All-Time Top 40

I started this Blog two years ago this month and to my astonished delight it is now read in over 120 countries. I am now well past over 500 reviews. So I thought you might be interested to know which of these reviews has attracted the most attention. This isn’t my choice of the top films in the Blog, but yours, my loyal readers. The chart covers the films viewed the most times since the Blog began, from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2022.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark exudes menace in this adaptation of an early Alistair MacLean spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War. Senta Berger  has a small role.
  2. Jessica (1962). Innocently gorgeous widow Angie Dickinson finds her looks turn so many male heads in a small Italian town that the female population seeks revenge.
  3. Ocean’s 11 (1960). The Rat Pack makes its debut – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. et al plan an audacious Las Vegas robbery. 
  4. Pharoah (1966). Priests battle kings in Polish epic set in ancient Egypt. Fabulous to look at and thoughtful.
  5. Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall in the best role of her career as a sexy German spy in World War One.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret struts her stuff as a magazine journalist trying to persuade Tony Franciosca she is as sexy as the character she has written about.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary
  9. A Place for Lovers (1969). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in doomed love affair directed by Vittorio De Sica.
  10. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  11. Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchcockian-style thriller with Jean Seberg caught up in  murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  12. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  13. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  14. The Double Man (1967). Yul Brynner chases his doppelganger in the Swiss Alps with Britt Ekland adding a touch of glamour.
  15.  Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry hunts an M.I.5 mole in London. Intrigue all round with Joan Collins supplying the romance and a scene-stealing Suzanna Leigh as a villain.
  16. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  17. Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Off-the-wall musical directed by star Anthony Newley that has to be seen to be believed. Joan Collins pops up. 
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Deadlier than the Male (1967). Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond is led a merry dance by spear-gun-toting Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina in outlandish thriller.
  20. Valley of Gwangi (1969). Special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the star here as James Franciscus and Gila Golen encounter prehistoric monsters in a forbidden valley.
  21. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  22. Orgy of the Dead (1965). Bearing the Ed Wood imprint, mad monster mash-up with the naked dead.
  23. Once a Thief (1965). Ann-Margret is a revelation in crime drama with ex-con Alain Delon coerced into a robbery despite trying to go straight. Supporting cast boasts Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey. 
  24. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Stunning caper with thief Alain Delon and Mafia chief Jean Gabin teaming up for audacious jewel heist with cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil. Great score by Ennio Morricone.
  25. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). More diamonds at stake as Rod Taylor leads a gang of mercenaries into war-torn Congo.  Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller
  26. Stiletto (1969). Mafia hitman Alex Cord pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland as the treacherous girlfriend heads a supporting cast including Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  27. Maroc 7 (1967). Yet more jewel skullduggery with Gene Barry infiltrating a gang of thieves in Morocco who use the cover of a fashion shoot. Top female cast comprises Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  28. The Rock (1996). Former inmate Sean Connery breaks into Alcatraz with Nicolas Cage to prevent mad general Ed Harris blowing up San Francisco. Michael Bay over-the-top thriller with blistering pace.
  29. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster’s life falls apart as he swims pool-by-pool across the county. Superlative performance. 
  30. Hour of the Gun (1967). James Garner as a ruthless Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in John Sturges’ realistic re-telling of events after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
  31. Fade In (1968). Long-lost modern western with Burt Reynolds serenading low-level movie executive Barbara Loden whose company is actually filming Terence Stamp picture Blue.
  32. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). The British movie version of Disney American television mini-series sees Patrick McGoohan as a Robin Hood-type character assisting local smugglers.
  33. P.J./New Face in Hell (1968). Private eye George Peppard is duped by shady millionaire Raymond Burr and mistress Gayle Hunnicutt in murder mystery.
  34. Sol Madrid/The Heroin Gang (1968). In his second top-billed role David MacCallum drags hooker Stella Stevens to Mexico to capture drugs kingpin Telly Savalas.
  35. A Twist of Sand (1968). Diamonds again. Smugglers Richard Johnson and Jeremy Kemp hunt long-lost jewels in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  36. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  37. Interlude (1968). Bittersweet romance between famed conductor Oskar Wener and young reporter Barbara Ferris.
  38. Woman of Straw (1964). Sean Connery tangles with Gina Lollobrigida in lurid tale of murder and inheritance.
  39. Bedtime Story (1964). Marlon Brando and David Niven are rival seducers on the Riviera targeting wealthy women.
  40. Sisters (1969). Intrigue, adultery and incest haunt Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg as they try to recapture the innocence of the past.

Year-End Round-Up Part Two: “Other Stuff” Top 20

Regular readers will know that this blog occasionally turns its attention to what comes under the generic title of “Other Stuff.” In the main and still covering movies I’ve reviewed this comprises behind the scenes looks at movies, examines pressbooks or marketing materials and analyses how books were shaped into films. I also focus from time to time on important issues that shaped Hollywood in the 1960s and write book reviews.

