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.
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.
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.