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Prolific writer, producer and dealmaker Philip Yordan followed his weak but successful adaptation of The Day of the Triffids with another ambitious science fiction project, this one filmed by associates on leave from Samuel Bronston's Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray epics. One of the first convincing ecological nightmare movies, Crack in the World doesn't use a giant monster to make its point about human meddling with Mother Nature. A group of idealistic geologists accidentally open up devastating fissures in the earth's crust that threaten to tear the world in two.
The plot mixes disaster and soap opera in unequal measures. In Tanganyika, terminally ill Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) goes forward with his reckless Project Inner Space despite the misgivings of his younger assistant Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore). Inner Space plans to drop a nuclear warhead into a deep well shaft, to punch through a final barrier deep within the earth. If Sorenson can bring superheated core magma to the earth's surface, mankind will gain an unlimited power source. The younger scientist warns that a blast that deep will weaken fault lines in all directions, causing a cataclysmic geological reaction. But Sorenson forges ahead out of pure hubris, determined to become mankind's savior before he dies. Stephen also wants to justify himself to his young wife Maggie (Janette Scott), who was once Rampion's lover.
The blast is an initial success - until earthquakes and volcanic eruptions open up the Macedo Fault, which extends from near the Inner Space lab out into the Indian Ocean. Ted Rampion tries to stop the moving split by using a second nuke to blow a stopgap in an island volcano. The crack instead doubles back along another fault line, forming a giant circle that will close back at the project. The scientists evacuate the subterranean lab but Sorenson refuses to leave. Ted and Maggie take the two-mile elevator ride down to try to change his mind.
Crack in the World's outlandish concept widens into an ever-escalating spiral of excitement and jeopardy. Unlike so many earlier disaster thrillers, it really delivers on its advertising promise of worldwide calamity. Although scientific advances have made the story concept obsolete -- Crack in the World precedes the adoption of the Plate Tectonic theory - everything that happens in the movie is unique and original. A deep-sea submarine locates a fiery rupture in the bottom of the ocean. Scientists descend into an active volcano with a bulky nuclear bomb, trying to properly position it before their special suits melt from the intense heat. The film's only really juvenile image is a conventional missile rather foolishly positioned upside-down over the Inner Space bore hole. To emphasize that nuclear testing has weakened the fault lines in the earth's crust, we're also treated to a meaningless series of bomb detonation footage, to represent the obsessed Sorenson's search for an answer to the calamity.
Although a few dialogue lines are unintentionally funny, the acting hits just the right note of earnestness. Dana Andrews is sympathetic as the scientist who puts personal pride ahead of the world's security. Nowadays the driving factor would be greed, as seen in corporate-sponsored ecological outrages now threatening the planet. Sorenson's grant supervisor back in London is played by Alexander Knox, the misguided mastermind from Joseph Losey's These Are the Damned. Knox apparently no longer raises radioactive children; he instead green-lights a crazy plan as if approving a new freeway offramp. Married acting couple Kieron Moore and Janette Scott provide the romantic tension. Moore has a tad too much testosterone bottled up and Scott gets a laugh when she screams like a ninny. But they make an excellent Adam & Eve, on the run from a colossal eruption, kicking down a chain link fence to escape a fiery Garden of Eden.
Director Andrew Marton was an ideal choice for this movie, which needs to keep a high energy level while balancing its complicated special effects against a romantic-scientific love triangle. A second-unit director on other people's epics, Marton was responsible for the memorable action scenes in everything from Ben-Hur (1959) to Cleopatra (1963), as well as bringing in plenty of pictures on his own. Crack in the World is graphically precise and hasn't an ounce of narrative fat - unless you're the kind of viewer that can't abide a scene or two of domestic discord.
Brilliant Technicolor printing allows Eugène Lourié's clever art direction and superb special effects to look their best. 1 The main lab set is a brilliant hanging miniature that rivals the work of 007 designer Ken Adam -- and was seemingly copied for the headquarters of Drax in the Bond film Moonraker. Lourié's deep sea submersible is a riot of colorful bubbles, and nobody ever forgets his volcano interior scene. The movie has spectacular scenes of destruction -- several chapters end with the detonation of something BIG. At the climax, the sense of claustrophobic panic is overpowering: whichever way the hero and heroine turn they're confronted by towering volcanic eruptions and collapsing remains of the Inner Space headquarters. The breathtaking climax gives us the awesome spectacle of a 20,000 square-mile slice of East Africa hurled into the sky. Several shots attain the feeling of chaotic planetary apocalypse missing from movies like When Worlds Collide and Deep Impact. Johnny Douglas's majestic music score adds greatly to the sight of billions of tons of fiery rock and earth exploding into outer space.
Screenwriters John Manchip White and Julian Zimet are definitely 'having us on' -- their story structure is really about SEX. 2 The impotent, dying Sorenson can't impregnate his wife Maggie or stave off the rugged competition represented by scientific rival Rampion, so he sublimates his sex drive into his work. Sorenson's upside-down phallic missile 'impregnates' the earth like an atomic sperm plowing into a terra firma ovum. The symbol for the 'Inner Space' project just happens to be a red triangle piercing a blue globe. At one point the masculine Rampion alerts his staff that his bomb needs extra insulation -- to prevent a premature explosion!
Sorenson imagines himself a sexual Prometheus, bringing unlimited power (potency) to our energy-starved (flaccid) male-dominated world. He instead precipitates a global cataclysm: Mother Earth has her own agenda. The sterile Sorenson succeeds in fathering a new moon, although like most useless drones, he perishes after fulfilling his function. Crack in the World concludes with a powerful image of the newly-chastized couple, standing tattered but still alive in a fiery volcanic landscape. The message seems to be that men are the despoilers of the earth, and that even their most noble efforts are based on vain dreams of power and immortality. Either that, or the movie is about the need to invent Viagra.
Olive Films' DVD of Crack in the World is much better than we have any right to expect -- it's clean, colorful and razor sharp. Johnny Douglas's bombastic music score helps to give the proceedings a grand dimension, smoothing over the occasional oddball dialogue line. The disc has no extras whatsoever, which is a disappointment. The movie was a moderate success on its first release, double-billed in my town with UA's expensive John Sturges espionage end-of-the-world thriller The Satan Bug, which also starred Dana Andrews. Whenever the Paris fantasy magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique did a piece on science fiction, Crack in the World would be mentioned, with a heavy nod to the contribution of French talent Eugène Lourié.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crack in the World rates:
1. Eugène Lourié had been an ace art director on a number for French film classics of the 40s, often producing miraculous results on movies made in the depths of the German Occupation. In the United States he was typecast as a director of monster movies. His first success was the Harryhausen film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which he more or less remade twice, as The Giant Behemoth and Gorgo. He then specialized in creating special effects sequences for pictures like Custer of the West and Krakatoa East of Java, utilizing clever miniatures and forced perspective sets to avoid expensive optical work. Crack in the World has many opticals and traveling matte shots, but some of its most impressive images, such as the vista of the twin lava flows converging on the Inner Space Project, are clever stage illusions. I met Mr. Lourié briefly in 1978, when he held a planning meeting for the effects for the Supertrain TV show. Unless the IMDB is wrong, he didn't get the job.
2. Julian Halevy was a 'front' name for Julian Zimet, a writing associate of the likewise blacklisted Bernard Gordon. They worked together on some of the big Samuel Bronston epics, vastly expensive shows that leaked money in all directions. An interview in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle's Tender Comrades (St. Martin's Press), Zimet details his mistreatment by the U.S. State Department, who found ways to block his employment abroad, and to deny him a passport for not cooperating with the HUAC witch hunters.
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T'was Ever Thus.