  1. Behind the ScenesThe Guns of Navarone (1961). The ultimate template for the men-on-a-mission war picture with an all-star cast and enough jeopardy to qualify for a movie of its own.
  2. Book ReviewThe Gladiators vs Spartacus Vol 1. Stupendous research by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper explains how close Yul Brynner’s version of the Spartacus legend came to beating the Kirk Douglas movie into production.  
  3. Behind the ScenesThe Satan Bug (1965). The problems facing director John Sturges in adapting the Alistair MacLean pandemic classic for the big screen.
  4. Box Office Poison – 1960s Style. Actors and actresses who had been big box office draws at the start of the decade were floundering by its end. This examines which stars while pulling down big salaries were not pulling their weight.
  5. Behind the ScenesThe Girl on a Motorcycle (1968). Cult classic starring Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon had a rocky road to release, especially in the U.S. where the censor was not happy.
  6. The Bond They Couldn’t SellDr No (1962). Despite the movie’s later success and the colossal global box office of the series, American cinema owners were very reluctant to spend money renting what was perceived as just another British film.
  7. When Alistair MacLean Quit: Part One. Rankled by his treatment by his publishers, the bestselling author gave up his bestselling career. And not once, but twice (see When Alistair Quit: Part Two).
  8. Book ReviewDreams of Flight: The Great Escape (1963) in American Film and Culture. Dana Polan’s definitive book on the making of the POW classic starring Steve McQueen.
  9. Behind the ScenesGenghis Khan (1965). A venture into epic European filmmaking with an all-star cast led by Omar Sharif.
  10. Bronson Unwanted. By the end of the 1970s Charles Bronson was one of the biggest stars in the world, but at the end of the 1960s, although highly appreciated in France, his movies could not get a box office break elsewhere.
  11. PressbookDark of the Sun (1968). How MGM sold the action picture starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown. Fashion anyone?
  12. Selling Doctor Zhivago (1965). MGM’s efforts to create huge audience awareness of the David Lean epic prior to its British launch.
  13. Behind the ScenesThe Night They Raided Minskys / The Night They Invented Striptease (1968). The convoluted background to the attempts by neophyte director William Friedkin to make a movie celebrating America’s vaudeville past.
  14. Advance Buzz. How Hollywood began to take on board the need for publicity long before the opening of a picture.
  15. Behind the ScenesTopaz (1969). Detailing the problems facing Alfred Hitchcock in turning the Leon Uris bestseller into an espionage classic featuring a non-star cast.
  16. Book ReviewThe Gladiators vs Spartacus Vol 2.  Abraham Polonsky’s longlost screenplay about Spartacus is brought to light.
  17. The Miracle of Mirisch. The Mirisch Bros were the top independent producers in the 1960s – the first of the mini-majors – and while releasing classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape were also responsible for a pile of turkeys.
  18. Book into FilmDr No (1962). How the filmmakers adapted the Ian Fleming original to create the James Bond template.
  19. Behind the ScenesCast a Giant Shadow (1965). Producer Melville Shavelson wrote a book about his experiences and this and other material relating the arduous task of bringing the Kirk Douglas-starrer to the screen are related here.
  20. Book into FilmA Cold Wind in August (1961). The novel was a lot sexier than the film, since publishing did not face the same restrictions as Hollywood, and this examines how far the movie went to retain the spirit of the book.

Year-End Round-Up: Top 30 Films Chosen by You

Top 30

This isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over the full calendar year of January 2021 – December 2021.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack embark on an audacious Las Vegas robbery.  
  3. Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt.
  4. Age of Consent (1969). Helen Mirren stars as the nubile muse of jaded painter James Mason returning to his Australian roots.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966). Robert Vaughn hits his acting stride as a former CIA operative turned journalist investigating suicide bombings in Venice. Great supporting cast includes Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie  starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar.
  7. Moment to Moment (1966). Jean Seberg is caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot in the French Riviera. Also features Honor Blackman.
  8. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020).  Ageing rocker Dave Doughman aims to mix a career with being a father in this fascinating documentary.
  9. 4 for Texas (1963). Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin face off in a Robert Aldrich western featuring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg with Charles Bronson in a smaller part.
  10. Once a Thief (1965). Trying to go straight ex-con Alain Delon is coerced into a robbery. Ann-Margret is a revelation as his wife. Jack Palance, Van Heflin and Jeff Corey add up to a great supporting cast.  
  11. Stiletto (1969). Alex Cord as a Mafia hitman wanting to retire is pursued by tough cop Patrick O’Neal. Britt Ekland heads a supporting cast which includes Roy Scheider, Barbara McNair and Joseph Wiseman.
  12. Subterfuge (1968). C.I.A. operative Gene Barry is called to London to uncover a mole in M.I.5. Joan Collins provides the romance. Richard Todd, Tom Adams, Suzanna Leigh and Michael Rennie lend a touch of class.
  13. The Swimmer (1968). Burt Lancaster delivers a superlative performance as a man whose life is falling apart.
  14. The Rock (1996). Blistering thriller starring Sean Connery as an ex-inmate of Alcatraz helping Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to prevent mad general Ed Harris destroying San Francisco. Michael Bay directs.
  15. The Sicilian Clan (1969). Alain Delon joins forces with Jean Gabin to pull off an daring jewel heist with tenacious cop Lino Ventura on their trail. French thriller directed by Henri Verneuil.
  16. The Naked Runner (1967). With his son held hostage, Frank Sinatra is forced to carry out an assassination in East Germany.
  17. A House Is Not a Home (1965). Biopic of notorious madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters) who rubbed shoulders with the cream of Prohibition gangsters.
  18. Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier must help racist Nazi Bobby Darin.
  19. Genghis Khan (1965). Omar Sharif plays the legendary warlord who unites warring Mongol tribes. Stellar cast includes Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Francoise Dorleac, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas and Robert Morley.
  20. A Twist of Sand (1968). Beleaguered smuggler Richard Johnson spars with Jeremy Kemp in thriller about hidden diamonds in Africa. Honor Blackman is along for the voyage.
  21. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen special effects dominate this legendary tale of the hunt for the Golden Fleece.  
  22. Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Disney movie that was turned into a mini-series in the U.S. starring Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous Robin Hood-type character who assists smugglers.
  23. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021). Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for wild sequel also featuring Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
  24. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968). Rod Taylor leads a private army into the war-torn Congo to rescue a cache of uncut diamonds. Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux and Kenneth More co-star. Based on the Wilbur Smith bestseller.
  25. The Guns of Navarone (1961). Classic war mission picture with an all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Adapted from the Alistair McLean bestseller.
  26. Maroc 7 (1967). Gene Barry infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves in Morocco operating under the cover of a fashion shoot. Dazzling female cast includes Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, Tracy Reed and Alexandra Stewart.
  27. The Satan Bug (1965). John Sturges adaptation of Alistair MacLean pandemic thriller stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart and Dana Andrews.
  28. Five Golden Dragons (1967). Cult thriller with Robert Cummings as the playboy caught up in an international crime syndicate. Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee head an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Margaret Lee, Brian Donlevy, George Raft, Dan Duryea and Maria Rohm.
  29. Claudelle Inglish (1961). Diane McBain as the poor farmer’s daughter who wants to get rich quick.
  30. Jessica (1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge.

