Monday, January 25, 2010


It was not until the 1950s that science fiction emerged as a prolific film genre. There had been sporadic excursions into the unknown throughout the preceding decades (prominently among them Fritz Lang's Metropolis [1925] and William Cameron Menzie's Things to Come [1936], as well as the Flash Gordon [1936-40] and Buck Rogers [1939] serials), but it was only sixty years ago that production of these features went into overdrive, alchemically blending new, often ominous, technology with the purest pulp fantasy to produce cinematic gold. The romance of machines quickly dominated the motion picture industry, just as rock and roll would soon rule radio, and our collective unconscious would never be quite the same again.

Even at their most cynical, these fantasias reflected the fears and fascinations of their times. There was a subgenre for nearly every theme imaginable, from nuclear paranoia to time twisters, alien invasion to space opera. Like its cousins, this last category combined reds-under-the-beds hysteria with an explicit sense of wonder. As the super powers began reaching for the inner solar system, thematic concerns of totalitarianism and impending disaster would persist until the end of the Cold War, while their mutant offspring, the Special Effects Extravaganza, has outlasted both space and arms races to become the cultural norm.

Although Kurt Neumann's exploitation quickie, Rocketship X-M (1950), beat producer George Pal's same-year Destination Moon to the screen by four months, it is Pal's film which is generally considered to have inaugurated the Hollywood Space Race. Directly inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's fondly-remembered juvenile novel, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947)--in which three enterprising teens and a Manhattan Project physicist refit a mail rocket and journey to the moon, where they foil, of all things, a Nazi plot--Destination Moon eliminates the fascist foofaraw to become a hard-science, no-frills affair, which is both the picture's strength and its weakness. Accordingly, it stands out from the more fanciful films that monopolized the field of interstellar travel; Heinlein himself mercifully vetoed "a version of the script which included dude ranches, cowboys, guitars, and hillbilly songs on the Moon, plus a trio of female hepsters singing into a mike."

Airplane manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) and Army General Thayer (Tom Powers) convince a skeptical group of investors to defy the peacetime inaction of the (obviously Communist-infiltrated) U.S. government and fund scientist Charles Cargraves' (Warner Anderson) lunar rocket. "Why go?" one of the moneybags asks Barnes. "We'll know when we get there," he replies matter-of-factly. "We'll tell you when we get back."

To drive their message home, Barnes screens for the men, and audiences everywhere, an amusing Woody Woodpecker short which demonstrates the feasibility, as well as the necessity, of an American moon shot. General Thayer seals the deal with a Red Scare scenario in which a foreign power reaches the moon first and controls Earth with missiles. Silence. Lionel Lindon's camera pans across a sea of identically somber faces. The businessmen cough up the capital.

Of course, there is the inevitable federal intervention, as the space pioneers are forbidden to test their atomic engine in the Mojave Desert. Meanwhile, the Fourth Estate manufactures public protest. "Somebody's out to get us," Barnes declares. (Nameless saboteurs have already exploded an experimental rocket in the film's opening.) The industrialist decides to launch almost immediately; when Cargraves points out that no flight crew has been trained, Barnes counters that the take-off is fully automatic. The intrepid trio add insufferable comic relief Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) to their team when his fellow technician falls ill, and depart just before dawn and the arrival of a court injunction.

Numerous factors must be contended with: g-forces, the influence of which causes the astronauts to pull the sort of distorted faces (actually masks) most often seen on hammy guitarists; ghastly noises as their direct flight ship, Luna, breaks the sound barrier; spacesickness; and Sweeney's heinous harmonica interludes. When it is discovered that the radar antenna is frozen solid--Luna cannot land without it--Cargraves, Barnes, and Sweeney embark upon the cinema's first spacewalk, and a magnificent accomplishment it is. Dangerous, too: the scientist drifts off the rocket and has to be rescued by Barnes, who ingeniously operates an oxygen tank to reach him.

Like Apollo 11 in real life, Luna nearly runs out of fuel before it sets down on the moon. Barnes and Cargraves descend to the desolate brown-and-grey landscape while Leith Stevens' music swells, and Cargraves solemnly claims our nearest neighbor: "By the grace of God, in the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind." (Neil Armstrong would strike a not terribly dissimilar note nineteen years later.) The astronauts take photographs and perform a mineralogical survey, but their work, regrettably, is all for naught, as Barnes has wasted reaction mass on their touchdown, so the men have to strip the ship to its bare essentials before they can return home. For a while it looks as if one of them (Sweeney volunteers) will have to remain behind, but Barnes eventually figures out a way for all of them to depart, minus their radios, harmonica, and carnival balloon spacesuits. (These colorful outfits were presumably found by explorers from the Red Planet and recycled for Lesley Selander's Flight to Mars [1951]). As Luna hurtles through space, Earth looms onscreen. "This Is The End," the credits inform us, "Of The Beginning."

