Billionaire pharmaceutical tycoon Sam Roffe dies in a mountain climbing accident, leaving his daughter Elizabeth (Audrey Hepburn) reluctant president of Roffe & Sons Pharmaceuticals. It is not long before Elizabeth is under pressure to sell the company from her cousins who are all desperate to sell their stocks for a rich reward: Tory MP Sir Alec Nichols (James Mason) has huge gambling debts incurred by his trampy wife (Michelle Phillips); daredevil racecar driver Hélène Martin (Romy Schneider) has similar problems thanks to her shifty husband Charles (Maurice Ronet); playboy Ivo Palazzi (Omar Sharif) has an angry mistress (Claudia Mori) after an inheritence for their three sons, but his wife Simonetta (Irene Papas) has no intention of sharing a fortune meant for their three daughters. Only Rhys Williams (Ben Gazzara), her father’s right hand man, has Elizabeth’s trust and she proposes a marriage of convenience to gain his help in organizing the company. However, Inspector Max Hornung (Gert Fröbe) reveals her father was the victim of murder. Soon afterwards someone repeatedly tries to kill Elizabeth. According to the inspector, everyone on the board has a motive, including her beloved Rhys.
Sydney Sheldon penned screenplays for, among others, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and created classic TV shows I Dream of Jeannie and Hart to Hart, but found real wealth and fame as a best-selling author. Glossy international conspiracies involving glamorous jet-setting types were his stock and trade, the kind of sexy, fanciful trash you might pick up at an airport bookstore for your holiday read. Many of Sheldon’s thrillers were adapted into TV movies or miniseries, inevitably starring a former Charlie’s Angel, but Bloodline followed The Other Side of Midnight (1976) into the cinema.
Glossy but lurid, Bloodline has the air of a giallo about it, given the plot grows increasingly demented encompassing a pair of psychotic snuff filmmakers strangling random naked girls with a red necktie and a brilliant scientist who uncovers the secret of immortality! It was the only R-rated movie Audrey Hepburn ever made and frankly, it’s rather jarring to see a class act like her surrounded by sleazy violence, nudity and tacky melodrama. Having returned to the screen after an absence of nine years in the elegaic Robin and Marian (1976), Hepburn made sporadic comebacks but sadly, rarely found movies worthy of her. Bloodline gets pretty damn ridiculous at times, but while James Mason and especially Omar Sharif camp it up shamelessly, Audrey plays it straight, which is why we love her.
This was an extravagant production, boasting a starry international cast, expensive locations, a lush romantic score by maestro Ennio Morricone and superb photography by the great Freddie Young, but Sheldon’s plot - adapted by Laird Koenig, author of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) which was made into a cult thriller with Jodie Foster - is the sort of vacuous corporate nonsense that came to dominate the small screen, on Dallas or Dynasty. On the big screen, no amount of star-power and chic scenery can disguise the sheer silliness of scenes where Rhys and Elizabeth tour the Roffe futuristic factory (while Morricone’s soundtrack goes disco); Max converses with a crime-solving super-computer that talks just like a Cylon; Ivo runs away from his mistress and family in a Benny Hill chase scene; and Elizabeth thumbs through a photo-album whose images are just stills from the set of flashback scenes in pre-war Poland (who took these pictures and how did they get characters to pose in the midst of their drama?).
Terence Young once ranked among the most gifted thriller directors, but his stolid direction does the film no favours while the plot lurches all over the place and the suspense scenes simply aren’t that suspenseful. The finale is a virtual reprise of the climax to Hepburn and Young’s first collaboration, Wait Until Dark (1967), but where that was taut and striking, here we’re left with more loose ends than a bucket full of spaghetti and a killer whose identity might as well have been drawn out of a hat. Equally perplexing is Rhys, who is drawn a rather louche hero. He spends his wedding night in bed with Hélène, routinely cheats on Elizabeth and when she catches him assures her their marriage will work if she “stops being such a neurotic bitch.” It is actually Gert Fröbe as Max who saves our heroine, while Rhys hovers on the sidelines growling “Just shoot, you dumb son of a bitch.” And for all that, he gets Audrey. Go figure.