Took me three long nights, but I finally watched “Ice Station Zebra,” a 1968 Cinerama extravaganza. Over the years I’d caught a few snips here and there, but seeing the movie in the 4:3 aspect ratio doesn’t do it justice. The real thing is like 1:12. Characters walk from one side of the movie to the other, and they have to sit down and catch their breath. Boy, nothing captures the claustrophobia of sub life like Cinerama!

As sub movies go, it has the basics:

The Outsider. Someone who accompanies the crew on the mission – the journalist in “Das Boot,” Alec Baldwin in “Hunt for Red October,” that rescued woman in “Below.” This character exists so the Captain can explain what’s going on to the audience without making the crew wonder why the Old Man is stating the obvious.

The Terrifying Accident. Happens in every sub movie: the boat springs a leak, and down she goes. All eyes are on the depth counter, as well you’d expect. Someone has to announce that the depth has now exceeded what the ship was designed to take, but the Captain grimly waves it off. He knows what she’s capable of. (And then he gets a rivet right in the eye socket.)

One of the reasons I liked “Hunt for Red October” was that the story turned the Terrifying Accident upside down: the ship had to surface to survive, due to a trumped-up radiological accident. Of course if they’d really wanted to screw with the genre, the boat would have left the water and sailed high in the sky. Captain! She’s not built to take these altitudes! Steady, mister.

Smoking. Lots of smoking going on. I know that they obviously had scrubbers to fix the air, but if there’s one place you’d think they’d curtail smoking, it would be a freakin’ submarine. Gentlemen, we’re going to be underwater without access to fresh air for the next six days. Light ‘em up!

It’s sa-bota-gee, I tells ya! Good sub movies have a turncoat somewhere. In “Below,” it was a ghost. In “Ice Station Zebra,” it’s Ernest Borgnine. Incidentally, is he human? I mean, he looks close enough so that he passes, but he’s more Ugnaut or Tellarite than human, if you ask me. And his name is unnerving. It suggests that somewhere out there exists an insincere Borgnine.

And yes, I am very alarmed that I could without prompting name two pig-like species from Star Wars and Star Trek, respectively.

“Ice Station Zebra” was an Event movie, as befit the Cinerama genre. The restored version reflects this: it begins with an honest-to-God overture. No credits, no motion, just a still shot of the arctic and Michel Legrand’s underwhelming theme. It’s about four notes short of being a sweeping nautical melody. You don’t know which notes those might be, but you’re pretty sure they’re missing. The sets are fine, the cinematography is flat, and as for the acting – well, there’s enough of it to go around, but barely. Rock Hudson plays the Captain, and he has the strange distracted quality of a sub captain who can’t shake the feeling that he left the headlights on when he parked his car before they set to sea. Ernest Borgnine plays a Jolly Russian who’s on our side, and plays him very badly; you can’t accept the character because you’re constantly aware that this is ERNEST BORGNINE, and that somewhere off camera his dialect coach is sitting in the trailer wondering whether he’ll be blamed for this. Jim Brown plays Jim Brown. Patrick McGoohan gives perhaps the finest, most nuanced role of his career; he’s almost unrecognizable as the gentle, lovesick drunken cook who tends to his stowaway dog. Just kidding. He plays a bitter, wary, cynical spy whose clipped speech apes the form of civility while expressing its precise opposite. You know, PATRICK MCGOOHAN. That’s okay. I love the guy anyway. He was a great Secret Agent, then he was a good secret agent who was a Prisoner, and now he’s a secret agent again.

The film also has the Chillingly Gallant Soviet Officer, who speaks in an old-word style of military honor and respect. In another time, Captain, you and I might have been friends. Or lovers. Hard to say.

Final verdict: it could have been shorter. And narrower.

But look at this poster. If you’re half my age, you may think: hey, nice design. If you’re my age, this brings it all back. You might be reminded that images like these gave you a feeling of dread and uncertainty. That’s what the world felt like.

Well, not anymore. Gee! Wonder why! But while we’re at it – the posters for ISZ had the 60s MGM logo, something I remember hating even then. All you need to know about the era is right here. The old logo:

And the new one.

Which was inevitably dumped for the old one, thereby becoming the old one itself. As it should be. The hip, updated logo looks dated; the old looks timeless because it looks right. It looks like the best expression of the product it represents.

I haven’t the time for a cooterrific “logos all went to hell in the 70s!” rant, but if I did, I would note that the MGM logo’s overhaul was entirely typical. The Paramount mountain was reduced to two colors. The Bell System’s bell became that strange circular thing, which I still maintain was a stylized picture of the ringers in the phone. Nearly all the department stores dumped their venerable typefaces for blocky san-serif fonts. It gave everything a sterile, futuristic quality: Logos Run.

When I had to choose an electrician from the yellow book the other day, I chose one that had a small hand-drawn lightbulb with legs. You can trust the shop with the anthropomorphic illumination device, I thought, and I was right.

Due to our new production schedule at the paper, my Tuesday column is now due Friday noon. So much for any pretensions to timeliness, I guess. Now I have to write that column. Got a head start at the office today, which is good – and yes, I went to the office. Huzzah. Had some time before I had to pick up Gnat & Friend at the bus stop from camp. I’m still amazed that they’re going to camp, but it’s nothing to them; they just get on the bus without a look back. She doesn’t tell me what they do there, though. Her friend’s dad said his daughter is equally silent. I had to check the brochure to make sure we hadn’t sent her to Flying Clown Satanic Abuse Camp.

So tonight I said: no dessert unless you tell me what you did at camp. Then I heard all about Storybook Band. In great detail. It’s a good thing little kids aren’t spies. They crack so easily.


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c. 1995-2004 j. lileks