MVD Marquee Collection: Enigma (1982) - Reviewed

Jeannot Szwarc is, let’s be honest, something of a hack.  Though a great director of television including notable episodes of It Takes a Thief and Night Gallery, his feature filmography including but not limited to such critically maligned fare as Jaws 2 or Somewhere in Time tends to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.  Before torpedoing his career with the cataclysmic bomb Santa Claus: The Movie, the French born producer-director tried his hand at the international spy genre at the height of Cold War tensions with his promising but ultimately deflating dud Enigma.

Populated by an overqualified cast featuring Martin Sheen, Brigitte Fossey, Sam Neill, Warren Clarke and even Derek Jacobi, the film starts out as a traditional spy thriller before becoming a triangular romantic drama with the female lead caught between sides of the political fence.  The premise could make for a compelling picture capitalizing on the Cold War which all of Hollywood seemed to take a stab at in films made around that period.  In Szwarc’s hands, the cast is wasted and it all comes across as rather silly.  Think of the cornball setup of Jake Speed played straight and you’ve a rough idea of what this is like.

Alex Holbeck (Martin Sheen) is an East German spy hiding out in Paris.  Tracked down by the CIA, he is enlisted to infiltrate an East Berlin computer lab to retrieve an Enigma code scrambler with the hopes of thwarting the assassination of five Russians.  Trouble is the East German police and the KGB are aware of Holbeck’s ruse and it becomes a chase thriller before blossoming into a frankly ludicrous love triangle involving Holbeck’s on/off girlfriend Karen (Brigitte Fossey) and head KGB officer Dimitri (Sam Neill) whom she seduces to extract information. 

Dated and implausible, Enigma based upon the novel by Michael Barak and adapted by Academy Award winning screenwriter John Briley has the blueprint of a sweeping historical romantic epic spoken of the same breath as David Lean.  In Szwarc’s hands, however, it’s forgettable and often dismal tripe.  Martin Sheen does a lot of physical acting for the part and Sam Neill gives his KGB officer a soft side counterpointed by his penchant for brutality.  The one with the most heavy-lifting to do is Fossey who strips naked at the hands of ruthless prison guards, beds both leading male characters and has to keep her head up amid the growing web of jealousies.

Opening to middling reviews and less-than-poor box office returns against a roughly $8 million budget, Enigma floundered before dying a quiet death.  In the years since, Szwarc would continue to scrape the bottom of the financial barrel with Supergirl before unleashing the aforementioned Christmas movie horror on unsuspecting moviegoers.  

Looking back at the recently revived blu-ray edition released by MVD Marquee Collection, Enigma is a testament to how much a potentially strong screenplay and an even stronger cast can be squandered by the wrong pair of hands.  Enigma aspires to be an international romantic epic but when you have the director of Jaws 2 you’re likely going to get the artistic equivalent of a Cannon Film in its place.

--Andrew Kotwicki