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Image has been releasing its Wade Williams films in 3-packs for about a year now, a practice that should attract the genre dogs: What once cost $75 retail now takes only $20 and all that's lacking from the original releases is the bad packaging art. This particular bundle combines three science fiction titles that could at best be called minor. But even with their weaknesses, these flying saucer-related shows raise interesting questions about exploitation filmmaking in the 1950s. With at least one of them, the big question is, "Why?"
The big flying saucer craze officially began in 1947 with a rash of mass sightings that are difficult to discount. The American movie industry wasn't yet geared for 'quick off the dime' exploitation of topical subjects, as Roger Corman demonstrated in 1958 when he released a space movie titled War of the Satellites only a couple of months after Sputnik became big news. So it wasn't until 1950 that a flying saucer (here more often than not referred to as a 'flying disc') made its debut on movie screens, and in a cheapjack vanity picture just a couple steps up from travelogue quality.
Film historians prefer to say that George Pal's Destination Moon is the first of the 1950s Sci Fi genre boom, but Mikel Conrad's The Flying Saucer was in theaters in January of that year and technically came first. The film stars the beefy actor Mikel Conrad, known mostly for playing roles identified as "thug" or "henchman," and who also ended up playing with Raymond Burr in the Americanized re-cut of Godzilla. This is essentially a homemade movie, as Conrad also produces, directs and partially wrote the screenplay.
The terrible story asks us to believe that the U.S. government calls on a drunken bum of a playboy to investigate its most pressing problem. Mikel's Mike Trent is no Mike Hammer and no Derek Flint. He clodhoppers his way through the story telling everyone what his mission is. Nothing really happens to forward the plot until the final few minutes, when Trent's Girl Friday partner and the laughably silly commie bad guys wrap things up practically without him.
Practically the only thing that The Flying Saucer has going for it is Philip Tannura's location photography. The movie alternates between MOS exteriors with post-synched audio, to cheap interior sets with live sound. 90% of the film is woefully undramatic footage of characters walking to and from cabins and getting in and out of boats and airplanes. The main characters wear faces that never show the slightest bit of tension. An attempt to create suspense by having Mike's airplane motor cut out several times comes to nothing when cutaways show Mike totally unconcerned. The movie is sleep-inducing.
We see only about fifteen seconds of saucer footage, with silver discs zipping through static scenes. A scientist has for some reason built his flying disc invention in a cave underneath an Alaskan glacier. Viewers who fall asleep trying to make it through this rather short film (a puzzling temporal illusion: How do 69 minutes seem like four hours?) will miss a truly goofy conclusion. Lester Sharpe's Russian Colonel Marikoff has a standoff with Mike Trent in an ice cave, which the editor prolongs with a ridiculous number of cutbacks. Markoff then shoots off about a hundred machine gun bullets point blank at our hero. But Mike is untouched because he's holding one of the bad guys as a human shield. We then cut to characters running past a hole in the ice cave, through which we see a rear-projection of a glacier-river beyond. The only problem is that that the process plate of the river was made by looping the same four-second piece of footage. A big chunk of ice repeatedly dissolves into place atop the glacial waterfall ... at least four or five times. It's mind-numbingly inept.
Mikel Conrad behaves like an obnoxious bum. Pat Garrison seems like a ninny to be attracted to him, as she could get better espionage assistance from almost anyone. Virginia Hewitt (of TV's Space Patrol) is Nanette, the Soviet agent who gets Conrad boozed up in a bar. Familiar faces Russell Hicks and Roy Engle are colorless good guys and Denver Pyle (Bonnie & Clyde) is a traitorous flying saucer pilot. A terrible baddie played by "Hantz von Teuffen" gets third billing and lots of close-ups in this, his only movie. That observation leads this reviewer to speculate that Hantz might have been a contributor to the budget.
The editing abounds with strange cuts that could only have been dictated by an incompetent wearing multiple production hats. A cutaway to a close-up of a screaming housewife (pictured on the disc cover above) seems to last for the entire length of the take, even though the actress stands in an excruciating stage wait for what seems an eternity. Mikel Conrad paid for that film, darn it, now let's see it cut in there! 1
This limp little English movie is a real puzzle: It's basically a dime-store remake of Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, right down to the casting of Patricia Neal in the leading role. The obvious plagiarism proves how minor a cultural event 1950s Science Fiction movies were -- a copycat production can be completely finished without anyone noticing that it's a dead ringer for another movie from three years before. Perhaps an English playwright (another guess) cobbled together ideas from a movie that impressed him, and what started as a few similarities got way out of hand. Variety didn't review Stranger from Venus in 1954 and other sources indicate that it may only have been released here on television. It's an interesting but weak film. An alternate English title seems to have been Immediate Disaster, a name guaranteed to invite derisive blurbs from the critics.
