The Satan Bug 1965 ***


Let’s be glad that the coronavirus shows no signs of developing into the kind of bio-warfare shown in John Sturges’ surprisingly-on-the-money-for-1965 tech-talk thriller. The virus shown here arrests the subject within seconds; collected in a number of glass containers, they’re the deadly Macguffin that The Satan Bug revolves around.

Alistair MacLean’s reputation as a storyteller was cemented by Ice Station Zebra; he published The Satan Bug under the name Ian Stuart to see if he could still hit big without drawing on his growing reputation. He was right; The Satan Bug film features an adaptation by a young James Clavell that carries forward many of the novel’s key points. George Maharis plays Lee Barrett, a security office brought in by the government after a deadly toxin is stolen from a desert facility. Barrett is, like many of MacLean’s heroes, a journeyman of exceptional ability, and there’s a zinger of an introduction aboard his yacht where he sniffs out a government test of his corrupt-ability. Barrett heads to the Station Three facility in Southern California, where he figures out how the theft was completed in old-school, Hercule Poirot style; the deductions seem credible and establish Barrett as a no-nonsense type. There’s a dalliance with Anne Francis, some hard talk with a general (Dana Andrews) and a patient build up to an extended chase, during which the fate of the world depends on the delivery of the glass-flasks intact.

The Satan Bug has an exciting title that doesn’t quite get visualised here; there’s no sign of giant bugs or indeed of Satan himself. There’s also no sign of the kind of teaser disasters that one expects of a disaster movie; we’re told through dialogue that hundreds have died in a preliminary skirmish in Florida, but there’s no visual information about this at all. That’s par for the course for the mid-60’s, but Sturges does manages to whip up impressive tension in a baseball stadium/helicopter action scene for the finale.

The Satan Bug is dated, for sure, but there’s also a modern film fighting to get out; Maharis does well as the proto-Bond hero, and some of the location work is ahead of its time. And what Sturges manages to convey is fear; with just a few glass flasks and a serious tone, he conjures up a grounded sci-fi drama that works well for patient viewers.

Golden Rendezvous 1977 ***

goldenThere are reasons for liking something other than it being ‘good’; this 1977 thriller based in a 1962 book by Alistair MacLean is perfectly awful in many ways, but somehow these flaws only make it more endearing. “Everyone was drinking on that movie, we were all so f**king miserable’ explained star Richard Harris in a magazine article, defending his consumption of a bottle of vodka every day while re-writing the script. If you want to understand what drinking a bottle of vodka every day does to your writing process, try watching Golden Rendezvous; director Freddie Francis and Christopher Lee abandoned ship while the film was in production.

For a great bad movie, several things have to go wrong at once, and replacement director Ashley Lazerus’s film hits the wrong note from the opening scene with a fabulously inappropriate swirling synth score by Jeff Wayne, one which mimics his War of the Worlds hit. Meanwhile John Carter (Richard Harris) stands around on an quay with a clipboard, bad hair-cut and milk-bottle spectacles looking about as officious as a lolly-pop man while various characters scuttle on-board the liner and floating casino Caribbean Star. These characters include the ancient John Carradine, sporting the look of a man freshly embalmed, the comparatively youthful Burgess Meredith hamming it up as a gambler, old favourites Dorothy Malone and Robert Beatty, David Janssen, who appears to have a glass of whiskey glued to his hand, Harris’s real-life wife Susan Beresford (Ann Turkel), and John Vernon as Luis Carreras, a man with a nuclear bomb. Vernon left the set to play Dean Wormer in Animal House, and was probably not the ideal casting to portray genuine menace, but that’s just one of the problems here.

Many films have issues with consistency, but Golden Rendezvous suggests that Harris’s idea of a rewrite was to throw the script in the air and re-arrange the pages where they fell. Carreras’s men take the ship over and brutally machine gun the crew, and yet Carter and Beresford are more preoccupied with whether to re-ignite their relationship. ‘I was wondering, should we bury the hatchet?’ he muses coyly while the bloody corpses pile up on deck and the clock on a nuclear bomb ticks down; it’s the kind of narrative dissonance that Team America nailed, but no less funny to discover in latent form here.

Given the film’s preoccupation with money, specifically gold bullion, it’s also notable that court cases subsequently proved that Golden Rendezvous was largely financed by South African government with money that was intended to be used to help black film-makers. Certainly, the acting, action, music and the entire production are verging on criminal, and yet there’s some fun in a film written and performed by practicing alcoholics on peak booze-cruise. There’s something admirable in characters who, on discovering that terrorists have boarded their ship, take action by throwing a cocktail party to flush them out via social chit-chat. Ideally seen with a glass of something 40 per cent proof in one hand, Golden Rendezvous’ hackneyed heroism and jauntiness in the face of terrorism make it a classic re-watch for those who love the idiocy of bad movies. This film was never issued on DVD in the US, but was broadcast on Scottish television on what seemed to be a continual loop during my childhood.

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Death Train 1993 ***

deathThe Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable until the internet came along and offered salvation. The YouTube copy of Death Train under review has a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80 million opening, bigger than Bad Boys for Life or any 2020 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Detonator.

A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.

The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are Boys Own stuff.

Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff. It just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. And the title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.

Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Don Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.

The Hostage Tower 1980 ***


Once Upon a Time, Brits used to mock American television; absolute laugh-fests like The Hostage Tower typify everything wrong with the US tv model circa 1980. A silly idea, originally from Alistair MacLean, gets the small-screen treatment for this CBS product which feels more like a broken pilot than a feature film, and forty years later, it’s the complete randomness of the casting that makes it a must-see on streaming for slumming cineastes.

