Starring Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Elke Sommer, Dion Pride, Lisa Whelchel, and Vincent Spano
My rating: ★★1/2 stars
Dated but enjoyable, family-friendly teen mystery.
The Double McGuffin tells the story of six precocious teenagers at a boarding school who stumble upon a plot, led by a foreign security officer (Ernest Borgnine), to assassinate the mother (Elke Sommer) of one of their classmates. The title refers to the term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to indicate an object that impels the action of the plot but bears little significance in itself. It’s the thing that the characters want to find or want to hide. The movie is not about it, whatever it is, but about what people will do to get it. In the film, Orson Welles provides the narration explaining this device.
The two McGuffins indicated by the title are a briefcase and a dead body. The appearance and subsequent disappearance of both draw the teenagers into the mystery. Unlike most mysteries where the unanswered question is “Who done it,” here the question is “Whom will it be done to?” The kids know who the assassins are, but they must figure out who will be assassinated and how to convince the authorities that an assassination will occur.
The authorities in the film are represented by local Police Chief Talasak (George Kennedy), who spends much of his time dealing with the hijinks of the kids. Thus, when they come along with their outlandish tale of international intrigue, he is reluctant to believe them.
The success of the film depends upon the willingness of the audience to overlook its flaws. It’s dated. It looks cheap. The precocity of the characters often crosses the line into the realm of the irritating. The notion that professional assassins could be foiled by a few meddling kids lacks realism. That being said, it’s almost impossible to dislike this movie. Its irrepressible charm wins over all but the most cynical of viewers.
The problem for the film is that a lot of today’s moviegoers are cynical. I doubt this would be a film that modern young people would seek out or enjoy. Unlike today’s movies, the scenes are long and the fashions and technology are old. More importantly, the film lacks spectacle. It has none of the effects or dazzling visuals that contemporary young people have come to expect. Adult viewers may have difficulty suspending their disbelief in the story or taking seriously a movie that is obviously geared toward kids.
So, there’s no one left to watch The Double McGuffin except Borgnine completists and those adults who enjoyed it when they were young, who look back on it with nostalgia. And that’s a shame. A fun, unassuming, little film should be able to find an audience. Motion pictures are more than spectacle. And movies don’t have to be serious or meritorious to deserve attention.
The performances are above average. Kennedy plays his character with warmth and understanding. He is not a stereotypical hardass or buffoon. Borgnine and Sommer lend credibility to the plot. Football players Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Lyle Alzado appear in small roles.
The young people look refreshingly young; they don’t seem like twentysomethings pretending to be teenagers. Dion Pride (son of country music legend Charley Pride) plays the leader of the group with confidence. (Dion Pride also performs the two songs in the film, which fit the movie’s guileless tone. I wish they had been released commercially.) Jeff Nicholson, as the Texan in the group, shows surprising charisma. Michael Gerard, as the nerd, displays real talent when the script and the director allow the character to show his intelligence. In some scenes, though, he looks like he was pressured by the director to mug for the camera. Only Greg Hodges, as the smallest member of the group, comes off as obnoxious, but it seems like the character was written that way. None of these actors ever went on to appear in another theatrical movie. (Nicholson had a bit part in a made-for-TV movie.)
The two young people in the film who did go on to have significant acting careers are Vincent Spano, whose character is the least defined, and Lisa Whelchel, who gives the only female character in the group cleverness and empathy. Unfortunately, her character has the least screen time of all the teen characters.
I can’t go so far as to give this movie three stars—as enjoyable as it is, it has too many flaws—but I will recommend it as a fun diversion.