Canada, US / 95 minutes / color / Universal, Hal Roach Productions Dir: Lamont Johnson Pr: Trevor Wallace Scr: Matthew Howard (i.e., Douglas Heyes) Story: The Alien (1968) by L.P. Davies Cine: Michael Reed Cast: George Peppard, Michael Sarrazin, Christine Belford, Cliff Potts, James Olson, Tim O’Connor, James McEachin, Alan Oppenheimer, Roger Dressler, Ty Haller, Anna Hagen.
There’s a surprising number of good science-fiction neonoirs around—you only have to think as far as BLADE RUNNER (1982), STRANGE DAYS (1995) and The TERMINATOR (1984), and you might at a stretch even put The USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) in there because of its fantastication—but there are some that have a great sf plot, one that could have been used as the basis for a tremendous Philip K. Dick-style paranoia-fueled sf-neonoir classic … but manage to fall short. The Groundstar Conspiracy is among those, and the reason for its falling short lies in part in the direction, in small part in the editing, and in very much part in the two principals: Peppard is notoriously a wooden actor and Sarrazin not exactly an Olivier, so that when the two of them have scenes where they must play off each other it’s a sort of battle of the planks.
Noirish shot angles inside the secure military hospital.
The Groundstar Project is a hi-tech space-technology institution. One night computer technician John David Welles (Sarrazin) steals all the info on the project’s miniaturized fuel system, which apparently might be worth millions on the international market, and puts it on tape (remember tape?). Amidst all kinds of explosions and other Bondish stuff, Welles escapes through the security system, his efforts having resulted in the deaths of several of his colleagues. He’s grievously injured himself in this venture, finally stumbling in a bloodstained mess into the home of Nicole Devon (Belford), who has just moved here to a house she’s inherited in hopes of some peace and quiet after her recent divorce. She calls the cops, and into her life comes the brutal psychopathic Government agent Tuxan (Peppard).
John Welles (Michael Sarrazin) arrives at Nicole’s house. Could it be for Trick or Treat?
John, who has no memory at all of events—he doesn’t recognize his face on his ID card or even his name—is soon captured by Tuxan. There are doubts as to whether he might live, but plastic surgeons stitch his face back together. The only trouble is that he still cannot remember anything at all. After inflicting upon him various abusive psychiatric techniques like electroshock—with the compliance of ethically challenged psychiatrist Plover (Hagen)—Tuxan apparently becomes convinced that John is telling the truth about his amnesia.
Tuxan (George Peppard) observes as John (Michael Sarrazin) sees his new face for the first time. The scars from all that stitching will soon dissipate.
After a bad guy infiltrates the military hospital where John’s being kept and attempts to kill him, Tuxan engineers his escape. John heads toward Nicole’s swanky apartment in the big city because, so far as he’s concerned, she’s the only person who might have the first clue as to who he might be. Of course, she doesn’t; but she very quickly warms to him—probably because she loathes Tuxan so much—and decides to help him.
John (Michael Sarrazin) tries to persuade Nicole (Christine Belford that he’s harmless, really he is. Because grabbing women by the throat is the acknowledged method of convincing them you’re not the dangerous homicidal maniac they’ve been told you are.
Together they go to a shore house that her friends let her use, and—oh, my, surprise, surprise—they become lovers. Little knowing that Tuxan’s surveillance cameras are recording their every petit mort, they do all the things you’d expect in a low-budget movie of this kind. Beforehand there’s a good line, though. While they’re still at the befriending stage, John warns Nicole that, for all he knows, he might be a monster. She responds: “I always liked that story about a girl who takes a frog to bed and wakes up with a prince. My trouble is I’m always taking princes to bed and waking up with frogs.”
All of this time Tuxan has been monitoring John in hopes that the real bad guys—the ones who were running John in order to get hold of the miniaturized fuel system—will show their faces. Eventually the frontliners do: it’s no real shock to discover that they’re Groundstar Project PR supremo Carl Mosely (Potts) and his sidekick Charlie Kitchen (Dressler). It’s Charlie who, at a fairly late stage in the movie, helps Carl kidnap John and then torture him using methods such as waterboarding—a method we remember from the days when it was torture carried out by bad guys rather than merely enhanced interrogation carried out in the name of democracy by Americans.
Charlie Kitchen (Roger Dressler) fires a speargun at John.
