a major clash between two acting heavyweights, both Scott’s and Brando’s characters are subjected to dull moments of prolonged gasbagging – as is most of the script.

Excessive verbal waffle permeates the film, including the climactic scene when all of the plot twists are neatly explained and tied together as Caine confronts the smirking energy tycoon in his Los Angeles office. In this showdown between morality and immorality, Steiffel unconvincingly argues that corporate interference underpins the greater good.

“We’ve brought the human race to that grand plateau where insanity is now a greater problem than hunger,” he says with the conviction of a man who is having his lines fed to him via an earplug. “Human beings, my friend, are a very complex paradox – very, very dangerous. They don’t want to be leaders, they want to be followers. I mean they can’t wait to find some nut who they think is just wonderful to tell them what to do. And they all want to be brought under control. Some of that awesome burden has fallen on my sagging shoulders. I didn’t ask for it, I don’t enjoy it, but I accept it because I have a sense of duty.”

Caine, however, doesn’t swallow any of this. “What do you know about this nation?” the detective bitterly asks. “When did you ever give a second thought about American citizens? You’re the reason their money is worthless – you’re the reason old people are eating out of garbage cans, that kids get killed in bullshit wars. You’re not in the oil business – you’re in the oil shortage business.”[2]

Admittedly this dialogue is much better than that in the earlier scene between the pair of screen giants. Nevertheless, having to wait an hour and forty minutes to hear it is a bit of an ask, particularly when the rest of the film is rather slow moving and turgid.

Misleading men

At the end of the day it’s arguable the MGM publicity department partly did its job, having attempted to sell an exciting idea while diverting attention from an insipid product. Nevertheless this idea turned out to be something of a dog given the expected fireworks between Scott and Brando didn’t eventuate. In effect, stars simply failed to make interesting sparring partners.

A possible reason for this is the fact both actors, by 1980, were established leading men in their own right who delivered better performances when they weren’t being challenged on screen by somebody with similar box office gravitas. After their Oscar snubs, rarely were either of them paired off against someone of their own screen stature.

Furthermore, by the time The Formula was released, their ability to attract larger audiences had started to seriously wane. Scott, for instance, had spent the 1970s (post Patton) top billing a number of semi-successful and not so box office-friendly movies like Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971), Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions (1972), Stanley Kramer’s Oklahoma Crude (1973), Mike Nichol’s The Day of the Dolphin (1973), Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg (1975), Franklin J Schaffner’s Islands in the Stream (1977), Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979) and Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980). While some of these films are interesting (and together undeniably represent a quite eclectic body of mainstream work), they arguably don’t constitute a list which truly reflects the abilities of one of “the world’s finest living actor(s)”.

Meanwhile, Brando’s career had become seriously hit and miss by 1980. Although he scored big time after The Godfather with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), this was followed with an annoyingly eccentric performance in Arthur Penn’s 1976 western The Missouri Breaks (where he was unsuccessfully played off against fellow superstar Jack Nicholson), a secondary role in the opening moments of Richard Donner’s 1978 version of Superman and an enigmatic part in the third act of Francis Coppola’s anti-Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).

Taking all this into account, to suggest their showdown was going to be something spectacular – as promised by MGM’s publicity machine – was perhaps being a tad ambitious.

Unforseen twist

Interestingly, while Scott rightly gets top billing and gives the better performance, it seems one of the studio’s key selling points for The Formula was the presence of Brando, whose eccentric mystique, for some peculiar reason, was still regarded as a box office asset.

In the film’s promotional material it’s made abundantly clear that Brando, who is only in the movie for around 30 minutes, received US$2.75 million for his participation – a colossal amount given he only worked for 11 days and didn’t seem to have to worry about learning his lines. Furthermore, the bulky thespian demanded that he be paid per day, meaning a US$250,000 cheque had to be drawn for him daily.

For Shagan the producer “the actor was worth every cent”. He adds, “I asked Marlon Brando to be in only part of the film. He really is in a supporting role. If Brando fails, we fail. Steiffel is a key part for the movie’s believability.”

Unfortunately for all concerned the once-great actor was unconvincing enough to be considered a failure. Looking back, it truly was a performance which lacked true conviction. Having said this, Brando shouldn’t be totally blamed for the film’s insipid box office performance given Avildsen’s sometimes uninspired direction and Shagan’s convoluted and needlessly talky script.

After all, he (and Scott for that matter) was misused in a marketing formula that ultimately backfired.

Words by Mark Fraser

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

1. All of the quoted material in this article, aside from lines of the film’s dialogue, came from the February/March 1981 edition of Movie News, which was published by Cinebill, the film division of Playbill (Australia) Pty Ltd (editor – CJ Donald).
2. This is the sort of observation one should expect in any movie about Enron.

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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    Dan Reply

    Fascinating Mark. The Formula remains one of those films that having being negatively received by critics and audiences on its release continues to be shelved in the “not even so bad it’s worth watching” category.

    The film has obvious allure (an attraction begging for cult appreciation but failing to achieve even that) with the acting “heavyweights” coming face-to-face but Brando’s ego is written all over this and it doesn’t help the film one little bit. Like you allude to, it’s a missed opportunity. This could be the Pacino-De Niro Heat moment between Brando and Scott but unlike that film (which was far better any way), you had two actors at the height of their powers not in the twilight of their careers.

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