June 10, 2022

Cold War Climate Change: The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Poster - The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
Now Playing:
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)


Pros: A prescient story of superpower miscalculations leading to global catastrophe; Believable, complex characters portrayed by a top-notch cast
Cons: A scene depicting young Londoners rioting over water restrictions is too tame to be believed

This post is part of the Second Disaster Blog-a-thon hosted by the always entertaining Dubsism and Pale Writer. After you’ve sweated it out here at Films From Beyond, head on over to their blogs for more cinematic disasters, catastrophes, fiascos and debacles than you can shake your head at.

Back in the late '50s and early ‘60s, there was no doubt about it -- if we were going to do ourselves in, it would be through nuclear war. The two hyper-powers that emerged from the ashes of WWII were testing the ultimate doomsday weapon, the H-bomb, that made the atomic bombs dropped on Japan look like firecrackers.

Anxious Americans were busy building backyard bomb shelters, practicing duck and cover drills and waiting for the sky to fall in. At the movies, they watched all kinds of rampaging creatures spawned by nuclear testing, or if they were in a particularly masochistic frame of mind, films like On the Beach (1959) or The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) that depicted small groups of survivors dealing with the aftermath of nuclear war.

Somehow, even with all the strategic tensions and the collective pessimism hanging around like a shroud, we managed to stumble through without blowing ourselves up (although the Cuban missile crisis was a terrifyingly close call).

Who would’ve thought that something as prosaic as belching billions of tons of fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere would eventually take the place of the awesome and terrible H-bomb as the source of sleepless nights?

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a film with a unique science fiction premise that presciently bridges the gap between nuclear and climate change nightmares.

Edward Judd stars as Peter Stenning, a newspaper reporter whose life has become a walking disaster area. Stenning recently went through a bitter divorce in which his ex-wife got custody of their 7-year-old son, and as a result he has taken to drinking.

Opening scene of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
Stenning strolls down a deserted London street. In some of the film's original prints, the opening and closing scenes were tinted yellow to convey the extreme heat of a dying world.

As a result, the once star reporter has been reduced to being a glorified gopher and writer of lifestyle puff pieces. Amid the usual newsroom hubbub over beauty pageants and pregnant royals, some unusual news items begin to draw the attention of the staff: sunspot-like interference with TV and radio signals; severe earth tremors in previously quiet zones; and unseasonably high temperatures and monsoon rains.

Stenning is assigned to contact the Met Office (the UK national Meteorological Office) to get background information on sunspots and climate data, but is initially blocked from speaking to the head honcho by a new employee in the office’s phone pool, Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro).

Later, when he visits the office in person on the pretext of picking up a press release, but with the intent of ambushing the Office chief to get a statement, he finds out Jeannie is a very attractive young woman who is not afraid to stick up for herself.

Janet Munro and Edward Judd in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
Jeannie and Stenning take a relaxing bus ride through climate change-generated fog.

Stenning and his colleagues at the Daily Express figure something is seriously amiss when a solar eclipse occurs 10 days before it’s due, and reports come streaming in from around the world on unprecedented flooding.

At an editorial meeting, a staffer brings up the recent tests of the most powerful H-bombs ever, one by the Russians in Siberia, the other by the Americans in Antarctica, that somehow, against all odds, had gone off almost simultaneously. Could the double bombs have anything to do with it? Nahhh….

Stenning tries to strike up a relationship with Jeannie -- he’s very attracted to her, and at the same time she’s a possible source of insider information. At one point he’s forced to camp out with her in her flat due to an unusually heavy fog (described as “heat mist”) that rolls into the city and causes everything to grind to a halt. Things start to heat up, literally and figuratively, for the two.

Soon, fog is the least of London’s worries. Unheard-of tornadoes blow half the city to kingdom come, then brutal heat and a withering drought dry up what’s left.

Tornadoes ravage the heart of London in The Day the Earth Caught Fire
London is treated to Mother Nature's Tilt-A-Whirl ride.

The one good thing in a dust bowl of troubles -- Stenning’s and Jeannie’s budding romance -- is endangered when Jeannie confides to Stenning something she overheard at the ministry. Not only has the tilt of the earth been affected, but its orbit is now taking it dangerously close to the sun. In the heat of the moment (pun intended) Stenning promises Jeannie he won’t say anything, but his reporter’s instincts won’t allow him to be quiet.

The next day’s headlines blare “World Tips Over,” which also says it all for the couple’s relationship. Jeannie is taken into custody as a security risk, while the Daily Express staff grapple with the possible end of the world.

This being a serious treatment of a science fiction subject, Stenning does not come off as your typical sci-fi hero. He’s a complicated mess: at times cocky, at other times pathetically self-pitying, he tries to hide his insecurities behind a veneer of false bravado and cynical quips (example: “Why don’t I do 500 steaming words on how mankind is so full of wind it’s about to outblow nature?”).

His best friend at the paper (and seemingly only friend), veteran newshound Bill Maguire (Leo McKern), can only do so much for the self-destructive journalist. Maguire alternates between gentle chiding and ignoring him altogether when Stenning goes into his petulant teenager mode.

Edward Judd and Leo McKern in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
"I'd like to cancel my steam bath appointment."

Maguire is not only a sounding board and emotional backstop for Stenning, but serves as the conscience of the newspaper and a one-man Greek chorus. It’s Maguire who starts to piece things together as accounts of disparate disasters flood into the newsroom, and he is the one who adds the exclamation point to the hubristic folly that has sent humanity to the brink of extinction: “They’ve shifted the tilt of the earth. The stupid, crazy irresponsible bastards… they’ve finally done it!”

The Daily Express newsroom becomes a sanctuary/citadel for Stenning and Maguire as London turns into the equivalent of an overdone Shepherd's pie. Where once the paper was a busy hub for disseminating celebrity “news” and junk lifestyle pieces (“Thrombosis: How to be the death of the party”), as the crisis takes hold it becomes one of the last bastions of working civilization as the newspapermen grimly bang away on their typewriters. In one scene, Stenning, drenched in sweat and exhausted, sits down at his desk to compose one last story, only to find that the typewriter ribbon has melted.

But the show must go on, and the crusty old editor-in-chief "Jeff" Jefferson (Arthur Christiansen) continues to bark orders to his depleted staff: “Bill, get moving! I want a pictorial panorama of the world as it’s going to be with the new climatic zones and all the rest of it!” (Interesting side note: The Daily Express is a real newspaper that is still being published. Christiansen had been retired just a short time from his position as the paper's chief editor when he was talked into doing the role.)

Arthur Christiansen as "Jeff" Jefferson, Daily Express editor; The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
"And get me a list of all the places in London that are still selling ice lollies!"

The newspaper is even a refuge for Jeannie, who has been released from custody (think of that -- she isn’t hauled off to a secret interrogation site, never to be heard from again!). The editor gives her a job in the newspaper’s library as a small recompense for Stenning’s broken promise. This gives Stenning the opportunity to try to make amends and win her back. Maguire urges him on, just wanting to see his friends happy in the little time that’s left.

