[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Voyeurs with the socially redeeming grace of cinematic conscientiousness, despair: Cornelia Sharpe has had her big chance, and she botched it. A near Dunaway-lookalike whose face and body—clad or not—irresistibly drew the eye whenever she eased into frame in Serpico and Busting, Sharpe aroused, among other things, hope in the breast of anyone with a lech to welcome another glamorous actress to the comparatively de-glamorized contemporary screen. Glamorous she remains in The Next Man, but scarcely anything more. And without that something more, the meretricious narrative folds up on itself like the aggregate memories of every undistinguished spy flick you ever waited through to see the main feature.
There are these several Arabian leaders, you see, who want to form a petrochemical combine that will deliver the wealth and power oil represents into the hands of the Third World. Neither the U.S.S.R. nor the U.S.A. (represented by an indeterminate amalgam of government and private-enterprise interests) much cottons to that idea, and within a matter of hours of the plan’s becoming known, all three leaders have fallen to various assassins, some of whom also immediately find themselves taking long walks off short piers. One who doesn’t is played by Sharpe. Sean Connery succeeds one (all?) of the deceased Arabs as prime mover of the new policy, and becomes the next man on somebody’s—and therefore her—list. All this takes about ten minutes of screen time (and scarcely more real time); the rest of the film hangs on the delay occasioned by her orders—get close to him but wait for final word on whether he needs killing or not—and, of course, the question of whether she’ll go ahead with her mission once she’s fallen in love with him.
The question exists only by virtue of conventional expectations, because none of the four writers credited on the film has given us or the actors anything to work with. She doesn’t do it for money; she isn’t political; there are no clues whatsoever to her character. Her father was—may still be—a U.S. Ambassador; is her career an expression of Freudian contempt for the games played in the corridors of power, or a barely aberrant form of those power struggles (otherwise irrelevant iconographic references to Hitler, Uncle Sam, and Kissinger punctuate some desultory street atmosphere scenes)? Her romantic background (perfunctorily synopsized by a security agent in midfilm while the camera, understandably embarrassed at the hoary exposition, tries to look elsewhere) is full of lovers left for emotionally or actually dead; is she supposed to be some archetypal killer prom queen of the Jet Set? Almost any hypothesis will do—and could have been done without, if only the actress could muster up enough sense of presence to dazzle us into conviction. But Sharpe turns out to be not only insufficiently intriguing: she’s a klutz! She walks, she stands, she photographs spectacularly well; but when the situation requires her to laugh delightedly at her mark’s witty palaver, she sounds as if her mind were already counting the money in the wallet on the nighttable; and when she opens her mouth to speak, the effect is of one of those bunnies stepped out of the pages of Playboy and onto a midafternoon talkshow to demonstrate that, by gosh, these girls got brains! (O what cinematic wet dreams are confounded here.)
That Sharpe can’t deliver is bad enough in itself, but without her credibility as a femme fatale in either sense of the phrase, the otherwise nifty super-statesman played by Connery falls flat as well. Why should this humorous, ironical, personally and politically potent individual tumble for her? Into bed, fine; in love, ridiculous. As a last-ditch effort, that very unlikelihood could have been pressed into service to sustain the narrative tension. But since even coherent melodramatic narration has eluded Richard C. Sarafian, there was no question of managing this much more complex coup. He prefers to unleash a wave of terrorist activity the globe round, and set so many factions in quest of parallel objectives for a multiplicity of reasons that we’ll take the film as the ultimate comment on the all-pervasive cynicism of the espionage diplomacy game, in cinema and in general. But the only operative cynicism here is that of the ethically bankrupt filmmaker playing one shtick against another until feature running time has been fulfilled. Oh yes, the mission: did she or didn’t she? Does it really matter?
THE NEXT MAN
Direction: Richard C. Sarafian. Screenplay: Mort Fine, Alan R. Trustman, David M. Wolf and Richard C. Sarafian, after a story by Trustman and Wolf. Cinematography: M. Chapman. Production design: Gene Callahan. Editing: Aram Avakian, Robert Q. Lovett.
The players: Sean Connery, Cornelia Sharpe, Albert Paulsen, Charles Cioffi.
© 1977 Richard T. Jameson