Monday, February 19, 2018

NOVA: “Great Escape at Dunkirk” (PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an episode of the PBS NOVA series called “Great Escape at Dunkirk,” obviously timed to coincide with the release of two, count ’em, two dramatic films about the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour (and both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Darkest Hour also won Gary Oldman a Best Actor nomination for playing Winston Churchill). Like a lot of NOVA’s World War II specials, it tries to “contemporize” the story by showing modern archaeologists digging for relics of the operation, including a Spitfire plane that flew fighter support over Dunkirk but then crashed in England, killing its pilot, when he lost control in a cloudy sky. But the real “meat” of the show was the authentic footage of the Dunkirk battle itself and the interviews with the now-elderly survivors — though NOVA’s director, John Hayes Fisher, put so little faith in his audience’s ability to understand their sometimes thick accents that they were subtitled even though they were obviously speaking English. (Some previous PBS shows on World War II have featured interviews with survivors who fought on the Axis side, and either subtitled or voice-overed them, but this one didn’t.) “Great Escape at Dunkirk” vividly dramatized just how shaky both the military and political situations in Britain in 1940 were; Winston Churchill had just been appointed Prime Minister by the British Parliament, but Neville Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was still in the Cabinet and with each new reversal in the military situation he was advising Churchill to contact the German government and sue for peace. Churchill, of course, said nothing doing; he avoided a public confrontation with Halifax for fear it would bring down his government and end his Prime Ministership just a month or so after it started.

Churchill ordered the British army to stand and fight at Dunkirk as long as possible — the Chamberlain government had sent a British Expeditionary Force of 400,000 men to fight alongside a French army estimated at 2.5 million — and they had expected the German advance into France to move through Belgium because they thought the actual border between Germany and southern France to be impenetrable to tanks. They were wrong; the Germans, using the weapons that as of 1940 had worked to provide them Blitzkrieg successes against every other country they’d invaded — Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank corps — feinted an attack through Belgium but really mounted their main drive at the border with France, got through the supposedly “impenetrable” terrain and made swift work of the French army. It got to the point where the British and French forces were pushed out of all the rest of France to that tiny beachhead at Dunkirk, and the Germans not only had more effective land forces, they also controlled the air, so the Allies who attempted to mount a resistance were out in the open manning artillery weapons and were therefore sitting ducks for the Stukas. Inexplicably, the Nazi advance halted for several days just before what appeared to be the final push, apparently because the German commanders were worried about the length of their supply lines and the possibility that they might run out of ammunition and food, and this gave the British time to coordinate the fabled evacuation that turned a military rout into a strategic retreat. (Later in the war Adolf Hitler’s refusal to allow the German forces to stage strategic retreats — “Where the German soldier stands, there he stays!” Hitler said, to the horror of his generals — helped turn military defeats into total routs and sped Germany’s defeat in the overall war.) By all conventional standards, Dunkirk was a defeat — and a humiliating one — for the British forces, who even as they were being evacuated over the English Channel were still vulnerable to German sea mines and air attacks (one of the most interesting segments of this show indicates how the British figured out how to defend their ships against the Germans’ magnetic mines, which could blow up a ship that sailed nearby without actually having to hit it; the British developed a way to turn their entire ships into giant magnets with reverse polarity to the German mines, so the ships repelled instead of attracting the mines).

One of the modern-day excavations was of a British ship with over 600 people aboard which sank from a German mine — the one person who escaped was a servicemember who’d been standing on the top deck smoking a cigarette; everyone else died because the ship’s captain had ordered them all to stay below decks to weight down the ship so it would sail lower in the water, and so when the mine blew up the ship they had absolutely no hope of getting out alive. The show also noted that the workhorse fighter of the Royal Air Force at the start of the war, the Hawker Hurricane, was built with the old-fashioned airframe of wood covered with “doped” fabric, while the Supermarine Spitfire, which was introduced during the Dunkirk battle, was all-metal and especially lightweight because, instead of constructing a fuselage that could support itself as all previous aircraft designers had done, the Spitfire’s creator, R. J. Mitchell, built structural support into the wings as well — creating the fastest and, even more importantly, most maneuverable fighter plane to that time. (Being a buff of the film Spitfire, a.k.a. The First of the Few — Leslie Howard’s last project, in which he directed as well as starring as Mitchell in a marvelous and moving biopic in which Howard the director got a far more incisive performance out of Howard the actor than most of his previous directors had — I got rankled when Fisher and his narrator, Eric Meyers, attributed the design to “Supermarine.” “He had a name! It was Mitchell!” I yelled at the TV.) The show pointed out that a lot of the British soldiers were bitter because they were under attack by Stukas, supported by Messerschmidt ME-109 fighters (whose swept-back wings made it easier than it had been in previous planes for pilots to see what they were shooting at), while they saw no signs of the RAF — the RAF was actually in action, but back attacking the advancing German columns in southeastern France, though they were outnumbered and the German pilots also had more experience.

