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.
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
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:
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: November 30, 2000
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