Saturday, May 20, 2017

Battle of the Worlds (Ultra Film, Sicilia Cinematografica, 1961)

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

This morning I watched another video cheapie, a much newer — and tackier — movie called Battle of the Worlds, credited to 1963 on the box but actually looking like it might be a few years older than that (its star, an aging Claude Rains, died in 1967). The film was clearly an Italian production, though its director was credited as “Anthony Dawson” — given that all the below-the-line people on the credits (including a very interesting composer, who wrote a quirky theme song for the film that sounds like late-1960’s “psychedelic” rock) are Italian names, I suspect “Dawson” is simply an Anglo pseudonym for an Italian director. The film was tacky enough to be a camp classic — especially the “special effects” of cigar-shaped rockets fighting alien flying saucers in space, which by the standards set by 2001 and Star Wars are virtually laughable — and it was terribly dubbed (a separate dialogue writer/director, George Higgins, gets screen credit), though it also had some intriguing plot elements and a strong, moving performance by Rains as an eccentric scientist whose offbeat ideas about the mysterious “Outsider” invading Earth turn out to be right (now there’s a character more like Peter Duesberg than the murdering scientific thug of The Vampire Bat, who actually more closely resembles Robert Gallo!), and who — like the non-“mad” but stupid scientist of The Thing — gives his life, in the end, to be true to his quest for knowledge. Basically, the plot of Battle of the Worlds concerns a mysterious mini-planet which invades our solar system and sends out robot flying saucers to seek and destroy any enemy spaceships threatening it. It also seems to have the power to alter gravitational fields in its proximity, either to attract objects to it or drive them away. What makes this movie a bit more interesting than the many, similarly plotted films that were made in the 1950’s and 1960’s is that the inhabitants of the “Outsider” (the name Rains’ scientist character gives this object) are all dead, killed by the radioactivity of the nuclear reactor that provided power for their spacecraft, but their attack-and-defense mechanisms work automatically, and therefore the machinery of the spacecraft is fighting a war on behalf of the now-dead “masters” who programmed it in the first place.

Also — though this element is not stressed — Battle takes place in a near-future Earth (a permanent base on Mars has been established, and features prominently in the plot) governed by a benevolent dictatorship ruled by a committee. In fact, the level of social control is so great that the spaceship pilot who goes up to combat the Outsider’s defense system has no control over his ship; it’s directed from Earth, and when he breaks the control link on his own authority, his co-pilot feels it’s an act of insubordination and worries about what sort of trouble they’ll have from it. I’m not tempted to describe Battle as a bad movie that could have been good — given the circumstances under which it was (probably) produced, and the technical glitches (not only the bad “special effects” — I’m deliberately keeping that term in quotes — but also the rotten, cheap color, which in this admittedly well-worn print leads the characters to change color quite dramatically as they move around the sets, and also gives the impression that this near-future Earth is inhabited almost exclusively by redheads), it’s probably as good as it could have been. The sets themselves are also delightfully tacky; when Rains and company finally penetrate the interior of the “Outsider,” what they find is a series of long, curving corridors filled with what looks like giant red strands of spaghetti hanging from the walls and ceilings. “They’ve landed in a pasta factory!” I thought — appropriate enough, I suppose, given that this was an Italian movie … — 8/31/94