There aren’t any heroes per se in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, just typical, flawed human beings who stubbornly and stoically cling to the last shreds of their normal lives as the world collapses around them. There is so much that rings true: government denials, then partial acknowledgements, then “let us pray” when the whole truth gets out. Adding to the misery are secret government plans to ration water, and outbreaks of disease as the depleted water supply gets contaminated. (One unintentionally comic scene is a water riot by juvenile delinquents that plays more like a fun day at the water park; look for Michael Caine in a bit role as a policeman.)

Fans used to disaster movies with epic CGI effects and droves of extras dying in spectacular fashion may be disappointed. There are effects -- the thick “heat mist,” cyclones, earthquakes, etc. -- that are crude by today’s standards, but effective enough for the time (see below). But in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, it’s the characters and their relationships that count. The ending is famously ambiguous, but there is more than a glimmer of hope in the depiction of average people who find deep reservoirs of courage in the face of calamity.

Closing scene at the pub, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
The survivors from the Daily Express wait for the end of the world at
the ultimate British sanctuary - the local pub.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD/Blu-ray

A Passion Project

In an interview conducted years later, Val Guest, who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay, described how the film was a very personal project for him, one that took eight long years to secure funding:

“It was something that had been going around my head for a long time, that gradually we were f*cking up the whole planet. I had always been very interested in what we were liable to do to ourselves without realizing it. … [E]very time I made a movie and the [producers] said, ‘What do you want to do next?”, I’d tell them my idea and they’d say [disdainfully], ‘Oh, Christ! No one wants to know about the Bomb!’” [Tom Weaver, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers, McFarland, 1994, pp. 113-114]

He finally got British Lion films to cough up some money, but only on the condition that he put up one of his money-making films, Expresso Bongo (1960) as collateral. The film was made on a “ludicrously cheap” budget of $500,000.

The Fog of Filmmaking

For that money, Guest was somehow able to build an exact copy of the Daily Express office at Shepperton Studios “right down to the last piece of paper on the floor.” Only a few interior and exterior shots were required at the building itself.

Ironically, the weather was cold for much of the location shooting. At Battersea Park, the actors had to pretend that it was brutally hot: 

“[W]ith everybody sunbathing, it was about fifty-eight, sixty degrees at most. And everybody was freezing -- in bikinis! We told them to keep their coats on until we were ready to shoot. That whole scene of Janet and Eddie Judd on the grass -- it was very cold weather. On the other stuff, Fleet Street and things like that, it wasn't at all cold, but the scene where it was supposed to be the hottest day of the century, it was a very cold day!” [Weaver, p. 119]

To add insult to irony, the day they shot the scene of the heavy fog enveloping London, the crew almost sparked a national incident:

“We had all these [fog] machines going, hundreds of extras -- the whole idea was that this strange mist was coming up the Thames and covering the whole of London. When we were very near the end of the shooting, we were suddenly invaded by about three or four police cars; the cops came up and said, ‘You must stop this immediately!’ What was happening was, just on the other side of the Thames was the Chelsea Flower Show, which the Queen was opening. And they had all this fog, pouring all over Her Majesty [laughs].” [Weaver, p. 119]

Book cover image - Val Guest, So You Want to be in Pictures, 2001

Validation from an unusual source

According to Guest, John F. Kennedy asked for a copy of the film and screened it for a gathering of foreign correspondents in Washington. In the interview, Guest didn’t mention (or perhaps wasn’t aware of) the context of the president’s interest: JFK came into office wanting to finish the work on a nuclear test ban treaty that Eisenhower started. The film may have helped in its small way, but it was the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that finally got the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed the following year.

The British film community also weighed in, awarding Guest and his co-writer Wolf Mankowitz the 1962 BAFTA award (the UK equivalent of the Oscars) for Best British Screenplay.

In his autobiography, Guest marveled at all the attention his “cheap” passion project received from various dignitaries after it came out. It makes a fitting postscript not only for him, but for the characters in the film:

“I mean, come on, for someone still in the throes of struggling to get it [the film] set up this would have all sounded like demented pipe dreams from the opium den. Which merely proves the worth of that sterling British Army advice in World War I: ‘Come what may, we press on regardless.’” [Val Guest, So You Want to be in Pictures, Reynolds & Hearn, 2001, p. 140.]

Banner - Second Disaster Blog-a-thon hosted by Dubsism & Pale Writer

There’s no Diesel in this Roger Corman vehicle: The Fast and the Furious

Poster - The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Now Playing:
The Fast and the Furious (1954)


Pros: Classic hard-boiled dialog; Dorothy Malone as a kidnapped socialite with Stockholm Syndrome is very good.
Cons: The racing action is mostly limited to the last 10 minutes of the movie.

This post is part of the Corman-verse Blogathon hosted by Barry at Cinematic Cartharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. After you finish up your visit here, head on over to their blogs to further explore the multiverse of producer/director/writer/actor Roger Corman. 

I believe I’ve mentioned that I’m old at least a couple of times on this blog (as if the films that I write about weren’t a big tip-off). To give you an idea of how old, I grew up watching TVs with vacuum tubes and rabbit ear antennas, used rotary dial phones to make calls over party lines, and filled up cars that were almost as heavy as army tanks with leaded gas that cost the princely sum of 40 cents a gallon.

I mention this only to put the enduring career of Roger Corman into some kind of context. I am as old as dirt, yet here is a man who produced his first movie before I was even born, and is still working to this very day! I will pause a moment to let that sink in…

Okay, back to business.

The Fast and the Furious was one of Roger Corman’s earliest producing gigs, and was groundbreaking not only for Corman’s career, but for the legendary American International Pictures, which at the time was a fledgling start-up known as American Releasing Corporation. More on that later.

Clocking in at a fast 73 minutes, The Fast and the Furious tells the story of a desperate man, Frank Webster (John Ireland), who has escaped from prison after being convicted of a bum murder rap. The film opens with Frank trying to be inconspicuous while he gets a quick bite to eat at a roadside diner.

A nosy trucker (Bruno VeSota), strikes up a conversation with Webster and ends up offering him a ride. But with news of the escape all over the radio, the trucker quickly becomes suspicious and pulls a gun, hoping to make a citizen’s arrest.

Webster grabs the gun and coldcocks the rotund trucker. With no other way to get out of there fast, he kidnaps attractive socialite Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone), who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and forces her to ride off with him in her expensive Jaguar sports car.

Dorothy Malone, Bruno VeSota and John Ireland, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
This nosy citizen is about to get a knuckle sandwich at the greasy spoon diner.

In theory, it should be a quick run to the Mexican border in the souped-up Jag, but word of the kidnapping has gotten out, and state troopers have set up numerous roadblocks.

To compound Webster’s headaches, Connie is a smart, capable woman who is constantly thinking of ways to escape or attract the attention of the authorities. He alternately threatens her with the gun or ties her up to prevent her from running off. At one point, he even wraps his arms around her in the open-air car as they spend a cold night on a remote mountain road.

The roadblocks seem insurmountable until Webster notices a number of sports cars passing through the police checkpoints. They’re on their way to an event that Connie is very familiar with -- an international race that starts in Southern California and finishes up across the Mexican border.

Webster slickly maneuvers the Jaguar into the line of cars bound for the event and pretends he’s one of the racers, even getting a police motorcycle escort to the event staging area. At this point Connie is very conflicted about Webster. She’s attracted to him in spite of herself, helping her kidnapper register for the race under an assumed name and fending off her wealthy friends who are overly curious about the new man in her life.

