Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Cosmic Man (Future Productions, Allied Artists, Associated British Pathé, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Flying Saucer, The Cosmic Man was a relief — a far more professional piece of filmmaking with a major star, John Carradine (as well as another at least semi-major star, Bruce Bennett — between them they put this film one degree of separation from screen legends like Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Crawford!), directed by Herbert S. Greene from an original story and screenplay by Arthur C. Pierce. (The last time we saw something involving this writer was Destination Inner Space, made five years after The Cosmic Man, and shown at the Golden Hill Vintage Sci-Fi screening, at which time I joked, “Oh! Screenplay by Arthur C. … uh, Pierce.”) This time the flying saucer — only it’s spherical, so it looks more like a flying beach ball — really is from outer space, and it’s just barely large enough to contain its single passenger, the title character played by Carradine. By this time Carradine was no longer getting either prestigious supporting roles in John Ford movies like The Prisoner of Shark Island, Stagecoach or The Grapes of Wrath, nor was he getting starring roles in “B”-movies of real quality like the 1944 Bluebeard, with Edgar G. Ulmer directing. Indeed, he made The Cosmic Man two years after the ghastly film The Unearthly, a 1957 production in which he played a mad scientist who invented a new gland (as I wrote about it the last time Charles and I watched it, “the hysterical — in both senses, overwrought and funny — bit of dialogue Carradine delivers celebrating this achievement is the moment at which The Unearthly goes from being just another bad sci-fi cheapie into Worst Movies Hall-of-Fame-dom”) that turns people into monsters.

Worse was to come for Carradine — in particular The Astro-Zombies, a 1969 movie of such mind-numbing awfulness that it looks like it was photographed on super-8 and the soundtrack recorded on cassette — but in The Cosmic Man he at least gets to play a character of some dignity. The film is at least a partial knockoff of The Day the Earth Stood Still — though the solitary traveler from outer space doesn’t bring a robot along and Pierce’s big speech for him explaining who he is and why he’s come is far less coherent than Edmund North’s from The Day the Earth Stood Still) — and it eerily anticipates the recent film Arrival in that the Cosmic Man’s spacecraft is build with sufficiently advanced technology that it hovers a foot or so above the earth’s surface instead of actually touching down on it. Director Greene puts in a lot of moving-camera shots and other tricks low-budget producers usually eschewed because they took money and time to do right, and screenwriter Pierce manages to skew the balance between the military people who want to shoot the monster and his spaceship to smithereens and the scientists who want to keep him alive and reason with him more towards the scientists and less towards the military — the opposite of Howard Hawks’ The Thing (1951), in which the scientist who wants to keep the creature alive was depicted as a dangerous ditz who got what he deserved when the monster knocked him off.

The Cosmic Man starts off promisingly, with scientist Dr. Karl Sorenson (Bruce Bennett) and his assistant, Kathy Grant (Angela Greene), attempting to make contact with the inhabitant of the spaceship and keep the military from shooting at it, and of course like the heroine of The Day the Earth Stood Still and its knockoff, Stranger from Venus, Kathy is a war widow (though since this was 1959 the war in which she lost her husband was changed from World War II to Korea) with a son named Ken (Scotty Morrow), though Pierce ramped up the tear-jerking by making Ken, like Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim, a desperately ill disabled boy who uses a wheelchair (instead of a crutch) and will die within a year or two. Dr. Sorenson invents a high-tech weapon to use against the Cosmic Man — who’s been shown skulking through the action wearing a black cloak and pants and with his face caked in white goop so he can be seen (it’s established that he can be seen as a shadow during the day but is invisible at night — explained preposterously with the assertion that light itself is different on his home planet — ironically Carradine’s previous experience with screen invisibility had been on the other end, as mad scientist Dr. Drury, who turns Jon Hall invisible in The Invisible Man’s Revenge) — consisting of a solar battery and two giant metal objects that look like cafeteria trays but are actually reflectors of the kind routinely used by film crews working outdoors to bounce light to where they need it. Sorenson is reluctant to use it but finally turns it on when the Cosmic Man seems to have taken Ken as a hostage — but he really only wanted the boy because his high-tech gizmos could cure his disease and enable him to walk again. The Cosmic Man isn’t a bad movie — though, like The Flying Saucer, it isn’t good enough to be entertaining on its own merits and isn’t bad enough to be camp — it’s just mind-numbingly familiar, a mélange of plot elements we’ve seen all too many times before, and Carradine invests his characterization with as much dignity as he can but it’s still a role we’ve seen him play too often before.