The overall message of the show was that Dunkirk was a military defeat which Churchill and his propagandists were able to turn into a political victory, giving the British people enough confidence that they could come back from defeat and not only continue to fight but actually win the war — though Churchill, as he acknowledged in his memoirs of World War II, was well aware that the only salvation for Britain was to get the U.S. into the war on his side. He even mentions the long-standing correspondence he had with President Franklin Roosevelt, which both men signed as “Former Naval Person” because in World War I Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in which Churchill pleaded for U.S. involvement and Roosevelt said he agreed that the U.S. should fight against Germany in World War II but he had enormous political difficulties in getting the U.S. people and the U.S. Congress on his side. (Ironically, the British determination to fight on in World War II in hopes of attracting support from the U.S. was not that different from what the U.S. had done in the American Revolution — keeping the struggle going until the nascent United States could attract the support of Britain’s rival superpower in the late 1700’s, France.)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Twonky (Arch Oboler Productions, 1950, released 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d seen the science-fiction collection The Best of Henry Kuttner with an interesting feeling that I’d heard of the name before somewhere — and it wasn’t until I picked up the book and looked at its contents that I realized where I’d heard of Henry Kuttner: one of the 17 stories represented was called “The Twonky.” I’d first heard of “The Twonky” in 1990, in an issue of Filmfax magazine that contained a long article about the making of the movie version of it in 1950, written, produced and directed by Arch Oboler from Kuttner’s 1942 short story. What I hadn’t fully realized was that Oboler had taken a serious science-fiction story and turned it into a comedy (much the way Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did with Peter Bryant’s serious novel about World War III, Red Alert, 14 years later to come up with Dr. Strangelove). Kuttner’s version of “The Twonky” begins in the Mideastern Radio factory, where an outer-space alien takes human form, infiltrates Mideastern’s workforce and produces a “twonky” in the guise of an ordinary console radio-phonograph. This particular model gets sold to college professor Kerry Westerfield, who finds the Twonky first doing ordinary household chores — helping him light his cigarettes and washing dishes for him — then deciding how much he will be allowed to drink (it lets him have one cup of coffee but won’t permit him a second), what he will be allowed to read (it lets him read Chaucer and Millay, but not detective novels, histories, Alice in Wonderland or anything to do with individualism as a philosophy) and even what music he may listen to (it allows him Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, but denies him Halvorsen’s Entrance of the Boyars — a piece I don’t know — and Ravel’s Bolero). Eventually it starts blocking out parts of his mind — anything relating (once again) to individualism as a philosophy — and finally it kills both him and his wife when they try to destroy it. Though the Twonky is a mechanical device, while the seed-pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are organic, the premises of the stories are basically the same: an invader from outer space attempts to dominate human consciousness as a prelude to invasion and domination of the Earth.

Later I got out my videotape of the film version of The Twonky and ran it with Charles at his place. The comparisons were interesting; the first half of the film is actually a fairly close adaptation of Kuttner’s story, while the second half veers off into silly humor that nonetheless remains surprisingly entertaining. Oboler updated the story technologically — his Twonky is built into an Admiral free-standing TV set instead of a radio-phonograph, and somehow Oboler found (or built) a TV whose very appearance, with its all-white cabinet, four bow legs and no bulge in the back for the picture tube (antedating the modern-day “flat” TV’s by about 20 years), is comical. (Admiral may have been doing product-placement in this film — a practice that was just beginning when it was made — because the refrigerator in the central character’s kitchen is also an Admiral.) Oboler abbreviates the character’s name — Kerry Westerfield becomes simply Kerry West (just as well, I guess, given the low fidelity in the sound recording that sometimes made it difficult to understand the dialogue) — and changes his sidekick from the school’s psychology professor to a losing football coach who dabbles in psychology on the side. (He also rechristens Kerry’s wife Carolyn — Kuttner called her Martha.) I recall the Filmfax article claimed that the actors who were making The Twonky had no idea (until they saw the cut film) that Oboler had intended all along to change it into a comedy — a story I frankly find hard to believe, especially since he cast Hans Conried in the lead, and Conried’s overwrought overacting would clearly have been inappropriate in anything but a comic version of Kuttner’s sinister story. And Oboler did add some touches that reinforced Kuttner’s Body Snatchers-esque point — instead of killing those humans who try to harm it, Oboler’s Twonky merely hypnotizes them so they stagger away, as if drunk, and mumble, “I have no complaints.” Also, Oboler’s Twonky is considerably more low-brow in its tastes than Kuttner’s — while it won’t let Professor West read history or philosophy, it will allow him a cheap romantic potboiler called Passion Through the Ages; and it rejects Mozart records in favor of marching music.

Charles, who hadn’t read the story, thought The Twonky was just a silly movie — bad, though not so overwhelmingly bad that it deserved the fate it apparently aroused the first (and, apparently, only) time it was ever publicly shown: the entire audience walked out, except for a six-year-old kid who couldn’t leave because his parents had dropped him off at the theatre and weren’t coming to pick him up again until the movie ended. (There was one unmistakably Ed Woodian use of repeated footage — at the end, when Conried is trying to get away from the Twonky by abandoning his own car and getting into a car being driven by an Englishwoman who is driving on the left side of the road because she refuses to recognize that in the U.S. you’re supposed to drive on the right side — and the speedometer on her car looks identical to the one on Conried’s own, down to the exact same odometer reading!) I remember seeing it in December 1992 (recording it off the TNT network) with Garry Hobbs, who actually liked the film (as did I) — not that it’s a great movie, but it has a peculiar charm, and I remember writing in my journal at the time that the reason it flopped when it first came out was simply that too few people were familiar with the conventions of the science-fiction genre to get the jokes of a movie that was parodying them — and I still like it, even though I can’t help but suspect that Kuttner’s original story would have made a stronger film if it hadn’t been parodied, and if it had had a more subtle director than Arch Oboler (like Don Siegel, who did the first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a quiet understatement — at least until the climax — that is exactly right for this type of material).