Roger Corman in an uncredited role as a state trooper, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Producer Roger Corman doubles as a clueless state trooper.

During some downtime before the race, Webster tells Connie his tale of woe -- he was an independent trucker who attracted the attention of a mob-run trucking company. When he refused to join up, one of their goons tried to run him off the road, but ended up crashing and killing himself. Another goon testified that Webster was the aggressor, and so he ended up in jail.

Connie completely buys the story, and begs Webster to turn himself in. Understandably leery of the “justice” system, Webster is determined to carry through with his plan to race to the border and freedom, and locks Connie up in a shack near the race staging area so that she won’t be tempted to turn him in.

Anyone expecting even a fraction of the crazy energy and stunt work of the Vin Diesel-led Fast and Furious franchise will be sorely disappointed. The 1954 film was made fast (and cheap) and furiously marketed to drive-in double bills.

There’s a quick pre-titles scene of a truck crashing and burning, there’s the altercation in the diner, and there are shots of sports cars racing over curving mountain roads in the last 10 or so minutes, but by and large the action and suspense boils down to the love-hate relationship between Webster and Connie.

Webster doesn’t do himself any favors, spending a big chunk of the movie manhandling Connie and barking at her. At one point, when they’re stalled at the side of the road, Connie nervously observes that “It’s almost midnight”; Webster counters with a snarky “Do you ride off on a broom?”

Webster (John Ireland) pulls a gun on Connie (Dorothy Malone), The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Webster is beginning to regret his decision to kidnap Connie.

Amazingly, Connie seems to be able to get past the rough exterior (not to mention the death threats) to see the good in Webster. But she swings wildly between hatching escape plans and aiding and abetting his escape. In one scene, she impulsively snatches the key out of the ignition while Webster is driving and throws it into the brush. Then, minutes later, she coquettishly waves a spare key in front of the flummoxed man’s face. You want to reach through the screen, shake her and tell her to make up her mind.

It’s at the shack on the racing grounds, hiding out from the police, that the accidental couple finally declare their love for one another. After spending the night there, Connie thinks that Webster is going to do the right thing and turn himself in, but is shocked when it becomes obvious that he's still going to make a run for it.

It’s a wealthy socialite's innocent trust in the system vs. a working man’s cynicism:

Connie: "You go to Mexico and you’ll give up the only chance you’ve got!"
Webster: "That’s not the way I see it.…"
Connie: "Don’t you want me?"
Webster: "You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever known, but I can’t afford to stay."
Connie: "Oh but you’re innocent!"
Webster: "It isn’t what you are that counts… It’s what you get taken for!"
Connie: "Someday what you really are is going to catch up with you. It’s worth fighting for, I just hope it isn’t too late…"

This being a ‘50s drive-in movie, we’re reasonably sure that trust in the system is ultimately going to prevail, but not before a few more dramatic setbacks. After Webster locks Connie in, promising to alert help once he’s safely in Mexico, she yells her lungs out to no avail. Then, in one of the most boneheaded moves ever, she lights some old rags on fire near the wooden door to … send out smoke signals? Burn the door down? It’s not clear, since she’s far more likely to succumb to smoke before any of those things can happen.

John Ireland and Dorothy Malone in a tense scene, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Connie tries one last time to convince Webster to give himself up after
spending the night at the Love Shack (apologies to the B52s).

SPOILER ALERT!

Well, of course she’s rescued in the nick of time so she can fight for her man another day. But please kids, don’t try this at home!

The protagonists’ knuckle-headed moves aside, The Fast and the Furious is a pretty watchable low-budget action-thriller-romance due to the two leads. While John Ireland was never the most expressive of actors, at various points he gets to rattle off classic hard-boiled lines and zingers like a human machine gun.

Dorothy Malone is very sympathetic as the mixed up rich girl, even as the audience is scratching their heads wondering what her character will do next. In the 1940s Malone flirted with stardom working for RKO and Warner Bros., but by the time The Fast and the Furious began shooting, she was not commanding big paychecks. She managed to snag an Oscar for best supporting actress in Douglas Sirk’s lush soap opera Written on the Wind (1956) before transitioning to mostly TV roles. While The Fast and the Furious was a mere road bump in Malone’s career, it was a far more significant milestone for producer Roger Corman and his star John Ireland.

Corman was fresh off the success of his very first film as sole producer, Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), when he decided to do The Fast and the Furious. For Monster, he received a $60,000 advance against distribution profits on a film that cost him a paltry $10K to make. Not wanting to let the grass grow under his feet, he sunk a significant chunk into his new project. This would become standard operating procedure.

In his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Corman relates:

“My career took a dramatic turn and picked up velocity with The Fast and the Furious. First, this was a considerably bigger, more intricate production. Second, I used the film to get a three picture deal with a new independent production and distribution company -- eventually called American International Pictures. That deal marked the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship stretching over fifteen years and thirty-plus films. And third, I made the decision after Fast and Furious to direct films, not only for the greater overall control but for the creative challenge.” [Roger Corman and Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 23]

Jim Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff were just starting out with American Releasing Corporation, (soon to morph into American International Pictures), and The Fast and the Furious was only the second film to be released under the ARC banner. Roger Corman was just the man to supply the fledgling enterprise with films made furiously fast and cheap. The partnership spawned such legendary quickie classics as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and the comparatively lush Poe pictures starting with House of Usher (1960).

With just this second producing job, Corman was already a master of economizing. Ireland, who by that point had dozens of films under his belt, initially turned down the Webster role, but came on board at a cut rate when Corman okayed his request to direct the film.

John Ireland in a racing scene, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
John Ireland races to the set of The Fast and the Furious after
getting the word that he can direct.

Much of the racing footage was shot at an actual event, the Jaguar Open Sports Car race in Monterey, CA, obviating the need to rent cars and drivers.

Corman also immersed himself in other aspects of filmmaking, doing second unit directing, appearing uncredited in a small role as a highway cop, and even performing some stunt driving. This latter job brought out the man’s competitive spirit in a humorous way:

“I also went behind the wheel of the lead heavy’s car and raced in the key action sequence. Because I couldn’t afford two stunt drivers, John, who directed the long master shot, put our one driver in his own white Jag. Coming around the final turn neck and neck, knowing the other driver was supposed to surge ahead and win -- I got carried away and beat him, ruining the first take. John ran to the track and said, ‘What the hell are you doing out there?’ I said, ‘He wasn’t going fast enough. I wasn’t exactly going to hit the brakes and let him pass.' … We got it right the second time and the white car overtook me and won. The truth was, I really just wanted to floor it and win. I hated to lose.” [Ibid., pp. 24-5]

Corman kept learning. Compared to his later action-thrillers, The Fast and the Furious is pretty mild and slow-paced. Still, it’s worth watching for the “will they or won’t they?” tug-of-war between Webster and Connie and the hard-as-nails dialog.

Racing sequence, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Roger finally lets the white car win.

Where to find it: The Fast and the Furious is currently streaming down the internet superhighway here and here.