Book into Film – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Many liberties have been taken with the work of Alistair MacLean but there is little to match the arrogance of director John Sturges in deciding that the author’s original ending just wasn’t good enough. Setting aside the achievements of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), he was known for lapses of cinematic judgement, namely in switching completely the tone of The Satan Bug (1965) and assuming audiences shared his sense of humour with The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

According to Glenn Lovell, Sturges’ biographer, the director had “cringed” when presented with the Chayefsky screenplay, claiming the book had no “finish.” Closer, in Lovell’s words, to Agatha Christie than Ian Fleming. You have to ask if Sturges, or Lovell for that matter, had ever read Alistair MacLean’s astonishing tour de force of an ending.

The MacLean version climaxes in the submarine not on shore. And it takes to the ultimate the problems of confinement. You would have thought Sturges would have had little problem with the deadly incarceration of the MacLean climactic chapter given that had been a main element of The Great Escape, especially in the scenes with the claustrophobic Charles Bronson.

What Sturges passed up was what films like Das Boot (1981) later did so well – the sheer terror of being trapped underwater. MacLean’s book envisages the survivors of the fire at Ice Station Zebra rescued and returned to the submarine with the knowledge in the mind of David Jones (Patrick McGoohan in the film) that among them is a murderer, a Russian spy who caused the fire. The vessel is then subjected to further sabotage. A fire in the engine room causes the submarine to stop. That in turn causes the temperature to plummet, leaving the men in an “ice cold tomb.” Worse, they are running out of oxygen. Carbon monoxide is poisoning the atmosphere. In a short time a hundred will be dead. And to top it all, they have lost their bearings, the compasses don’t work, they are going round and round in a circle.

Can you imagine the possibilities? Absolute chaos. Not just thick acrid smoke everywhere, men strewn unconscious, the fire still burning, panic, terror. A submarine that was slowly becoming an underwater grave with still a killer on the loose.

Sturges could not imagine the possibilities. Perhaps he had not read the book either and Chayefsky had skipped through that part of the novel to get to the “trial,” the uncovering of the traitor that had been deemed too much like Agatha Christie. But The Guns of Navarone, one of the most successful movies of all time, had enjoyed a similar scene, when a surprise traitor was unmasked.

The ending Sturges slapped on the picture had its genesis in a couple of lines from the book where the British secret agent explained that Russian airplanes had come to the Arctic in the guise of helping the rescue but in reality looking for the film from the satellite. All the stuff about the new type of camera being stolen by the Russians and of film containing sensitive information about American missile sites needing to be recovered had come from the book. In the MacLean version, the traitor would dump the film out into the sea via the sub’s garbage chute but tagged with a floating device and a yellow marker so it could be picked up by a Russian vessel.

Instead, Sturges went for some kind of direct confrontation with the Russians, a shoot-out on the ice. It seemed a mighty odd decision, given the opportunities in 70mm Cinerama for a full-scale panic on board an immobilised submarine drifting to its doom.

In order to make his version work, Sturges had to draft in a squad of marines eventually led by Capt Anders (Jim Brown). The introduction of Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) makes less sense, especially as, snooping around the submarine, he is obviously up to no good, but that might be for sound cinematic reasons since otherwise the traitor would only turn up once the movie reached Zebra and even then would need to come to the fore for some obvious reason.

Interestingly, the screenplay omits one element. Heading the Zebra Arctic operation is the older brother of the British secret agent, giving him a secondary reason for his mission, and the potential for emotional reaction on finding his sibling dead.

Sometimes screenwriters just seem to earn their keep by changing names for no apparent reason. So the book’s Commander Swanson becomes Ferraday (Rock Hudson) and British agent Dr Carpenter is renamed David Jones minus medical degree. All the initial sabotage comes from the fertile mind of the author and long before Tom Clancy, beginning with The Hunt for Red October, invented a brand-new publishing genre concentrating on military detail, MacLean reveals an extraordinary grasp of every detail of a nuclear submarine, the Arctic, the weather and what exactly might go wrong from a fire on board or should the vessel lose speed.

Neither would you recognise Rock Hudson in MacLean’s description of the submarine commander as “short, plump…(and) a pink cherubic face.” MacLean’s British agent is less arrogant and acerbic, keeps much more to himself, revealing his character at appropriate moments spaced through the book, than does the film’s David Jones. That Dr Carpenter, the narrator, knows massive amounts about everything means that he does not need to showboat like the filmic David Jones to prove he is in charge.