In fact, reading the Kuttner book — I made it through three of the 17 stories contained in it, including the ones Ray Bradbury named in the preface as his favorites, “The Twonky” and “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” — it was clear that understatement was precisely his greatest strength as a writer. He could toss off sentences like, “Once, when he couldn’t locate some tungsten, he hastily built a small gadget and made it” (the punch line being that tungsten is an element, and therefore “unmakable” without elaborate atom-smashing equipment), “Joe went over into a corner, felt around in the air, nodded with satisfaction and seated himself on nothing, three feet above the floor. Then he vanished,” or, “He went across the hall and stopped in the doorway, motionless and staring. The radio was washing the dishes,” in a matter-of-fact way that suggested there was nothing at all unusual about the events being described. Kuttner may not only have anticipated the concept of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he also may have been the first science-fiction writer to describe virtual reality (as the “Escape Machines” in the story “Two-Handed Engine,” whose plot — in which humankind’s machines intervene to restore a sense of conscience to a world in which the human race has lost it — seems more relevant in the Gingrich era than it probably did in 1955 when he wrote it), and he seems to have been ahead of his contemporaries in describing both the beneficial and the malevolent effects of computers. It would surprise me indeed if none of Kuttner’s other stories have been filmed — “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (in which Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” turns out to be a mathematical formula for interdimensional travel, understandable as such only by children five and younger whose perceptions haven’t yet been molded into the shape of Euclidean logic) would seem to be a perfect story for Steven Spielberg. — 12/14/95

•••••


Last night’s screenings at the Vintage Sci-Fi event in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) consisted of two early-1950’s movies, both featuring Hans Conried, an eccentric actor who was the sort of performer who couldn’t ask another character to pass him the salt without it sounding like a melodramatic invitation to torture or mayhem. The first was a film I had actually supplied, dubbed from an old VHS tape of mine that also contained a 1992 Tony Brown’s Journal challenging the idea that HIV caused AIDS and the 1942 film Dead Men Tell, the last in the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan series with Sidney Toler (who bought the rights to the character from the widow of original author Earl Derr Biggers and shopped them around to various studios, but after Fox lost interest no other major studio signed on and Toler got stuck making his later Chan films at Monogram). It was called The Twonky and started life as a marvelously dark 1942 short story by Henry Kuttner (though, as with a lot of his stories, his wife, C. L. Moore, might have collaborated, and the original publication was credited to “Lewis Padgett,” a pseudonym apparently used by both members of the couple, jointly and severally) in which an alien named “Unthahorsten” infiltrates a Midwestern factory that produces radio-phonographs and, purely out of boredom, decides to insert a “Twonky,” a mind-control device from his home planet, into one of them. 

The Twonky-containing radio set ends up in the home of a professor named Kerry Westerfield and causes him all sorts of problems; at first its interventions in his home life are beneficent, lighting his cigarettes and washing his dishes (Kuttner was such a master of understatement that he could matter-of-factly toss off a sentence like “The radio was washing the dishes” without any obvious indication that there was anything remarkable about it), but then it starts deciding what books he can read, what music he can listen to, and what he can write in the lectures he gives his students. Radio writer Arch Oboler, who had just broken into film production and direction with a 1949 movie called Five — referring to the number of survivors in the world after a nuclear war and in fact the first post-nuclear apocalypse movie — which was a smash hit. So he took his backers’ money and invested it in a film adaptation of Kuttner’s story that changed it into a comedy. Since he was filming in 1950 (though the movie didn’t get released until 1953, and then only in a limited run — according to Filmfax magazine, its first public screening was such a disaster the whole audience walked out except for a six-year-old kid who couldn’t leave because his parents had dropped him at the theatre and weren’t coming to pick him up until the movie was over) he changed the household appliance occupied by the Twonky from a radio-phonograph into a TV set, and he got a white bow-legged model from Admiral whose appearance was hilarious in and of itself. He also shortened the name of the lead character from Kerry Westerfield to Kerry West and got Hans Conried to play him, and Conried responded with a feast of overacting as his life gets more and more miserable with the Twonky exerting control. 

Kuttner was clearly an early libertarian — in his story “The Iron Standard” a group of astronauts from Earth land on Venus, which has a fully functioning socialist economy, and bring it down with their entrepreneurial capitalist machinations; when I first read it I told Charles it was the sort of thing Ayn Rand could have written if she’d ever shown any sign of subtlety or wit — and the social message of “The Twonky” is that individualism is good and any outside authority that tells us how to live, think or entertain ourselves is bad. A little of that survives in the movie, but the film is basically an excuse for Oboler to satirize the conventions of science fiction — though, as I pointed out on one of my previous screenings of The Twonky, one problem is that in the early 1950’s the conventions of science-fiction weren’t that well known outside the limited, geeky circles of science-fiction fandom. Today the conventions of Star Trek and Star Wars are so well known that even someone who’s never seen a Star Trek TV episode or a Star Wars movie can “get” a parody of them; in the early 1950’s it was harder to find people who knew enough about science fiction to laugh at a film satirizing its genre conventions. The Twonky (the movie) is a fun film as it stands, with some marvelously barbed lines, notably the one in which Kerry West’s Black maid, Maybelle (Bennie Washington), congratulates him on finally getting with it and buying a TV set, then boasts, “Yours is only 16 inches! Mine is 20!” It’s also got a great character of a collection agent (played by Joan Blondell’s sister Gloria) who zeroes in on married men with outstanding debts and poses as a floozy so they’ll pay up to get rid of her before their wives come home. But it doesn’t even remotely do justice to Kuttner’s (and maybe Moore’s) magnificent tale, which deserves to be remade as a film the way the Kuttners wrote it. — 1/18/18