May 20, 2022

“If your number’s up, why fight it?” : Fate Is the Hunter

Poster - Fate is the Hunter, 1964
Now Playing:
Fate Is the Hunter (1964)


Pros: Haunting, character-driven story; Great cast; Excellent widescreen cinematography
Cons: Plot implausibilities and a slow-burn mystery may send some looking for the emergency exits

This post is part of the Aviation in Film blogathon hosted by Rebecca Deniston at her Taking Up Room blog. After you’ve boarded the flight here at Films From Beyond, don’t forget to make connections to the other great flight film posts at the blog hub.

Back in August 2019, I wrote about a couple of TV movies -- The Horror at 37,000 Feet and The Ghost of Flight 401 -- featuring supernatural occurrences on airliners ("Fear of Flying: Special TV Movie Double Feature Edition").

For a lot of people, you don’t need to introduce ghosts or demons to make air travel scary. If you think too hard about it, there’s something unnatural (if not downright supernatural) about taking a 50 ton jet airliner up to 35,000 feet and cruising merrily along at 600 mph. Considering that it’s been a little over the span of a single lifetime since the Wright brothers flew their motorized equivalent of a kite for a few seconds, it doesn’t seem like jet airliners should be possible. (Okay, maybe a Betty White lifetime, but still…)

Covid only added to the ranks of the fear-of-flying club, with many folks reluctant to share a cramped airliner cabin and recirculated air with a hundred other people wearing cheap disposable masks dangling from their chins.

For all the misgivings, air travel remains the safest way to get around. If you’re nervous, but you absolutely, positively have to get there overnight, it’s best to think of other things and board that flight -- the statistics are overwhelmingly on your side. 

But whatever you do, don’t screen any of the dozens of airline disaster flicks before your trip. They depict a distressingly large number of ways for a flight to go wrong, each one more heart-stoppingly frightful than the last.

Still - Airplane! (1980)
Sit back, relax, and leave the flying to us!

In just the infamous 1970s Airport series alone, there are mad bombers, hijackers, heat-seeking missiles and mid-air collisions to send fear-of-flying into the stratosphere. The ridiculous culmination of the '70s fascination with air disasters was the made-for-TV SST - Death Flight (1977), which, not content just to feature mechanical problems and a mid-air explosion, upped the ante with a deadly virus outbreak.

Even before the golden age of flight frights, films like No Highway in the Sky (1951), The High and the Mighty (1954) and Zero Hour! (1957) explored more mundane but no less frightening sets of circumstances that could potentially send a multi-ton aircraft plunging to earth. (Zero Hour, with its premise of food poisoning taking out an airliner flight crew and many of the passengers, was hilariously lampooned by Airplane! a couple of decades later.)

It’s one thing when evildoers conspire against us -- where humans are involved, the best laid plans often go astray and the good guys at least have a fighting chance of prevailing.

But when Fate comes calling in the form of a loose fuselage bolt, or an unnoticed computer glitch, or sudden wind shear, or all of the above adding up to a perfect storm of disastrous failure, we start to lose confidence in ourselves and our vaunted technology to keep us safe and secure. We need a convenient scapegoat to restore our faith.

Fate Is the Hunter jettisons the long, nail-biting build-up to disaster of a Zero Hour! or Airport to tell a much more somber story of the aftermath of a tragic crash, and one investigator’s determination to explain the inexplicable and salvage the reputation of his friend, the captain of the doomed plane.

The horrific crash that propels Fate Is the Hunter’s drama is shown in a pre-titles sequence. Captain Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) and Sam McBane (Glenn Ford) are old buddies who flew army transport back in the war, and are now employees of Consolidated Airlines. McBane is a desk jockey working as the airline’s director of flight operations. They exchange pleasantries as Savage gets ready to pilot a routine flight from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Airliner getting ready to take-off, Fate is the Hunter, 1964
Consolidated Airlines flight 22 is getting ready for its rendezvous with Fate.

Shortly after take-off, one of the plane’s engines catches fire. The ship is still airworthy, but three other planes are in the vicinity, and Savage has to fly a holding pattern while the traffic clears. The crisis escalates as an alarm bell sounds that the plane's only remaining engine is on fire. Savage has no choice but to try to land on a stretch of beach, and almost makes it safely before plowing into a pier. The toll is 53 dead, with only a flight attendant, Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette) surviving when she is miraculously thrown clear.

A detailed examination of the wreckage reveals that a seagull got sucked up into one engine, causing it to jam and catch fire. But mysteriously, the other engine is in perfect working order. Webster, who was in the cockpit when everything hit the fan, swears that alarm bells for both engines were going off shortly before the crash, but still suffering from shock, her testimony is discounted.

Savage’s posthumous reputation takes a big hit when a bartender contacts the investigators, saying that Savage was in his bar buying drinks only a couple of hours before the flight. Savage was well-known for his womanizing and hard partying, so the airline executives, wanting to cut their losses, are prepared to pin everything on the captain. Everyone except McBane, who co-piloted transport planes with Savage over the treacherous Himalayan “Hump” route during the war, and knew that under his care-free exterior, Jack was an extremely skilled and responsible pilot.

McBane conducts his own investigation to get to the truth and head off the scapegoating of his friend. In trying to reconstruct Savage’s movements in the last few hours before the flight, McBane interviews several people, all of whom provide important insights into the kind of man Jack was: Lisa Bond (Dorothy Malone), a wealthy socialite and Jack’s fiancée for a short time; Sally Fraser (Nancy Kwan), an oceanographer who came to know the dashing pilot as a tender, compassionate man; Ralph Bundy (Wally Cox), whose life Savage heroically saved during the war; and Mickey Doolan (Mark Stevens), another wartime co-pilot who owed his life to Savage, and later knew him as non-judgmental friend when Doolan became an alcoholic.

McBane, a rational, by-the-numbers sort of guy, is thrown when Sally, a sober scientist, suggests that Fate can explain the seemingly senseless tragedy.

Sally: "…There must be faith attached, the acceptance of a divine operation, a plan."
McBane: "Fifty-three people were destroyed! If you can see the divinity in that..."
Sally: "As I said, there must be faith."
McBane: "Alright, suppose you use that instead of logic, I’m sorry, I can’t."
Sally: "Once you can, so many things will fall into place. It may even occur to you then that Fate has been moving you too."
Nancy Kwan and Glenn Ford in Fate is the Hunter, 1964
Sally and McBane reflect on the vagaries of Fate.

But as McBane delves more deeply into the mystery and prepares to testify before the Civil Aeronautics Board, the bizarre chain of events that contributed to the crash has him coming around to Sally’s way of thinking:

  • The type of seagull that got sucked into the engine was normally not found in the area
  • Three other aircraft being in the same vicinity at the same time, forcing the crippled airliner into a holding pattern, was a 1 in 1000 occurrence [Note: people in the know report that a crippled plane would always, always, always take landing priority over other air traffic, so this is a problematic plot point.]
  • The pier that ultimately caused the aircraft to crack-up and burn had been scheduled to be taken down just days before, but the contractor had decided to go fishing instead

At the hearing, McBane doubles down on the idea that Fate was behind the crash, causing consternation among the board members, the victims’ families and the press. The embarrassed airline executives can’t wait to fire him, but somehow he manages to convince the bigwigs to let him recreate the flight down to the last detail in a last ditch attempt to solve the mystery of the flight’s final moments.

