April 10, 2011

Slip Slidin' in Time

The Atomic Man (aka Timeslip; 1955)

With the ongoing Japanese nuclear crisis, radioactivity is once again front-and-center in the news and in the public mind throughout the world. We root for the courageous Japanese people and the heroic workers risking their lives to stabilize the crippled reactors, while at the same time wondering, "can it happen here?" And we hope that out of tragedy a new understanding and a healthy prudence emerge concerning technologies that can be very beneficial, yet very dangerous when best laid plans go awry. Such thoughts and anxieties inevitably seep into the broader popular culture.

NPR recently ran a piece about nuclear anxieties as reflected in movies over the decades: "Movie Mutants Give a Face to Our Nuclear Fears." The piece quotes historian Bill Tsutsui as saying that in the wake of the United States' atomic bombings of Japan at the end of WWII and the H-bomb tests in the Pacific in the 1950s, the public at large did not understand nuclear power or radiation: "Radiation needed a face in the 1950s, and the giant ants in Them! and the monster in Godzilla provided a horrible external representation of what that could be."

Another, more modest sci-fi thriller that tried to put a "face" on radiation in the '50s is The Atomic Man, from UK's Merton Park Studios. The film delivers its screwy, nuclear-powered plot inside of a mystery-thriller wrapper. Add to the mix a hard-boiled, wisecracking reporter lifted straight out of a 1930s crime potboiler, and you've got one of the decade's more unusual, if not particularly spectacular, B sci-fi thrillers.

Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) is a down-on-his-luck reporter (is there any other kind?) who's gotten on his boss' bad side and been assigned to cover the opening of a clinic. Nosing around the magazine offices, he spies a fellow reporter's photo of a mystery man who's been shot and fished out of the harbor more dead than alive. The man in the photo is surrounded by a weird glow, which no one can explain. Naturally, he senses a big story.

On the operating table, the mystery man's heart stops, and the medical team is unable to revive him. As they prepare to clean up, the supposed dead man's eyes open wide, terrifying a nurse. Now, not only is he a mystery, he's a medical miracle as well.

Meanwhile, the ever curious Delaney is sure he's seen the man before. He searches the magazine's photo library and comes up with a dead-on match for the gunshot victim-- a photo of famous nuclear physicist Stephen Rayner (Peter Arne), better known as "the Isotope Man." With his photographer assistant and girlfriend Jill Rabowski (Faith Domergue) in tow, he contacts the police with his find. They agree that the victim is the spitting image of Rayner. There's only one problem-- when the police and Delaney visit the London institute where Rayner is supposed to be working, they find that the scientist is quite well and mystified by his resemblance to the hospitalized man. However, Delaney is still suspicious-- the man claiming to be Rayner has a couple of bandages on his face. His explanation that he was rear-ended in an automobile accident and he went through the windshield doesn't sound quite right…

Even though he's been canned from the magazine, Delaney is convinced he's onto the scoop of the century. The Rayner double recovering in the hospital gives strange, seemingly incoherent answers when the doctors and the reporter try to interview him. Suspecting a brain injury, the doctor orders an X-ray, which is completely clouded, as if another radiation source were interfering with the equipment. Delaney becomes convinced that the man's symptoms and the strange cloudiness of his photos and X-rays point to radioactive contamination. A radioactive man who looks exactly like a world-renowned nuclear physicist can't be a coincidence!

"Pile On!" A technician fires up the nuclear reactor.
Now doubly suspicious of the man claiming to be Rayner, Delaney trips him up with a question about the real Rayner's past. Additional clues gleaned from Rayner's double lead Delaney and Jill to a South American company that supplies a good portion of the world's tungsten and a shadowy man named Vasquo (Vic Perry). Delaney learns that Rayner was working on creating elements (tungsten?) in the lab using atomic power. Putting two and two together, he begins to realize the depths of a conspiracy that not only endangers Rayner's lab and its work, but possibly the whole of London itself!

The clever sci-fi hook in all of this is a side plot involving a very unique form of time travel. It seems that the real Rayner, whom Delaney describes as a "living A-bomb," owes his life to years of exposure to radioactivity (?!) After another fruitless interview at the hospital where Rayner responds to questions with nonsensical answers, Jill observes that "it's as if he's answering our questions before we've even asked them!" Delaney proves that is exactly what is happening by playing back a tape of the conversation and having Jill read the questions exactly 7.5 seconds before they were asked-- the amount of time Rayner was clinically dead on the operating table. Rayner is living 7.5 seconds ahead of the rest of the world!

Delaney manages to consult with top scientists, including a "psycho-neurologist" (Dr. Marks, played by uncredited Carl Jaffe with a heavy accent). The good doctor treats us to one of the more unusual scientific theories expounded in a B movie of the '50s -- something about Rayner's radioactive state keeping his brain alive while his heart stopped, and his brain whipsawing into the future as he was brought back from clinical death (see the clip below).

The crackpot science underlying much of The Atomic Man -- especially the notion of a nuclear scientist being routinely exposed to high doses of radiation in his work and surviving -- is a mark of the naive 1950s. After all, this was a time of open-air H-bomb tests presided over by military brass and scientists who clearly did not yet grasp the extent and the danger of fallout. Come to think of it, maybe naive scientists of that era really did expose themselves to vast amounts of radiation, knowingly or unknowingly!

Several reviewers have faulted Atomic Man for not making more of Rayner's intriguing time-slip. To me, the plot device is a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin that baffles the protagonists and ratchets up the suspense, preventing them from discovering the conspiracy until it's almost too late. While certainly not up to the level of even average Hitchcock, Atomic Man is still fast-paced and reasonably well-acted. As for Gene Nelson's anachronistic wisecracking reporter complete with rumpled porkpie hat-- you can either accept it as an homage to a classic 1930s-era character, or let it ruin the movie for you (I recommend the former). For me, Nelson's performance added much needed life and humor to the film.

Nelson began his performing career as a dancer, touring with the Sonja Henie ice show before joining the army in World War II. The peak of his acting career was the role of lasso-twirling cowboy Will Parker in Oklahoma! (1955). After that he concentrated on directing films and TV, working up to the late 1970s on series like Fantasy Island and Quincey, M.E. He died in 1996.

Faith Domergue is well-known to fans for her roles in two sci-fi classics made around the same time as The Atomic Man: This Island Earth (1955) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). Like many actors and actresses of the era who didn't quite make it on the big screen, she went on to guest star in quite a few TV shows in the 1960s. Outside of sci-fi fandom, she's best known for her affair with a much older Howard Hughes, who lured her away from Warner Bros. and signed her to his RKO Studios in the early 1940s. Faith's affair with the multi-millionaire is given a few minutes of screen time in Martin Scorcese's biopic The Aviator (2004; Kelli Garner plays Faith).

All-in-all, The Atomic Man is a neat, noirish thriller with a unique sci-fi subplot. The film can be viewed online at the Internet Archive; a DVD-R copy is available from Sinister Cinema.

Dr. Marks carefully explains how atomic scientist Rayner managed to slip 7.5 seconds ahead in time (take notes-- there will be a quiz later):

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