It was, indeed, especially for Pal, who would carve quite a name for himself in fantastic cinema. His efforts would improve throughout the decade; the sometimes mundane realism of this film was jettisoned in favor of more imaginative releases such as his following feature, When Worlds Collide (1951). However, Destination Moon remains a groundbreaking work; the straightforward script--Heinlein himself was a co-writer with Alford "Rip" Van Ronkel and James O'Hanlon--together with the superb astronomical art of Chesley Bonestell, Ernst Fegte's marvelous sets, Lee Zavitz's deservedly Oscar-winning special effects, and the technical advice of rocket man Hermann Oberth, all combined to take viewers on a surprisingly prescient voyage, and the significance of that expedition endures more than half a century later, despite former character actor Irving Pichel's sometimes workmanlike direction. (He also provides uncredited narration for the Walter Lantz cartoon.)

The moon adventures that immediately followed offered outrageous alternatives to Pal's and Heinlein's clear, courageous vision, and it would only be with Robert Altman's Countdown (1968) that the subject of a lunar landing would again be realistically rendered. In retrospect, the actual U.S. touchdown, although obviously a splendid achievement, was itself curiously anti-climactic. "Science fiction got there first," J.G. Ballard melancholically observed in 1993, "just as it has anticipated so much of our lives, effectively taking all the fun and surprise out of existence." The genre, it appears, has done much of our living for us, while the Inner Space advocated by the British New Wavers of the Sixties remains largely uncharted.

Image's 2000 "5oth Anniversary Edition" DVD is part of the Wade Williams Collection and sports attractive Technicolor (the spacesuits are especially vibrant), as well as an acceptable amount of grain and scratches; reel changes, however, are particularly rough. In worse shape is the film's re-release trailer, which ridiculously raves about "the black, airless void of terror-stricken space." The ninety-one minute fullscreen transfer offers fifteen chapter stops, as well as dust jacket liner notes which are supposedly continued inside the snapper case; my copy of the insert sheet, alas, does not contain them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Six decades before Indiana Jones first cracked his whip, there was Kay Hoog, the playboy protagonist of Fritz Lang's fourth feature, Die Spinnen ("The Spiders") (1919-20). The all-American sportsman/adventurer--how ironic it is that the German auteur chose a U.S., rather than Teutonic, hero--appeared in the first two installments of a projected four-part series; the remaining half of this ripping yarn, unfortunately, was never completed, and Lang moved steadily towards his future greatness with the subsequent multi-part masterworks Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924). Both chapters of The Spiders, however, are self-contained units, and stand on their own as splendid early examples of the Monocled Maestro's art--accomplishments all the more satisfying when one considers that Lang forewent directing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that same year in order to helm the Decla serial.

The first installment, Der Goldene See ("The Golden Lake," 56 minutes), memorably opens with a ragged Harvard anthropologist escaping from his Incan captors and tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean, before he is executed by one of the natives. The professor has discovered a lost city full of treasures beneath the so-called "Holy Sea," and his message is found by the yachting Hoog (Carl de Vogt), who cancels his participation in a regatta race for the Golden Trophy of San Francisco to locate the city ("the golden treasures of the ancient Incas are far more inviting"). Along the way Hoog must spar with the Spiders, a criminal organization obviously modeled on the villains of Louis Feuillade's seminal serial, Les Vampires (1914), who leave an artificial tarantula on their victims' corpses. The organization's leader, Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), proves to be a mighty match for our protagonist, even if she's no Irma Vep. Hoog journeys to the lost city, where he rescues its Sun Priestess, Naela (Lil Dagover), from a prowling anaconda. Lio Sha--whose name inspired the handle for a character in the second Indiana Jones adventure--is hot on his heels with her gang of gauchos, but gets abducted by the high priest, who commands the reluctant Naela to sacrifice the criminal mistress. Hoog saves both Lio Sha and the priestess before sparks from holy candles explode, flooding the treasure-filled cave where the cowboys have worked themselves into a gold frenzy. Hoog and Naela escape to civilization, as does Lio Sha, who subsequently murders the priestess in retaliation for Hoog's refusal to hand over a document he's earlier snatched from the Spiders in a Cuitcatlan saloon, and join the villainess in her underworld quest.