Some sources peg Stranger from Venus as an English television show but it may have been a TV play re-filmed for the screen, as with the Quatermass movies, The Abominable Snowman and The Trollenberg Terror. The show is given a full film finish, including an end cast crawl identical in style to those on Hammer films.
Figuring out the rest of the production is a dicier guessing game. It's the first feature by Burt Balaban, the son of the famous Paramount executive; Burt made only made a few films and hit his stride with the later crime stories Murder Inc. (announced for DVD) and the obscure Mad Dog Coll. It's also an odd choice of picture for Patricia Neal, recently released from her Warners contract. She made this and a couple of other features in Europe, perhaps responding to the tax break idea that attracted American actors like Gregory Peck and Gene Kelly (see Dick Dinman's footnote on Savant's review of The Purple Plain). Although Neal is now well known for 1957's A Face in the Crowd, she did mostly TV work until her strong comeback in 1963's Hud. Patricia Neal seems to have been unaware that there's such a thing as unprofessional film production. Seeing her drift aimlessly in this tiny drama is a reminder that actors usually aren't responsible for badly made pictures.
The similarities with The Day the Earth Stood Still are too close to be coincidental. Our Stranger from Venus is able to perform medical miracles and can apparently walk through locked doors. He demands a meeting of "all the Earth's nations" before he leaves, in two days, and eventually delivers a threatening warning to all Earthmen. The British government contains him with a cordon of troops (just two guards on a road are visible) and instead of negotiating in good faith, connives to steal the magnetic power secret of his flying saucer. His communication device (that looks like a plastic paperweight) stolen, the Stranger cannot signal his mother ship. "Immediate Disaster" threatens until Patricia Neal's fiancée reveals himself to be a good egg and comes to his senses.
Production-wise, Stranger from Venus has less in common with The Day the Earth Stood Still than it does Devil Girl from Mars, another British Science Fiction extravaganza that betrays its origins as a bad teleplay by confining its action to a country inn: "Gretchen - how about a spot of tea?" Script inanities militate against the tale, which tells us that the fate of the world is at stake but lingers on people strolling about the pleasant countryside as if nothing were wrong. The Stranger's home is said to be "many light years away," but is also identified as our sunward neighbor Venus. The Stranger's space ship remains absent until the conclusion, which yet again treats us to about 45 seconds of unconvincing flying saucer action.
Helmut Dantine played a vicious Nazi pilot in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver, and perhaps Stranger from Venus wants to make a closer-to-home anti-war statement as well. Dantine translates a newspaper paragraph into three languages (making a mistake between Spanish and Italian), thereby somehow proving that he can't possibly be from this Earth. He can put up a personal force field to keep policeman Nigel Green (in one of his first roles) from getting a grip on him, and has miraculous medicinal secrets that would be of equal if not greater importance than his saucer's propulsion system. The government bureaucrats who double cross the space man act out of pure opportunistic malice and not invasion paranoia, so Stranger from Venus doesn't repeat the Cold War theme of Edmund H. North's original Day script. The Stranger lectures that our planet is too caught up in petty wars and infantile disputes to be trusted with high technology. The Earthlings act like selfish kindergartners resentful of The Stranger's condescending attitude. As an interplanetary envoy, The Stranger is even less competent than was Klaatu.
Although Patricia Neal and Helmut Dantine share a kiss down by the local pond, Dantine's alien is just too cold of a character for a romantic angle to gel. A magnetic trap set up by the army at the landing site forces him to send his rescue ship away. Because he can only survive for a limited time in our atmosphere, The Stranger is abandoned to a fate much like David Bowie's in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Unfortunately, we're too busy asking ourselves why The Stranger didn't just shift the rendezvous point by a few hundred yards. It's not good when the audience is three steps ahead of the movie, as consistently happens here.