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (Stanley Kramer Productions, Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our next Hans Conried vehicle, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, is a bit more famous, and certainly is a better movie — it was produced by Stanley Kramer’s independent company for Columbia in 1953 (Columbia signed Kramer after the explosive success of his early United Artists films Champion and Home of the Brave in 1949, but the dismal box-office records of this and other flops he made at Columbia caused them to cut him loose … just before he made the “psychological Western” High Noon at United Artists, and it was another blockbuster hit!), directed by Roy Rowland and written by a man who was born Theodor Seuss Geisel but achieved worldwide fame as children’s author “Dr. Seuss.” I was a bit surprised that his credit billed him as “Dr. Seuss,” since in 1953 I’d assumed he was still using the name “Ted Geisel,” and it’s listed as the only live-action film made of anything by Dr. Seuss during his (or Geisel’s) lifetime. It was apparently inspired by a piano teacher from hell Geisel had as a kid, who rapped him across the knuckles with a pencil when he mis-fingered a passage. In the film the kid is Bartholomew “Bart” Collins (Tommy Rettig, a favored child actor in the early 1950’s), whose mom Heloise (Mary Healy) is a widow doing her best to raise him as a single parent. The one thing she’s done to him he doesn’t like is to make him study piano under the imperious teacher Dr. Conrad Terwilliker (Hans Conried), author of the “Happy Fingers Method,” which basically teaches kids to play piano by having them learn a song of stupefying banality called “Ten Happy Fingers” which they’re forced to sing as they play. (The songs for the film — there are enough of them it qualifies as a musical — were written by Marlene Dietrich’s favorite songwriter Frederick Hollander, with lyrics by Seuss/Geisel — Marlene Dietrich and Dr. Seuss, one degree of separation!) In the opening scene we see Bart Collins dancing among objects that look like alien plants, only just before the opening credits he wakes up and we see he’s only been dreaming after having falling asleep during a boring practice session. Terwilliker turns on him and viciously screams that the next day Bart and all Terwilliker’s other pupils are going to give a grand concert, and he’s not going to let the whole affair be ruined by one stupid kid who doesn’t want to practice. The next time Bart has to play the piano he falls asleep again and has an extended dream which forms the bulk of the picture; in it, Dr. Terwilliger runs a prison camp at which boys are taken against their will and forced to give up any objects they might actually have fun with and practice for the upcoming concert at which all 500 of Dr. T.’s pupils will perform that horrible song at once on a huge piano whose keyboard seemingly extends to infinity. (One wonders if Dr. Seuss got the idea for this from the huge piano art director Herman Rosse built for the 1930 film King of Jazz, in which nine pianists are shown plunking away and supposedly playing “Rhapsody in Blue.”)

In the prison he sees his mom, hypnotized to be Dr. T.’s second-in-command and also his fiancée, though Bart — proving that they didn’t break the mold after they made Deanna Durbin — wants his next father to be August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes, top-billed), the honest if somewhat naïve plumber who in the real-life framing sequence was repairing a sink in the Collins home and sighing with unrequited love for Mrs. Collins. In the dream sequence he’s at the Terwilliker compound installing 500 sinks, one for each of the pupils scheduled to play at T.’s super-concert, only what he doesn’t know — but we and Bart both do — is that Dr. T. plans to torture and execute him after the job is done. T. is also playing the nice but dumb plumber not in U.S. currency but in “pastoolas,” which couldn’t help but remind me of “doublezoons,” the fictitious currency surrealist writer Boris Vian invented for his novel Mood Indigo, though Vian carefully avoided including any information that might give us any idea of how much a doublezoon was worth in any actually existing currency, while Seuss explains that August’s fee of 20,000 pastoolas per sink is only $20. (“Find me a better job, and I’ll take it,” he ruefully tells Bart.) The plot is full of hair’s-breath escapes as Bart tries to escape the prison camp, which is essentially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Wizard of Oz (there’s a lot in common between Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch and Conried’s Dr. T., and he has a goon squad much like the Winkies in the 1939 Oz movie), including leaping off the top of a tall ladder to nowhere and surviving because he turns his T-shirt into a parachute (though later when he’s stuck on an equally free-hanging ledge he doesn’t think of doing the same trick again). There’s also a marvelous ballet sequence involving all musical instruments that aren’t pianos — earlier, when Bart had complained to Dr. T. in the framing sequence that “maybe the piano isn’t my instrument,” he thundered, “What other instrument is there?” (I was hoping for a sequence something like the one in the 1939 film Non-Stop New York, in which a child-prodigy violinist runs away from his parents and his manager and turns up hanging out with jazz musicians and carrying a saxophone. That would have been a bit dated in 1953, though five years later we could have expected the kid to be an aspiring rock-’n’-roller picking up an electric guitar!) Instead there’s a vision of hell in which the other instruments and their players are doomed to dance eternally; one rather kvetchy imdb.com “Goofs” commentator sniffed, “Throughout the whole of the instrumental scene, with the various performers, there are so many continuity, revealing and a/v mismatch goofs that it would be impossible to record them all” — to which I responded, “It’s supposed to be a DREAM, you moron!

