Seth Holt is an odd figure. An editor at first, his career spans classic Ealing comedies (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) and gritty kitchen sink drama (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960), while his overlapping career as producer saw him preside over the classic The Ladykillers (1955). On becoming a director, he worked mainly at Hammer, which made radically different content from Ealing but perhaps shared the same cozy atmosphere.
Taste of Fear (a.k.a. Scream of Fear, 1961) is a zestful Diabolique knock-off, while The Nanny (1965) continued Bette Davis' career in horror. It's incredibly strong, beautifully made and quite ruthless: Bette referred to Holt as "a mountain of evil" and found him the most demanding director she'd encountered since William Wyler. During the daft but enjoyably peculiar Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), Holt developed a persistent case of hiccups that turned the screening of rushes into hilarious occasions. Then he dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving the film to be completed by other hands.
Station Six - Sahara happened in the midst of this uneven career and is an uneven film, quite hard to see. Stepping away from cozy home-base studios for once, Holt made the film as an Anglo-German co-production, mostly on location in Libya, with producers including Gene Gutowski (about to start a career with Polanski) and Artur Brauner (responsible for numerous Edgar Wallace krimi films, and remakes of German classics like Dr. Mabuse).
In this overheated melodrama, Holt may have finally made a film as weird and uneven in itself as his career is as a whole. At an isolated Saharan oil-pumping station, dominated by an incessant rhythmic chugga-chugga sound, a team of British and German technicians man the equipment and spend their time sniping at each other, until the arrival of a mysterious, seemingly available blonde looks set to turn the simmering tensions into violence.
Holt gets extreme, giddy-making performances from his multinational cast. Bond villain Mario Adorf is glowering and cro-magnon, while Peter Van Eyke's presence suggests that Clouzot's The Wages of Fear was at the back of somebody's mind. Only this version has a blonde instead of nitro, and never goes anywhere. Van Eyke is midway through his strange metamorphosis from Greek god to man-size, super-Aryan version of the dwarf from Twin Peaks. He is introduced quite late, with Hansjorg Felmy set up as leading man, but then they perform a sort of relay baton pass with Felmy fading into the background and Van Eyke dominating. The fact that the brief period where they seem equally matched allows Van Eyke's character to prove conclusively that he's a detestable louse is one of the weirdest, most frustrating aspects of the script (by actor/writer/director Bryan Forbes and Brian Clemens, creator of the TV show The Avengers).
The major entertainment is brought by two supporting players, Denholm Elliott and Ian Bannen. Elliott overacts a tad, as if feeling the pressure of representing Englishness alone on the screen. A master of unease, the actor seems perpetually to be shriveling as we watch: he takes the British apologetic manner to neurotic extremes. Writer Dennis Potter, paying tribute to Elliott, said that he could suggest, by certain constrictions of the neck and jaw muscles, the good qualities of a bad man trying to come out, or the bad qualities of a good man trying to come out. Here, he's playing an indifferent man erupting with terrible qualities, and his head nearly comes off.
Ian Bannen, fervid Scot, had a seeming fondness for the grotesque (or else an insane lack of self-consciousness) and plays Elliott's persecutor with glee, making the most disgusting choices possible at every instance. He expresses his lustful sexual fantasies during a pause in his tooth-brushing, his mouth foam-flecked, a bit like a rabid dog but more like a blackface minstrel, most of all like a terrifying cross between the two. Bursting with boyish excitement, he lies on his bed and bicycles his legs until his pants come off. He is wondrously atrocious.
The plot between these two should have been the whole film. Elliott is always smug when he gets lots of mail, which is always. "You can't annoy me this morning, Fletcher. I'm in a very good mood this morning," he smarms. So Bannen/Fletcher immediately finds a way to annoy him: he offers to hand over a month's pay for one of Elliott's letters. It's an absurd bargain, and Elliott, not being too bright, can't see any reason not to go along with it.
The deal is that the letter is chosen, unopened, from the heap, by Bannen. And so for the rest of the film Elliott is disintegrating, going mad at the thought of Bannen reading his correspondence, and not knowing even what it is. And Bannen is the smug one now (nobody can do punchably smug like Bannen: he could give the young Dick Powell lessons), refusing to say what's in the letter or who it's from.
It's in the midst of this Pinterish hellscape that the main attraction arrives: Carroll Baker, just beginning the camp Eurotica phase of her career. She's supposed to be the archetypal disease-carrying woman who will set the men at each other's throats. But they're already at each other's throats. The tension actually lessens in some way, apart from the sexual tension, which is located not so much in the characters, though it is there, but manifests in less dramatic ways than the previous all-male neuralgia, as in the audience, since there's a persistent feeling of nudity in the air. And indeed, the film delivers, in the quaint manner of British films of the period. Just as in Gutowski's later Cul de Sac (which this oddly resembles), you can have female dorsal nudity as long as it's a good distance away. We reach for out opera glasses. How did the filmmakers and censors arrive at these rules, so much more complex than America's simple prohibition?
(And all the while the oil pumps thrum: ta-pockit-a-ta-pocki-ta-ta-pock-ta...)
Anyway, Baker's narrative thread essentially goes nowhere, embodying a weird camp misogyny which may be what Martin Scorsese apparently finds so amusing in this film. It's frustrating, but then this is a film about frustration. Maybe that's why its evident and colossal weaknesses seem worryingly like they might be strengths in disguise.
An abrupt murder-suicide. Suddenly everyone's happy, friends again (except they were never friends!) Jaunty music. The hero has plain vanished out of the movie, though he hasn't actually gone anywhere. And Van Eyke is feeling tragic. The end. What? What?!