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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.

In many ways, we need a fresh batch of fifties monster movies because their purpose was to distract us from our imminent demise and subtly pressure us into having faith in the government. They tend to start with negativity, the discovery of something horrific that will destroy us all, but proceed into positivity, because, however horrific that threat might be, we have the best men working on it and they’ll surely find a solution by the end of the seventy odd minutes that B-movies ran. We surely need those best men on the job today, people like Drs. Jeffrey Stewart and Dan Forbes, who are both A-Men working for OSI. Now, what does all that mean, you might ask? Well, the endless opening narration of this movie will tell you. They’re ‘detectives with degrees in science’ and the criminals they seek are ‘sometimes invisible’, not because there isn’t a special effects budget but because ‘A stands for Atom. Atom stands for power.’ They work for the Office of Scientific Investigation and they keep us safe.

And, of course, they’re soon faced with a dire threat, not a man in a rubber suit or a giant insect but one of the sometimes invisible criminals of the narration. They stumble upon its influence when they’re sent to investigate the strange things which are afoot at the Simon Hardware Store, where the proprietor wants to open for an anniversary sale but is hindered by the fact that everything in his store has been magnetised. ‘I’m a taxpayer!’ he tells the government. Fix it! I do like how they panic Mr. Simon and his staff, perhaps in snarky response to the overacting of his female assistant. Don’t worry, they explain, it’s merely radioactive matter. We have protective clothing and we’ll walk around with our geiger counters to find the danger. Oh, and the police will surround your store, with orders to shoot to kill. Nothing to worry about. They wander upstairs in their bunny suits and find a radioactive corpse in an obvious laboratory, including an empty isotope container. Dr. Stewart carefully knocks it over to see.
As stupid as that last paragraph sounds, there’s a magnificent focus on science here, even if it’s inconsistent in rationality. We can’t expect a B-movie to nail the science, right? Well, we should and, for all the doomsaying here, it does try somewhat. It’s good to see our heroes investigating a potential radiation leak in appropriate clothing. It’s good to hear that they subsequently went through a decontamination procedure. It’s great to see them quantify responses on the M.A.N.I.A.C. Wait, what? Well, that was real, even if it isn’t what we see on screen. It was the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator And Computer, which served the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory from 1952 to 1958, starting by making more precise calculations of the thermonuclear process. It’s a example of analogue electronic porn, which is everywhere here. We’ve collectively lost touch, pun well and truly intended, with how great switches and dials feel. Touchscreens, my ass. Lets have more Flexowriters, input units and card punchers. They’re gorgeous!

The downside is that some of the dialogue comes out of nowhere with little or no explanation. For example, the A-Men extrapolate wildly when they find the source of the radiation above Simon Hardware. ‘It must have contained a very heavy element,’ suggests Dr. Stewart, ‘heavier than uranium.’ Dr. Forbes appends, ‘It must have been pretty close to an explosive stage too.’ Neither of them has any intention of explaining why they know those things. The biggest problem, though, is that if you strip away the science talk and the analogue equipment, there’s not much of a plot. The first half of the film features our detectives tracking down this rogue element to the heavy briefcase of Dr. Howard Denker, an aeroplane passenger with bleeding gums, making this surely another big inspiration for Alex Cox’s Repo Man, along with Kiss Me Deadly. The second half has them try to stop it eating, as the M.A.N.I.A.C.’s discovery that it doubles in size every eleven hours and goes through an implosion as it does so is ultimately apocalyptic.
The pivot of the film, in between those two halves, is really telling. On Flight 17, Dr. Denker mutters the moral of the movie when he says that, ‘In nuclear research, there’s no place for lone wolves,’ before dying in his front row seat. And, after the plane returns safely to ground and they deliver Denker’s serranium to the state university in a lead lined vehicle, Dr. Stewart is happy to spend a charming interlude with his wife, who’s four months pregnant, in an unintentionally astute portrait of American life in the fifties. Jeff Stewart has been in charge of everything so far–he even reckons, with some justification, that he was the most important man in town for twenty-four hours–but his wife is totally in charge of him without him apparently noticing or realising it. Jean Byron’s part as Connie Stewart is hardly a substantial one, but she does do quite a lot in the five minutes or so she gets in the middle of the film. Incidentally, other recognisable faces, Strother Martin, earning his second credit, and Kathleen Freeman, get even less to do.

In fact, few actors get much substance here, playing second fiddle to a microscopic quantity of an artificial radioactive isotope that Dr. Denker bombarded with alpha particles for two hundred hours until it become unipolar and magnetic. And hungry. So hungry that it might just knock our planet off its orbit and destroy the human race. Now how can a mere actor compete with that? Well, it has to be said that the two leads know exactly how: to appear suitably authoratitive and sound suitably sincere while they look into electronic microscopes. Richard Carlson had had good roles in mainstream movies before, like The Little Foxes, White Cargo and King Solomon’s Mines, but he couldn’t sustain a major career and it was here in a B-movie that his lasting fame began as Dr. Jeff Stewart. He played a similar sort of role later in 1953 in It Came from Outer Space, and again in Riders to the Stars, the 1954 sequel to this film, which he also directed. Oh, and he played the lead (if not the title character) in some movie called Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I’m watching for his assistant though, Dr. Dan Forbes, because King Donovan would have been a hundred years old today. Just like Carlson, he had played some good roles in mainstream movies, such as The Defiant Ones, Angels in the Outfield and even Singin’ in the Rain, in which he was uncredited but very recognisable as the head of the publicity department, but he was always going to be the character actor rather than the lead in major films and, as it turned out, on television, where he was notable in recurring roles on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Bob Cummings Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, mooching off his relatives, the Clampetts. So, just like Carlson again, he found his lasting fame in sci-fi B-movies, beginning with this one. He played another man of science in 1953 in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and also returned for the second OSI film, Riders to the Stars. His biggest genre part, though, is surely his 1956 role as Jack Belicec in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I liked Donovan a lot here, but then I have a tendency to prefer the support to the leads in Hollywood movies. While the star is off doing his expected heroics, his sidekick is being quietly reliable and making sure those heroics work. Also, while Donovan was an American actor, who was born in New York City and who had trod the boards of Broadway and in Shakespeare, he lends a sort of British nerddom to Dan Forbes, with his suit, glasses and pipe. He does play second fiddle to Carlson throughout, never landing a scene of his own, but he’s a constant presence who grounds the lead and fleshes out the background. He gets a lot of lines, which he delivers capably, but his best moments may be those where he stands behind a set of other scientists, doing precisely nothing but looking at something through his glasses, and manages to steal our attention anyway. He could be digitally removed from the picture without affecting the end result, but it would be a lot more empty without him.
He even gets a fantastic, if brief scene, opposite the very British director of a Canadian deltatron facility in a disused mine beneath the ocean off Nova Scotia. When the Brit, who’s so British that the actor’s name is Leo Britt, gets uncharacteristically flustered, it’s King Donovan as Dan Forbes who displays the traditional stiff upper lip, refuses to be affected by the considerable danger in what they’re about to do and concentrates on tamping his pipe instead. These scenes at the deltatron, by the way, are rather notable as they feature our actors reasonably well added to footage from an earlier film through a combination of rear projection and partial set building. That earlier film is Gold, a two hour German film released in 1934, which surely had a bigger budget than The Magnetic Monster. Certainly it provided the largest and most spectacular prop in the latter picture, the deltatron being an atom-splitter used to transmute lead into gold in the original film. Set designer Otto Hunte had unsurprisingly done similar work on Metropolis.

While it’s odd that The Magnetic Monster, only 75 minutes long, lifts at least ten minutes of footage from an earlier movie (and stock footage hardly goes unused elsewhere), this angle is rendered odder by the fact that Gold was supposedly banned in America at the time. While it was favourably reviewed in The New York Times in 1934 as, more surprisingly, was The Magnetic Monster two decades later, it ran into trouble for competing reasons that make little sense to me. Some suggest that it might have convinced Americans into thinking that the Nazis had created a working nuclear reactor and so had a clear scientific advantage over us in the run-up to war. Why they would think that from a fictional film about the transmutation of elements, I have no idea. Others say that the ban happened afterwards, which makes even less sense. Why would we even care at that point? Whichever way, this ban, if indeed it was ever in effect, was apparently forgotten about in 1953 and The Magnetic Monster benefits greatly from Gold’s footage.
The man behind this movie was a Hungarian, Ivan Tors, who produced it with George Van Marter and wrote it with Curt Siodmak. This was his second feature, after the wartime adventure yarn, Storm Over Tibet, and it’s clear from his subsequent film career that he probably meant it to spark a television series. He did that a lot, often with animal-based films like Flipper, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and Gentle Giant, which became the shows Flipper, Daktari and Gentle Ben. This one didn’t make it to the small screen, though I’d have tuned in, had I been alive at the time, for an OSI series with Carlson and Donovan saving the world from all kinds of scientific menaces week in week out. Instead it became a feature trilogy, completed by two 1954 pictures, Riders to the Stars and Gog, the last of which starred Richard Egan and Constance Dowling, Tors’s actress wife, in her last screen role. I’ve only seen the former, which was surprisingly solid as a space exploration film, even if much of the rest of it sucked. Time to find Gog, methinks.

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