But who’s behind Mosely and Kitchen? Again it’s fairly obvious. The real question is who’s behind John—in fact, who is John? The only memories he has at all come in the form of fleeting dream-snatches in which he sees scenes in Greece and a beautiful woman swimming in the sea; he also has a deep-rooted aversion toward sea water that seems to be a manifestation of some past trauma. Nicole hears him talking in his sleep and recognizes that he’s speaking Greek, a language that she herself can speak. (Tuxan’s men have likewise heard John talk in his sleep, but have shown no curiosity about it, regarding it as mere gibberish.) It proves that the waking John is fluent in the language—yet another mystery. And he loves retsina—how much more Greekly could you get!
Mosely (Cliff Potts) spells things out to the captive John (Michael Sarrazin).
The unsurprising part of the surprise ending is that John isn’t John Welles at all; Welles died soon after emergency surgery and was replaced by a substitute, Peter Bellamy, whose girlfriend in Greece drowned in a swimming accident. (We guess most of this early on because “John’s” face heals with astonishing speed after its supposed extensive surgery, bearing no scars.) The more original part of the surprise ending is what gives the movie its status as a piece of science fiction.
To anyone familiar with the novels of L.P. Davies—they’re all much of a muchness but very readable—it’s a tad jarring to see an L.P. Davies plot played out not somewhere in rural Britain but in the US (in fact, filmed in and around Vancouver), with his quiet writing being replaced by a very American brashness. The screenplay is mostly just workaday stuff, with Tuxan’s supposedly cool, tough-guy lines being for the most part rather embarrassing; for example, when Frank Gossage (O’Connor), the project’s civilian director, demands that the tap be taken off his phone, Tuxan responds by pulling a coin from his pocket: “There’s a dime—use a phone booth.” That sort of stuff might impress adolescents, but the rest of us are more likely to groan. Every now and then, however, it manages to reach above itself, so to speak. (It’s tempting to suggest that the passages in question were imported from the novel, but—aside from the princes/frogs line noted above—they don’t sound like Davies’s writing.) Here’s an exchange after Nicole discovers that hidden cameras have been filming her lovemaking with John:
Nicole: “You son of a bitch. The only real thing I’ve got, and you had to make it . . . ugly. Just like you. Isn’t there any privacy for anybody?”
Tuxan: “To hell with privacy. Murders are planned in privacy. Sabotage, revolutions. They all begin in privacy. I’d put my own family, anyone, in a spotlight naked to protect this country.”
Nicole: “And who decides when it’s necessary?”
Tuxan: “I do.”
The secret cameras revealed behind the mirror above the lovers’ bed.
Much later in the movie, John himself explains to this walking embodiment of the NSA exactly why his attitude is less of a danger to the enemy than it is to the country he professes to love:
“Your enemies don’t scare me, Tuxan—not the way you do. You and your kind of power, when you can take a man’s identity—his face, his mind, his memory—and use it for something you consider more important, that scares me. Nothing scares me more except the [public’s] willingness to let you do it. I still don’t know who I am, but I know who you are.”
The final showdown between John (Michael Sarrazin) and Tuxan (George Peppard).
This is, of course, a prime expression of the movie’s noirishness: the notion that we’re under the control, usually without our knowledge, of powerful and pretty sinister people and covert organizations whose justification for their actions, no matter how vile, is that they’re working in our best interests. The amnesia trope is of course another noirish trait, while the overall noirishness is emphasized by some of the camera angles and in places by clever use of sound.
The Groundstar Conspiracy is not a good movie. I’ve noted above the acting limitations of its two principals. Although Belford is excellently convincing as the engaging but not improbably lovely divorcée and Potts is good as the sleazeball, there are some pretty hammish performances among the support cast. The action sequences are on occasion clumsily staged; in a shootout towards the end of the movie, for example, a bullet seems to take a couple of seconds between leaving the gun of Tuxan’s sidekick Bender (McEachin) and hitting its target no more than twenty yards away. There’s a fumbled plot point or two. And so on.
Christine Belford’s performance as Nicole more or less holds the movie together.
But for all this it’s by no means a boring movie—far from it—and it’s worth watching for curio value alone.
The novel upon which this was based was called The Alien, making no secret of its sciencefictional nature. In the movie John/Peter is sometimes referred to as The Alien by Tuxan and his men for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. More to the point is that, when John first reaches Nicole’s door, his face a mask of blood, she has no idea for a moment if he’s even human; for all she knew, she explains to Tuxan, he could have been something from another planet. Behind the closing credits we see how all this has changed, as John/Peter splashes happily with Nicole among the breakers at the seaside.
This is my contribution to
The aim of this blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark, is to raise funds toward the cost of restoring Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a “one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” The more movies that are brought back from the grave like this, the richer our culture becomes. Please, if you can,
On Amazon.com: The Groundstar Conspiracy