Station Six-Sahara (1962)
Actress Carol Baker had a curious career arc in films. She started out in big budgeted pictures like Giant (1956) directed by George Stevens, then shocked polite society and the middle class in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll. In fact that film so upset the Catholic establishment that it was denounced by Cardinal Spellman from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He called the film “evil in concept” and urged all self respecting Catholics to avoid it completely. Time magazine called it “the dirtiest American movie to be legally exhibited” and The Catholic Legion of Decency boycotted the film everywhere. In other words it was a cause célèbre’. The likes of which we have not seen since unless you count the uproar over the showing of Deep Throat (1972) many years later but that was in a totally different context altogether. Nevertheless, Baby Doll went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards including one for Ms. Baker as “Best actress”. That same year her other film Giant was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Now if that isn’t starting at the top, then I don’t know what is.
But after that her career just seemed to be on a sort of roller coaster ride. There were some biggies like The Big Country (1959), How the West was Won (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1964) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). These were followed by films with titles like: The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and So Sweet, So Perverse (1969). Low budget exploitation pictures that were clearly far below her abilities as an actress… But in 1962 she made a good little British melodrama called Station Six-Sahara. It was adapted from a play called Men Without a Past. I haven’t seen or read the play but the screen adaptation by Brian Clemens and Bryan Forbes along with Seth Holt’s direction completely obliterates its stage origins and turns it into something compellingly cinematic. So much so that you would never guess that it began as a play. An excellent example of what the old Studio people used to refer to as “opening it up”.
The first part of the story depicts the petty tensions that affect several desperately lonely men who are working at an oil station in the middle of the Sahara desert. There are two British guys: Fletcher (played by Ian Bannen) and Marcy (Denholm Elliott) who are involved in a rivalry about “Class distinctions” and good manners. And there are two Germans as well. One, Martin (Hanstorg Femly) is the new guy at the outpost and it is through his eyes or from his point of view that we view much of the action. The other is the Station boss Kramer (Peter Van Eyck) with whom Martin clashes right from the start due to his dictatorial way of running things. It all comes to a boil one night over the winnings at a game of poker between the men. But just as things are about to explode, out of the dark comes an automobile, a convertible, wildly out of control. It crashes to a stop and the men rush to it. As they open the side door out falls a blonde (Ms. Baker) unconscious but not badly hurt. The driver, an older man, is seriously injured. This man, it’s later revealed, is her ex-husband (played by Biff McGuire) and he was deliberately trying to kill them both with his reckless speeding. The next morning when she wakes up and is told about the crash and it’s observed that she was fortunate in escaping serious injury since there isn’t a doctor at the station, her answer is a nonchalant: “Well, I’ve been always lucky that way.”
Later in her dealings with the men we discover that she, Catherine Starr, is not at all shy. In fact she’s just the opposite. Her outfits and her manner tells us that she’s clearly a woman who knows how to use her looks, her sexuality and her presence to their fullest effect in the company of men. Desperate men particularly, like the ones at Station 6. Especially the boss Kramer who emotionally goes from one extreme to another whenever she’s around…From there the story builds its tensions slowly while at the same time delineating the individual peculiarities of each character with a great deal of dramatic precision. The violent climax is something of a surprise but it is also the logical outcome of what preceded it.
The acting across the board is terrific. There are some wonderfully amusing exchanges between Ian Bannen and Denholm Elliott. Peter Van Eyck is authoritative and charismatic as the uncertain Kramer. But the standout is Ms. Baker. She not only looks sexy and sensational but plays her part with assurance and a shrewd intelligence that evokes both irritation and sympathy. She invests many subtleties in her interpretation of the character with the result being that we come to understand quite fully why Catherine does the things she’s doing. This is a signal accomplishment because her role in the film isn’t all that long. She literally shows up at the halfway point.
It’s a real shame that when the film was released here in the US they did it as a sort of throwaway item. Because if it wasn’t, her performance might’ve been noticed and may have even been favorably observed by the critics. But unfortunately it wasn’t. The film got thrown into the dustbin on the lower part of a double bill where it quickly disappeared never to be seen again so far as I know…That happens to so many good little pictures and this one suffered the same fate. But it’s a nifty little thriller that I think could be remade in color (This one is in black and white) with a larger budget, an even sharper script that could point up the sexuality of the situation more explicitly than was allowed during the time it was made. The men could be played by any number of our good contemporary actors. But the role of Catherine Starr would present something of a challenge if they hope to at least replicate Ms. Baker’s searing impression. Still it would be interesting to see them try.
The VHS copy I watched it on recently seems to be the only version available. And that’s unfortunate because the black and white images are all washed out and blurry in some scenes. Still, despite these shortcomings the film held my attention the way it did all those years ago when I first saw it. Hopefully, somewhere in the near or distant future someone will appreciate the film enough to restore it back to its original condition and release it on DVD. I say this with no confidence that it will ever happen. But I can’t help myself. I’m an eternal optimist where films that I like are concerned.