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Note: This review avoids key spoilers.
From a career high in 1960 as both the producer and director of the beloved The Time Machine, George Pal spent his last years on the losing side of the fading studio system. His conciliatory willingness to make Atlantis, the Lost Continent was a major step backward. Neither the Cinerama superproduction The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm nor the (rather good) fantasy 7 Faces of Dr. Lao were breakout successes. Pal, whose famous Puppetoons were loved the world over, and whose Destination Moon jump-started the '50s Science Fiction genre, was considered old-fashioned and out of date. I met Mr. Pal briefly in the late 1970s and my initial reaction jibes with accounts of writers that knew him better, like Bill Warren. Quiet, sweet-tempered and gracious, Pal would have won over studio people with his talent and productivity. But it's difficult to see him prospering in the Hollywood free-for-all.
1968's The Power is an ambitious production a number of years ahead of its time. Sci-fi was not in vogue, and the movies that were made before Planet of the Apes and 2001 tended to be juvenile in concept. The Power deals with the abstract idea that certain people have mutated to a next evolutionary step that includes telepathic powers. As such it predates the early Sci-Fi film output of David Cronenberg, especially the head-exploding telepathic duel in Scanners. Detractors claim that the ideas in The Power are too similar to stories by Philip K. Dick, but telepaths appear with regularity in Sci-Fi literature, as in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos & The Chrysalids. And we shouldn't forget comic books like X-Men, which include superheroes with advanced evolutionary pedigrees. Author Frank M. Robinson's original book The Power was published in 1956, before many of these prominent examples, and later than many others.
Writer John Gay's adaptation places the telepathic thriller in a high-tech "think tank", a new creation of the Cold War and its military funding. The staff of scientists -- and an outside government visitor, Navy Intelligence officer Arthur Nordlund (Michael Rennie) -- meets in the security-conscious installation. Some of the group is irritated and embarrassed when the anthropologist Henry Hallston (Arthur O'Connell), who has taken a survey of his colleagues, voices his belief that a member of the group is in fact a genius so gifted with mental abilities that he might be an all-powerful 'psychic agent'. An impromptu test proves that Hallston is correct -- somebody in the room makes a piece of paper on a pencil spin of its own accord.
The lab is soon thrown into an uproar as one think tank member after another is murdered, sometimes with bizarre means. Endurance researcher Jim Tanner and geneticist Margery Lansing (George Hamilton & Suzanne Pleshette), who are also lovers, are first on the scene of the initial murder. Tanner decides to get to the bottom of the mystery by seeking one Adam Hart, a name found in the office of one of his dead colleagues. But Tanner is suddenly dismissed from the lab when it is discovered that all of his academic credentials have been falsified. When he experiences a series of waking hallucinations on the street and in a fun-house arcade, he realizes that somebody has been 'magically' erasing his academic record and is now toying with his mind. By the time he leaves town to track down the mysterious Adam Hart, Tanner is already a key suspect in the murders ... which continue apace. One of the think-tank geniuses is eliminating the others, to keep his identity secret.
Unfortunately, The Power is a worthy thriller that never generates the appropriate feelings of paranoia and psychic chaos. The idea of a psychic assassin is mostly use to introduce a series of oddball killings. One is accomplished in a giant centrifuge, exactly as in the Sci-Fi film Gog, except that a telekinetic mind is throwing switches instead of a hacked computer. The very un-charismatic George Hamilton never convinces as a scientist, or much of anything else. 1 The nature of Tanner's investigation requires that we understand what it's like to experience a mental hack-attack from the inside out, and despite considerable visual razzle-dazzle, that doesn't happen.
Tanner's hallucinations never seem more than unimpressive special effects. Pal's Puppetoons make a cameo appearance in a toy window, a gag that just doesn't work. Tanner stumbles around in a delirious state and flips out when carousel horses wink at him, but we don't get the idea that he could be driven insane by all this subtle poltergeist baloney. And that's even when we guess that the "Man with The Power" is conditioning Tanner to become the fall guy for the other murders. The script does not address exactly what The Power can and can't do, or what use its owner wants to make of it. We spend a hundred minutes just identifying this person.