The book is a turbo-charged thrill ride. That the final piece of sabotage and its consequences last nearly 50 pages is proof of MacLean’s skill as a page-turner. Much as I enjoyed the film as it stands, it’s just a shame that Sturges did not follow the author into his astonishing climactic sequences.   

When Alistair MacLean Quit: Part Two

After the publication of Ice Station Zebra in 1963, Alistair MacLean’s adoring public had to wait three years for its successor – When Eight Bells Toll. As he done before, the author just quit. But unlike the previous disappearing act, when he continued to produce books under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, this time nothing came down the prolific pipeline. The goose had laid its last golden egg.

After a five-year tax exile in Switzerland, MacLean had returned to Britain in 1962, setting up home first in Farnham, Surrey, followed by a brief hiatus in Ireland before settling down in a Georgian mansion with a two-acre estate in Haslemere, Surrey.

Film tie-in paperback of what might have been Alistair MacLean’s final book.

But as he delivered the manuscript of Ice Station Zebra to publisher Ian Chapman of Collins, he dropped a bombshell. He had made more than enough money. He was fed up with the high-and-mighty attitude of his editors. He was depressed by the sales of Fear Is The Key, which had been a writing breakthrough for him. He had written his last book. Now he was going to become a hotelier and to that end had bought the famous Jamaica Inn plus Bank House at Worcester and the Bean Bridge Hotel in Somerset.

The 400-year-old inn, immortalized by the Daphne Du Maurier book and Alfred Hitchcock film, was a solid going concern, takings from accommodation and food augmented by income from three bars and a souvenir shop. MacLean was a hands-on manager and felt immediately more at home dealing with real people than sitting in a lonely room pounding out his fiction. He had come to the conclusion that writing novels was “not a moral way of earning money.”

In dreaming the dream, he was especially particular, having inspected over 100 hotels before plumping for Jamaica Inn. He had the idea that hotel-keeping was in his blood. His younger brother Gillespie was a hotelier and since he could not afford a hotel of his own Alistair had bought him one near Fort William. Gillespie, however, was less than enthusiastic about the notion of operating three hotels far apart, and doubted his brother’s skills. Alistair showed little aptitude for running a business. He failed to understand the importance of stock-taking and before he could get to grips with the basics had already invested in a beer-making operation.

In despair he turned to his older brother Ian who was a high-flyer at Shell. Sensibly, Ian did not give up the day job but trying to keep an eye on a failing enterprise proved impossible. Alistair lacked people-management skills and was a poor judge of character. It was no surprise the hotels failed to flourish.

That Alistair MacLean returned to writing at all was the result of a leap of faith by producer Elliot Kastner who had parlayed $1,000 for the rights to Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target and another $5,000 for a screenplay by William Goldman into a $3.3 million private eye picture Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman, along the way netting a cool half a million bucks for himself. In Britain to make Kaleidoscope (1966) with Warren Beatty, Kastner opened a production office at Pinewood. Aware that MacLean had no books to sell, his entire portfolio already snapped up and since his retirement nothing in the locker, he went down another route. He suggested MacLean write an original screenplay, offering $100,000 plus a share of the profits and the book rights.

Apart from the money they brought in, MacLean had not been too happy with Hollywood’s treatment of his novels. Richard Widmark had substantially altered The Secret Ways (1961), Carl Foreman had not only added characters to the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) but appeared to have appropriated the entire work and applied a possessive pronoun to the main title credits as if he had dreamed up the whole thing instead of just, as producer, putting the package together. The Satan Bug (1965), too, had been considerably changed and judging from the number of screenwriters hired for Ice Station Zebra, which had not gone before the cameras at this point, it was more than likely the producers had moved away from the Chayefsky treatment which MacLean had approved.

At least at the start, Kastner seemed trustworthy and his enthusiasm was flattering. After convincing the author that he had an ear for cinematic dialogue, and that his plots were ideal, Kastner handed MacLean some sample screenplays. Although MacLean was interested he told the producer he was too busy to commit right away. Assuming this was a reference to the hotels, Kastner was surprised to learn that, unbeknownst to Ian Chapman, MacLean had already renounced his retirement and was working on When Eight Bells Toll. A deal for Where Eagles Dare was struck on January 15, 1967. Eight weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay.

Four years after apparently giving up writing forever, he had stumbled into a new career. And it wasn’t just Kastner queuing up to buy his work. Since “you can sell a picture just on the basis of his name,” Alistair MacLean remained a major attraction for filmmakers. By 1969 all 14 of his novels (up to Puppet on a Chain) had been bought for the movies, Ransohoff picking up the rights the previous year to The Golden Rendezvous, published in 1962, lining up MacLean for screenwriting duties.  Another seven original screenplays, with book deals pending, had also been purchased by producers including two sequels to When Eight Bells Toll, a pirate tale Swashbuckler and a western Deakin (renamed Breakheart Pass).

He never quit again.

SOURCES: Jack Webster, Alistair MacLean (Chapmans, London, 1992 paperback) p118-132; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, My 8, 1968, p30; “Film Slump No Problem for Alistair MacLean,” Variety, p35.

Behind the Scenes – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Director John Sturges was not flying quite as high as when he had greenlit The Satan Bug. Since then two films had flopped – big-budget 70mm western The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and Hour of the Gun (1967). Two others had been shelved – Steve McQueen motor racing epic Day of the Champion and The Yards of Essendorf. But his mastery of the action picture made him first choice for Ice Station Zebra.

