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DVD SAVANT

Spaceways


Spaceways
Image Entertainment
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame
Starring Howard Duff, Eva Bartok, Andrew Osborn, Anthony Ireland, Alan Wheatley, Michael Medwin, David Horne, Cecile Chevreau, Hugh Moxey, Philip Leaver, Jean Brough, Leo Phillips, Marianne Stone
Cinematography Reginald H. Wyer
Art Director J. Elder Wills
Film Editor Maurice Rootes
Original Music Ivor Slaney
Writing credits Richard H. Landau and Paul Tabori, from a play by Charles Eric Maine
Produced by Michael Carreras
Directed by Terence Fisher

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Spaceways is a rather minor English science fiction film from Hammer films, before the heralded company made history and a lot of money with its Technicolor horror films. It bears many of the marks of early Hammer. First of all, it's a coproduction with Lippert pictures, a cheap American outfit responsible for a lot of mostly lowercase if fondly remembered '50s genre pictures. It has the American star, Howard Duff, who had made a film noir splash in Brute Force and The Naked City but never quite graduated to the ranks of major player.

The disappointment of Spaceways is finding out that it is really a lukewarm murder mystery in a science fiction setting.

Synopsis:

A close-knit group of dedicated scientists works under guard at Deanfield, a secret government space exploration installation. They're mostly willing prisoners of the Official Secrets Act, but under the cramped conditions, marital tensions have become strained. Scientist Dr. Stephen Mitchell (Howard Duff) is happy working for low pay to 'conquer space', but his bored wife Vanessa (Cecile Chevreau) is carrying on an affair with Stephen's colleague Philip Crenshaw (Andrew Osborn). Nobody has any secrets at Deanfield, and when Vanessa and Philip suddenly disappear after a missile launch, Stephen finds himself in a tight spot. One of the theories of scientist / detective Smith (Alan Wheatley) is that Stephen murdered the pair, and then hid their bodies in the missile before takeoff. With the rocket in perpetual orbit and the bodies unrecoverable, Stephen may have commited the perfect crime. To clear his name, he proposes a bold plan: to go up in a manned second rocket, to bring back the first one. The world's first astronaut will be a suspected murderer!

Spaceways is very interesting as a curio but doesn't really hang together as either a murder whodunnit or as science fiction. Although the techspeak is relatively accurate, especially when compared to Lippert's earlier Rocketship X-M, it's all delivered in fairly flat dialogue exposition. The whimsical spacegear and gadgetry is not particularly impressive. The space helmets have narrow slotted faceplates (to make the wearer unidentifiable, a slippery plot point) that would seem entirely impractical. A cute touch are the walnut-trimmed instrument panels reminiscent of Jaguar or Rolls automobiles. The spaceships on view are simply static paintings; the only action shot of a rocket taking off is a see-through mismatched missile lifted directly from Rocketship X-M. Special effects man other Les Bowie's work seems limited to a few mattes showing the actors talking at the base of the rocket.

If if ever was performed onstage. Spaceways must have been a pretty miserable show. The text mixes ideas about government secrecy, spies, scientific dedication and ho-hum adultery, without offering an insight about any of them. The secret rocket base, described as a concentration camp by the disaffected Vanessa, is accepted by everyone else without comment. 1 Lofty ideas are expressed about space exploration, only to be shot down by the revelation that the rocket project is primarily military (a constant in Rocket movies and a fave Savant hobby horse). Worse, the murder story trivializes the space theme; when it comes time for the epocal decision to send a man into orbit, it's done to solve relatively petty suspicions about a murder! The argument is that the first risky mission into space should be undertaken by a 'possible criminal' because suspicion makes his life less precious. Being denounced or suspected is the same as being guilty. This wrinkle expresses the cold-war, witchhunt mindset of the film better than any of Spaceway's intentional monologues. This might have added up to something interesting, but the writers seem completely unaware of the irony. It's a good thing that writer Richard Landau did better (or was allowed to do better) on the later The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer's breakthrough picture. Hero Stephen Mitchell isn't even very likeable, as it is obvious from the beginning that his affections are already invested in his beautiful female colleague, Lisa.

Lisa is played by Spaceways' brightest asset, Eva Bartok, who in only a handful of films has remained a favorite of European actresses. Hammer's femme leads often seemed more vivid than their male heroes, and Bartok's reputation with genre fans is limited to her appearances in this film, The Crimson Pirate, The Gamma People, and the later Mario Bava tour-de-force Blood and Black Lace. Vaguely resembling Alida Valli across the eyes, Bartok combines exoticism with a definite warmth, and expresses emotions well. Spaceways introduces her packed into a really terrible-looking Bavarian-style dress, but her strong presence overwhelms the liability.

It's kind of difficult to perceive the style of Terence Fisher in Spaceways. Neither this nor the fumbled Four-Sided Triangle show much of his considerable talent with setpieces, or his knack for precise wide blocking contrasted with furious fast-cut action. The truth is probably that Hammer in 1953 had to make these films so cheaply, that Fisher's dependable efficiency was his most important quality.


Image's DVD of Spaceways is a better than adequate presentation. The picture looks fine, and is probably transferred from a prime source. It looks far more attractive than the drab 16mm television prints ... Savant confesses that until this DVD, he was never able to sit through the whole film. The first couple of minutes have a slightly lower and muffled soundtrack, which probably came from 16mm. Luckily, the audio improves almost immediately and stays very good from there on in. The only extra is a scratchy trailer, that hypes the film shamelessly and gives the impression that it is 90% science fiction, which it definitely is not. The IMDB lists the UK version of the film as 76 minutes and the US as 74; the packaging says the DVD is the longer but Savant hasn't a clue as to what might have been cut for America.

Spaceways is a title that is going to be bought mainly by fans of Hammer and Terence Fisher, and by the science fiction completists who grab just about anything. But it is an interesting curiosity that carries some strange sublimated ideas about the cold-war culture. That's the fascination, for Savant at least, that has made almost every science fiction fantasy from that period worthwhile .


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Spaceways rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: November 30, 2000

Footnotes:

1. A rarely shown Paramount quickie, 1954's The Atomic City, is a must-see in this context. American atom scientists are shown as the virtual prisoners of FBI ferrets who monitor their every move and action to the nth degree; the totalitarian extremes reached in the pursuit of 'freedom' from Commie tyranny are presented proudly. Like many jingoistic films of the '50s, this title plays as if it were made by fascists. When the story boils down into a spy chase through Los Angeles, the screenplay makes a point of showing the FBI thowing all legalities out the window, while beaming in self-righteousness! An amazing movie, that makes Pickup on South Street look like a production of the A.C.L.U.  Return

Text © Copyright 2000 Glenn Erickson

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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