RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK
Just a look at the list of films based on the novels written by the popular writer of thrillers and adventure stories, Alistair MacLean – ‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1961), ‘The Satan Bug’ (1965), ‘Ice Station Zebra’ (1968), ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1968), ‘Fear Is the Key’ (1972), ‘Caravan to Vaccarès’ (1974), ‘Golden Rendezvous’ (1977), ‘Force 10 from Navarone’ (1978) and ‘Bear Island’ (1979) among others – is enough to sense the power of his writings, especially when adapted for the screen. ‘Puppet on a Chain’ (1971) based on MacLean’s 14th novel was in fact the seventh film adaption of his works. The title of both, the bestseller book and the film refers to a type of death in the story where a character is hung by the neck from a chain. Editions of this novel often featured a graphic of a female doll hanging from a chain. These dolls function as a method of smuggling drugs in the story.
The Swedish singer and actor, Sven-Bertil Taube was signed to play the James Bond-ish role in the film, that of an American special agent. The Canadian-American actress, singer and dancer, Barbara Parkins who had moved to UK was selected to play the role of the US deep-cover agent. Polish character actor, Vladek Sheybal, who had earlier appeared in the James Bond film, ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963) enacted the drug lord in the film.
Actor Peter Hutchins was signed to play a character not known by a name and only referred to as ‘The Assassin’. British actress Suzanna Leigh mentions in her memoirs that she had a role as a vamp, in ‘Puppet on the Chain’ but although her character is mentioned, her scenes were deleted from the final print.
‘Puppet on a Chain’ had a strong behind the camera team including cinematographer, Jack Hildyard who had filmed ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957); composer Piero Piccioni having scored films like ‘The 10th Victim’ (1965); and filmmaker Don Sharp who went to direct the horror cult film ‘Psychomania’ (1973). In fact, even though Geoffrey Reeve was the official director of ‘Puppet on a Chain’, the famous boat chase sequence in the film shot in the Netherlands and performed by Wim Wagenaar, was directed by Sharp who was specifically hired to do it. Furthermore, the producers liked the work of this visually gifted director so much, that they further hired him to shoot some additional footage.
Reeve, who was originally signed to direct the film, had a good career in shooting commercials but never directed any theatrical feature film. Sadly, Reeve didn’t have a story sense as a director, and each setup fixed by him and his camera operator, formed a sequence that looked like part of a television commercial minus drama in it. Therefore, when Sharp took over the film halfway, he had to take previously shot parts out of the film. For example, Sharp felt that seventy-five per cent of an already shot nightclub sequence was fine; only when it came to the dialogue bits between the characters, he had to go in for reshooting as the conversation just didn’t make sense.
Besides being filmed on location in the Netherlands, ‘Puppet on a Chain’ was also shot at the Shepperton Studios. The film further contains a lot of fantastic footage of early 1970s Amsterdam underbelly along with unexpected segues like a nightclub dance number involving guys and girls in body stockings and leather vests, shaking their bodies to a Hammond organ.
The funky score by Italian soundtrack legend, Piero Piccioni is top notch all the way, including a catchy, very groovy main theme which catches on after the first hearing. In fact, Piccioni’s gonzo synth music helps to lay down a sleazy, ultra-cheap feel to the opening sequence, setting way for rest of the film. The film score was conducted by Harry Rabinowitz and performed by The London Sinfonia. It was recorded on the Shepperton Studio Scoring Stage in September 1970.
Some topless nudity and shots of a man’s bloody face during a hotel fight were cut from the film for an ‘AA’ rating – suitable for persons of 14 and over – for the UK cinema release, though these scenes were later restored in video releases and television showings.
According to Sharp, when released, ‘Puppet on a Chain’ went on to make “a mint of money”. A low budget independent production, with a few odds and ends about its distribution, the film was a big success when released in India. In 2007, Sharp said he was still getting royalties from the movie being shown on television.
‘Puppet on a Chain’ was released in a restored edition on DVD by Scorpion Releasing, in 2015. The film was mastered from an inter-positive negative and restored to its original widescreen format. The DVD contains a commentary with film historians including Lee Pfeiffer, a specialist on spy cinema. The DVD also includes the original trailer and alternate scene footage.
Interestingly, both directors of ‘Puppet on a Chain’ later went on to direct separate films based on the novels by Alistair MacLean. Reeve directed ‘Caravan to Vaccarès’ (1974) and a made-for-television movie, ‘The Way to Dusty Death’ (1996), both of which crashed at the Box Office, while Sharp went on to direct even bigger MacLean disaster, ‘Bear Island’ (1979).