"Brass Target" is the latest conspiratorial potboiler in the digigestible tradition of "Executive Action," "The Eagle Has Landed" and "The Domino Principle." Now at area theaters this worthlessly convoluted fiction purports to show how Gen. Paton, who died on Dec. 22, 1945, of injuries sustained in a car crash about two weeks earlier, was really wounded fatally by an exotic projectile (shaped like a champagne-bottle cork) fired from an exotic rifle at absurdly close range by an exotic international hit man.

Frederick Nolan, author of the novel the firm was based on, claims to have dreamed up the premise one evening at a Washington cocktail party. That may be an explanation, but it falls short as an excuse. The fanciful assassination caper is linked to an authentic unsolved crime, the disappearance of a shipment of gold bullion confiscated from the Reichsbank. When Patton, supposedly goaded by the Russians, supposedly vows to solve the crime, the culprits supposedly place a rush order for an assassin.

The Reichsbank caper may have eluded real-ife solution, but it's no mystery in the context of "Brass Target." The theft is traced immediately to a claque of SHAEF colonels. Robert Vaughn, a picture of jowly boredom and dissoulution, plays the rottenest apple in this corrupt barrel. To underline the corruption, he is introduced tormenting his lover, a nervous-nellie coconspirator played by Edward Herramann.

Patton's battlefield reputation evidently extended to the sphere of criminal investigation, because the news that the general is on the case provokes the thieves to resort to assassination as their only salvation. The contract, placed through Mafia channels, is entrusted to a cold-blooded specialist played by Max von Sydow, so unspeakably ruthless, not to mention miserly, that he snuffs the kindly old armorer who supplies him in order to test the efficiency of his weapons.

John Cassavetes, whom one naturally expected to find among the conspirators, has been cast against type as an honest, tenacious major assigned by military intelligence to investigate reports of a murder plot against someone high in the Allied command. The exposition crawls along parallel tracks while von Sydow goes about his Jackal-type preparations, Vaughn cautions panicky types like Herrmann to hang tough and Cassavetes doggedly endeavours to unravel the non-mystery.

The skullduggery itself generates so little tension or suspense that one awaits the denouement only out of idle curiousity, to discover how expediently the assassination premise will be resolved.

It requires prodigious feats of cunning and dexterity on the part of von Sydow's character, but even so his greatest accessory turns out to be wild coincidence. Never for a moment does the scenario make the imaginative jump that might permit one to suspend disbelief and pretend that its sequence of events is plausible exposed premise.

Sophia Loren has been shoehorned decoratively into the exposition as a glamorous spoil of war whose protectors have included Cassavetes, von Sydow and a conspirator played by Patrick McGoohan, who is allowed to camp it up for a couple of scenes while affecting some misconception of an American accent. As Patton, George Kennedy obviously has an impossible act to follow. While his obtrusive style of forcefulness never compares with the imaginative intensity a first-string actor like George C. Scott can project, Kennedy is probably a close physical stand-in for Patton.

Direct John Hough and cinematographer Tony Imi seem to have a flair for spacious, handsomely lit composition that might prove an enchancement to material of a superior kind. The script has such a stolid air that one can't tell if the occassional amusint bits are intentional or serendipitous. For example, it looks irresistibly funny when von Sydow, playing a man of many faces, removes one toupee to reveal what is obviously another toupee underneath.Nevertheless, the second rug is apparently meant to be taken as legitimate.

The circumstances surrounding the assassination are even more intriguing. While von Sydow is depicted as a lone mercenary gunman, the scene of the crime is dominated by what looks ssuspiciously like a grassy knoll. Coincidence or inspiration?