Martha, the sole survivor, is terrified of getting back on board an identical airplane and tempting Fate all over again, but at the last minute agrees to come along to help reconstruct the flight as accurately as possible. It’s a million-to-one shot, but it’s McBane’s only chance to get Fate to show all of its cards and save Savage’s reputation.

Climactic test flight scene, Fate is the Hunter, 1964
It's deja vu all over again for Martha (Suzanne Pleshette).

Fate Is the Hunter is only nominally based on the best-selling 1961 book of the same title by Ernest K. Gann. The book is a fascinating account of Gann’s aviation career, piloting commercial passenger DC-2s and DC-3s in the rough-and-tumble 1930s, and then during WWII flying army air transport in the north and south Atlantic and over the infamous “Hump” route across the Himalayas to China. 

Gann was an all-American go-getter and renaissance man, a type that has become all but extinct in the 21st century. Before becoming a pilot, he worked as a movie cartoonist and helped make documentary newsreels. He was also an accomplished sailor, and even tried running his own commercial fishing business for a short time. But his biggest fame came as a best-selling author and screenwriter.

By the time that the movie Fate Is the Hunter was released in 1964, six of Gann’s novels had been made into motion pictures, and he had contributed screenplays to five of them. Fate the book, a memoir with numerous anecdotes ranging over several decades, was more of a challenge to turn into a coherent drama.

Gann tried his hand at some early drafts of the screenplay, but the author was so disappointed with the final version, credited to screenwriter Harold Medford, that he asked that his name be removed from the film. He lamented in a later autobiography that this was a bad move, as Fate Is the Hunter played constantly on TV for many years, and by having his name removed he missed out on some healthy TV residuals.

Cover, Fate is the Hunter (book), Ernest K. Gann, 1961
Fate the book is a compelling read. Gann had a knack for sizing up people, especially his fellow pilots, in just a colorful sentence or two. He could also wax eloquent about a profession that was 99.8% boring routine, but then could send your heart in your throat at a moment’s notice. He knew very well that when tragedy strikes, rational people do everything in their power to deny that sometimes, the difference between delivering a plane safely to its destination and crashing it is a matter of sheer luck:
“An airplane crashes. There is a most thorough investigation. Experts analyze every particle, every torn remnant of the machine and what is left of those within it. Every pertinent device of science is employed in reconstructing the incident and searching for the cause. Sometimes the investigators wait for weeks until the weather is exactly the same as it was during the crash. They fly exactly the same route in exactly the same kind of airplane and they go to elaborate trouble trying to duplicate the thinking of the pilot, who can no longer communicate his thinking. Often at considerable risk to themselves, the investigators attempt what have been reported as the final tragic maneuvers of the crashed airplane. And sometimes they discover a truth which they can explain in the hard, clear terms of mechanical science. They must never, regardless of their discoveries, write off the crash as simply a case of bad luck. They must never, for fear of official ridicule, admit other than to themselves, which they all do, that some totally unrecognizable genie has once again unbuttoned his pants and urinated on the pillar of science.” [Ernest K. Gann, Fate Is the Hunter, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1961/2011, p 8.]

In spite of Gann’s disappointment, Fate the movie expands on and effectively dramatizes the author’s central thesis.

It’s all there: the inexplicable tragedy, the rush to judgment to explain it away as pilot error, McBane’s lonely crusade to defend Savage’s reputation, the meticulous reconstruction of the flight, and ultimately, awe and wonder at the workings of remorseless Fate.

Sam McBane testifies at the CAB hearing, Fate is the Hunter, 1964
Lonely is the man who talks about Fate when everyone else wants a rational explanation.

Whatever you think of the Fickle Finger of Fate premise, the film’s stellar cast helps to sell it as a serious drama instead of cheap melodrama. Glenn Ford is just the right mixture of intense determination in defending his friend’s reputation, and vulnerability as his faith in science and statistics turns to humble acknowledgement of a universe that has its own plans, humanity be damned.

Nancy Kwan has a challenging role as McBane’s philosophy “tutor,” delivering lines that are only a step or two above a carnival fortune teller’s schtick. It doesn’t help that her character is introduced as a Chinese war orphan who was adopted and brought to the States, furthering the hackneyed notion of Asian inscrutability. To the film’s credit, she is also presented as a capable and knowledgeable scientist, an oceanographer, which helps tamp down the banality.

In the flashback scenes, Rod Taylor walks the devil-may-care pilot routine right up to the point of being insufferable, but when called on to interact with honest emotion, he’s very good. Suzanne Pleshette’s role as Martha, the flight attendant and sole survivor, is a relatively small one, but allows for some vivid emoting, from casual banter to pure terror in the pre-titles sequence, to survivor’s guilt when she is interviewed by McBane, and back to terror at the climax when history seems to be repeating itself during the test flight.

Fans of non-stop, pulse-pounding action will want to book a different cinematic flight, but those who go along for the ride will enjoy a great cast at the peak of their games, Oscar-nominated black and white widescreen photography courtesy of Milton Krasner, an evocative music score by Jerry Goldsmith, and a haunting, character-driven story.

Glenn Ford, Rod Taylor and Wally Cox in Fate is the Hunter, 1964
McBane is not very appreciative of Savage's rendition of "Blue Moon" as
they fly over the Himalayas.

Where to find it: A very good copy is currently streaming on YouTube (but hurry, that flight could be canceled at any time, and affordable DVD copies are hard to find).

April 23, 2022

Will the real monster please stand up? The Flesh and the Fiends

Now Playing:
The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)


Pros: Atmospheric direction and cinematography; Masterful acting
Cons: A false note somewhat spoils the ending

The Flesh and the Fiends tells the grim but true tale of two Irish immigrants living in early 19th century Edinburgh, Scotland who discover that there’s good money to be had supplying the local medical academy with cadavers, but can’t be bothered to dig up the bodies from graveyards like other body snatchers. So they decide to hurry up the dying process in still-breathing neighbors in order to get top dollar (make that guineas) for the freshest possible corpses.

After watching the movie, I Googled to see if cadavers are still being used in medical schools (although I’m visiting the doctor more often as I get older, I’m not exactly well-informed on current medical science ). Surely in 2022, with access to the kind of computing power and virtual reality programs that we have, there’s no more need for actual cadavers?

Well, yes and no (and don’t call me Shirley). According to an article published by the Advisory Board (an organization that provides research and insights to the healthcare industry), the use of cadavers in medical education has been going on for nearly a thousand years. They’re still being used today, but the cost of acquiring, maintaining and ultimately burying donated or unclaimed bodies is becoming prohibitive, and like many things these days, there’s a shortage.

Many schools are switching to virtual reality, which gives students “a more realistic view of living organs,” and allows them to examine the organs from every angle. On the downside, “it can be difficult to develop a depth perception of a virtual body, and students [aren’t] able to see the natural anatomical variations that occur in bodies.” Nevertheless, the article quotes one expert as predicting that cadaver use will be history within ten years. [“Will cadavers in medical schools soon be a thing of the past?” Advisory Board website, https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2019/10/03/cadavers, Oct. 3, 2019]

Back in 1820s Edinburgh where The Flesh and the Fiends is set, the nearest thing to virtual reality was the Magic Lantern, an early forerunner of the slide projector. Anatomy lessons were conducted with real-dead corpses, a lot of them not-so-fresh, and the less said about how they were obtained, the better.

