Thursday, September 4, 2008

Iceberg Arena: British Sci-Fi of the 1950's (Now with Trivia!)

British Sci-Fi of the 1950's

The Man in the White Suit vs. The Four Sided Triangle vs. The Quatermass Xperiment

The explosion of films about alien invaders and interplanetary trips in the 1950’s was the first real heyday of the SF cinematic genre. Not only were bug-eyed monsters not coming in peace, but science consistently went wrong, gigantic versions of everyday things attacked and nuclear disasters regularly wiped 99.999% of human life from the face of the earth. Despite the heavy theater presence, however, SF failed to gain much respect due to the low budgets and poor scripts that became standard. Viewers could revel in the exciting ideas and fantastic implausibilities, but rarely could they expect accurate science, decent dialogue or proficient directing.

Still the 1950’s was a time of real innovation, where special effects and raw imagination raced to keep up with each other. It brought us some of the most iconic SF around like “The Thing from Another World,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Godzilla,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “This Island Earth.” There are so many American SF classics worth revisiting, unassuming B-movies languishing in obscurity and unearthed relics waiting to see projector light again that one might almost forget that the same renaissance had taken place in Britain as well.

Across the pond intrepid heroes also crossed the solar system, brilliant scientists (usually less mad and more dignified than their American counterparts) played god invention for invention and Buckingham Palace gave the White House a run for its money as the first-stop of choice for aliens visitors. (At least we both agreed they would contact English-speaking countries first.)

Britain put in some superb entries into the annals during that crucial decade, but there’s no question that they haven’t seen the wide-spread attention (either then or now) that they deserve. The Film Walrus is not likely to tip the balance, but when have I ever let that stop me?

That’s why this Iceberg Arena will venture back to the brave old world where astronauts in shining spacesuits fought space-age dragons with technical wizardry. (Actually, all three of today’s films star scientist characters, so don’t expect any ray guns.) And now to the contestants:

The Man in the White Suit

As the product of Ealing Studio, director Alexander MacKendrick and actor Alec Guiness (a combination that came to greater fame with “The Ladykillers”), it’s not surprising that “The Man in the White Suit” (1951) is a superb comedy. What is surprising is that the film is such good SF, too, focusing as it does on an apparently average working class Northern England textile town.

It’s Guinness’s Sidney Stratton, an idealistic genius with little care for cost or consequence, who turns the town upside down. Working on the sly in the research departments of various mills (who’d like to fire him except that no one can remember hiring him…) he invents an indestructable wonder fabric woven from a single ultra-long polymer strand. It never needs to be washed since it can’t pick up dirt, stains or even dyes and so it is consequently luminously (there’s some radiation involved) white. His boss is, at first, absolutely overjoyed until the industry giants and labor unions both realize that it threatens to put them out of business after a single batch.

MacKendrick’s down-to-earth SF film doesn’t venture very far from reality, focusing more on the soft science implications than showy catastrophes like mutations, abominations and disasters. Guinness is absolutely perfect as the imperturbable scientist and his peculiar equipment and inventions are a hoot to admire. Scenes of him working are often accompanied by the films distinctive (though overplayed) theme music consisting of bubbling, whirring and clanging.

[Image: Alec Guiness.]

Though “The Man in the White Suit” works as accessible SF, a man-on-the-run thriller and an endearing romantic comedy (helped by Joan Greenwood, who’d previously teamed with Guiness for the Ealing’s masterpiece “Kind Hearts and Coronets”), it really shines as a comedy. The titular white suit serves as an excuse for MacKendrick’s barbed satire, which hits on consumer culture, planned obsolescence, labor unions, corporate monopolies and resistance to progress. In an ironic inversion of narrative conventions, workers and factory owners are shown overcoming their disputes and uniting behind a common cause, but for evil, leaving Stratton with almost no where to turn.

It might not have much in the way of special effects, but “The Man in the White Suit” is a rare SF film that has both a warmer heart and sharper claws than your typical beast. MacKendrick’s direction is impressive for the low budget, taking advantage of location shooting to capture the local flavor and create some iconic action pieces, like a nighttime chase through the village streets where Stratton’s glowing outfit makes it impossible for him to hide. Guinness shoulders the central role with modesty and charm, creating one of the most likable scientist heroes in a genre too frequently saddled with generic dullards.

And now a quick interruption for The Film Walrus’s “Tusk Full of Trivia”:

The word Luddite, meaning anyone who opposes new technology, comes from Ned Ludd, a folk hero who inspired British workers to riot against the introduction of labor-reducing textile machinery in the 1810’s.

