Friday 10 June 2011

The Strange World of Planet X (1958)

Director: Gilbert Gunn
Stars: Forrest Tucker and Gaby André

I think my favourite hobby is listening to Robert Osborne introduce monster movies on TCM. It may be that he secretly loves the things but I don't think so. I think he feels embarrassed every time they come up, but he's a professional and he does his job well with just a hint of a smile at the realisation of what sort of material he's introducing. Then again this one begins as a pretty intelligent monster movie as such things go, made in the UK by Anglo-Scottish Pictures, sourced from a story by René Ray. Sure, the introduction is more than a little melodramatic ('Man goes forward into the unknown but how does the unknown react?'), but it settles down quickly into a thoughtful movie. It's actually hilarious to hear such rationality about science juxtaposed with a rampant sexism. 'A woman?' cries Dr Laird when he's told that his new computer operator is a member of the fairer sex. 'This is preposterous! This is highly skilled work!'

Laird is a scientist working in pure research who is eating up government money on the basis that his work may provide major benefits to the military. It has something to do with altering the molecular structure of metals through use of electro-magnetic energy. It uses a lot of power and it may well be interfering with the local TV signals. Brigadier Cartwright wants to shut the whole thing down, but after seeing a successful experiment and the more positive side effects only he knows about, he changes his mind. The force that Laird is wielding continues on when the power is cut and it proves able to make changes at a distance, offering possibilities of taking down enemy aircraft with some sort of beam. Of course there are other possible side effects too: weird weather and flying saucers, so many that the papers talk about an invasion from Planet X, hence the film's original title. I watched it under a fresh title of The Cosmic Monsters.

It's half an hour in that we find out where the film is going. Laird proves to be a mad scientist, a single minded genius who ignores the mere possibility of risks or side effects. 'I never consider anything which might interfere with my research,' he tells his assistant, Gil Graham. 'If I always stopped to calculate the risks there would be no research.' He wants to carry on regardless, even escalate his research. While Graham warns Laird, Smith warns Graham. He's a strange character who we first encounter in Briley Woods, near Laird's lab, strange not just because of his 'funny whiskers' but because he looks off into the distance when he's talking to people. He's come from a long way off, he says, where people ride giant dragonflies. He has a cool raygun too, so surely he's from the strange world of Planet X, whatever it's real name is. He can't talk to the police so he talks to Graham instead at the Crown and Mitre over a pint. Civilisation, you see.
The film is a bizarre combination of approaches. From one angle, it's a well thought out science fiction story, talky but engaging and defined. From another, it's a monster movie without a single capable effect at any point. Unfortunately the latter can't arrive without mangling the former, so scenes of civilised science and solid logic abruptly collapse into ludicrous ramblings at the blink of an eye. Similarly, the logical first half sees Michele Dupont, the Frenchwoman who is sent to be Laird's new computer operator, promptly turn rampant sexism on its head by demonstrating how intelligent and capable women can be, but the monster half turns her into a clichéd victim, a princess in need of rescue. That's how far the film devolves and it's painful to watch it happen. Imagine if halfway through The Day the Earth Stood Still, perhaps the most obvious comparison, a nuclear bomb floods Washington, DC with giant mutated insects. It wouldn't work there either.

Both on the good side and the bad side, it's the script that dominates. René Ray wrote the story as a six part TV series in 1956, and never wrote again, though she had a three decade career as an actress. For some reason she didn't adapt her own work, the screenplay being by Paul Ryder, who wrote a few other films in the surrounding years. I wonder how much of this script is Ryder's and how much Ray's. It's hard to know where to place the praise and the blame, but I presume that each deserves one but not the other. Behind the script, the effects stand out but not in any positive light. They're pretty dismal, shots of real insects combined with shots of actors in a poor attempt to suggest they're in the same scene. There are some capable framing shots but almost everything on the effects side is awful. Only one instance bears mention and that's a surprisingly gratuitous shot of a giant insect munching through the cheek of a corpse.

At least the giant insects are worthy of note, albeit an entirely negative one. It's hard to attempt to comment on the acting because it's so utterly routine. Alec Mango (yes, that's his real name) is a rare sort of mad scientist, one who avoids acting madly. Forrest Tucker is a strange choice for his assistant, the token American in the cast and the most famous name, beginning a year that would end with Auntie Mame, though he made four more movies in between. French actress Gaby André is a strange choice for a new assistant too, though I'm sure she's only there to act as a love interest as well as torment the chauvinists. She's badly dubbed at points. As the alien visitor, Martin Benson is the best of the bunch, but he can't generate any of the charisma that ought to be there. The most memorable actor is young Susan Redway, who plays Jane Hale, a precocious child with a perpetual grin and a surety that rivals Dr Laird's.

It's not that these actors are bad, because they're not, it's just that they can't seem to find a way to make themselves noticed with the material they're given. Not one of them shines and they all fade into the background so far that they almost get upstaged by the pint of bitter Smith doesn't recognise at the Crown and Mitre. In fact they're all so down to earth and routine that it's hard not to focus on the social aspect of the film and watch it as a slice of life from the fifties, not just the chauvinism but the pub culture, post-war lodging and the way young Jane spends almost all her screen time talking to strangers, just as her mother advised her not to. I'd like to remember the science fiction, but the lunacy it finds spoils it. This could have been a warning about climate change, far ahead of its time, speaking to man's destruction of our planet's protective layers, but it just uses it as an excuse for cosmic rays to mutate grasshoppers into monsters. Sigh.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

This is exactly the kind of movie that the British film industry should have been making consistantly for the last 30 years then it wouldn`t have become the ludicrous laughing stock that it has become. I`d rather watch "the Strange World of Planet X" over anything that Hugh Grant has ever appeared in anyday of the week.

jimmie t. murakami said...

Hal, i just wondered if you agreed with what Jervaise said, i`d be really interested to hear your opinion.

Anonymous said...

My Dad took me to see this film in a double feature with The Crawling Eye also starring our local (Arlington, VA) actor Forrest Tucker when I was 8. After sharing a pizza, it gave me nightmares (the half-eaten human facenear the end of the movie). Only the coming attractions of The Amazing Colassal Man (giant shot thrown right through sargeant) caused a similar reaction.