Independent producer Martin Ransohoff (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) had snapped up the rights in 1964, initially scheduling production to begin the following spring. He financed a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily, 1964). Judging by later reports MacLean appeared happy with the screenwriter’s approach, especially after being so annoyed with the way Carl Foreman had appropriated The Guns of Navarone. Ransohoff put together a stellar cast – The Guns of Navarone (1961) alumni Gregory Peck and David Niven plus George Segal (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966). But each wanted to act against type. Peck, having played a submarine commander in On the Beach (1959), wished the role of an American secret agent, Niven to play his British equivalent with Segal left to pick up the role of skipper. Then Peck objected to the way his character was portrayed.

Sturges, paid a whopping $500,000 to direct, was unhappy with the Chayefsky script commissioned by the producer so he hired Harry Julian Fink (Major Dundee, 1965) and W.R. Burnett (The Great Escape, 1963). But he hated the results so much he suggested MGM drop the entire project. That was hardly what Ransohoff, after forking out $650,000 on screenplays and $1.7 million on special effects, needed to hear. As a last resort, Sturges turned to Douglas Heyes (Beau Geste, 1966) who beefed up the Alistair MacLean story, completely changing the ending, introducing the U.S. vs U.S.S.R. race to the Arctic,  and a bunch of new characters including those played by Jim Brown and Ernest Borgnine, who had previously worked together on The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Six months after its roadshow engagement in New York, the picture went into
general release in continuous performance.

After a string of flops, Hudson, celebrating his 20th year in the business, chased after the role of sub commander. Although it has been reported that Laurence Harvey briefly came into the frame for the part that went to Borgnine, I could find no record of that. Confusion may have arisen because in 1964 Harvey was prepping another MacLean picture, The Golden Rendezvous, which he planned to direct in the Bahamas. Having landed the major supporting role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Segal was the casting coup before he, too, jumped ship.

British star Patrick McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) who had not made a movie in five years, was an unlikely candidate for the second lead. Sturges saw him as the next Steve McQueen. But his inclusion only came about because of the sharp increase in his popularity Stateside after fans had bombarded the networks to bring back the Danger Man (1964-1967) television series (renamed Secret Agent for American consumption) after it had initially underwhelmed.  Increased public demand for the “old-fashioned hero with morals” became a feature of an advertising campaign. McGoohan received the accolade of a write-up in the New York Times. It seemed a cinch to have a denoted television secret agent star to play another spy in the film.

The all-male cast prompted the director to consider adding a hallucinogenic dream sequence involving women. Despite his penchant for action pictures, Sturges was a gadget nut and particularly interested in the space race, tracking by ham radio the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1, concerned that the Americans had been beaten. While moon landings remained some way off, the next battle for supremacy was nuclear submarines, of which Sturges was in awe.

Principal photography began in mid-June, 1967 and finished 19 weeks later. The $8 million budget topped out at $10 million. The non-nuclear U.S.S. Tronquil stood in for the book’s sub with U.S.S. Blackfin doubling in other shots. The vessel’s interiors dominated MGM’s soundstages with a 16ft superstructure as the centerpiece with hydraulics creating the tilting and rocking effects. Art director Addison Hehr’s commitment to authenticity saw his team buying real submarine effects from junk yards to fit out the interiors. The conning tower was almost as tall as a five-storey building and the submarine, built in sections, measured 600ft. The Polar landscape was created by draining the MGM tank, at the time the largest in Hollywood, of three million gallons of water and then mounted with snow and rocks and the burnt-out weather station.

While aerial shots of Greenland ice floes and fjords doubled for Siberia, to capture the wild ocean Sturges and cameraman John Stephens took a helicopter ride 30 miles out from the coast of Oahu where a 45-knot wind created “monumental” seas. A 10ft miniature in a tank permitted shots underwater and cameras attached to the Tronquil’s deck and conning tower achieved the unique sub’s-eye-view. The unconvincing Arctic landscape was shot on a sound stage.

Early trade double-page advertisement (hence the lines in the middle).

Not only did screenwriter Douglas Heyes alter the original ending, but Sturges claimed improvisation was often the order of the day.  “We made it up as we went along,” he said, “adding a whole bunch of gimmicks – the homing device, the capsule in the ice, the blowtorch…I don’t think it had any political significance. It just dealt with an existing phenomenon in an interesting way.” (Note: the homing device was in the original novel.)

A major hitch hit the planned roadshow opening in New York, essential to building up the brand. MGM proved reluctant to whisk 2001: A Space Odyssey out of the Pacific East Cinerama theater while the Stanley Kubrick opus was still doing so well. So it opened in the Big Apple on December 20, over two months after its world premiere at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, where MGM had decked out the lobby with a submarine measuring 20ft long and 12 ft high.  From the publicity point-of-view the delay was a drawback since New York critics – who attracted the biggest cinematic readership in the country – would not review the film until it had opened and should they take a positive slant their quotes would come too late for the national advertising campaign.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist, The Life and Films of John Sturges (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p262-268; “Film in Focus, Ice Station Zebra,” Cinema Retro, Vol 17, Issue 51, 2021, p18-27; “Harvey Huddles with Maugham on Bondage,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p25; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p18; “Ransohoff-Metro Prep Zebra Via Chayefsky,” Variety, January 20, 1965, p4; “Novelist, Producer Meet On Ice Station Zebra,” Box Office,  April5, 1965, pNE2;“George Segal,” Variety, April 28, 1965, p17; Advertisement, Variety, April 20, 1966, p44-45; William Kirtz, “Out To Beat Bond,” New York Times, Jun 23, 1966, p109;  “Ponti Seeks David Niven,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p3; “Cinerama Process for Metro’s Zebra,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p24;   Advertisement, Variety, June 21, 1967, p8-9;“26 Probable Roadshows Due in Next Two Years,” Variety, January 17, 1968, p7; “Poor Ratings But Film Plums Going To Pat McGoohan,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p3.”Premiere Display Built for Ice Station Zebra,” Box Office, October 14, 1968, pW2; “Ice Station Zebra Frozen, No N.Y. Cinerama Booking,” Variety, October 23, 1968, p12; “Ice Station Zebra in World Premiere,” Box Office, Oct 28, 1968, pW1; “No Zebra Shootout in N.Y. , Gets 2001 Niche, Latter Grinds,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p3; “Filmways Stake in Ten Features for $55m,” Variety, November 20, 1968, p7.

