Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Ice Station Zebra (1968)

This weekend's Memorial Day themed viewing continued today with ICE STATION ZEBRA, a Cold War thriller about an American nuclear submarine on a dangerous mission at the "top of the world."

In a nutshell, the Americans are trying to beat the Russians to a cannister of film from a satellite, which is the movie's "MacGuffin." The film is based on the novel of the same name by Alistair MacLean.

The movie has several things going for it, starting with strong performances by Rock Hudson as submarine commander James Ferraday and Patrick McGoohan as a British spy. Hudson and McGoohan are both highly watchable and believable in their respective roles; McGoohan memorably shows what a great actor can do with some well-written exposition during an excellent scene where he tells Hudson about "our German scientists, your German scientists, and their German scientists." If the film had had more such scenes it would have been a lot better.

The film's pluses also include outstanding Oscar-nominated photography by Daniel L. Fapp and a stirring musical score by Michel Legrand.

Unfortunately, while it's worth seeing, the film is hampered by numerous problems. At roughly 148 minutes, the film is unnecessarily long and in desperate need of editing. For instance, there was an entire minute or so wasted near the start of the film simply watching cars driving around, without any clarity as to who we're watching or why.

More significantly, the character played by James Brown was really rather extraneous to the plot; I suspect someone like Darryl Zanuck, who famously turned A LETTER TO FOUR WIVES into A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, would have cut him from the script. He serves no purpose other than to be one more suspect as a double agent. If all his scenes had been cut, such as those where he interacts with the men under his command, the story would have remained exactly the same but it would have been a much tighter running time.

The plot, in general, is overly murky, particularly during the last half hour, which requires the audience to pay extremely close attention to a shell game with the cannister of film.

It was also jarring to go from the relative realism of the well-done submarine sequences to the Arctic setting, which was little more than styrofoam blocks of ice in a soundstage. I'm willing to suspend disbelief if a story is strong, but the plot mostly dies in the Arctic scenes, and the clearly make-believe setting didn't help matters.

The great Lloyd Nolan was limited to a single scene at the start of the film, while on the other hand Ernest Borgnine hams it up as a Russian defector for far too much screen time. Alf Kjellin plays a Russian commander. The submarine crew includes Gerald S. O'Loughlin and Ron Masak.

The movie was directed by John Sturges, whose films included THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960 and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).

I recorded the film from Turner Classic Movies, which did a very nice job showing the film in its original "roadshow" version, with the Overture, Intermission, and Exit music intact. The movie will be shown on TCM again on June 11, 2011.

ICE STATION ZEBRA was released on VHS in 1992. It was released on DVD in 2005; the DVD can be seen via Netflix.

The trailer is available at IMDb or TCM.


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