North

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For some reason, every film I watch lately seems to have an Overture, an Intermission, an Entre-Acte and Exit Music — it started with the Easter weekend of biblical pictures, but then Fiona wanted to follow up our THIN MAN marathon with Powell & Loy in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. The downside of these roadshow events is one gets half as many films watched. And then there was ICE STATION ZEBRA, which fitted in with my recent researches into the career of John Sturges.

This is a real roadshow picture, as whitely elephantine as one could wish — I remembered it from TV screenings, all those endless submerging and surfacing sequences, a voyage to the North Pole that seems to take forever (the first half of the three hour picture) and a lot of static scenes in cramped submarine interiors. Was DAS BOOT the first time a filmmaker realized you could move the camera in a sub? Wolfgang Petersen, for all his many and unforgivable subsequent sins, not only proved it could be done, he proved it OUGHT to be done. Mobilis in Mobili, is what I say.

Tempted to look at Robert Wise’s RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP, just to see if he manages a track here or there.

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Anyhow, following on from THE SATAN BUG which is handsomely shot but also bloated rigid, Sturges is in the process of becoming the screen’s leading adapter of Alistair MacLean novels. MacLean really has fallen out of favour, hasn’t he? You don’t even see his books in Charity shops anymore, and the last adaptation was back in 1996. But in the late sixties and early seventies, you couldn’t move without slapping into a screen showing one or other of his thick-eared thrillers.

My English teacher at secondary school, Mrs Chapman, either knew MacLean or knew some someone who knew him, since he was a Scottish schoolteacher himself. She remarked with horror that his novels were all plotted on charts, with action and exposition mapped out at intervals, a cold, mechanical approach that horrified her.  I personally don’t see why author’s shouldn’t plan their stories on graphs — I just think ideally the finished book shouldn’t read like it.

McLean does not, so far as I can see, write good characters. Had Sturges applied the approach which served him so well with THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and stuffed the films with charismatic stars, some of this problem might have been diluted to a non-toxic level, but THE SATAN BUG stars low-wattage George Maharis (quite good, but definitely low-wattage) and ISZ has Rock Hudson in a severely underwritten, no make that unwritten role, which doesn’t capitalise on the actor’s light touch and sensitivity, nor on his impressive physique. Ernest Borgnine is quite good fun as a hearty Russian, and Jim Brown has a bad-ass military role which may be a stereotype but is a refreshingly un-racial one, but it’s left to Patrick McGoohan to carry the whole movie, nuclear submarine, polar cap and all.

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Fortunately, our Pat is up to this challenge. Talking in a preternaturally clipped manner, through immobile, wooden lips, with irony dripping from his every utterance like seaweed, smiling tightly on one side like a very repressed stroke victim, glowering like a betrayed monitor lizard, and occasionally pounding tables violently and yelling at the top of his lungs without fair warning, he’s a live wire alright, and not the sort of thing that should be waggled about near water. But waggled about he is.

One extra-textual pleasure of the movie, which manages just about to scrape up enough intrigue to keep a patient viewer partially engaged, is that I’m told it was Howard Hughes’ favourite movie during his declining years. He’d run a scratchy old 16mm print of it again and again, as he watched in the nude (possibly with Kleenex boxes on his feet: one likes to think so, anyway). What a cheapskate millionaire, that he didn’t even have an Ultra-Panavision 65 print.

Easy to see why he liked it, though: the hardware, the engineering, the jets, the sub, the gadgets, the militarism, the manly men being masculine at each other, and the icy cleanliness of the environments. There’s no dirt at the arctic — not even any land. The lack of character psychology wouldn’t have mattered to him — in fact, he would have embraced it, just as he did in his own production JET GIRL, in which the only motivation that stays consistent is the kind provided by Janet Leigh’s twin thrusters.

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15 Responses to “North”

  1. “Was DAS BOOT the first time a filmmaker realized you could move the camera in a sub?” Maybe. Even Sam Fuller’s Hell & High Water is very dull & immobile by his standards (though it does have a magnificent, red-lit oxygen starvation sequence).

  2. Did that inspire the party lighting in the Sam Fuller cameo in Pierrot le Fou? I’m sure I would get oxygen starvation if I were at a party with Godard.