Ice Station Zebra (1969) ****

John Sturges’ Alistair Maclean Cold War thriller, released within months of the more action-oriented Where Eagles Dare, twists and turns as Americans in a nuclear submarine and the Soviet Union race to the Arctic to retrieve a fallen space capsule containing a deadly secret. Thoroughly enjoyable hokum filmed in Cinerama 70mm with an earworm of a booming theme from Michel Legrand and mostly outstanding special effects.

Nuke sub Commander Ferraday (Rock Hudson), despatched from Scotland, and believing he is only on a last-gasp mission to the save scientists at a stricken weather station, is somewhat surprised to be forced to carry as passengers arrogant British secret service agent David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), the former refusing to divulge the reasons for being on board. From the outset the vessel is afflicted by sabotage and the cruel ice. Tensions mount further as they reach the Ice Station Zebra weather station. Since so much depends on mystery in a MacLean thriller, any other revelations would amount to significant plot spoilers.

So while there’s more than enough going on among the various characters and a plot that shifts like a teutonic plate, it’s the submarine section that proves the most riveting, the dives exhilarating. The underwater photography is superb in part thanks to an invention by second unit cameraman John M. Stephens which could film for the first time a continuous dive. Whether the sub is submerging, surfacing, puncturing the ice or in danger of being crushed to smithereens, it’s the nuke that takes centre stage, a significant achievement in the days before CGI.

Not all the effects are quite so top-notch, there’s some dodgy back projection, and the Arctic rocks look fake, but in general, especially with streamlined control panels, jargon spat out at pace, and sub interiors that appear realistic, the result of two years research, it’s a more than solid job, delivering the core of a Saturday night action picture.

The absence of a giant Cinerama screen does not detract from the movie – though if you get the chance to see it in 70mm, as I once did, jump at it – because the Super Panavision cameras capture in enormous detail the bow spray, the massive icebergs, the gleaming intricacy of the controls, and even the sea parting under the weight of the sub creates astonishing visuals. And there’s something inherently dramatic in the commander slapping down the periscope.

Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) is back to straightforward leading man duty after his departure into paranoia in Seconds (1966) and he is burdened with both a chunk of exposition and having to develop a stiff upper lip in response to the secret agent’s reluctance to take him into his confidence. He comes more into his own in the action sequences. The tight-lipped brusque provocative McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) clearly has a ball as mischief-maker-in-chief, keeping everyone else on tenterhooks. Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch, 1969) invests his character with wide-eyed charm at the same time as the audience doubts his credentials. Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) has little more than an extended cameo as the Marines’ chief and in smaller roles you can also spot future Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (Castle Keep, 1969) and veteran Lloyd  Nolan (The Double Man, 1967).

This was the second MacLean adaptation for John Sturges (The Satan Bug, 1965) and he keeps a tighter grip on proceedings, a $10 million budget ensuring he could make the movie he envisaged, part-thriller, part-high adventure with well-orchestrated slugs of action.

When Alistair MacLean Quit – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Scrolling down the credits for The Satan Bug (1965) you might have been surprised to discover that the film was based not on a book by Alistair MacLean but by one Ian Stuart. Yes, this turned out to be a pseudonym but you might be asking yourself why on earth did a world-famous thriller writer need to employ a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms were generally used for two reasons, and most often in genre fiction. Firstly, they were utilized by authors who were far from world-famous and needed to churn out four or five books a year to make a living. In those days only the likes of Agatha Christie or Simenon could get away with producing three or four books annually without the public getting fed up with their output. Long before the likes of the prolific Danielle Steel or James Patterson showed publishers that the public would devour anything they produced, it was considered ruinous to your career to be seen to be turning out more than one book a year.

Salvatore Lombino wrote under the pseudonyms of Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct series), Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle etc), Richard Marsten, and Hunt Collins. Most famous under his own name, British author John Creasey (The Toff series) had 27 pseudonyms including J.J. Marric (the Gideon books) and Anthony Morton (The Baron series) as well as a number of different names for his westerns and romances.  A famous author wanting to dip a toe into a new genre was the other common reason a pseudonym came into play, the outstanding recent example being J.K. Rowling who turned to crime under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Alistair MacLean fell into neither of these categories. An unexpected success, the Scottish schoolteacher hit the jackpot with his debut HMS Ulysses in 1955, a straightforward war novel, and two years later bestseller The Guns of Navarone which was turned into a movie. He followed up with another four thrillers in four years under his own name, the last being Fear Is the Key (1961).

The reissued 1969 hardback while retaining the Ian Stuart name on the cover
links the book to Alistair Maclean in the inside flap.