Stranger from Venus was an early editorial credit for top James Bond editor and director Peter Hunt, of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. 4
Allied Artists' The Cosmic Man is a slightly less obvious reworking of The Day the Earth Stood Still than the bald rip-off Stranger from Venus. Being a made-in-USA product, it was reviewed in Daily Variety ("Dull science fictioner") and granted full theatrical exhibition. 2
The Cosmic Man is a second-stringer effort all the way. Director Herbert S. Greene was an assistant director on Robert Kent movies, the mostly anemic UA bill-fillers like The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. Producer Robert Terry had only one other credit, on 1957's The Unearthly; maybe he was responsible for the crucial John Carradine connection. The strongest creative input comes from Arthur C. Pierce, the writer later turned producer-director of some so-so 60s thrillers like The Human Duplicators (an Outer Limits rip-off) and Navy vs. the Night Monsters (a Day of the Triffids rip-off).
John Carradine had been taking whatever god-awful acting jobs were offered for years, including one and two-day paycheck performances for horror films that exploited his name for star billing. He's often appears in badly matched wrap-around material added to foreign pickups like Half-Human and Invasion of the Animal People, just to support his penchant for giving free Shakespeare performances. It's as if the amiable Carradine was working off some kind of karmic debt, debasing himself like Emily Watson's Bess in Breaking the Waves, but with no heavenly forgiveness in sight. 3
In this case Carradine has a better than average part to play, as it least makes sense and is not a cheap cameo as in the same year's Invisible Invaders. His character is supposed to be made of anti-matter so he's seen in a negative image most of the time. His fairly normal appearance in dialogue scenes (black cloak and hat) isn't really explained, but we jump to the rationalization that he's painted himself or is using makeup or something to that effect. It's hard to tell if we're seeing Carradine's eyes through his dark glasses, or if they're a trick prop with exaggerated dark eyebrows and eyeballs in the lenses.
The script isn't all that bad but the direction of the actors is mostly laughable. The only surviving thespian other than Carradine is Bruce Bennett's self-composed scientist, who always seems natural, if on occasion a little too subdued. Paul Langton's Colonel is an inconsistent jumble, half the time acting like a military hard-ass and then pretending he's a creampuff while flirting with the leading lady. Pierce must have envisioned that part for a younger man. The big casualty is Angela Greene, who appears to be acting without any guidance whatsoever and is frequently left hanging around shots with a stupid look on her face while the men-folk talk. When she does emote she goes overboard, with melodramatic concern for her crippled son instantly changing into wistful regret for her KIA soldier husband. Seconds later, she'll be directed to flirt outrageously with Langton and/or Bennett. It's all unintentionally funny: The men argue from pacifist and militarist poles and she stares like an idiot, waiting for whichever can find the time to make a pass at her.
The Cosmic Man also follows the Day the Earth Stood Still's pacifist space visitor script template. John Carradine sneaks around on a mission of peace (referred to only in dialogue), tries to contact an Earth scientist and befriends a war widow and her cute-as-a-button son. The military assumes he's hostile, tries to cut into his ship with torches, and ends up gunning him down with an electronic device -- just before they discover that he's performed a small humanitarian miracle.
Everything is talk in this movie: Talk, talk and arrivals and departures of vehicles. Dr. Sorenson works for Pacific Tech, so I guess we have to assume that PT's alien expert Dr. Forrester (of War of the Worlds) was busy that day. The negative optical effect applied to Carradine is unimpressive, and the Cosmic Man's spherical ship is an equally unexciting prop. It seems to be suspended from an overhead rig but also betrays signs of being a foreground miniature -- nobody walks in front of it. The views of the sphere are severely limited and what could have been the focus of interesting compositions amounts to very little. The actors barely seem to believe it's there, so why should we?
In the end The Cosmic Man ends up as an inoffensive movie that might have been special if it were given a little more care and sensitivity in the direction department. Bennett's good-natured humoring of little Ken's interest in astronomy is handled fairly well, and the scientist vs. soldier opposition is at least allowed to develop. Langton talks like a hawk but then mocks Bennett's commitment to pacifism by reminding him that he helped create the atom bomb. Langton then brings on a more 'cooperative' scientist (Hal Torey) to try out an electronic gizmo-weapon on Carradine and his spaceship, setting up the finale with a rather good moment of military confusion.
