Dark City (1950)

dark1You waited long enough. Why Now?  Well, this film first came to my attention just a year or so ago, when I noticed that Arrow had released a Blu-ray of it- since its a film noir, and stars the man-mountain that is Charlton Heston, it stayed on my radar, and I actually came close to buying it when I noticed it in a sale. Anyway, it turning up in the Talking Pictures schedule this week finally sealed the deal with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Yes, I know I’m 70 years late to the party, but I have the excuse I wasn’t born back then. Also, films like this don’t appear on the networks at all often, even though they patently should do.

So whats it about, then?  Charlton Heston plays Danny Haley, a small-time bookie whose operation is shut down by the police one time too many, leaving him keen to get out of town and try his luck elsewhere- if only he could get the money to do it. Danny thinks his luck has at last changed when he stumbles across Arthur Winant, a businessman from Los Angeles with too much money in his wallet. Danny and his work associates sucker Winant into a series of poker games where they fleece him of all his money- including $5000 that isn’t his. Winant staggers off distraught and the next morning the hustlers learn he has killed himself in shame; Danny and his cronies try to cover their tracks but later learn that Winant had an older brother who is out for revenge.

Any good? Perhaps not a classic, definitive film noir but very good nonetheless. Its curious seeing a young Charlton Heston channelling a sulky, moody character struggling with right and wrong and lashing out at the world- there’s clearly all sorts of nascent Ben Hur bubbling away here, and isn’t it strange, with this film featuring a “Introducing Charlton Heston” credit, that that most famous of all epic movies was released in 1959, just nine years later. What a meteoric career Heston must have had. That being said, I’ve noticed on IMDB three earlier credits for Heston so perhaps the credit referred to it being his first starring role in a major studio picture or something.

So worth waiting for? Crikey, yes. Some of these film noir are just fantastic, full of mood and atmosphere and menace, and they manage to spring twists and surprises, even for old jaded fools such as I, who’ve seen too many films and rarely get surprised anymore. Modern films tend to telegraph things too easily, I guess, and I’m pretty certain that script-writing is something of a lost art. As a movie buff, seeing such an early film for Heston is particularly fascinating too- like Clint Eastwood in bis early films (like Play Misty For Me a few days back), its clear this guy was destined for movie stardom.

Worthless observation? Co-star Lizabeth Scott, who plays Fran, a singer hopelessly besotted with Danny, was no stranger to noir films (that’d be her husky, too-many-cigarettes-voice, I’d imagine) and later starred in an Elvis Presley movie (Loving You, 1957)). And its great, also, to see Dean Jagger as wise cop Captain Garvey; he was a very fine character actor who I recently also caught in Hammer’s X: The Unknown. Yeah, sometimes its a small world watching films from a certain era. Finally, no, this film is not to be confused with the 1998 Alex Proyas sci-fi thriller that borrows so many noir tropes itself.

The Quatermass Xperiment

quaterm1Continuing this recent Hammer marathon, my delve into Hammer films I haven’t seen before means we now go back a little further in time, to 1955. The Quatermass Xperiment is widely considered the beginning of the Hammer line of films that fantasy and horror fans hold dear and would both cement the company’s name in British film history, and put its films on the world stage.

The Quatermass Xperiment was based on Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment (note the subtle spelling change for the film version) from 1953. which had been hugely successful for the BBC. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds immediately saw the possibilities in a film version and  chased the film rights as soon as the six episodes were aired.

Three astronauts have been launched into space in the first launch of the British-American Rocket Group, which crashes back to Earth in an English field after straying off-course and out of contact with Ground Control. Of the three crew, only one remains, the only sign of the other two astronauts being their spacesuits, still sealed but empty. The sole remaining crew member is Victor Carroon (Richard Wandsworth) who is badly injured and incoherent.  Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) who is in charge of the project desperately tries to find out what happened to the flight while it disappeared for a number of hours, and what happened to the two missing crew. Meanwhile Carroon baffles his doctors, never becoming coherent and slowly deteriorating. Recovered from the crashed ship, in-flight footage from during the period in which the ship was out of contact suggests an extra-terrestrial encounter with something unseen that killed the missing crew. Carroon breaks out of hospital abetted by his wife, beginning to transform into some monstrous creature to terrorise London and threaten the whole world.

quaterm2One of the chief pleasures of material like The Quatermass Xperiment is its vantage point at the start of the Space Age, back when anything beyond the Earth was alien and unknown and full of mystery. Space has inevitably been ‘normalised’ over the decades since, but back in the early 1950s (and of course in all the 1930s/1940s pulps prior) space was unknown, full of dark mystery. There are wonderful moments in this film when people wonder at the astronauts having been somewhere no-one else had ever been, experienced things no-one has ever seen or felt, and an almost palpable sensation of the fear of a dark frontier. There is an almost Lovecraftian theme of humanity transgressing where we should not go, or of the Outer Dark of Space infecting us, changing us. A contemporary sci-fi/horror film loses that.

The Quatermass series by Nigel Kneale has always had a dark and foreboding theme questioning our place in the universe: Quatermass and the Pit (both the 1967 Hammer version and the earlier BBC serial) has always been a personal favourite of mine, the Hammer film scaring me witless when I was a kid.

For once, the casting possibly hindered my enjoyment of this Hammer effort. For one thing, Brian Donlevy’s American Quatermass proved especially troubling- the guy is portrayed as a bully and a jerk, striding around like he’s got a broom up his ass. Quite unlike the portrayal I’m familiar with from the two versions of Quatermass and the Pit I’ve seen. This seems to have been a concious decision of the film-makers and one that original writer Nigel Kneale (who had no input in the film) was particularly unhappy with- so incensed was Kneale that he refused to allow Hammer to immediately make a sequel (which is what X: The Unknown was intended to be, necessitating that Dean Jagger’s character be changed from Bernard Quatermass to  Dr Adam Royston).

quaterm4The other particularly sour point in the casting is Margia Dean as Carroon’s wife, Judith. On the evidence of this film, Margia Dean simply could not act: its like watching someone from some amateur acting group thrown in front of the camera, not helped by being horribly dubbed in post as if by someone hellbent on making her look/sound even worse (so jarring its a little like Harrison Ford’s ‘deliberately bad’ narration in the theatrical prints of Blade Runner in 1982). So bad in fact was Dean that I looked her up and wasn’t really surprised to read of sources alleging that she was cast in the film because she was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox president, Spyros Skouras (I’ve since been surprised that she appeared in quite a few films, despite her apparent lack of talent, before retiring in 1965 upon marriage to an architect). It did strike me a number of times just how much better the film would have been had June Thorburn played the part- it seems the kind of role that Thorburn would have excelled at.

Better casting includes Jack Warner as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (predating his most popular turn as Dixon of Dock Green), Richard Wordsworth who is absolutely brilliant as the doomed Victor Carroon, and good old Lionel Jeffries as an harassed Government minister who constantly complains to Quatermass regards his recklessness (not unfounded, as it turns out, with Quatermass coming across as some modern Frankenstein by the end of the film through a sobering epilogue).

With a typically great soundtrack by James Bernard (who deservedly went on to become a Hammer regular), a score that prefigures some of the techniques of Bernard Herrmanns Psycho, the film is a great thriller, the source material raising above the limitations of some of the cast. Certainly, its inevitably somewhat dated but its pre-Space Age perspective adds a certain mood of horror and Lovecraftian atmosphere. Some of the imagery is terrific- particularly that of the crashed space rocket. The Quatermass Xperiment is one of those films that I’ve heard about for many, many years and yet somehow never got around to. Well, I’ve rectified that at long last and I’m so glad I did.

It was rumoured a year or so ago that the film was going to be getting a remake; I don’t know how that has been progressing but do I think that bringing it up to date into our current times might lose much of the charm of the piece.

The Quatermass Xperiment is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime

 

X: The Unknown

xbOld films, never seen before, but containing familiar shades, faces from some other films or television shows. Dim recollection, sometimes breeding dull irritation, like an itch- I’ve seen this face before, what was it, when was it? Sometimes, a sudden flash of insight- Eureka!

Dean Jagger- an unlikely lead, really, for any film, which is only doubly refreshing, surely, but his appearance in Hammer’s X: The Unknown troubled me for most of the picture; only late on did I place him as the Army major general  in White Christmas, shot just a few years earlier. More a successful character actor than an actual movie star (although I later discovered to my surprise that he’d actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1949 for Twelve O’Clock High) I recognised him mostly from his late career appearing in many tv shows in the 1960s and 1970s in guest star roles – Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Bonanza, Columbo, Kung Fu– as they eventually appeared on UK networks during my childhood.

X: The Unknown, meanwhile, was an early Hammer fantasy, released in 1956, and it proves to be a surprisingly effective sci-fi horror. It has a very modern feel, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, because most of the appeal of Hammers subsequent, bigger successes -the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein and particularly its 1958 Dracula– was that they treated the subjects with very modern sensibilities, indeed so ‘modern’ that they largely hold up very well today. X: The Unknown is really no exception, and even though in details it may have dated somewhat, on the whole it feels very modern indeed. It dates from the Cold War era when the world was acutely afraid of the Atomic Bomb and all things radioactive (a common staple for 1950’s sci-fi b-movies). Set in the Scottish Highlands near a British Army base, some routine training drills uncover a blob-like creature that has risen out of the Earths crust and feeds on radiation, terrorising locals and growing larger, ultimately threatening the city of Inverness. Its really quite dark and while most of the horror is suggested, leaving stuff to audience imagination proves a major benefit, and indeed the glimpses of graphic horror when revealed prove both something of a surprise and very effective indeed with some gruesome make-up effects. The death count proves something of a shocker, too.

xaThe cast is pretty damn fine, considering Hammer’s limitations, really raising the film. Jagger, playing atomic scientist Dr Adam Royston (a rewritten Prof Bernard Quatermass from when the film was originally an intended sequel to the 1955 Hammer hit The Quatermass Xperiment) is an unlikely hero -middle-aged, bald, and minus any love interest- which proves very welcome, oddly enough (leads these days are much younger and muscle-bound and successful with the ladies). Alongside Jagger we have Leo McKern (most famous here in the UK for his long-running Rumpole of the Bailey television series) who is really fine indeed, and Edward Chapman (Norman Wisdom’s frequent comic foil Mr Grimsdale), a routine appearance of Hammer regular Michael Ripper, and even an early role for Frazer Hines (Dr Who, Emmerdale).

I found the film thoroughly entertaining and another reminder of why Hammer had such success over the years. Its a really well-crafted film, with a taut script, great performances and fine production qualities, and proves quite original, too, predating the similar (albeit more more popular) The Blob by a few years and taking itself much more seriously. Its a great horror-thriller and really impressive, and I’d love to see Indicator give it the treatment it deserves on a Blu-ray release someday.

X: The Unknown is currently streaming on Amazon Prime