Vintage Visible Man model kit
If only they'd had The Visible Man back then...

The murderous William Burke and William Hare were well-placed to take advantage of a situation in which the medical sciences were beginning to flourish, but resources like fresh cadavers for the training of doctors were in short supply.

The Flesh and the Fiends is faithful to the main facts of the notorious case (and even to some small details). It was a sort of passion project for John Gilling, who provided the story, co-wrote the screenplay and directed. In the late ‘40s, Gilling wrote the screenplay for The Greed of William Hart (aka Horror Maniacs: 1948), based on Burke and Hare and played for maximum melodrama by lead actor Tod Slaughter.

Censors at the time wouldn’t allow the guilty parties' names to be used, but for some reason did allow a couple of their victims their real names. By 1960, Gilling was able to use the names of all the principal historical figures, but Burke and Hare still couldn’t appear in the film’s title.

While The Greed of William Hart was a melodramatic vehicle for a corny old stage actor and movie villain, Gilling turned the remake into a dark examination of British working class ghettos and rigid class differences in an age that was also characterized by rapid industrialization and progress in the sciences.

One of the stars of the era’s scientific progress was Dr. Robert Knox, who by the time of the Burke and Hare murders was an esteemed member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh who had helped set up a major school of anatomy at the College of Surgeons. He was famous for his frequent and lively lectures and dissection demonstrations.

Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox lecturing in The Flesh and the Fiends, 1960
Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) and his assistant "Bones" McCoy lecture
to a rapt audience of medical students.

But the supply of cadavers for his demonstrations was never a sure thing. The law at the time stipulated that only the bodies of those who had died in prison, committed suicide, or were orphans (and presumably dead) could legally be used for such purposes. With such limitations, demand outstripped supply, so Knox and his fellow anatomists turned to body snatchers, also known as resurrection men (or resurrectionists), who took advantage of a loophole in the law: although disturbing a grave or stealing from a body were illegal, actually making off with the body itself was not a crime, since the dead don’t belong to anyone. (Huh.)

The times being what they were, with good, living wages rarer than hen’s teeth, body snatchers nonetheless dug up many a fresh grave, the law be damned. And of course, Dr. Knox and many of his colleagues turned a blind eye to the means by which cadavers ended up on their dissection tables.

Speaking of blind eyes, one of the details of the historical case that The Flesh and the Fiends pays particular attention to is the scarred left eye of Dr. Knox. The real Knox had contracted smallpox as an infant, resulting in a damaged eye and facial scarring. Beyond the obvious symbolism of turning a literal blind eye to what was going on, the disfigurement, which affects only half of the doctor’s face, also reinforces the doctor’s dual, “two-faced” nature; on the one hand, passionately wanting to advance the cause of medical science presumably for the good of all, but at the same time not seeming to care if members of the “lower classes” get hurt in the process.

The Flesh and the Fiend’s Dr. Knox is portrayed by Peter Cushing, who was fresh off of starring roles in Hammer’s game-changing technicolor Gothic horrors The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). Cushing must have felt a blast of deja vu: with Knox’s tunnel-visioned passion for science, proclivity for cutting up bodies, and blithe indifference to the human costs of his work, the esteemed doctor is a close cousin to Baron Frankenstein.

The similarities between Knox and Dr. “Stein” in The Revenge of Frankenstein are particularly striking. Both are brilliant and charismatic. Knox’s lectures are standing-room only, where the students hang on his every word. Frankenstein, who has reinvented himself as Dr. Stein, is one of his adopted town’s leading citizens, operating a clinic for the poor while simultaneously entertaining the town’s upper crust matrons, who practically swoon over the handsome, urbane doctor.

Both doctors are envied and resented by their parochial colleagues, and in turn, both are openly contemptuous of the small-minded mediocrities who are afraid of change and unwilling to pay the price of progress.

Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) discusses the merits of body-snatching with his colleages, The Flesh and the Fiends, 1960
Dr. Knox schools his unimaginative colleagues on the costs of scientific progress.

If anything, Knox is more aggressively dismissive of prevailing morality than Revenge’s Frankenstein. In an early scene, Knox defends the practice of body snatching in a debate with a a group of his staid colleagues, including a minister:

Knox: “I tell you gentleman, medicine is being driven underground. The law yields to us the body of a criminal when he is caught and hanged. [W]e have to wait a very long time for justice to unravel itself. Meanwhile, the resurrectionist plies a very useful trade.”
Minister: “I agree you doctors need bodies for dissection, but to condone the violation of graves by these ghouls…”
Knox: “I neither condone or condemn… I accept. Is the feeding of worms more sacred than the pursuit of truth?”

Cushing himself remarked on the similarity of the two characters: “Now it seemed to me that Knox and 'Frankenstein' had a lot in common. The minds of these exceptional men were driven by a single desire: to inquire into the unknown. Ahead of their time, like most great scientists, their work and motives were misunderstood." [Christopher Gullo, In All Sincerity, Peter Cushing, Xlibris, 2016, p. 139]

While The Flesh and the Fiends was not a Hammer production (more on that later), the distributors were not above exploiting Cushing’s new status as a Hammer horror icon and putative monster. In a couple of the film’s posters, Cushing’s/Knox’s face with its deformed left-eye completely dominates the other images. In one (illustrated at the top of the page), his good eye is voyeuristically turned toward an inset image of a woman in working-class attire who is either being menaced or helped -- it’s not clear which -- by a wealthy looking man dressed in a black. In another (below), the face stares menacingly out from the poster, as if sizing up the viewer for possible use on his dissection table.

Half-sheet poster - The Flesh and the Fiends, 1960

One could easily be excused for thinking that this is the face of a ghoul for whom (to paraphrase the movie’s tagline) murder is a business. In contrast, the real ghouls, Burke and Hare (played by George Rose and Donald Pleasence respectively), are scarily ordinary, and not given much prominence in the posters.

They start out the movie as a couple of work-averse layabouts with nothing more pressing to think about than the next meal. Burke has middle class pretensions -- he and his wife run a boarding house -- but he’s worried that the meager income may not be enough to stave off the need to do actual **GULP!** work. Hare seems to have no other occupation than to be attached at the hip to Burke, and to proudly sport the latest fashions from the 1820s equivalent of Goodwill.

When an elderly resident at Burke’s boarding house dies on him still owing rent, Hare comes up with the bright idea of selling the body to Knox, which they rationalize as a posthumous way for the old man to settle his debts. The payout is more than the debt, and pretty soon the lure of easy money spurs them to be more proactive and not wait for people to expire naturally.

The real horror is in the casualness with which they dispatch their meal tickets. After they smother a drunk old woman in one of the boarding rooms, Hare doffs his hat in mock mourning: “I’m sure the old girl’s better off. She had nowhere to go… it must be a terrible thing when you’re old…” Burke’s wife (Renee Houston) is no better, keeping watch while the men go about their evil business, and expressing more concern about the tidiness of her house than the murders being committed in it.

Peter Cushing, George Rose and Donald Pleasence in The Flesh and the Fiends, 1960
Knox can barely contain his revulsion at having to deal with Burke and Hare.