By this point, MacLean, a somewhat touchy individual, had become exceedingly annoyed at the treatment his manuscripts received at the hands of his publisher Collins. In particular, he was often taken to task by editors for making simple errors like confusing “of” with “off.” But more importantly, editors treated his books as if they should be met with a rejection slip – in fact it was strongly suggested that the author set aside his third book South by Java Head in favor of something else – rather than slung out to an adoring public. As his biographer Jack Webster put it, he felt “very much like a pupil under severe pressure from a master.” It would have been humiliating for an English teacher to be told off for his use of English. The editors also complained there were too many incidents which made the books hard to read rather than enrapturing the reader.

While no doubt every author gets picked up for momentary lapses or for elements of the story that need reconsideration, it was clear to MacLean that his publishers were taking a very snobbish attitude to his output rather than falling over themselves to have in their possession such a cash cow. MacLean also felt that his books only sold so well because his name was attached. Every book was “by the author of HMS Ulysses” or, after the fantastic success of the movie, “by the author of The Guns of Navarone.” He was beginning to feel more of a unwelcome commodity than a cherished asset. And he had already made so much money from his millions of books sales and additional revenues from film studios -£30,000 for HMS Ulysses for example – that he did not need to listen to his publishers.

In fact, matters had come to a head with Fear Is the Key (1961), his least successful book. Clearly this provided his enemies in the publishing house with the opportunity to gloat and to attempt to force him to listen to their superior wisdom and toe their line But for MacLean Fear Is the Key was an experiment, a deliberate change of writing style. “What I’m trying to do is develop a technique of completely impersonal story-telling in the first person”  – in essence the reader would see action unfold as if through the eye of a camera. His publishers, who appeared to view sales as the only measure of a book’s success, felt otherwise. After one too many clashes with the Collins hierarchy, he took himself off to renowned agent Curtis Brown who welcomed him with open arms and none of the niggling that marked his dealings with the publishers. While Collins would remain his British publisher, Curtis Brown took on the task of invigorating foreign rights.

Having snared what they expected was a golden goose, you can imagine Curtis Brown’s astonishment on being told that the first book they were to sell under this new deal would not bear the name of Alistair MacLean. It would be by an unknown author – Ian Stuart. The Dark Crusader (retitled The Black Shrike for U.S. readers) was set in Australia and concerned a hunt for missing scientists. Never mind previous antipathy between author and publisher, Collins hated this book, complaining about over-complicated plot, boring characters, and improbable action. It was “a thoroughly bad book.” MacLean was incensed: “If the book is as bad as you say and you obviously lack faith in it, can you genuinely imagine that I believe you will honestly and sincerely get behind it in promotion, publishing and selling?”

Desperate to retain the author and hoping that this experiment would be short-lived, especially if sales showed a marked downturn from the MacLean books, Collins agreed to publish it. Naturally, the only way to ensure that it reached any kind of sales peak rather than vanish into the chasms of oblivion that faced most new authors, Collins gave the book “by a new author” a heavy publicity campaign. The poorer sales did not dampen MacLean’s ardour for his pseudonym and he went to produce The Satan Bug by Ian Stuart, his faith in his decision justified when a Hollywood director of the caliber of John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), clearly seeing far greater potential in the novel than the publishers, snapped it up for production.

The rule breaker – the back cover of the 1962 U.S. paperback gives the game away and clearly, judging by the quote from King Features, the true author’s identity must have been in the public domain.

Myth has it that both The Dark Crusader and The Satan Bug played by the rules laid down by the author. But that did not turn out to be the case. The paperback edition of The Satan Bug published by Popular Library in 1962 on the back cover reveals the true author. In any case in due course the book was reissued under the MacLean moniker and is a far better example of the cinematic style the author was attempting to achieve than The Dark Crusader and became the template for his later books.

But, as it turned out, this was not the first time that Alistair MacLean would go on strike.

Catch Up: movies made from Alistair MacLean novels featuring in the Blog are The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961) and The Satan Bug (1965).

SOURCESAlistair MacLean by Jack Webster (Chapmans Publishing, 1962, paperback edition), pages 73, 89-90, 94-96, 112-117.  

Book into Film – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Not unexpectedly, director John Sturges shifted the action of the Alistair MacLean Doomsday-scenario thriller from Britain to the United States and the locale of the secret chemical facility from lush English countryside to desert and from above ground to underground. Not unusually, either, wholesale changes were made to the names of all the characters. The MacLean chief investigator was called Pierre Cavell, but Sturges altered that to Lee Barrett (George Maharis), chief scientist Dr Gregori becomes Dr Hoffman (Richard Basehart), General Cliveden turns into General Williams (Dana Andrews), his daughter Mary becomes Ann (Anne Francis). MacLean’s Cavell was far from the handsome Hollywood hero, walking with a limp and face scarred. Mary is his wife and not, as in the Sturges version, an ex-flame.

More surprisingly, Sturges inserted a 15-minute prologue. The initial scenes taking place at the research facility are pure invention on the part of screenwriters James Clavell (633 Squadron, 1964) and double Oscar-winner Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964), although drawing on material dealt with as backstory in the original novel. In typical Alistair MacLean fashion, the novel went straight into the action with the attempt to recruit Cavell/Barrett for nefarious purposes, allowing the reader/viewer the chance to learn about his past.  

There are other considerable differences between book and film. In the first place Sturges widened out the action, so that the idea of mankind in complete peril is more obviously cinematically achieved. (In the book a small village is wiped out after a nerve gas attack with London the main objective for the Satan Bug).  In addition, the General plays a greater on-screen role and in some respects controls the manhunt.

