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In 1980, it certainly sounded like an irresistible package - George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, two of cinema's most celebrated performers and the only two to have ever snubbed the Academy for winning the Best Actor Oscar®, paired for the first time onscreen in an adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel with America's dependency on foreign energy resources as its thematic hub. However, upon its release, The Formula (1980) met with middling critical and box-office response. Today, the flaws underlying that reaction are still evident, and it's frankly depressing that the issues raised by the scenario have barely dated. Still, any effort in which Brando and Scott wield screen time is worth examining, and their fans should find the film worth their while.
Beyond adapting his own novel for the screen, author Steve Shagan also served as producer for the project, which opens as the Third Reich is collapsing, and General Helmut Kladen (Richard Lynch) is breaking from Berlin with a truckload of Nazi science documentation, hoping to use it as a bargaining chip for amnesty. The convoy is waylaid by a detail headed by a Major Tom Neeley (Robin Clarke), who is all to keen to discover what peacetime benefits - of a monetary nature - could be had from the secrets therein.
Fade to present-day Los Angeles, where veteran police lieutenant Barney Caine (Scott) is rousted from a precious visitation with his teenage son to look into the shooting death of an old friend. The friend turns out to be Neeley, who had become a cop and then a prosperous business fixer, and whose corpse was found festooned with various red herrings pointing to drugs, hookers and voodoo.
The leads that bother Caine the most, though, all point back to a recent, mysterious junket that Neeley had recently taken to Germany, and Neeley's business dealings with the porcine oil man Adam Steiffel (Brando). Caine wheedles permission from his superiors to take the investigation to Berlin; as the trail grows hotter, those willing to talk, from Neeley's estranged widow (Beatrice Straight) to his German contact, a utility engineer named Obermann (David Byrd), start turning up dead.
Before his murder, however, Obermann tips Caine to what is in fact at stake in the mystery; an efficient method, developed by the Reich's scientists, of synthesizing oil from coal. Caine turns to one of his interrogees, Obermann's attractive niece Lisa Spangler (Marthe Keller), for her assistance in rooting out Obermann's WWII-era contacts in pursuit of the valuable secret, while trying to avoid those dangerous forces with a vested interest in keeping the secret buried.
With a narrative laden with far too many false leads and loose ends, keeping up with The Formula is daunting, to say the least. Relations broke down between Shagan and director John G. Avildsen in the course of post-production; the two went as far as to take the acrimony public in the L.A. Times' letters page, and Avildsen made an unsuccessful bid to have his name removed from the finished product. The Formula wound up only making around $9 million in its domestic run, and, save for James Crabe's cinematography, was wholly forgotten at Oscar® time.
In his 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me (Random House), Brando would be dismissive of the project as a "stinker"; the then-cash-strapped actor was paid $3 million for his three scenes in The Formula. He did, however, expound upon the fact that the hearing aid that he wore in character as Steiffel was in fact feeding him his lines as he performed. "It took a little practice, but it wasn't hard, and because the earphones were small and hidden, audiences didn't know the difference," the actor wrote. "When I repeat the lines simultaneously, the effect is one of spontaneity." The experience was sufficiently chilling that Brando wound up taking a near-decade hiatus from screen acting that ended with his Oscar®-nominated work in A Dry White Season (1989).
Producer: Steve Shagan
Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Steve Shagan; Steve Shagan (novel)
Cinematography: James Crabe
Music: Bill Conti
Film Editing: John Carter
Cast: George C. Scott (Lt. Barney Caine LAPD), Marlon Brando (Adam Steiffel, Chairman Titan Oil), Marthe Keller (Lisa Spangler), John Gielgud (Dr. Abraham Esau, Director Reich Energy), G.D. Spradlin (Arthur Clements), Beatrice Straight (Kay Neeley), Richard Lynch (General Helmut Kladen /Frank Tedesco), John Van Dreelen (Hans Lehman, Prefect of Police Berlin).
by Jay S. Steinberg