The Amateur (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

One of the nicest things about the DVD revolution is that is has encouraged smaller publishers to acquire the rights to and release some forgotten films. A lot of those have been art films and grade-B efforts from the drive in and double feature eras, but every once in a while an old mainstream effort is pulled back from oblivion.

Such a film is The Amateur, which was considered a major project and earned some respect in its own day.

  • A Canadian film, it was nominated for 10 Genies (the Canadian equivalent of Oscars), although it went home from the ceremony 0-for-10.
  • The film stars an eclectic international cast. Canadian Christopher Plummer is one of the leads, but the star is John Savage. He may not seem like a big star to you today, but Savage had been elevated very close to the A-list by a good run in the late seventies with The Deer Hunter, Hair, and The Onion Field. People wanted to hire him in those days, although nobody seemed to have a very clear idea about which roles he was suited for.
  • The director was Charles Jarrott, a British director who had come close to the A-list himself in the late sixties and early seventies with two Tudor dramas: Anne of the Thousand Days and Mary, Queen of Scots. His stock dropped somewhat after the famous uber-bomb Lost Horizon, but by the time he directed The Amateur in 1982, he was still considered a respected director. For that matter, he is still  directing, although nearly 80!
  • The budget was about $10 million dollars, which was a healthy amount in 1982. It's up there on screen, too. There are some outstanding location shots in Vienna and the surrounding area, and there are a couple of expensive looking set pieces.

So what happened over the years to doom this film to obscurity? Well, John Savage did not go on to become a superstar, as you know, so there was no interest generated there. And the film is one of those Cold War espionage films which now seem so very dated. The film wasn't topical enough or good enough to remember for the right reasons, nor was it bad enough to remember for the wrong reasons.

The premise of the film sounds a lot like Gorky Park. A solitary American goes behind the Iron Curtain on a mission of personal revenge, and is assisted by a smart, honest Eastern European cop. The similarity between the two films ends at the set-up level however. The Amateur is told from the American's point of view, not the local cop's, and the American is not a tough guy who speaks the local language, but a wimpy monoglot, a mathematician who seems to think he can just slip into Soviet-controlled territory and knock off three hardened terrorists.

The terrorists in question murdered the genius's girlfriend when she was working on a photographic assignment in Munich (played by Vienna).  It was one of those ugly deals where the terrorists were going to kill one hostage every fifteen minutes until they got their way, and she came up first in the rotation. He works for the CIA as a cipher expert, encoding and decoding various messages, and goes to his bosses for assistance. They say they can do nothing, so he devises a plan in which every secret in the history of the CIA will be revealed to the press unless they let him go into the Eastern Bloc and take out the terrorists. After having read the last sentence, you don't think his plan is plausible, and you realize that he wouldn't have a prayer. The CIA bigwigs have the same reaction, but since they have no choice, they send him for agent training in order to buy enough time to figure out how he has rigged the system.

Once he gets into Czechoslovakia, the CIA manages to foil his blackmail scheme, at which time they decide to send more CIA men to Prague (again played by Vienna, only this time with the German signs papered over), but to kill our hero, not to help him. Therefore, the terrorists, the communists, and the CIA are all using professional killers to try to kill him, and he is just "the amateur." He seems to be doomed, but he gets a break. A scholarly local policeman (Christopher Plummer) takes an interest in this whole business of CIA agents shooting at other CIA agents, and wonders why. When he finally figures out the whole scenario, he ends up wanting to help our nerdy hero. Why is the Czech so eager to help our hero, and why is the CIA so eager to kill him? That is the mystery which forms the real core of the plot.

I liked this film, although it really has a lot of problems. In fact, I can't imagine how it was ever nominated for awards. Some of the plot elements are just absurd.

1. When the head terrorist comes out of the building to kill his first hostage, he stands on the sidewalk and shoots her in the head, then calmly walks several yards back into the building without a shield of any kind. Hundreds of sharpshooters are focused on him, and he is unprotected, but they do nothing.

2.  When Savage is working at his desk, the film painstakingly demonstrates that he needs to wear his glasses. When Savage is in training to be an agent, the film painstakingly establishes that he is the world's worst marksman. Yet when he comes face-to-face with the terrorist, he is able to kill him with one very difficult perfect shot, and he is not even wearing his glasses at the time!

3. Savage makes his way into Czechoslovakia on foot. He has to walk miles and miles in the snow, on difficult hilly terrain, even sleeping overnight in the process. He knew this was coming, yet he had slipped over the border wearing only a short leather jacket, and he never even buttoned it up! He must really be style-conscious. Not to mention weather-resistant.

4. Speaking of that leather jacket, nobody in Prague seems to think it looks out of place in the freezing winter climes, despite the fact that (a) it is inappropriate for the weather; and (b) it's the only expensive leather jacket in all of Czechoslovakia.

5. There are several instances where Savage tracks someone down in completely improbable ways that make no sense either at the time or upon later reflection.

6. All important CIA guys are always within six feet of the director when news of Savage comes back to them. One time this happens in the director's office in the middle of the night, one time it happens while they are attending a gala. This must be a subset of the basic cheesy film rule which states that any movie character who turns on a TV will immediately see a news story that affects him personally.

7. The high level Czech policeman played by Plummer (who is also a professor) delegates no authority at all. When the CIA and the Czechs are doing surveillance and counter-surveillance in the middle of the night, staking out an apartment where Savage is thought to be taking refuge, ol' Christopher Plummer is there personally, sitting in one of what seems to be a fleet of cars parked outside that apartment building. Do they burst into the apartment to do something important? No, it's just routine surveillance. No matter where Savage's trail leads, Plummer is always there personally. 24/7.

Despite all these mystifying lapses in common sense and logic, I got drawn into the mysteries and counter-mysteries, I found the resolution reasonably satisfying, and I really enjoyed the European locales, including the poor sections of Prague (Vienna), and some small towns which time has forgotten. There is also a great set-piece which involves a shoot-out in a warehouse filled with mirrors and chandeliers.

Plusses and minuses.

It's a film which has been forgotten and I suppose you can leave it forgotten if you aren't into the cold war espionage genre. If you do like those films, however, this is a flawed by still pretty decent little flick that you have probably not seen, and which you have certainly not seen at this level of quality, because is now available in an excellent widescreen anamorphic DVD produced by Anchor Bay. There are no features, but they did a great job at re-mastering and transferring the film itself.



  • No special features except a trailer, the quality of which is far inferior to the quality of the film itself. It looks like it is taken from a VHS master.
  • The film itself is an excellent transfer, widescreen, anamorphically enhanced (16x9)



Chappelle Jaffe, as one of the terrorists, shows her breasts in a hospital room.

Book DVD  

The Critics Vote ...

  • No major reviews online.

  • A Canadian film, it was nominated for ten Genies, including Best Picture.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 5.2/10. In my opinion, that is low. It is comparable to films rated a full point higher.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a solid C. If you like cold war espionage films, this is a pretty decent one that you have probably not seen, and which you have certainly not seen at this level of quality, because is now available in an excellent widescreen anamorphic DVD produced by Anchor Bay. There are no features, but they did a great job at re-mastering and transferring the film itself.

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