Let’s kick off with Billy Dee Williams, currently riding high as Lando in the latest Star Wars film. He was a hot name in 1980, and ideal as CW/ Clarence Whitlock, a US agent who infiltrates a terrorist organisation planning to blow up the Eifel Tower. Exciting, right? Well, yes, and perhaps ahead of it’s time in this respect, although risible bad-guy Mr Smith (2001’s Keir Dullea) has a much more preposterous Plan B scheme up his sleeve, kidnapping the president’s mother (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson) and holding her for ransom. Fortunately another US agent Mike Graham (step forward next guest Peter Fonda) has also infiltrated Mr Smith’s group, and his hell-bent on stopping him. This involves ground forces in the unlikely form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rachel Roberts causing a distraction to that Billy Dee Williams can abseil down the Eifel Tower with Celia Johnson on his back, while a series of robot-controlled lazers attempt to pick them off. Did we mention Bond girls Maud Adams and Britt Ekland are thrown into the mix, or that the film is shot largely in Paris around the tower itself?

The Hostage Tower was directed by Claudio Guzman, whose main credits were the I Dream of Jeannie tv show, but he fails to bring the same intensity or vision to Hostage Tower. What he does do is capture the strangest cast of actors gathered together in Paris to look upwards; pretty much everyone is on the skids here. There’s an unusual emphasis on how terrorists train, although these sequences don’t match the actual tower assault, which features Williams dressed as a cartoon chef pushing a massive soup-tureen past idiotic security guards.

The Hostage Tower has never been issued on DVD, and there’s a reason for that. But having admitted that this is no-one’s finest hour, this is the ideal film to watch when you want to keep investment levels low and snark high. With roller-skating bank robbers, lazers blowing up footballs and all kinds of ridiculous heroism, it’s an open invitation to gawp at the crudity of cheap entertainment. As Noel Coward put it, Keir Dullea, Gone Tomorrow…and that just about sums up the disposable quality of this fascinating relic of tv’s past.

Black Sea 2014 ***

black-sea-3After enduring an age of pretty-boy vehicles (Alfie), Jude Law has gained in intensity what he’s lost in looks. Law plays Robinson, a submarine expert in Kevin Macdonald’s serviceable action film, pulling together a mercenary crew in a search of hidden gold on an abandoned Nazi submarine. Something in the vein of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, right down to Scott McNairy in the Patrick McGoohan role of US interloper, Macdonald maintains a decent tension through a few tricky hairpins, which Michael Friend typically oily in support. Law’s accent is flawless, and if the action doesn’t have a big-budget for spectacle, the close-quarters action makes for a grown-up slice of derring-do.

John Wick 2014 *****


Always a good mover, Keanu Reeves’s combination of Zen-blankness and physical mobility made him a perfect action lead in Speed, The Matrix; Chad Stahelski and David Leitch‘s thriller gives him plenty of opportunity to show his skills. Taking a lead from the writings of Alistair MacLean, we’re talking about tough ex-agents rather than genetically modified soldiers. John Wick is a man on a mission, to revenge the death of his dog, which was given to him by his dying wife. Wick rips through hotels, nightclubs, and a kill-a-minute as he rages through a rigorous, glorious HR cull of various crime organisations, with nice work in support from Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane and Michael Nyquist.

Bear Island 1979 ***


Don Sharp’s 1979 thriller marked the closing of the cycle of films based on Alistair Maclean novels; Bear Island sold over eight million copies, and Sharp’s film is a big-budget Canadian production. Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee are amongst the party stationed on Bear Island, which was a base for Nazi U-boats during the war. Various espionage elements are engaged in a search for Nazi gold, and there’s a notable snowmobile chase in the style of a James Bond movie. Public tastes had drifted away from this kind of stoic action by this point, but Bear Island is a decent who-dunnit that keeps the audience in doubt as to the motivations of the well-wrapped-up characters. A coda, noting that Goodbye California by Maclean was in the pipeline, proved to be misguided.


Fear Is The Key 1972 ***


Barry Newman made a perfect Kowalski in Vanishing Point, one of the classic car-chase movies, but there’s actually more action, in the form of a whopping twenty minute stunt scene, in this 1972 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s novel. Newman plays John Talbot, who infiltrates a criminal organisation in order to revenge his family, who died in an air-crash. Early roles for Ray McInally and Ben Kingsley, plus a villainous turn from John Vernon, are plus points, but it’s Michael Tuchner’s staging of the chase, with Newman’s brand-new Ford Gran Torino escaping the cops, that gives Fear Is The Key a place in cult-movie history. Roy Budd provides a jazzy score.

When Eight Bells Toll 1970 ***

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With Chris McQuarrie apparently considering an Ice Station Zebra reboot, it would be nice to imagine a renaissance of interest in the work of Scottish writer Alistair Maclean, with When Eight Bells Toll a good example of the kind of terse derring-do that made his work internationally knows.  Coming out post Where Eagles Dare and in the same years as the speedboat-chase-tastic Puppet on a Chain, it attempted to set up an alternate Bond franchise, with two more films planned but never to materialize. Sporting a healthy head of lustrous hair, Anthony Hopkins plays Philip Calvert, sent by Robert Morley to deepest darkest Scotland to investigate a missing ship, and uncovering espionage ring. Calvert is a professional and shoots first, giving When Eight Bells Toll a gritty heart that most action movies lack. Directed by Etienne Perier.