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T had something in common with The Twonky besides Hans Conried being in both; its first previews went wretchedly, and Columbia forced Kramer and director Roy Rowland (whose best films are quite a bit different from this — the MGM noirs Scene of the Crime, 1949, and Rogue Cop, 1954) to reshoot much of it, cutting out all the bits of social commentary (including a reference to gas chambers in Dr. T.’s torture dungeon, obviously inspired by Dr. Seuss’s fierce opposition to the Nazis well before most Americans knew or cared what horrible things they were doing to Germany) and replacing a lot of the songs. That only made the film an even bigger money-loser, though it’s acquired something of a cult in recent years because it’s the only attempt to do a live-action film of anything by Dr. Seuss during his lifetime. At that, I wondered at times during the film if it might have worked better as an animated feature, with only the real-world framing sequences in live action; animation would probably have softened the rather edgy material and put the film more into what we think of as the world of Dr. Seuss. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. has enough of a cult reputation that punk-rock singer Jello Biafra once named it as his all-time favorite movie (maybe he responded to Bart Collins’ rebellion against what Dr. T. and Bart’s own mom considered “good music”), and it’s certainly dazzling visually, while its plot lapses and surrealistic elements can be attributed to it depicting a dream. Also it’s interesting to note that Stanley Kramer originally wanted Danny Kaye to play Dr. T. (he’d have been good but wouldn’t have been able to tap the almost otherworldly evil of Conried’s performance) and Bing Crosby as August (he’d have sung better than Peter Lind Hayes, but he was too old for the part and wouldn’t have been as good for it as a personality), and that Peter Lind Hayes, who had got his start in movies in Warner Bros. shorts in the 1930’s opposite his real-life mother, Grace Hayes, playing his mother on screen, this time appeared as the wanna-be boyfriend of Mary Healy, his real-life wife at the time.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Futurama Entertainment, Vernon-Seneca Films, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The first film shown at last night’s Mars movie night (http://marsmovieguide.com/) was a true oddity from 1965 called Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (imdb.com lists the title as Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster, but that’s just an overly literal reading of a badly lettered title card) produced by Futurama Entertainment Corp. (“‘Entertainment’ — that’s a matter of opinion,” I couldn’t help but joke as the final credits rolled) and Vernon-Seneca Films, directed by Robert Gaffney from a story by George Garrett. Apparently the original screenwriters — Garrett, R. H. W. Dillard and John Rodenbeck, the last two uncredited — intended the film as an out-and-out comedy — and a deliberately funny version would have been considerably better than the one we have — but the producers wanted a “serious” horror/sci-fi film. They got something that was funny, all right, but purely by unintention, a mess of ill-matched footage that makes Plan Nine from Outer Space look like a deathless masterpiece by comparison. After some blurry stock scenes that purportedly represent an alien spacecraft in orbit around Earth, we cut to a plywood set supposedly representing the ship’s interior and a curious gnome-like creature with big, pointy ears talking to a woman who appears to be in command of the operation. The gnome-like creature is the appropriately named “Nadir” (as in “low point”) and is played by Lou Cutell — I couldn’t help but joke, “At the top of the list of science-fiction film characters with pointy ears is Mr. Spock in Star Trek, and at the bottom is this guy” — while the commander is listed as “Princess Marcuzan” in the closing credits but is never addressed by anything more than “The Princess.” She’s also played by Marilyn Hanold, who can’t act but at least is marginally enough better than the rest of the cast that we don’t think she flunked out of drama school on her first day. She, Nadir and their crew are preparing a secret plan that involves kidnapping Earth women and mating with them because a nuclear war back on their home planet — which the official synopsis says is Mars but that’s nowhere stated in the movie itself — killed off all their own women. When the Princess announced that the war killed off all their women, the one woman in our audience asked, “Then what are you?” — though it’s possible we were supposed to assume she’d already gone through her species’ version of menopause. The same woman in the audience laughed when I joked, when the Princess confronted one of the blonde, bikini’ed Earth girls they’d kidnapped, the victim would say, “You don’t fool me! You’re Harvey Weinstein in drag!” 

Meanwhile, NASA is planning its first manned mission to Mars — well, sort-of  “manned”; they’ve built a one-man spaceship and to fly it, scientists Dr. Adam Steele (James Karen) and Karen Grant (Nancy Marshall) have bio-engineered a creature from bits and pieces of recently deceased humans but controlled by an electronic brain inside — and the scene in which they cut their creature open (he’s malfunctioned and frozen up at a press conference introducing him, which director Gaffney represents by an oddball freeze-frame) and it looks like somebody left a computer circuit board in the middle of the merchandise at a meat market, is the grossest in the film. They call their creature “Frank Saunders” — as in “Frankenstein,” get it? — and duly shoot him off in his rocket to Mars, only the people in the spaceship that’s orbiting Earth from wherever decide it’s a human counterattack and shoot it down. It lands over Puerto Rico (as if the island didn’t have enough problems!) and the Princess and Dr. Nadir send out three goons from their spaceship who wear metallic spacesuits and hold ray guns that look like hand-held vacuum cleaners to hunt down the intruder — who in the process of crash-landing has badly burned half of his face and lost all his morals, since he spends most of his time cornering people on the beach and killing them at random. The pity is that Robert Reilly, who plays Saunders, was a quite handsome and striking-looking man in his opening scene and it’s a pity that thereafter we see him only with a lot of crud stuck on half his face to make him appear “monstrous.” While all this is going on Drs. Steele and Grant do a lot of riding around Puerto Rico (or actually Cocoa Beach, Florida, where the film was shot) on a Vespa motor scooter (one wonders if Vespa got product-placement money — or if they offered the filmmakers a bribe not to include their product in the film?) listening to a pop-rock song called “To Have and To Hold” by a group called the Distant Cousins, produced by Bob Crewe (who was best known as a principal songwriter for the Four Seasons: he wasn’t a performing member but he and Bob Gaudio, who was, wrote most of their hits). It’s not all that great, but the film’s other song, “That’s the Way It’s Got to Be” by The Poets (another Crewe-produced group), is a nice little piece of proto-psychedelic rock and the film brightens up considerably when it appears on the soundtrack. 

Alas, that’s about the only good thing you can say about Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster: it’s the sort of movie in which the stock footage has better production values than the new shooting, and there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of anyone in it. In fact, I found it so dull I literally fell asleep halfway through it and have no idea how it turned out — though I’m sure the ending had something to do with Mull, one of those tacky monsters endemic to bad 1950’s and 1960’s sci-fi films whose costume looks like it was made of carpet samples and who was on board the alien spacecraft as a sort of enforcer and hit person (or thing), confronting Frank Saunders on a beach somewhere (just about every exterior in this film takes place either on a beach — James Karen and Nancy Marshall even get to copy the famous seashore embrace of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity — or on a road leading to a beach) and having it out with him in a final confrontation imdb.com reviewer “Space_Mafune” called “disappointing.” As an out-and-out spoof Frankenstein mission cMeets the Space Monster might have been genuinely entertaining — one of the gags from the comic version that never made it into the film was that Frank Saunders’ legs had come from a recently deceased tap dancer, so he’d have broken uncontrollably into a tap dance every time he heard the song “Sweet Georgia Brown” — as it was it was just another dumb thing that probably got shown mostly at drive-ins to teenage couples who were too busy necking (or more) to notice how bad the movie was!

Mission Mars (Red Ram Productions, Sagittarius Productions, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The second film shown at last night’s Mars Movie Screening was a much better — but still not very good — movie, Mission Mars, made in 1968 by Red Ram Productions and Sagittarius Productions (their logos looked an awful lot like those of porn studios and some of the cast members were billed with names that sounded like porn aliases, too), directed by Nicholas Webster from a story by Aubrey Wisberg (a recognized screenwriter with some not-bad credits on his résumé) and a script by Michael St. Clair. At least it had the advantage of actors you’ve actually heard of, like Darren McGavin and Nick Adams, who play two of the three scheduled crew members on a spaceship scheduled to fly from Earth to Mars over a nine-month period. McGavin is actually excellent within the extreme limitations of his character, mission commander Col. Mike Blaiswick: in the opening scene we’re shown him in bed with his wife Edith (a not-bad performance by Heather Hewitt, though her character is the typical Astronaut’s Stepford Wife) and, though clearly considerably older than she, he’s hot enough one can readily understand their continued attraction. Nick Grant (Nick Adams) is also married, though his wife Alice (Shirley Parker) whines about how he’s never home because he’s always searching for some new place, new frontier, new horizon to explore. (Adams is considerably more bloated than he was when he appeared in films with James Dean, but he speaks his lines in the mumbling monotone he picked up from Dean and in fact learned to do so well that when George Stevens, director of Giant, realized during his editing, well after Dean’s death, that Dean’s recording of his final speech was unusable, he had Adams dub it in.) Mission Mars has one howlingly funny lapse of continuity — supposedly Mike has got Edith pregnant just before he takes off on his nine-month mission, but when he actually gets to Mars she looks exactly the same and there’s no indication that she’s actually had the baby, which one would ordinarily expect to have happened in nine months! 

Other than that, it’s an O.K. but rather dull film that overexplains the science behind everything (a flaw in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster as well — at the opening of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster Dr. Nadir tells the Princess, “We continue to hear modulated hydrogen frequency signal of 21 centimeters, Princess,” to which she replies, “What does that mean?” — our question exactly!) and in which very little happens until the astronauts actually reach Mars. There they encounter a weird little thing that looks like a cross between a Giacometti sculpture and E.T. which turns out to be a solar panel hooked up to a ray gun, so it can fire an intense beam of sun-derived energy at anything and thereby do things like melt holes in metal. The big Martian whatsit we see, though, is a round ball textured to look like a moon that parks itself next to the U.S. spaceship and makes it impossible for Our Astronauts — there are three, Blaiswick, Grant and Duncan (George De Vries, who frankly did more for me aesthetically than his two better-known co-stars until he got fried by the Martians’ mobile solar panel midway through the Mars sequence) — to fire their rockets and launch the trip back home to Earth as their Mission Control people back home asked them to. There’s also an earlier Mars probe launched by the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) which also had three astronauts on board; the crew finds two of them dead in mid-space, perpetually orbiting Mars, and the third one they locate on the surface, think is dead but take his body anyway with the intent of giving him/her/it/whatever a decent burial back home.

Eventually — a very long “eventually” — it turns out that the big ball wants one of them to stay behind and enter it, and with Duncan having already been fried by the Martian solar-energy machine it’s Nick who decides that as a man who’s always wanted to go to the next unexplored place for the next exciting adventure, he’ll enter the spacecraft and go to wherever with the aliens, while Mike unthaws the frozen Soviet cosmonaut and impresses him into service as his co-pilot for the trip home. Mission Mars is a bad movie, wretchedly written and (aside from McGavin) acted with virtually zero authority or skill, yet it’s one of those bad movies in which one detects the basic ingredients of a good movie fighting to try to get out of it. It was made in 1968 and features two more O.K. rock songs, only one of which (“No More Tears” by a group called — I kid you not — “The Forum Quorum”) is listed on imdb.com, and it was in color — though the color was probably not that great to begin with and the film has faded into the dusky greens and dirty browns that are the 21st Century cinematographers’ vision of just about everything. The color helps, and so does a well-thought script — indeed, a bit too well-thought script that violates the basic rule of science fiction: don’t explain the technology. As Gene Roddenberry put it in his prospectus for Star Trek, “Joe Friday doesn’t explain how his .38 revolver works before he fires it at the bad guy, so Captain Kirk shouldn’t explain how his phaser works, either.”

True Lies (Lightstorm Entertainment, 20th Century-Fox, 1994)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

February 6’s “feature” was a movie I picked out under somewhat false pretenses, but it turned out to be a total delight anyway: True Lies, a 1994 film directed by James Cameron from a script he wrote based on a previous screenplay by Claude Zati, Simon Michaël and Didier Kaminka for a French film called La Totale! For some reason I had thought True Lies was based on a story by Philip K. Dick, which apparently it wasn’t, but though it was an espionage comedy-thrller rather than a science-fiction film it had some very Dickian plot elements, notably the confusion of identities and the ironies emerging therefrom. The film opens at an exclusive party in Switzerland for members of the 0.001 percent, including Arab oil shieks, European bankers and super-villainess Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere), who poses as a dealer in antiquities from the Persian Empire of antiquity but is really the point person for a gang of international Middle Eastern terrorists, the Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik). The party is crashed by a mysterious figure in a black diving outfit, who cuts through the ice of a frozen-over lake near the estate where it’s being held; he gets out, takes off his diving helmet, then takes off the hood of the wet suit he was wearing under it, and only after he’s peeled off both layers do we recognize him as the film’s male lead, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold, whom Cameron had previously worked with quite effectively in the first two Terminator movies, is playing Steve Rehnquist, international spy who’s there to trace the terrorist group and find out who their contact is, but he wastes time romancing Juno (“Care to tango?” he asks her) and is set upon by a virtual army of the host’s security guards on snowmobiles, skis and other conveyances. 

The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is able to fend off a small army of people armed with machine guns while his only firearm is a small automatic pistol marks the tone of this movie as one which will exploit the movie conventions — like “Nobody can kill the star” — and at the same time it will make fun of them. After his heroic escape in a truck being driven (badly, since he has a hard time keeping it on the road in icy conditions) by sidekick Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold, who made this film in the wake of his bitter divorce from Roseanne Barr and proves that they didn’t break the mold after they made Frank McHugh), Arnold returns home and we find out that his “real” identity is computer salesman Harry Tasker. In this guise he has a wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, superb in a deadpan way that reminded me of Carol Burnett) and a daughter, Dana (Eliza Dushku), and though he’s been married to Helen for 17 years he’s somehow been able to conceal his real past completely. Indeed, he’s done such a good job concealing who he really is that his wife, bored by his long absences, has drifted into an as-yet-unconsummated affair with a used-car salesman named Simon (a marvelously droll turn by Bill Paxton), who’s wooed her by falsely claiming to be an international spy. (Helen’s boredom with her husband, who’s really a spy, and its leading her to an affair with someone who says he’s a spy but really isn’t, is the most Dickian element in this film.) A jealous Harry commandeers the resources of his employers, the super-secret Omega Project (their logo looks something like the real CIA’s but proclaims them as “Our Last Line of Defense”), to spy on his wife and stake out her lover, and there’s a great scene in which Simon the used-car salesman tries to sell Harry a bright red 1950’s Corvette that becomes a symbol of Simon’s wanna-be masculinity — and in the film’s one dubious gag (though it’s also quite funny) Harry and Albert trace Simon, confront him and get him so scared he literally pees in his pants. 

Eventually Harry has Helen arrested and put in a room where he talks to her in a computer-distorted voice and says she’ll be prosecuted unless he does a job for her, which is to infiltrate a suite at a fancy hotel disguised as a prostitute and plant a bug on its telephone. She’s told she won’t actually have to have sex with the client because “he just likes to watch,” and of course the mystery “client” is Harry himself — but the Crimson Jihad’s fighters crash the scene and take Helen prisoner. The finale takes place at the terror group’s hideout on one of the Florida Keys (recalling not only Key Largo but the isolated Caribbean island setting of the first James Bond film, Dr. No), where they’ve armed a nuclear warhead to go off and blow up the island as a warning to the U.S. that they have three other warheads and can aim each at a major U.S. city if their demand for a total U.S. military pull-out from the Middle East isn’t met. (As Charles once joked about the Unabomber, they seem to be attempting to achieve a desirable political outcome through unspeakably evil means.) Harry rescues Helen, but in the meantime the Crimson Jihad has kidnapped their daughter Dana (it’s indicative of the tone this movie takes and the sheer speed with which Cameron stages it that we don’t ask questions like, “How the hell did they know where Dana was?”) and is holding her hostage, and in the end she winds up precariously balanced on a construction crane high over Miami as Aziz tries to recover the key to turn on his nukes, Dana threatens to throw it in the ocean, and Harry attempts to rescue her by commandeering a U.S. Marine Corps Harrier jet — a plane capable of vertical takeoffs and landings (and which ran so much over budget it was one of the biggest scandals in the history of U.S. defense contracting) — and flying it directly under her and telling her to jump onto it. She does, but Aziz ends up on the plane as well and there’s an exciting, bizarre and hilarious fight scene on the supersonic aircraft, the ultimate parody of all those scenes in old Westerns in which the hero and villain fought it out on top of a moving train. 

Through much of True Lies it seemed as if James Cameron were channeling Preston Sturges — if Sturges had lived long enough to make a Bond film it might have come out something like this — and there’s also a certain Keatonesque quality both to the gags themselves and to Schwarzenegger’s deadpan performance. Out of all his directors, James Cameron seems to have been the one who was best at getting Schwarzenegger’s limitations as an actor to work for him; in the two Terminator movies he was literally playing a robot, and here he seems like a more muscular version of Buster Keaton’s “Great Stone Face” as he maneuvers his way through various preposterous situations that test his resourcefulness big-time. Schwarzenegger also made True Lies at an in-between point in his physical transformation from the hot stud of the Conan movies to the grotesque figure he cut when the steroids or whatever he was using to maintain his muscle mass caught up with him, turning his head boxy and making him look like a relief map of the Himalayas — though muscleman buffs will be disappointed that he never appears topless in this film. True Lies got good reviews when it was new — mostly along the lines of, “Even if you don’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll like this” — and in James Cameron’s woefully scanty filmography (imdb.com lists 24 directorial credits for him but only eight are for theatrically released features) True Lies falls between Terminator 2 and Titanic and reveals something about Cameron you wouldn’t know from most of his movies: he actually has a sense of humor.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Steel Trap (Andrew Stone Productions, Bert Friedlob Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I squeezed in a movie between the Rachel Maddow Show on MS-NBC and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS: The Steel Trap, a 1952 production by Bert E. Friedlob for 20th Century-Fox, though currently owned by Warner Bros. (a color version of their logo adorns the print we watched, from the backlog of DVD’s I recorded from Turner Classic Movies back when you could still do that sort of thing, on a disc from a night they showed of “caper” movies), and produced, directed and written by Andrew Stone. The stars are Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, reunited nine years after they acted together in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt, in which “Uncle Charlie” (Cotten), the relative teenage girl Charlie (Wright) was expecting to come in from out of town to liven up her otherwise drab small-town existence in Santa Rosa, turns out to be a serial killer. Though hardly in the same league as Hitchcock’s classic, The Steel Trap turns out to be a quite good suspense thriller in its own right. Cotten plays bank executive Jim Osborne, who, in a voice-over narration that’s obviously Cotten’s real voice but is recorded in an oddly sepulchral acoustic that would have been more appropriate if he’d been doing an audiobook of Edgar Allan Poe stories, explains to us that every morning he leaves the house at the same time. rounds the corner to the train station, takes the same train into the city and shows up for his job as the assistant bank manager — he tells us that he started out at the bank 11 years before as a junior teller and he’s risen to assistant manager; now he’s training a newly hired junior teller and he tells us that in 11 years the new teller may be the assistant manager and he may be the branch manager. Jim has hit on an idea that by exploiting a loophole in the bank’s security system and looking for a country that has no extradition treaty with the U.S., he can steal $1 million in cash from the bank vault and high-tail it out of the country, living the life of Riley for the rest of his days and treating his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) and their eight-year-old daughter Susie (Stephanie King) to a similar existence. 

