George Peppard plays a government agent so paranoid that he even bugs his own phone in this cult classic loosely based on LP Davies’ The Alien (which I previously reviewed here). Michael Sarrazin co-stars as the scientist whose face and memories have to be reconstructed after his lab goes up in smoke - but is he responsible for the act of sabotage? It all starts with a bang …
“Welles is not one of us … “
One night there are a series of explosion at the Groundstar space research facility and only one man gets out alive – most likely, the saboteur. Badly burned, he makes it as far as a nearby house and collapses – and that’s just the title sequence! George Peppard as ultra-hardboiled head of security Greg Tuxan is choppered in, collects the man and questions Nicole, the woman staying at the house. She (the lovely Christine Belford) had only just arrived, recovering from a bitter divorce and the recent death of her parents and claims to have no idea who the man was. Tuxan is not so sure – why was the man, known as ‘John Welles,’ heading right there? It transpires that Welles is an impostor and Tuxan has to find out who he really is and where he was planning to sell his stolen secrets (a McGuffin explained away at one point as a ‘miniaturised fuel system’). He immediately shuts down all access to the site, treating everyone as potential suspects and so upsetting the three senior administrators in charge of the project: a senator (James Olson), the head of the military (Allan Oppenheimer) and Gossage, the project supervisor (played by that perennial TV presence of the era, Tim O’Connor). He locks them out of the security operation and, speaking only to PR man Mosley (Cliff Potts), focuses on saving Welles so he can find out who he was working for.
After extensive plastic surgery Welles (Michael Sarrazin) emerges with complete amnesia and a face he doesn’t remember having ever seen before:
Welles: “I don’t recognise it. I don’t like it.”
Tuxan: “It’ll grow on you.”
Tuxan decides to take radical measures to get the memories back – especially after an attempt is made on the patient’s life. Welles, or whoever he is, is subjected to a relentless interrogation regime, but can’t remember a thing. While being transported by ambulance, the vehicle is forced off the road by another vehicle and Welles escapes and heads for Nicole, the only person he knows. Welles and Nicole, both emotionally fragile and seemingly innocent of the forces amassing around them (Tuxan engineered the escape and has them under video surveillance), forge an unlikely alliance and eventually fall in love. This leads to a surprisingly extented lovey-dovey section, full of post flower-power bedside chitchat that is none the less quite sweet in its own drippy way. But who is telling the truth and who was the real saboteur? And why does Welles think he might actually be from Greece?
“We challenge you to guess the ending!”
The script by Douglas Heyes (using his ‘Matthew Howard’ pseudonym) is adapted fairly loosely from LP Davies’ The Alien - where the events in the book were spread over several years, here everything is collapsed into a much tighter time frame, which greatly benefits the movie, beginning with the lab attack which we only hear about in passing in the book. The book’s two female roles are collapsed into one but in fact, even though some character names stay the same – Tuxan, Mosley, Gossage – only Tuxan and Welles (known as Maxwell in the book), most are greatly altered in the transposition. The future setting of the book is removed though the film does have an ultra modern feel, making great use of the facilities at the Burnaby campus of Simon Fraser University in Canada (where the entire film was shot). As in the book Welles in kidnapped by the baddies to see what he does remember and they ultimately decide to kill him to protect themselves – will Tuxan arrive in time – and who is Welles really?
Peppard walys makes for a compelling lead but it is a bit of a shame that he plays it as such a macho hard-ass. Peppard started off playing sensitive youths in the likes of Home from the Hill and even Breakfast at Tiffany’s but quickly ended up playing rather one-dimensional tough guys without a hint of vulnerability. Here he behaves as an arch conservative, but the equivocal nature of the storytelling makes even this less than certain by the end. None the less, here is a choice bit of his rhetoric – having just shocked Nicole that she has been under constant surveillance, when she demands her privacy back he confuses it, seemingly, with secrecy, declaring:
“Murders are planned in privacy. Sabotage, revolutions, they all begin in privacy. I’d put my own family, anyone, in the spotlight, naked, to protect this country.”
The movie’s denouement, set on the campus late at night, is very atmospheric and dramatic and much better that the book’s rather odd finale while retaining the all-essential plot twist. Directed punchily by Lamont Johnson and nicely-shot in widescreen by Michael Reed, this is an exciting if low-key film, a modest production that does on occasion have the feel of a big budget TV Movie but which benefits from great work from its lead actors (Peppard and Belford would be reunited as more friendly antagonists shortly afterwards in the first season of Banacek), some fine location work, an unusual score by experimental composer Paul Hoffert and a really solid story – I only wish it were easier to find on home video …
DVD Availability: Once released on a decent anamorphic DVD, his went OOP years ago and now goes on sale for silly money. I have been hanging on to my old TV recording for over a decade but would love to replace it with something better eventually …
The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Trevor Wallace, Hal Roach Jr
Screenplay: Matthew Howard (pseudonym for Douglas Heyes)
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Art Direction: Cam Porteous
Music: Paul Hoffert
Cast: George Peppard, Michael Sarrazin, Christine Belford, James Olson, Cliff Potts, James McEachin, Tim O’Connor, Anna Hagan