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Watch the Skies (The Flying Saucer / Stranger from Venus / The Cosmic Man)
"Flying Saucers! So much bunk!" - Mike Trent in The Flying Saucer
The very first science fiction film of the 1950s, The Flying Saucer is a real oddity. Shot in 1949, soon after the first modern UFO sightings and near the peak of mainstream public interest in such things, this independent production takes a singularly unimaginative approach by working under the assumption that a) there is and has only ever been exactly one flying saucer; and b) there's never any doubt that it's simply an advanced aircraft made by human beings on good ol' Earth. Genre fans are understandably disappointed when this stupefyingly dull film turns out to be less a sci-fi thriller than a travelogue about Alaska with some ruthless Commie spies thrown in.
The picture was apparently self-financed by actor Mikel Conrad (no relation to TV actor Mike), a minor supporting player in B-movies and so obscure that his appearances often went uncredited. His only starring role prior to The Flying Saucer, and his only starring role of any sort beyond 1952's Untamed Women, was an obscurity called Arctic Manhunt, also reportedly shot in Alaska, so maybe the two films are related somehow.
In any case, Conrad directs and his stars in his own story about wealthy playboy, native Alaskan and "two-fisted drinker" Mike Trent (Conrad), drafted into government service to work undercover in Alaska in search of the flying saucer sighted zipping around all over the world at fantastic speed. He's paired with government agent Vee Langley (Pat Garrison) but their behavior is anything but professional. They freely discuss their search for the saucer in public, and seem unconcerned that Mike's old caretaker has mysteriously vanished into thin air and that his "replacement," Hans (Hantz von Teuffen), always acts suspiciously around them.
Though Conrad the actor lacks charisma, he's at least minimally competent, which cannot be said of Conrad the director and co-writer. At 69 minutes, The Flying Saucer seems interminable, with its thin if tangled story padded with travelogue-like views of the Alaskan landscape. The beauty of that then-territory is, even for a cheap sci-fi picture, impressive enough, though quickly the effect becomes something like watching a relative's home movies. Still, Conrad throws himself into the thick of it much like the actors in S.O.S. Iceberg. Though probably for budgetary reasons as anything else, it's clearly Conrad piloting a seaplane over and around the gigantic glacier, and in one dangerously-looking fight scene nearly plunged face-first into the plane's powered-up propeller blade. A lively if absurd climax at the end has cast members scurrying in and around a cave that's elaborately if incompetently-staged for such a cheap film. Unfortunately, the picturesque scenery also starkly contrasts the cheap interior sets, which are utterly devoid of character.
Overall The Flying Saucer is excruciatingly dull where nothing very much happens except for cliched sleuthing and fifth columnist intrigue. The science fiction angle is slight, with a few not-bad shots of the saucer in flight and a pretty good full-size mock-up that resembles both standard flying saucers and experimental jet aircraft of the period.
Conrad earned a lot of negative trade press when he tried to pass off these scenes as actual footage of a genuine saucer, alternately obtained from the government and/or surreptitiously shot by Conrad himself. The movie itself implies this as well, opening with a title card reading, "We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of those in authority who made the release of the 'Flying Saucer' film possible at this time." Maybe Conrad was simply thanking distributor Film Classics, Inc., though probably not.
The other two titles are virtual plagiarized remakes of Robert Wise's classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both are pretty bad, though their origins and approaches to the material otherwise are dissimilar. Stranger from Venus's origins are murky: It seems to have been a British-American co-production, possibly using funds tied up in Britain. It was retitled, cryptically, Immediate Disaster for release in America, but apparently went straight to television in both markets. Though it's possible the film received minor regional play in the boondocks of America and/or England, it's basically a TV-movie.
Though well-intentioned, Stranger from Venus comes off as a cheap and pretentious, and such a steal of Day the Earth Stood Still it's surprising 20th Century-Fox, the studio behind Wise's film, didn't sue. That film's female lead, Patricia Neal, once again plays a woman involved in a quasi-romantic relationship with a handsome, almost Christ-like being from another planet, known here only as The Stranger (Austrian actor Helmut Dantine). Incredibly static, this lifeless film set entirely in and around a rural English inn, plays like a pretentious theatrical production made by people lacking the talent to come anywhere close to pulling it off.
Neal and Dantine are good actors, but genuinely appear lost throughout, almost literally they seem to be looking beyond the camera lens for some kind of direction. Familiar British players like Derek Bond and, in one of his first films, Nigel Green, do what they can, which isn't much.
"Sure looks bad for Dr. Sorenson and the Cosmic Man, doesn't it, Mom?"
As yet another variation on The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Cosmic Man isn't any better, but it sure is a lot more fun. Where Stranger from Venus tries unsuccessfully to be literate and respectful, The Cosmic Man generally succeeds as entertainingly silly bottom-of-the-bill claptrap. John Carradine is the mysterious antimatter alien visitor this time, appearing most of the time in the form of a negative image, whose late-night wanderings include peeping into women's bedrooms (!).
As with Day the Earth Stood Still but uncommon in other '50s science fiction, the military, represented by Colonel Matthews (Paul Langton), is shown to be brutish and reckless, in constant conflict with methodical science and scientists, here in the form of Bruce Bennett's Dr. Sorenson (guilt-ridden after helping to develop the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima), who is sensitive and logical. As the Cosmic Man mysteriously slinks around Big Bear (maybe) and Bronson Canyon (for sure) like a cat burglar the drama, such as it is, develops from the conflict between these two opposing sides trying to work together.
Added into the mix is romantic interest Kathy Grant (Angela Greene), a lodge-owner whose terminally ill, crippled son Ken (Scotty Morrow) is a budding scientist himself who absolutely adores Sorenson, much to Matthews' annoyance.
The film is unambitious but entertaining for what it is, far livelier than the other two movies. Bruce Bennett, shot-putter in the 1928 Olympics and former movie Tarzan, became a fine character actor in the 1940s, best-remembered as the man who perilously propositions Humphrey Bogart's mining expedition in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He lends a fatherly, understated authority to The Cosmic Man that's rather charming, and a nice contrast to the starry-eyed scientist archetype usually played in these films by younger actors like Richard Carlson and Gene Barry. Bennett is still around, and will celebrate his 100th birthday in a few weeks (on May 19th).**
Video & Audio
All three titles use what appear to source 35mm prints in varying condition though each is adequately transferred. The Flying Saucer has its share of bad splices and distracting reel change cues, and wobbly sound throughout, but all are at least watchable. All three are presented full frame. This is correct for The Flying Saucer and, possibly Stranger from Venus (though it may have been shot with 1.66:1 cropping in mind), but The Cosmic Man was definitely widescreen, with framing much better composed when reformatted for 1.77:1. That and Stranger from Venus, use British prints that include their original BBFC seal. (This suggests it may have played theatrically in the U.K. after all.) There are no alternate audio and subtitles options.
The extras are limited to trailers for Flying Saucer and Cosmic Man, both in rather poor condition.
Only hard-core fans of '50s science fiction films will want to seek this trio out (and for them this set comes Recommended), even at this greatly reduced SRP, though for them each title has at least something to offer, however minimal.
**Reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "You might have mentioned that as an athlete Bennett was in fact Herman Brix, and he was Herman Brix in the movies through 1939 before becoming Bruce Bennett. Brix won a silver medal at the Olympics. Edgar Rice Burroughs himself picked Brix to play the Lord of the Jungle in the Burroughs-produced The New Adventures of Tarzan. Then for some reason, after decades as Bruce Bennett, he became Herman Brix again for his last movie in 1980.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.