Battle of the Worlds was made by virtually the same production team as Assignment — Outer Space but turned out considerably better, not because it was that good a film but it did have points of appeal the earlier movie from this production group did not. The main one was an honest-to-goodness star in the lead, Claude Rains, playing a scientist named Dr. Benson who’s insanely reclusive and arrogantly dismissive of all his colleagues in general and one Dr. Cornfield (John Stacy) in particular. It also helps that there are at least three women with major roles in the cast, including Eve Barnett (Maya Brent), who in the opening scene is shown making out on the beach, From Here to Eternity-style (and it looks like director “Dawson” really tried to find an Italian beach that looked as much as possible like the stretch of Malibu where the Eternity scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr was filmed), with hunky male scientist Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini). The moment they mentioned her name I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, Eve left that boring old Adam and hooked up with … Fred.” And the straight guys in the audience oohed and ahhed over the filmy white dress Eve was wearing when she and Fred jumped in the water, and wished it would get filmier and more revealing, while I of course was looking at Fred’s bare chest, his hot nipples and the well-defined basket under his tan swim trunks! Anyway, the scientists in the movie are noticing increasing levels of weather disturbance on the earth — represented by stock newsreel clips of fires, floods, hurricanes (some of the famous shots of palm trees blowing in the winds of the famous 1926 Florida storms make it into this movie) vaguely tinted to make it look like they belong in an (otherwise) color films — and Dr. Benson and his colleagues deduce that they herald the coming of a giant vessel from outer space, which Benson calls “The Outsider” (which would have actually been a good title for this film except it’s not especially science-fictiony and it had already been used for several other films, including the 1961 movie in which Tony Curtis played Ira Hayes, the Native American who was in the famous flag-raising photo on Iwo Jima and then, once he returned home, descended into alcoholism and an early death) and which appears to be intent on staging a War of the Worlds-style invasion of Earth with the object being to conquer us and take over our planet. 

The Outsider sends out fleets of flying discs (they actually look like cymbals, and may well have been) to attack the Earth spaceships trying to defend us against it, and when one of the discs is actually downed and Fred and his married commander, Bob Cole (Bill Carter), explore inside the wreckage, they see a lot of red tendrils inside but no sign of actual life. Dr. Benson deduces that the discs are essentially drones controlled by a hive-mind computer inside the Outsider itself, and eventually he, Bob and Eve end up as part of an expedition to land a spacecraft on the Outsider and try to get inside it. When they get in they find more red tendrils — in fact the wiring is so neon-colored and so stringy it looks like a giant vat of spaghetti, which I guess makes sense given that this is an Italian film — and still no sign of life, from which Dr. Benson concludes that the Outsider was a planet-killing machine built by an expansionist civilization that sent these things out willy-nilly throughout the galaxy, looking for new worlds to conquer — only the people (or creatures, or whatever) who made it long since died out. But the ships themselves continued to move through the galaxy on autopilot, and this was just Earth’s unlucky day. The film concludes with a surprisingly exciting suspense sequence in which the commanders back home on Earth send an order that the Outsider be destroyed — but Benson doesn’t want to leave the Outsider before the attack begins because he’s too committed to downloading all its central computer’s information about the creating civilization’s technology so it can be used to benefit Earth — a stone ripoff of the premise of Forbidden Planet and evidence that writer de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” had seen that flawed but fascinating 1956 MGM film. In the end Benson dies when the Outsider blows up, Eve makes it back to her boyfriend Fred, Bob gets back to his wife Cathy (Jacqueline Derval) and the Earth is safe at least from this film’s interplanetary menace.  

Battle of the Worlds is hardly a great movie but it’s a damned sight better than Assignment — Outer Space, partly because it had a bigger effects budget (not only did it have more effects shots than Assignment — Outer Space, the effects it had were quite a bit more convincing), partly because there were at least three women in the dramatis personae even though one of them was Eve’s rival for Fred’s affections and the third, Cathy Cole, it was hinted had previously dated Fred before marrying Bob, but mainly because of Claude Rains. Yes, it’s the sort of highly stylized, schticky performances actors frequently give in their later years, when the mannerisms that originally gave their performances lift and pep have hardened into dull clichés. Rains doesn’t help his cause by bellowing almost all his lines in the raspy intonations and exasperated tones he used at the most traumatic moments of The Invisible Man and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and when we first discovered him as a recluse I joked, “Well, he had to go somewhere after he was forced out of the U.S. Senate in disgrace”), but it’s still a star performance and the unforgettable voice (his own in this stew of voice doubles — George Higgins III was credited as dialogue director but it’s clear he didn’t have anything to do with making this film originally and his involvement was supervising the dubbing sessions) carries weight and authority even though he seems to be bellowing out the entire script the way he did his final lines — “Expel me, not him!” — in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Rains wasn’t just a big name the producers slipped a few bucks to for one or two days’ work: his part runs through the entire film and adds a surprising degree of power even though as a movie this is hardly in the same league as The Invisible Man or Casablanca — from which one of the people at the screening couldn’t help but joke, “I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — to find that Claude Rains is in this movie!” —5/20/17