The second installment, Das Brilliantenschiff ("The Diamond Ship," 81 minutes), was released several months later. The titular vessel (referenced in the document that Hoog snatched in Part One) sets sail in search of a legendary Buddha-head stone. Our hero, seeking vengeance on the Spiders, penetrates a secret underground Chinese city in Shaky Town, and learns of Lio Sha's passage on the Storm Bird. Captured by the Spiders, Hoog improbably escapes when the water flooding his cell loosens the prison's bars. Ludicrously but amusingly, Hoog then has himself transported in a crate (replete with wine, library, and electric light!) aboard the ship, emerging from it in black hood and costume--looking remarkably like a Spider himself--to intercept an urgent transmission to the Storm Bird's telegrapher. The Spiders, you see, have employed an Indian yogi to supernaturally divine the stone's whereabouts--an Argentinian treasure map is in the unknowing possession of English diamond magnate John Terry (Rudolph Lettinger)--and the arachnid antagonists kidnap Terry's daughter, Ellen (Thea Zander), to ensure his cooperation. Hoog resolves to rescue the woman, and soon our intrepid aristocrat--now definitely resembling Dr. Jones in his spiffy explorer gear--is battling the Spiders in the Falklands as everyone stalks the fabled stone in a forgotten cavern. Lio Sha and her henchmen conveniently perish from volcanic fumes at the film's climax (one wonders how the serial would have fared without her infernal presence), and Hoog is left to romance his new Naela surrogate.

All that remains, regrettably, of the third and fourth installments are their tantalizing titles, The Secret of the Sphinx and For Asia's Imperial Crown. Although the first two chapters made considerable money, producer Erich Pommer preferred to concentrate on other projects, and Hoog docked his yacht for good, while Lang, who had become increasingly dissatisfied with Decla, switched his allegiance to Joe May's studio. Emil Schunemann lensed the first installment, but Karl Freund shot the second part, thereby commencing the greatest of all Expressionist director-cinematographer collaborations. Of course, an adventure on this epic scale is heavily dependent on its sets, and Hermann Warm's and Otto Hunte's stylized renditions do not disappoint. Lang himself was trained as an architect, and the picture consistently conveys his powerful sense of space; the Incan temple, created at Hagenbeck Zoological Garden in Hamburg, is especially elaborate, and would have done D.W. Griffith proud.

Lang's screenplay, careering from horse opera to exotica, slam-bangingly explores the web of occult supervillainy that he would so brilliantly expand in his monumental Mabuse trilogy (1922-60): in this instance, however, the machinations are of Eastern, rather than Western, origin, undoubtedly reflecting the influence of Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu debuted in 1912 (though looming over all these cinematic malefactors is Marcel Allain's and Pierre Souvestre's Fantomas). The organization employing the Spiders is identified as the Asian Committee, while the long-lost Buddha diamond's powers will purportedly allow the Orient to eliminate colonial oppression when a mysterious princess returns the stone. Like their creation myth counterparts, the Spiders weave a world of their own, and foreshadow the mesmeric manipulations of Dr. Mabuse by placing Ellen under hypnotic control in their scheme for global domination. The yogi sequence, meanwhile, anticipates a similar plot contrivance in the script Lang wrote for May's 1920 diptych, The Indian Tomb.

Hoog, who starred in the director's first couple of films (Halfbreed and The Master of Love, both 1919), makes an appealing paladin, and Orla, although lacking the lithe loveliness of Les Vampires' magnificent Musidora, is a formidable foe. The great Dagover, returning from Lang's same-year Madame Butterfly adaptation, Hara-Kiri, delights as a charming, albeit patently phony, South American priestess--in point of fact, the entire cast is unmistakably Aryan, which suffuses The Spiders with an additional sense of unreality, in which the entire scenario unfolds with all the glorious illogic of a fever dream.

Image's fullscreen transfer looks as if it was recovered from the lost city. David Shepherd, working from a positive print (the negative no longer exists) unveiled his heroic restoration in 1979, and the picture looks as good today as it probably ever will, though it is in desperate need of a digital cleanup. The transfer offers the original tints, as well as a veritable wealth of grain, scratches, and splotches. Footage from this two-hour-and-seventeen-minute movie is missing at 2:04:12, when a fistfight between Hoog and one of Lio Sha's henchmen abruptly ends with Hoog lighting a cigarette. Lang's first two features have not survived (Hara-Kiri itself was feared lost until the 1980s), so we should be grateful that this fantasia has at least endured. Gaylord Carter's Wurlitzer score, originally recorded for the early home-video distributor, Blackhawk Films, provides an appropriately buoyant accompaniment. The liner notes on the back of Image's dust jacket are supposedly continued inside the snapper case, but were nowhere to be found in my Amazon-ordered copy. The 1999 disc contains twenty-three chapter stops, as well as a Lang filmography, but pointedly lacks an audio commentary. A feature-length analysis of The Spiders by the appropriate scholar would be just what the doctor (Mabuse) ordered.