The Four Sided Triangle

Terence Fisher (“The Horror of Dracula,” “The Devil Rides Out”) may be the best director at Britain’s notorious Hammer Studio. To some, that’s about as prestigious as being the finest filmmaker in Nauru, but I think Fisher’s talent for horror is deserving of the retroactive praise it has received since his death in 1980. “The Four Sided Triangle” (1953) is one of Fisher’s earliest works and although it isn’t horror, it is science-fiction and shows off many of the trademarks that would distinguish his later series of Frankenstein features.

The film follows two best friends, Bill and Robin, who have competed for the affections of Lena, a local girl, since they were strapping young lads goofing off in a dilapidated country barn. Pursuing separate paths for many years, the three friends are eventually reunited in the very same barn, this time to work on an ambitious invention that can reproduce, down to the smallest detail, any object placed inside it. Bill is the brains of the project, with Robin providing pragmatic backup and Lena serving as cook, maid and eye candy.

Despite financial difficulty the project ultimately yield success, turning its skeptical backers into covetous entrepreneurs, much to the chagrin of the idealistic Bill. He’d prefer to see his invention used for multiplying rare medicines and expensive apparatuses, but agrees to keep the device a secret until the government can provide security.

Flushed with success, he prepares to propose to Lena, only to discover that she’s just become engaged to Robin, who she’s always preferred. Devastated, Bill’s formerly sterling ethics tarnish as he starts secretly conducting duplications on live animals and plots to create a copy of Lena for himself. Truly sympathetic towards Bill’s loneliness and pain, Lena agrees, but none of them take into account one important detail: the newly created Helen is exactly the same as Lena in every detail… including her love for Robin.

“The Four Sided Triangle” is a prime example of low-budget resourceful, playfully molding an excellent plot around a set design budget that allows for little more than a modest sitting room and an old barn. The scientific equipment is little more than the de rigueur oscilloscope, warning gage and activation lever, but somehow the barn comes to life due to Fisher’s skill at shaping suspense with careful staging and editing (for instance, deftly handling the Lena/Helen scenes without being able to put them in the same frame).

The acting in “The Four Sided Triangle” is the best type of bad, squarely determined to communicate the full gravity of the fateful tragedy despite meager talent. Bill (Stephen Murray) is bravely committed to his role, displaying a confidence and determination that helps mask his minimal range. James Hayter, who provides the narration as a local doctor who raises Bill, is inadvertently hilarious as the most passive voice of reason ever, completely unable to do anything but casually observe (and even assist!) the descent into disaster.

[Image: Barbara Payton.]

Then there’s Barbara Payton as Lena/Helen who steals the show less with her impossibly compassionate performance then with her Marilyn-Monroe-next-door looks. Sadly, Payton was at the end of a very short career (more notable for her high profile affairs with the likes of James Cagney, Gary Cooper and Bob Hope than for her acting roles) and would soon find herself sleeping on city benches and working as a prostitute for drug money (but she’s not ashamed). Though stabbed by one of her johns in 1962, she lived long enough to die of heart failure while trying to go cold turkey. Anyway…

Fisher’s film has the clean, quick efficiency that distinguishes entertaining genre escapism from plodding cinematic masochism. I almost think it should have filled out its running time more, spending more time with the emotional and psychological possibilities of the Bill/Robin rivalry and the Lena/Helen situation. The characters are far too unfazed by each new development, fumbling the huge potential for melodrama and absurdity. Nevertheless, I think this film is hugely underrated considering its effectiveness as a provocative precursor to cloning debates, a fresh take on the love triangle (speaking of which, what a great title!) and a campy, cult artifact.

And now for another installment of Tusk Full of Trivia! Nauru, a Pacific island nation with a population below 10,000, is one of only two republics (both Micronesian) who hold parliamentary elections using a modified Borda count voting method. This involves each citizen making a ranked list of their choices with each choice receiving 1/rank points. This election system is one of the fairest for ranked voting on a variable number of candidates and is currently used for such prestigious awards as the golden walruses.

The Quatermass Xperiment

“The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955) had already been filmed as a 1953 BBC television series when Hammer decided to adapt it for a theatrical run. They put director Val Guest in charge and cast American actor Brian Donlevy in the lead role and locked out original series conceiver Nigel Kneale. With better-than-average visuals and a built-in audience, the film became a major hit for Hammer and has since enjoyed an enduring reputation.