The section of Edinburgh in which they live is a rabbit-warren of dark, narrow alleyways and dingy tenements. As the men work their murderous trade, their surroundings become increasingly dark and gloomy, and the shadows the two cast seem like representations of their black souls. With each murder, Hare becomes more animated and boisterous, his eyes positively shining. He is a dancing imp at the side of the slow-witted, ponderous Burke, urging him on. It’s a great performance.

The only relief from the gloom and squalor on the poor side of town is the tavern, which is brightly lit and teeming with people desperately laughing, drinking and carousing. Knox sends his assistant, struggling medical student Chris Jackson (John Cairny), to the tavern to pay Burke and Hare the balance owed from one of their deliveries.

A proverbial fish out of water, Jackson gets himself beaten up trying to defend the honor of one of the tavern girls, beautiful Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw). The two are from completely different worlds. Jackson, who is despairing of ever finishing the medical program, finds solace in the arms of the alluring but coarse girl. Mary is flattered by the attention of a real gentleman, but deep down knows that there’s no chance for them.

In a heart-rending scene, Jackson takes Mary out for a stroll in the park, but to his dismay the two run into Knox’s colleague Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) and Knox’s niece Martha (June Laverick). Mary tries a little too hard to impress, and the smiles and cheer turn to slight frowns and embarrassed silence as class differences become painfully apparent. Back at Mary’s place, she vents her humiliation at Chris, who lamely professes that he is not ashamed of her. Mary is quickly mollified, and turns to what she knows best -- sex -- to smooth things over.

Billie Whitelaw and John Cairney in The Flesh and the Fiends, 1960
"I can teach you more than you'll learn at college..."

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

There is no happy ending for the star-crossed lovers, and by film’s end they’ve paid a very steep price for not staying in their social lanes.

As the evidence mounts that Burke and Hare’s deliveries are a little too fresh, Knox maintains a poker face, only showing his humanity at the very end when it’s impossible to look the other way. It’s maddening from the perspective of a normal, caring human being, but very believable from the standpoint of an obsessed scientist who is all about his work, and Cushing plays it to perfection.

The climax of The Flesh and the Fiends is pure Universal Frankenstein, with torch-carrying townspeople hunting down the monsters through dark, twisting streets. The film’s major false note comes at the very end, when a contrite Knox, having escaped legal judgement and still wanting to pass on his expertise to the next generation of physicians, enters the lecture hall, thinking that it will be empty. Instead, he’s surprised to see it’s filled with appreciative students. Knox is so humbled and inspired, he begins his lecture with Hippocrate’s advice to physicians to “first, do no harm.” (The real Knox did not get off quite so easily. While it's true that in the immediate aftermath of the murders his classes were more popular than ever, his career nonetheless suffered and he was ultimately expelled from the Royal Society and his school was shut down.)

Ugh. Order has been restored, the class system is still firmly in place, and worst of all, an upper class monster is redeemed, while Edinburgh’s poor, when they aren’t murdering one another, are mostly portrayed as scheming, uncaring wretches or members of an unthinking mob. Still, there’s Mary, beautifully played by Billie Whitelaw, who upholds the dignity of the non-privileged classes. While certainly not perfect, she is smart and willing to sacrifice her own happiness and aspirations to try to save Chris Jackson from himself.

George Rose, Donald Pleasence and Billie Whitelaw in The Flesh and the Fiends, 1960
You do not want to attract the attention of these "gentlemen."

ALL CLEAR FOR SPOILERS

The Flesh and the Fiends rode the Gothic horror renaissance that Hammer jump-started with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. It was produced by partners Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, who kept busy in the late '50s making Blood of the Vampire (1958; see the review elsewhere on this site), The Trollenberg Terror (aka The Crawling Eye, 1958) and another horror film ripped from the pages of history, Jack the Ripper (1958). 

By 1960, Burke and Hare had inspired, along with The Greed of William Hart, Val Lewton's and Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (1945; based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story that in turn was inspired by the actual events). Since then, two movies titled Burke and Hare have been made, one in 1972 and the other, with Simon Pegg, in 2010. The Doctor and the Devils with Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce and Twiggy (!!) premiered in 1985.

With its skillful direction, atmospheric cinematography and masterful acting (especially Billie Whitelaw, Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing), The Flesh and the Fiends may be the best of the lot, and it’s certainly one of the UK’s better contributions to Gothic horror cinema of the mid-20th century.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD / Blu-ray 

April 2, 2022

Astonishing Alien Robot Invasions, Part Three: Devil Girl from Mars

Poster - Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
Now Playing:
Devil Girl from Mars (1954)


Pros: Briskly paced; cool spaceship design; the Devil Girl appeals to the adolescent in all of us
Cons: The scary robot is underutilized; tries to cram too many subplots into its short runtime

Astonishingly, my first two Astonishing Alien Robot Invasion posts have proved to be pretty popular, leading the way in page views in the last year or so (see them here and here). I referenced the Devil Girl and her faithful robot sidekick in both parts of the series, so it’s time for the Martian duo to get their own post.

Admittedly, “invasion” is somewhat an exaggeration in describing the Devil Girl’s mission. Kidnapping is more accurate, but then, what is kidnapping if not an invasion of someone’s personal space, security and bodily integrity?

Also, there’s just the one robot in this one, and not an army (or even a platoon) hunting down humans and doing nasty things to them. And unlike the first two films in the series, where the robots’ masters are never seen, this robot’s mistress, the Devil Girl, is front and center, strutting around in a tight-fitting black leather outfit and boots that look like they were salvaged from… well, I think you know what I’m talking about.

But enough about differences -- the Devil Girl’s metallic sidekick qualifies as an alien robot invader, and that’s that.

For a low budget B in which all the action takes place in one location -- an inn in a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands -- Devil Girl packs a lot of characters, back stories, scientific jargon, love affairs and assorted high drama into its short 77 minute run-time.

Okay, pay attention, because there will be a quiz later. Within the opening 20 minutes or so, all sorts of characters and plot lines converge on the quaint Scottish inn:

  • Convicted wife-murderer Robert “It was an accident” Justin, aka Albert Simpson (Peter Reynolds), has escaped from custody and sought shelter at the inn, where his girlfriend/mistress Doris (Adrienne Cori) works. Doris introduces him to everyone as a hiker.
  • Prof. Hennessey, an astrophysicist (Joseph Tomelty), and news reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) have been driving around the countryside investigating reports of a meteor (which will soon be revealed as something else entirely). They get lost, and end up seeking shelter at the inn.
  • A glamorous London fashion model, Ellen Preswick (Hazel Court) is already at the inn, trying to find peace and solitude after a break-up with her boyfriend.
  • As if that weren’t enough, innkeepers Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) also have their young nephew Tommy (Anthony Richmond) staying with them. It doesn’t help that Mr. Jamieson likes to take a nip from his own bar inventory whenever he can.
Patricia Laffan as The Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
The Devil Girl isn't sure if she's walked onto the set of a sci-fi movie or a soap opera.

Whew! This all sets the stage for the Devil Girl’s spectacular entrance (spectacular for a ‘50s B movie at any rate). Michael, the newspaper reporter, recognizes Albert as the escaped convict, and just as he’s about to expose him, a sudden bright light and thunderous noise overhead distracts everyone.