  3. Ice Station Zebra also figures in Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers, John Greyson’s marvelously cheeky documentary/essay video/film about his visit to a Moscow youth conference at the time Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis and death took place. “Sampling” sequences from the Sturges, John takes a hidden camera into the men’s room at he Bolshoi –where one can reportedly find some “action” on a good night. He comes up empty on that score, alas.

  4. I would think the Bolshoi would be full of reds under the beds and more reds under the reds.

    Just occurred to me that the traitor-on-a-submarine plot is identical to Fantastic Voyage, but I don’t think Hughes would have enjoyed that one so much — even an enthusiast for submarines would find the idea of an intravenous one a bit much for his obsessive compulsive disorder. Although a busty substance like Miss Welch in his veins probably wouldn’t displease him — besides, she’s mostly non-biodegradable.

  5. And beds under the reds eg. Eisenstein

  6. Well I hope he had a bed under him, yes.

  7. I recently recommended Ice Station Zebra to a friend of mine who was wondering whether he should watch it on TCM or not. I often underestimate others’ willingness to indulge in accidental camp, and this was no exception. My friend is still speaking to me, but has made a few testy comments about my opinions on films.

    ISZ was the first film I encountered that had a bad reputation which preceded it. I distinctly remember being about 5 or 6 years old in the latter half of the 1970s, having to ask my parents about an Ice Station Zebra joke on a sitcom. Its reputation seems to have improved over the decades.

  8. judydean Says:

    Submarine films are something of an imperative in this household. We probably hold the record for viewings of DAS BOOT but our favourite remains:

    Not sure if there are any tracking shots – would have to watch it again to find out – but there would have been plenty of scope for them on a vessel big enough to house a complete pipe organ.

  9. Richard Fleischer got some great stuff going on a train in The Narrow Margin so I suspect both 2,000 Leagues and Fantastic Voyage will have some kind of movement to them. Captain Nemo’s motto rather invites it.

    Was vaguely thinking of peeking at Run Silent, Run Deep, on the basis that Robert Wise was too smart to let himself get all static. But then one thinks of his Star Trek film and doubt appears.

    Stacia, my mistake was perhaps in not viewing ISZ as camp enough. McGoohan and the ice follies sets seemed the only elements really shoving in that direction.

  10. I really love John Sturges and am sad that he doesn’t get more play though I guess his main themes – manly men working together to put in good work – is already covered by Hawks. Recently saw “Valdez Horses”, which may or may not have been directed by him, but is at any rate a really nice, slice-of-life western starring Charles Bronson.

  11. His best stuff is really good, and I don’t see a decline from his early Bs, which are already gripping, to his big-budget all-star vehicles. There’s a danger of underrating The Magnificent 7 and The Great Escape just because they’re so damned entertaining.

    ISZ looks like a rare stumble to me, but it does have its points of interest.

  12. Yeah, I didn’t think much of ICZ – and was really looking forward to seeing how Hudson would fit into Sturge’s men-on-a-mission machismo, too! Have you already seen “Never So Few”? Underrated Sturges, I think.

  13. No, haven’t caught that one, will watch out for it.

  14. Ice Station Zero was one of the last Cinerama pictures, or at least it played in the Cinerama Theater here in Portland, The Hollywood theater. Which still operates, and has a great variety of film programs. My family saw all the Cinerama features there, back when they were shown with three projectors. But back to ISZ, I felt that it was always a little too small for its scope. Its studio bound, arctic showdown is a big let down. If they had gone on location, it might have lived up to its hype. As it is, the final showdown is practically airless, and you don’t even see they breath.
    I’ve always thought of ISZ as more a movie sequel to McGoohan’s Danger Man series, where was was secret agent John Drake. He even gives his name as John.
    But, strangely enough, I do like the picture. And just watched the DVD recently. The part were they fall through the ice and almost get crushed is well done.
    But I don’t think I would recommend it. Certainly not over Twenty Thousand Leagues… , Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Around the World Under the Sea, Atragon, Operation Petticoat or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

  15. The submarine exterior stuff, both real and (convincing) miniature, is really the only claim the movie has to the epic. Though I enjoyed the miniature Russian jet fighters, which move in a very Dr Strangelove way.

    The movie is apparently 65mm, not Cinerama, but it’s certainly wide.

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