Prof. Quatermass is a hard-edged, authoritarian scientist who has arranged a privately developed rocket flight around the moon. When the ship crash lands back on Earth two of the three passengers are mysteriously absent (though their clothes remain) and the third, Victor Carroon, is comatose. Camera recordings of the flight provide no clues, but Dr. Briscoe thinks the deaths might be linked to a strange mutation on Carroon’s arm. When the patient wakes up, he tries to flee and stumbles, placing his mutated hand against a spiny bedside plant. Soon he’s rampaging through the streets with a cactus-arm, absorbing and adopting all forms of life that get in his way.

The rocket that returns with a deadly payload may not seem very original today, but Kneale’s original script packed a lot of wallop. The portrayal of Carroon, a kind man still conscious of his plight as his abominable body kills and consumes, became a memorable vehicle for both psychological horror and graphic effects (enough to get the now-quaint film an x-rating).

The tension hinges upon a desperate manhunt to exterminate the monster before it can spore and spread beyond any possible containment. As it assimilates more lifeforms into its bulk, including an entire zoo, it grows to hideous proportions. Ultimately, it’s trail of slime leads to an electrifying showdown inside Westminster Abbey.

Val Guest plays up the atmosphere, violence and suspense of the story, making a monster movie first and a sci-fi detective story second. The monster’s rampage lays claim to the film’s most exhilarating moments, while the talky roles of Prof. Bernard Quatermass and his Scotland Yard rival Inspector Lomax soon wear thin. Brian Donlevy, usually an actor I really enjoy, is particularly bad as the eponymous lead. He is wooden and tyrannical, displaying an obvious contempt for the script yet still managing a commanding performance.

[Image: Brian Donlevy.]

The interior sets are awkwardly bare, but outdoors the cinematography really takes over. A lot of fog, noir lighting and some moody music help draw the audience in whether we are looking at a crashed rocket or an unremarkable shrub. Particularly powerful is the monster’s final form and last-minute confrontation, capped off by a great closing crane shot that eloquently promised a sequel. Several were made.

And now for a final Tusk Full of Trivia! Sci-fi titles often seem to show a tendency, shared with pharmaceuticals, of favoring uncommon letters like K, Q, X and Z. But how much bias actually occurs? Below are the frequencies of those letters in regular English text followed by their frequencies in the 600+ SF titles tracked in my golden walruses database:
K: 0.3% 1.0%
Q: 0.3% 0.2%
X: 0.5% 0.3%
Z: 0.1% 0.3%

So it looks like “Quatermass Xperiment” is still a relative exception even amongst SF titles, despite help from the X-men trilogy and “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” Turns out K and Z are the real winners, though three versions of “King Kong,” ten “Star Trek” films and “Zardoz” may have thrown off the numbers!


Each of these films is worthwhile for SF fans. I found them surprising me with better quality and more originality than I gave the 1950’s credit for. The acting, at its worst, is still better than most performances from AIP and the US studio double bills and the directing in all three films overcomes the low budgets.

The stories are all entertaining and thoughtful, with more than a little contemporary relevance. Much of the success comes from finding terrestrial tales that sidestep the pseudoscience silliness in many early SF films and focus, instead, on the social and personal implications of new discoveries. Yet the real reason to see more UK SF is that techno jargon sounds so much more convincing with a British accent.

So which one is my favorite? Well, “The Four Sided Triangle” is definitely the most underrated and “The Quatermass Xperiment” is certainly the most influential, but I would say “The Man in the White Suit” is the best all-around. It stands as one of the few truly great SF comedies and one of my favorite pictures from Ealing.

Winner: The Man in the White Suit


Pacze Moj said...

Great write-up. I'm a bit ashamed to say I haven't seen any of these films, but it's still interesting to read about them.

You're wrong about Woody Allen, though!


Nigel M said...

Love Man In The White suit, a tale that certainly has messages for today- interesting you mentioned Luddites, that aspect certainly is in the film as is corporate greed and concepts of built in obsolesence- where craftsmanship is replaced with things for a throwaway culture.

Essential viewing.

Unknown said...

Hi. I saw this film in the mid-50s when Amweican TV was showing LOTS of British films owing to Hollywood's refusal to sell their film to the networks. I was about maybe 6 or 7 at the time and foungvthis film interesting but a little hard to understand. It has haunted me all these years and I'm happy to have finally tracked it down and to have discovered it's title. I seem to remember the barn burning down at the end but this/synopsis doesn't include that detail.

This site's request that I prove I'm not a robot is weirdly synchronistic since I'm just finishing "The World's End" even as I write this.

FilmWalrus said...

I think you are right about the barn burning down at the end. I left that detail out so as not to spoil too too much, though I doubt my review sent many people racing to the videostore (or amazon or wherever people shop now).

I quite enjoyed The World's End. Hope you do too. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment!