The two films at last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) were both made in the 1970’s and were products of the conspiracy theorizing fashionable at the time, which seems to have started with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the totally impossible “explanation” that the U.S. government put forth that it was all the work of Lee Harvey Oswald, a lousy shot with a lousier rifle in a sixth-floor window shooting at a motorcade that was moving away from him. Both these films were based on the common assumption of a lot of people back then that the U.S. had never really landed people on the moon — that the whole thing had been faked in a movie studio by professional filmmakers (at least one version of the conspiracy even named the professional filmmakers who had allegedly faked it: Stanley Kubrick and his crew from 2001: A Space Odyssey, working on that film’s leftover sets) and the dastardly conspiracy was just waiting to be unraveled by an intrepid reporter, detective or free-lance do-gooder (or troublemaker, depending on your point of view) with sufficient luck and determination to figure it out and avoid being assassinated himself for his pains. The first one was The Astronaut (a title that surprisingly has only one other listing on imdb.com), a 1972 production of the TV-movie division of Universal (you can tell from the very dull block-lettered design of the credits) directed by Robert Michael Lewis from a script by Charles Kuenstle, Robert Biheller and Gerald Di Pego.
The conceit of this film is that the U.S. actually sent up superstar astronaut Col. Brice Randolph (Monte Markham, who apparently was in a lot of made-for-TV movies at the time but whom I remembered only as the star of the disastrous and short-lived 1970’s attempt to reboot the Perry Mason TV series) to Mars and he got to the planet’s surface while his colleague Higgins (James Sikking) stayed in the part of the spacecraft that merely orbited Mars without landing on it. Only some toxin in the Martian atmosphere — either biological or chemical, nobody in the movie (or the people writing it) ever decided — seeped through Randolph’s spacesuit and killed him. Kurt Anderson (Jackie Cooper, top-billed), the head of the U.S. space program, fears that revelation that the first human on Mars died will lead a budget-conscious President and Congress to zero out the whole space program, so he puts into action a plan he and the real Randolph cooked up before the flight in case anything went wrong: they would recruit a double, Eddie Reese (also Monte Markham), to impersonate him and fake a successful return of the spacecraft to earth from which Reese would return and take over Randolph’s identity. Reese learns Randolph’s voice and the key elements of his past via tapes Randolph made for that purpose before he left, and goes through a high-tech version of plastic surgery to alter his already strong resemblance to Randolph to virtual identity. The one person he doesn’t fool is Randolph’s wife, Gail (Susan Clark), who was expecting the real Randolph’s child when he blasted off; though she can’t tell the difference physically, she realizes the new “Randolph” is considerably tenderer and more considerate than the old one. She finally confronts him and the man who’s moved into her life (and her bed, though the assumption seems to be that that far along in her pregnancy he wouldn’t be having sex with her) admits that he is not Randolph.
The two find that they are being essentially held prisoner because the people running the U.S. space program fear they’ll escape and tell the world the truth — they’re not even allowed to leave their home, though at one point Reese wangles them a special pass so they can go to a nightclub and dance (the band at the club advertises “Music of the ’50’s” but the song we actually hear is “I’ll Remember April,” written by Don Raye and Gene De Paul in 1942 for the Universal Abbott and Costello movie Ride ’Em, Cowboy and similarly used in 1955 as the song nightclub patrons are dancing to when the Gill-Man turns up in the sequel Revenge of the Creature), only they have to flee in a hurry when a patron recognizes Reese as “Randolph” and he and Gail realize they’re going to blow their cover if they don’t leave immediately. As the film progresses Eddie and Gail realize they’re falling in love with each other for real — Eddie is so much nicer and more considerate than that stuffed-shirt husband of hers who conveniently died on Mars — and they make plans to run away together even though they’ll do heaven knows what. (I suspect the writers ripped off this plot line from the 1937 screwball classic Nothing Sacred, in which the woman at the center of a newspaper hoax and the reporter who cooked it up have to hide out from the world forever.) Only a deus ex machina emerges when the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) launches their own manned mission to Mars and Kurt Anderson (ya remember Kurt Anderson?) has a crisis of conscience: let the Soviet cosmonauts land on Mars and get killed by the same whatsit that knocked off the real Randolph, or admit the truth before the Soviet spacecraft lands and thereby spare their cosmonauts at the risk of a major political embarrassment and the possible end of the U.S. space program? Fortunately for all concerned, Kurt does the right thing and goes public with the truth.
The Astronaut is that frustrating sort of movie that has a compelling central premise but deserved better execution: it doesn’t help that not only Randolph and Reese but a lot of the males in the film look similar to each other, and the tackiness of the production on a Universal TV budget occasionally takes its toll on the film, but it gets considerably better when Susan Clark appears and turns in a whirlwind of a performance as the wife. For a while she and Markham as Reese have such bitter arguments this almost looks like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the science-fiction version, but eventually they reconcile and Clark adroitly nails the transformation of her attitude from hatred to love as well as her frustration in this ridiculous situation in which her husband has been replaced by an impostor but she finds she likes the impostor a lot better than she liked the original. (This was a gimmick used in quite a few previous movies about impersonations — like the 1942 MGM “B” Nazi Agent in which good anti-Nazi refugee Conrad Veidt replaces evil Nazi agent Conrad Veidt and his cover is blown when the bad Nazi’s dog, who always hated the bad Veidt, snuggles up to the good Veidt and lets Veidt pet him, or the 1948 Bette Davis melodrama A Stolen Life, in which the predatory Davis steals Glenn Ford from the good Davis, then drowns in a boating accident that was caused by her trying to kill the good Davis, who emerges and takes the bad Davis’s place as Ford’s wife — but it still works.) The Astronaut is an indication of how capable Universal’s TV-movie division was in the early 1970’s, even though the basic premise would seem to have been good enough to merit a feature film with a decent budget and bigger names than Monte Markham and Susan Clark in the leads!