Monday 29 January 2018

The Glass Web (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold
Writers: Robert Blees and Leonard Lee, from the novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, John Forsythe, Kathleen Hughes and Marcia Henderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Kathleen Freeman was a busy girl in 1953. She began it with The Magnetic Monster, which was my last centennial review and, after seven other movies, ended it with The Glass Web, which is my new one. I’m not watching for her this time out though, because her centennial isn’t due until next year; I’m watching for John Forsythe. My American better half knows him well as Blake Carrington on Dynasty and as the disembodied voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, but I know him from movies, from Destination Tokyo in 1943 to Scrooged in 1988, via such fundamentally different films as Kitten with a Whip, Marooned and The Trouble with Harry. It was as Blake Carrington that he’s best remembered, of course, largely for being the role that landed him six consecutive Golden Globe nods (he won two) and his three consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations (he didn’t win any). However, the latter were far from his first flirtation with the Emmys; he had been previously nominated three decades earlier in 1953, as Best Actor.

And it’s 1953 to which I’m going to turn back time, to a drama/thriller from the ever-reliable director, Jack Arnold, he of Creature of the Black Lagoon, High School Confidential! and The Mouse That Roared fame, to name but three of his admirably varied movies. This one’s based on a novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich, published the previous year. I know some of Ehrlich’s later books, but his best known novel was The Reincarnation of Peter Proud in 1973, also quickly filmed. Ehrlich is important here as he didn’t just write books; he wrote for newspapers, the stage, for radio and, most importantly, for television, scripting episodes of Suspense, The Defenders and Star Trek, among others. We discover why that’s pertinent one scene into the movie. A young lady is driven up to an open mineshaft in the desert. When she isn’t impressed, her companion shoots her dead, carries her over to the shaft and dumps her body unceremoniously in. And then we pan back to discover that they’re actors on the set of a television show.

Thursday 25 January 2018

The Magnetic Monster (1953)

Director: Curt Siodmak
Writers: Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors
Stars: Richard Carlson, King Donovan and Jean Byron

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Back in the fifties, the planet Earth was threatened by a new monster each time a new sci-fi B-movie hit the drive-ins. Some of the most iconic monsters we might conjure up today are sourced from that era, from Rodan to the Blob, from the Thing from Another World to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, from the Mole People to the Brain Eaters. Many of these were completely ridiculous, whether they be the gorilla in a diving helmet in Robot Monster, the giant flying turkey in The Giant Claw, or even the budget-saving creatures we couldn’t see in Invisible Invaders. Sometimes, however, they struck a nerve so well that they grew into the bedrock of pop culture: characters like Gort, the invulnerable robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet or Godzilla, who’s appearing in his thirtysomething feature this year. Of course, those last three challenge our idea of what a monster is and perhaps are all the more memorable for that. They can be good, bad or, in the case of Godzilla, maybe chaotic neutral.

All of these monsters, of course, were outward representations of the fear that was consuming the world in the wake of the use of atomic weapons to end World War II in 1945, the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 and the start of the nuclear arms race in 1949. We began estimating how close we were to mutually assured destruction in 1947, when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board introduced the Doomsday Clock. According to them, the closest we’ve been is two minutes to midnight, which has been the case twice: in 2018, because of Trump and his bigger red button, and in 1953, after the US and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices for the first time. That realisation is truly scary, because our collective reaction to this is wildly different. In 1953, we were building fallout shelters and practicing duck and cover routines. In 2018, we’re delegitimising science and trying to stop our teens from eating Tide Pods. I really don’t know which is worse.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

The Lineup (1958)

Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Warner Anderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It would be difficult to make films without actors, but the people behind the screen are just as important. My centennial reviews in 2016 began with a director, Masaki Kobayashi, and the first notable centennial of 2018 is of a writer, Stirling Silliphant. It would be easy to pluck out famous titles from his career because it’s hardly lacking them. The most obvious would be 1968’s In the Heat of the Night, which won him an Oscar and the first of two back-to-back Golden Globes; the second was for Charly, his adaptation of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. He was often nominated for awards: The Slender Thread and The Towering Inferno also received Golden Globe nods, Telefon was nominated for an Edgar and Village of the Damned was up for a Hugo, not just once but twice. However, each of those worthy screenplays was an adaptation of someone else’s material: usually novels but, in the case of The Slender Thread, an article in Life magazine. His script for The Towering Inferno was based on two entirely unrelated novels, blurred together.

So Silliphant was very good at adapting existing works into new ones, but that wasn’t all that he did. Hilariously, given that he had a consistently strong career, full of quality films, I first wrote about him in my review of perhaps the worst feature ever made. No, he didn’t write Manos: The Hands of Fate, but he did directly prompt its creation by betting an El Paso fertiliser salesman, Harold P. Warren, that he couldn’t make and exhibit a feature film. Warren did and so Silliphant lost that bet, but the results were not good, to say the least. Even the execrable contributions to film of Robert Silliphant, Stirling’s brother, were better than that and he was the writer behind The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Oh, and he wrote the story that became The Creeping Terror too. I wonder what it must have been like over at the Silliphants at Thanksgiving, with Stirling talking about his award nominations and Robert talking about what he’d just done for Ray Dennis Steckler.