Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Bear Island

Except for Cannon’s little-seen RIVER OF DEATH, released to a handful of theaters in 1989, BEAR ISLAND was the last adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel to play on the big screen. It was the 13th of MacLean’s novels to be turned into a film (though WHERE EAGLES DARE was written as a novel and a screenplay at the same time), beginning with 1961’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Amazingly, despite MacLean’s enormous popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, he seems to be a forgotten author today. A pity, as his best thrillers still hold up.

Director Don Sharp (THE FACE OF FU MANCHU), who rewrote MacLean’s PUPPET ON A CHAIN screenplay and directed second unit on it, must have thought 1971’s BEAR ISLAND didn’t hold up well. He, along with David Butler (VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED) and Murray Smith (SCHIZO), made a lot of changes in the BEAR ISLAND screenplay. Whereas the novel told the story of moviemakers shooting a production on remote Bear Island, well above the Arctic Circle, the film turns the doctor protagonist Christopher Marlowe into an American named Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland), one of several United Nations scientists who travel to Bear Island to study climate change.

Everyone seems to be harboring a secret, and some of the scientists are murdered. Lansing, surrounded by snow, ice, and suspicion, investigates and comes to believe the violence has something to do with the abandoned German U-boat base located on Bear Island. And that leads to Lansing’s secret: his late father was the captain of that U-boat during World War II, and family legend is that a cache of Nazi gold is hidden on Bear Island. Well, it’s not all that secret, because it seems everyone on the island is posing as someone else as an excuse to search for the treasure.

Sharp was an effective action director, and his BEAR ISLAND setpieces are the best part of the film. It was not a hit, which is why future MacLean adaptations were scrapped, nor was it critically praised. Second unit director Vic Armstrong (JOSHUA TREE) also contributes to the fine stuntwork. The script takes shortcuts with characterization and throws in an unlikely romance between Lansing and a humorless psychologist played by Vanessa Redgrave, but the actors’ chemistry is as icy as the Bear Island winter. It’s fun to watch the all-star cast, including Richard Widmark (MADIGAN), Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA), Lloyd Bridges (TV’s SEA HUNT), and Barbara Parkins (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), wrestle with their accents.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Satan Bug

A great cast of character actors and a crackerjack premise for suspense are the highlights of THE SATAN BUG, which is based on Alistair MacLean’s excellent 1962 novel. Transplanting the action from rural England to Los Angeles, screenwriters James Clavell (KING RAT) and Edward Anhalt (THE BOSTON STRANGLER) otherwise stick pretty closely to the book as far as the plot goes. However, the telling of the tale leaves a bit to be desired. Though beautifully photographed by three-time Oscar winner Robert Surtees (BEN-HUR), THE SATAN BUG is dramatically inert with more middle-aged white guys in conservative suits standing around than a GOP convention.

Former government agent Lee Barrett (ROUTE 66 star George Maharis) is recruited by his ex-boss Cavanaugh (Richard Bull) and General Williams (Dana Andrews) to investigate the murder of a scientist and the disappearance of another at top-secret Station Three, where deadly biological agents are developed. Barrett learns the Satan Bug — a virus that could destroy all life on Earth in a couple of months — is missing, probably taken by a madman who will threaten the world with it.

Frank Sutton (GOMER PYLE, USMC) and Edward Asner (LOU GRANT) are heavies working for the villain. Richard Basehart (VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA), Simon Oakland (PSYCHO), John Anderson (5 CARD STUD), Henry Beckman (HERE COME THE BRIDES), Harold Gould (RHODA), and James Hong (CHINATOWN) work at Station Three. Anne Francis (FORBIDDEN PLANET) has little to do, but serves the film as its only female and the only character wearing color.

The talky script fails to generate much excitement, as do the drab Maharis and director John Sturges, otherwise a master director of thrillers (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE GREAT ESCAPE). A sequence with Maharis and two government men (one played by STAR TREK’s James Doohan) trapped in an abandoned shack with a fatal virus packs the movie’s biggest thrill. The climax is a dud, though it offers some gorgeous views of the relatively new Dodger Stadium.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Firepower (1979)

FIREPOWER is a deliriously silly international thriller with an affecting cast of middle-aged movie stars and one of the most absurdly convoluted storylines I’ve ever attempted to decode. At one point, when director Michael Winner (DEATH WISH) and screenwriter Gerald Wilson (THE STONE KILLER) get trapped in a corner, they reach into their rear ends and pull out an exact double of James Coburn’s character, who is never seen or heard from again.

If nothing else, Winner knows how to grab an audience’s interest. Before the main titles have started to unspool, Winner kills off a chemist, the husband of Sophia Loren’s Adele Tasca, in an explosion and then guns down the chemist’s brother and a bunch of hoods at the funeral parlor. It’s an effective formula that works for Winner. When the plot starts to get confusing, blow up something or kill a bunch of guys to wake everybody up.

Adele believes the man responsible for her husband’s murder is the mysterious Karl Stegner, a wealthy recluse in Antigua who’s wanted by American authorities, but can’t be extradited, and nobody knows what the hell he looks like anyway. The Feds, with FBI agent Frank Hull (Vincent Gardenia) in charge, want flower-loving merc Jerry Fanon (Coburn) to go get Stegner, so they bribe retired mobster Sal Hyman (Eli Wallach) to convince Fanon to do the job. See what I mean about convoluted? Why couldn’t Hull just ask Fanon directly? Probably because Sir Lew Grade at ITC wanted to squeeze another star, Wallach, into the production somewhere.

Fanon takes along heist man Catlett (O.J. Simpson) as backup. Neither seems to be the brains of the outfit, as their plan involves setting Stegner’s house on fire and then running inside the abandoned blaze to find clues. The piling on of twists over doublecrosses grows silly after awhile, but FIREPOWER is always watchable for its star power and its harrowing stunt sequences involving airplanes, helicopters, automobiles, boats, bulldozers, whatever it takes. Trying to follow the plot is more effort than it’s worth.