But the narrative thrust of film and book go their separate ways. Barrett,a Korean war veteran, operates in standard espionage territory while Cavell is more of an old-fashioned detective, interviewing suspects. While Barrett, with the help of the General, closes in on the suspect responsible for the panic, Cavell had to investigate myriad possibilities before fixing on the culprit.

Perhaps the most important differences are that MacLean’s hero solves the mystery primarily through his own skill while Barrett is less self-reliant. Cavell often informs his mystified superiors that he knows exactly what is going on.  A further departure from the film is that Cavell spots the real reason for the theft of the Satan Bug, realizing it is merely a front for a bigger plot. With the author’s usual audacity this supposes that the villain’s blackmail scheme is simply a method of clearing out central London in order to carry out a series of heists on bank vaults while the city is deserted of all personnel and police.  

However, the heist to end all heists had already being adequately covered in terms of grand larceny in Goldfinger the previous year and Sturges could clearly see the cinematic benefits of an audience fearing the impact of wholesale slaughter rather than worrying whether a James Bond-type hero would survive. Sturges correctly calculated that audiences would respond more to the paranoia pervasive at the time than individual derring-do. In some respects, Sturges created a template for future bug movies that threatened to leave swathes of the population dead such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Outbreak (1985). Silent destruction – rather than the devastating fire rained down by invading aliens – also touched on implicit human fears of unknown powers at work and of course is now decidedly contemporary.

The screenwriters did lift complete sections from the book – the initial interrogation of Cavell/Barrett, how the dogs were silenced at the facility, the nerve gas attack on the imprisoned pursuers (in an abandoned gas station in the film, a farm in the book), and Barrett’s insistence that the bad guys take away Ann immediately prior to this attack.

But most of the Sturges film veers so far from the Alistair Maclean blueprint that it relies heavily on the invention of the screenwriters. But it would be interesting to know why they deprived Barrett – perhaps determined to establish him as a loner – of more personal ties for in the novel it is the wife who is endangered not an old girlfriend and the investigator’s best friend is among the casualties at the facility.

The book itself is highly recommended, not just tautly- but well-written. The author’s later books were often a parody of his earlier excellence but this novel, published in 1962, is one of his best and well worth a read.

Behind the Scenes – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

In 1963 John Sturges made a deal for his Kappa Productions outfit with United Artists.  The director was keenest on The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and what became Hour of the Gun (1967) but The Satan Bug was greenlit first because of the production difficulties inherent in developing westerns. To cut down on travel, Sturges decided to shoot in and around the desert area close to his home turf of Palm Springs and the Joshua Tree National Park. He called in James Clavell, responsible for the screenplay of The Great Escape (1963), and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) to Americanize  and update the English-set Alistair Maclean thriller written before the Cold War escalation of the Cuban Crisis and the increasing fears of nuclear arsenals.

Hardly a director known for “message pictures” – more likely to emanate from the likes of Stanley Kramer – nonetheless he recognized the implicit threat of biological warfare for “its terror potential” and envisioned a powerful climax in the evacuation of Los Angeles. He swapped the married, lame and disfigured hero of the novel for a hip loner in the Steve McQueen mold.

Unable on a $6 million budget to afford a leading man of the McQueen calibre – a strange notion when Two for the Road’s $5 million budget included $1 million for Audrey Hepburn – he settled on rising star George Maharis (Quick Before It Melts, 1964) who had graduated from television’s Route 66 (1960-1963). “We were disappointed that we were not able to get a major star to play the leading role,” commented producer Walter Mirisch, whose company Mirisch Pictures bankrolled the picture. “The idea of using… George Maharis was suggested… John (Sturges) pressured us to cast him. I had felt the subject required a major action-adventure star. George Maharis wasn’ t that, nor did he ever become a major shooting star. ”

Richard Basehart was also plucked from television – the star of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) – as was Frank Sutton (Donald in the film) from comedy Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964-1969). Initially cast as the general’s daughter, Joan Hackett (The Group, 1966)   – in what would have been her movie debut – was replaced by Anne Francis. In fact, Hackett worked on the movie for two weeks. “John called,” explained Mirisch,” and told me he was very dissatisfied with Joan.” Sturges had worked with her replacement Anne Francis before on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Sturges biggest problem was creating imposing research facility Station 3. Sticking it underground saved a chunk of cash on the budget, since interiors were minimalist. “The set cost us nothing,” said Sturges. But to add a sense of tension, the set was lit with an ominous amber glow.

However, it proved impossible to achieve the one effect Sturges had set his heart on – the panic-crazed evacuation of Los Angeles. City officials put a block on the gridlock called for in the script. Recalled Sturges, “The sons-of-bitches wouldn’t let me stop traffic…we didn’t get the panic on the streets, the motorists trapped on the freeways…the nightmare of the evacuation.” The director was forced to resort to “glass shots” and background noise to create the sense of pandemonium, the gridlock limited to the roadblock.

Also hampering production was a sense that the director’s mind was not fully on the job. Screenwriter John Gay (The Hallelujah Trail) was often on set conferring between shots with Sturges. The laughter they enjoyed dreaming up ideas for the comedy western seemed at odds with the mood of the pandemic thriller, leaving some actors annoyed.

Commented Mirisch, “It never developed any momentum on its (U.S.) release and wasn’t successful commercially.” According to the Mirisch internal records, the picture’s negative cost (excluding marketing and advertising) was $1.78 million. It only brought in $850,000 in rentals from the U.S. release though foreign business was better, $1.75 million, but the combined total was not enough, once the promotional costs were included, to turn a profit.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008,p243-248; Walter Mirich, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, p211-212; Mirisch Financial Records for 1965.

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