The voice-over in which Jim explains his plans to himself and to us recalls the similar spiel we got from Fred MacMurray’s character in Double Indemnity — both characters tell us that at least part of their motivation for crime is just proving to themselves that they could do it — but with the key differences that Jim is not motivated by lust for a femme fatale (the original ads for this film hinted that he was — the tag line was, “For the Love of a Woman, He Stole $1,000,000!”  — but he wasn’t: his wife Laurie is the only woman he’s interested in) and he doesn’t intend to kill anybody, just make it out of the country with the money, which the bank will never miss because they’re insured (so yeah, everyone else’s premiums will go up to pay for it). Unfortunately, he’s on a really tight schedule because he has to commit his theft on Friday night, just after closing, and he has to do it soon because in a week or two the bank is going to go on “winter schedule,” which means it will be open on Saturday and he figures he needs the entire weekend to make a safe getaway. He invents a story and tells Laurie that he needs to go to Brazil to conclude a deal for the bank that, if successful, will make him vice-president; he tells Laurie he wants her and Susie to come with him, and Laurie agrees but balks at dragging along a child on what’s only supposed to be a brief business trip. The main part of the film details the struggles Jim has in trying to pull off his presumably perfect crime: he has to get his passports on an emergency basis (and he ends up literally breaking into the Brazilian consulate to obtain them with the necessary visas and almost getting himself arrested for that!), he has to struggle with various airlines, including real ones like TWA (at the time this film was made they were owned by Howard Hughes, and the Lockheed Constellation they fly in was designed by Hughes, but he couldn’t manufacture it himself because the Federal Aviation Administration forbade airlines from buying planes their parent companies manufactured, so Hughes licensed the design to Lockheed in exchange for a cut-rate deal on a large purchase of the planes) and “Chicago-Southwest” (which apparently also existed but was actually based, despite their name, in Memphis, Tennessee), to make the right connections to get to Rio on time. 

They end up stranded in New Orleans, where they go to the famous Antoine’s restaurant (Louis Armstrong remembered it but never ate there because they didn’t serve Blacks) and a Bourbon Street nightclub in which Helen Humes sings a song by Dimitri Tiomkin (who otherwise contributed one of his typically overdone background scores) and lyricist Stan Jones, but though we hear Humes’ voice on the soundtrack we don’t get to see this tragically underrated singer on screen. (If you want to see her, download the 1947 film Jivin’ in Be-Bop with Dizzy Gillespie from archive.org.)  The main problem with this film is that Teresa Wright’s character is drawn as such a ninny it takes her nearly the whole film to figure out that her husband is a crook — and when she does she startles him by refusing to accept his ill-gotten gains and returning to L.A. instead of going on to Rio with him. It also has other glitches, including the fact that Jim takes the money out of the bank in a seedy-looking suitcase that practically screams, “Embezzlers ’R Us,” and though we’re told it weights 115 pounds (a lot of people who haven’t carried suitcases or bags full of tightly packed paper don’t realize how heavy the stuff is — it is wood, after all!) it doesn’t look that heavy when Joseph Cotten or the other actors who handle it are carrying it. But overall, though hardly at the level of the great film Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright made for the real Alfred Hitchcock, The Steel Trap is a quite good thriller that explores the same moral ambiguities as some of the Hitchcock films, in which we’re rooting for the villain to succeed in each little impediment to his plan even while overall just waiting to see him get caught.  

The Steel Trap also belongs to the interesting sub‑genre of film noir in which an ordinary person who’s been previously law-abiding suddenly gets caught up in the criminal underworld and has to learn how to function and survive in it (other examples: Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Dick Powell in André de Toth’s Pitfall, Joan Bennett in Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment), and Stone makes so much of the contrast between the Osbornes’ suburban normality and their (or at least his) criminal activities Charles joked that the film could have been called Ward and June Cleaver Go Bad. But The Steel Trap also suffers from an ending [spoiler alert!] that in 1952 probably counted as dangerous Production Code-bending but now just seems unsatisfying: stunned by the fact that his wife would rather leave him and high-tail it back to law-abiding suburbia than hang out with him and help spend his ill-gotten gains in Rio, Jim Osborne decides to return all the money to his bank and sneak it in on Monday morning so he can put it back in the vault (the titular “steel trap”) with no one the wiser. He doesn’t have time to put the money back in the four big strong boxes that it was in when he stole it, but he figures no one will either notice or care — and he gets away with it! My expectation had been that the film would have the more Code-compliant ending in which just as Jim is getting the money back, he’s confronted by bank security who’ve brought in the police to arrest him — which would have actually made more dramatic sense and given the story more of an air of tragedy than it has. Still, The Steel Trap is a good movie and a nice item on the résumé of the usually notoriously overwrought Andrew Stone.