Some of the melodramatics lead us to realize that, with a substitution of a benign adolescent space-child for Carradine's benign bogeyman, The Cosmic Man wouldn't be all that different from E.T. The Extraterrestrial. As clumsy as it is, this picture is okay.
The small cast makes it easy to spot Space Patrol's Cadet Happy, Lyn Osborn, as the Colonel's aide. This is yet another film with exteriors shot almost entirely in Griffith Park, with the Bronson Caverns location playing a big role.
Quality-wise, the three Watch the Skies titles look pretty good. Presumably mastered from prints in the Wade Williams collection, all are intact and reasonably well transferred. The Flying Saucer is the oldest picture but seems pristine save for a few errant scratches and a splice or two. We can see flaws in the original cinematography, including a camera shutter problem on a few outdoor shots that causes some minor vertical streaking. The 1950 release is properly formatted at the 1:37 Academy ratio.
Stranger from Venus still has its BBFC card up front and is in fine shape except for a couple of tiny splice jumps. The audio is hard to make out for a dialogue line or two, but that seems more a fault of the original recording and mix job. The film mattes off well to 1:66, further indicating that it was originally a theatrical release.
The Cosmic Man also looks fine, with perhaps a few more scratches here and there. It crops perfectly to 1:78 on a widescreen monitor, if one can correct the framing downward a little bit; by 1959 all American movies were projected this way. For the latter two pictures, the packaging claim of an original 1:33 aspect ratio is just plain wrong.
The three films in the Watch the Skies set have been on DVD for a few years but this bargain package will look good to fans who have only seen older gray-market VHS copies. They're a great improvement. Wade Williams and Corinth's packaging looks cheap but colorful, with lots of yellow and green.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Watch the Skies rates:
1. Having worked on a no-budget movie or two, and having spent 30 years listening to my editor friends tell horror stories about pin-headed producer 'creativity,' I'm pretty sure that in this case my guess about the incompetent cutting is correct.
2. A tragic true-life Savant story to relate. 1959, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Little seven year-old Savant's parents deem him so mature, he's allowed to walk the two blocks by himself to the base theater. This isn't unreasonable, as on-base traffic is made to crawl at 5 mph. There he demonstrates his maturity by ogling pix like The Mysterians, Caltiki, The Immortal Monster and Teenagers from Outer Space. The Cosmic Man is playing just one day before The Giant Behemoth and little Savant is told he will only be allowed to see one of them. He stares at the posters for at least 20 minutes before deciding that the movie with the dinosaur is the safer bet. Come Wednesday, a hurricane is blowing through the islands and all planes are grounded while the base goes on alert. You never know, our enemies may have cooked up the storm to mask an attack. My father battens down the house. We're all hunkered down in a safe room when little Savant says, "I'm sure this will all go away in time for me to see The Giant Behemoth in an hour! This is where having the best mother in the world comes in. Instead of telling Savantus Brattus to put a sock in it, Mom delicately breaks the news: No, the theater is closed down too. Dad went and checked, just to make sure. This must have been the kind of justifiable fib parents snicker at later. So I missed out on both pictures.
Savant saw Behemoth on TV after only a few years, but only now, 47 years later, has he finally seen The Cosmic Man on this DVD. Readers touched by this heart-tugging story of childhood deprivation may express their concern by donating to the Savant Needs a BMW Fund, courtesy of this website. God bless.
I believe that Stranger from Venus is the original title of the work with alternate titles being The Venusian and Immediate Disaster. It seems to have debuted in the US on television but was intended as a theatrical release elsewhereThe IMDB lists Princess Pictures as handling the TV sales for the movie but the print I have (taken from a British television airing in the mid-1990s) has them featured as one of the production companies.
One of the more interesting features of Stranger from Venus is that its scenario was devised by Desmond Leslie who is considered the father of British UFOlogy. Leslie was also famous for trying to punch out a journalist live on network television in the early 60s because the guy had slighted Leslie's wife's work in a play. I digress. I've seen no evidence to suggest that this began life as a television serial or play and I think that it is an "original" work.
For me the most fascinating aspect of the film is its depiction of Home Counties England in the mid-1950s. Stranger from Venus was made largely by emigres to the UK and the England shown on screen comes across as a truly alien location. I elaborate on this in a review I did of Balaban's work on my website.
Keep up the good work. Cheers. -- Iain