Tanner comes in contact with a number people who act strangely. Hallston's widow (Yvonne De Carlo) and a woman in a desert cafe (Barbara Nichols) both come on to him, and a desert garage mechanic (Aldo Ray) ditches him in the middle of an Air Force gunnery range. The mechanic and Hallston's elderly parents (Celia Lovsky & Vaughn Taylor, both very good) say a lot of odd things about the mystery man Adam Hart. The problem is that the direction doesn't tell us whether the odd behaviors and the hallucinations are real, or if Tanner is just imagining them. Or, is the Man with The Power manipulating all of these odd people, turning Mrs. Hallston into a nymphomaniac and the waitress into an exhibitionist? Although all of these events can be rationalized later, their only purpose during the movie seems to be to give Tanner some perplexing, alluring adventures.
Not knowing makes the film less fun, because we give up making sense of things when Tanner's car runs "telekinetically" out of control, or another think tank friend becomes unhinged and is shot by the police. We never get a purchase on the villain's limitations, if any. If he has all of this power over people's minds, why doesn't he mentally will the think tank to forget about the whole evolutionary mutation issue? When he's cornered, why doesn't he just make his opponent fall asleep?
Even with its occasional bursts of colorful dream images (which look like sub-Saul Bass graphic work) The Power is finally defeated by its pedestrian direction. The movie looks like a high-gloss TV show. The dialogue is often obvious and trivial, and the direction of Byron Haskin -- who is excellent with any straightforward narrative -- flattens potentially interesting scenes, as when Tanner makes a bizarre late night call on Professor Van Zant (Richard Carlson) and receives an oh-so delicate brush-off from the professor's wife (Miiko Taka of Sayonara). The low point is when Tanner, Margery and Professor Carl Melnicker (Nehemiah Persoff) hide out in one of the worst "wild convention hotel parties" ever staged, complete with "uninhibited" women indulging in scandalous behavior, like dancing and talking loudly. The perky Ms.Pleshette has little to do but smile and tag along with Hamilton. None of these antics truly seem connected with the main story.
It's probably unfair to compare The Power to exceptional movies that involve weird mental distortions, and succeed by adopting a radical style ... Frankenheimer's Seconds, for example. This story might have done well with an experimental approach, but getting MGM to accept something really radical would have been next to impossible. The film instead throws a lot of undigested material at us. Viewers uninterested in the film's mystery probably remembered the scene where George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette make out on his living room floor. Now that has 1968 written all over it.
Yet ... The Power is always watchable, as we really want to find out who The Power is. Only a couple of moments are genuinely surprising, or suggest the mind-blowing possibilities of the film's concept. The best happens early on, when Arthur O'Connnell enters his office, turns around, and discovers that the doorway has been transformed so he can't easily exit. He turns his back on it again, and the door has disappeared entirely! We're almost as disturbed by this surreal sleight of hand as O'Connell is -- we feel his disorientation and helplessness. The scene could be a moment from Philip K. Dick's UBIK, if that book were ever filmed.
The Power does have its grace notes, which include an interesting score by Miklos Rozsa. The main titles incorporate shots of an instrument called a Cymbalom, or hammered dulcimer, being played, to very good effect; the instrument returns for a later scene in the picture. The show is a must-see for Sci-Fi fans, especially those interested in the comparisons it offers with Cronenberg's Scanners. The endings are quite similar, in ways that I won't go into so as not to spoil the surprise. David Cronenberg's exploding heads are represented in Pal's film by the Man With the Power telekinetically compressing his victim's heart. This and several other bizarre montages are achieved through traditional animation, which in 1968 must have looked quaint next to the "far-out" psychedelic sequences in other movies. The Power, an honest attempt to do something radically different with science fiction, just didn't get a break.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Power looks reasonably good, although the film elements have some minor color irregularities here and there, nothing serious. The widescreen image is always attractive. The disc comes with no extras. The arresting cover image is the film's original poster, a collage that combines scary imagery with rock musicians, disco dancers, secret agents and pop-eyed corpses. I remember that particular horror-comix corpse featuring prominently in TV promos for the film's network debut, and being surprised that the censors let it through.
For viewers not worried about spoilers, Paul Mavis has an interesting review up at the DVD Savant host site, DVDtalk. Paul has included a stack of frame grabs; I'll be a good sport and not swipe any of them.
Note: With text corrections from Gary Teetzel and Bill Warren.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Power rates:
1. The same casting malady affects John Sturges' The Satan Bug, albeit in a less destructive way. George Maharis is the two-fisted genius detective who uncovers a bizarre extortion plot with America's deadly biological war viruses. He gets the job done, but he's just not as likable in the role as he needs to be.
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T'was Ever Thus.