A spaceship lands outside the inn in a tumult of retro-rocket fire, smoke and wailing mechanical noise. In typical fashion, the professor confesses that he’s baffled by the thing, preferring to believe that it’s some sort of experimental plane or guided missile rather than a spaceship from another planet. But the phone is dead and the car won’t start, so it starts to dawn on the assembled guests that conventional explanations won’t do.

Cue the Devil Girl (Patricia Laffan), who emerges from the spacecraft looking absolutely fabulous in a black headpiece and matching cape. She slowly saunters down the gangplank like a supermodel on a fashion show runway.

After dispatching the poor, crippled handyman with a disintegrator ray, she makes her grand entrance at the inn. As the professor and Michael look on slack-jawed, the imperious visitor introduces herself as Nyah, a Martian. She had been headed for London, but had miscalculated and lost a piece of her ship after encountering a thicker than expected atmosphere. (?!)

Nyah matter-of-factly explains that females became the rulers of Mars after a devastating war of the sexes, but that since then males have been declining and the birth rate has plummeted. Her mission is to collect red-blooded earth males to take back to Mars to rejuvenate the population.

In spite of the miscalculations that landed her in the middle of nowhere, Nyah has quite an array of super-scientific technology and powers at her disposal, including the aforementioned disintegrator ray-gun, telepathic mind control, force fields, and a lumbering, 10-foot-tall robot that can shoot a disintegrator beam out of its see-through, dome-like head.

In a lengthy sequence Nyah has her robot companion disintegrate a tree, a truck and a tool shed in order to intimidate the locals (shades of Klaatu and Gort from a few years earlier, except that those aliens only used their power after being attacked).

The Devil Girl from Mars demonstrates the awesome power of her robot
The Devil Girl and her robot use the Scottish Highlands for target practice.

Supremely confident in her superiority, Nyah is not content to sit quietly, sip coffee and thumb through a magazine while waiting for her ship to be repaired. She keeps barging into that most sacred of British inner sanctums, the tavern at the inn, hurling insults at the “puny” and “demented” humans (see my post on The Earth Dies Screaming for more on the local pub as a safe refuge in UK sci-fi and horror films). 

But she oversteps when she kidnaps sweet, innocent Tommy, threatening to take him back to Mars, and at that point the humans are ready to stop cowering and fight back. She also miscalculates when she takes the professor on a tour of her ship to further brag about the might and power of Mars. She’s especially proud of the ship’s “perpetual motion” power source. The old scientist, whom Nyah had earlier called “a very poor specimen,” makes a mental note of this possible Achilles heel. Every scrap of information is vital if the “puny” humans are to have a chance at stopping the invasion and preventing earth’s virile males from being abducted to Mars.

Just like The Brain from Planet Arous that I wrote about recently, the Devil Girl is straight out of the cheesier sci-fi pulp magazines of the ‘30s and ‘40s, wherein female characters tended to be either potential victims of bug-eyed monsters or evil alien queens intent on subjugating earthmen.

Devil Girl’s producers didn’t have the budget to do a full-fledged space opera, so they did the next best thing, bringing the most interesting elements -- the female alien, the scary robot and a pretty cool spaceship -- down to earth to play out the melodrama on a single set.

The set is pretty lively, what with the escaped convict hiding out at the inn, the handyman being vaporized, the professor spluttering and trying to deny the evidence of his own eyes, the reporter desperately trying to contact his paper about the story of the century, and the Devil Girl strutting around trying to impress the rubes with her superpowers. There’s even a budding romance between Michael and Ellen the fashion model.

The Devil Girl from Mars confronts the puny humans at the inn
Have you heard this one? A Martian, a fashion model and newspaper reporter walk into a bar...

But there’s only so much a one-set sci-fi wonder can do before a certain amount of viewer fatigue sets in. If you were a drinker and tipped your glass every time the Devil Girl made a dramatic entrance, stared contemptuously at the puny humans, insulted one of them or bragged about her awesome powers, you’d be hard-pressed by the end to get up off the couch. [Editor’s note: Films From Beyond does not endorse drinking games. Always watch B sci-fi movies safely and responsibly.]

On the other hand, Nyah’s metallic sidekick, Chani the robot, gets short shrift. Chani is clunky and slow and looks more like a walking meat freezer than the product of an advanced civilization, but at least he can fire those neat disintegrator rays out of his head.

He’s trotted out about midway for his shock and awe demonstration, then makes only one more brief appearance toward the end when he helps his mistress thwart a desperate plan by Michael to take control of the ship. The music swells when Chani makes his appearances, but unfortunately he’s not as scary or intimidating as his slimmer, trimmer cousin Gort.

Perhaps Devil Girl’s greatest contribution to '50s sci-fi coolness is the spaceship that makes its noisy landing next to the inn. It has a very distinctive look, combining classic UFO elements like a spinning band suggesting anti-gravity propulsion, with more conventional rocketship attributes like airfoil stabilizers and retro-rockets for landing. The special effects team headed by Jack Whitehead supplemented the model with matte paintings to convey the enormous size of the ship. It’s very well done.

The Devil Girl from Mars escorts the astrophysicist aboard her spaceship
"It's okay, we've got TSA precheck."

Devil Girl has a “so bad it’s good” cult reputation, mainly due to Nyah’s outfit and Patricia Laffan’s sneering performance. While it’s seedy around the edges and betrays its low budget at every turn, there’s so much going on, and so many different characters emoting their hearts out, that it flies along at brisk pace and has a surprising amount of energy for an ostensibly talky, set-bound film.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD  

Astonishing Fact

While the 1950s are not generally considered a high-water mark for strong and independent women in popular culture, the decade’s sci-fi movies teemed with female-ruled worlds and matriarchies. In contrast to the Devil Girl, who travels from Mars in search of male breeding stock (aren’t men supposed to be from Mars?), the other films depicted earth astronauts traveling to other planets and encountering female-dominated societies.

In Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), the boys set out for the Red Planet, detour to New Orleans, then finally end up on Venus, where they discover that men have been banished by the beautiful female inhabitants.

Both Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and its re-make, Missile to the Moon (1958) feature cunning, aggressive female lunarites (lunarians?) living in caves beneath the surface and trying to avoid giant man-(and woman-)eating spiders.

In Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956), astronauts travel to the 13th moon of Jupiter, only to discover a tribe of nubile females and one old man, remnants of the lost civilization of Atlantis that had migrated to outer space.

Finally, in Queen of Outer Space (1958), yet another space expedition lands on Venus, where the astronauts are captured by a society of women who had earlier overthrown the Venusian men in a civil war.

Earth women also did their share of space exploration. For more details, see my post on "Women Astronauts of ‘50s Sci-fi."

Lobby card, Queen of Outer Space, 1958


Astonishing Quote

“When we were making the film, even though it featured well-known stars and theatre people, we thought, ‘What are we doing? It will never see the light of day.’ It was truly ahead of its time. Even though it seemed preposterous to us that it would be a big hit, that genre had not yet become popular, so we had done something groundbreaking and revolutionary. I laugh when I think about it, but I still get fan mail, and I’m even told Steven Spielberg got some ideas from it. Nearly fifty years later, I wonder if women in leather still rule Mars.” - Hazel Court [In Hazel Court, Horror Queen: An Autobiography, Tomahawk Press, 2008, p. 76]
Hugh McDermott and Hazel Court in Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
During some downtime, Hazel and Hugh discuss whether or not to fire their agents.