Too Darn Hot

It seemed like a good time to rewatch THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. Val Guest was on fire himself in the early sixties, providing us with one of my favourite crime films, HELL IS A CITY, and the pop satire EXPRESSO BONGO. I need to give 80,000 SUSPECTS, STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! and JIGSAW a fair try.

Guest, originally a writer of music hall influenced comedies, more or less alternated these thrillers with daffy comedies and other lighthearted stuff, which were generally less interesting. And he was also clearly concerned with getting a bit of sex into British cinema — he had continental flair, with his beret and his nudes — surprise glimpses of Janet Munro, Claire Bloom and Diane Cilento show that the British censor could sometimes be more lenient than his US counterpart, if a filmmaker was willing to take the risk.

Co-written with Wolf Mankiewicz, TDTECF presents an intelligent, stylish apocalypse drama — it largely gets around the inherent problem that the human characters are given little to do in the face of a planetary crisis, in fact it makes a suspenseful virtue of their separation from the real action — the earth is tipped towards the sun by atomic tests — maybe it can be course-corrected by further nukes? — meanwhile our protags are simply trying to live their lives, and reporting on it all from Fleet Street, care of the Daily Express (an actual tabloid whose actual recently retired editor, Arthur Christiansen, appears, more or less as himself).

The movie depends a lot on grainy stock footage of various disasters, and on paintings and photographic backdrops of London (FX by Hammer’s Les Bowie) which depict the effects of a heat wave in ways that may feel familiar to those of us currently experiencing life on earth (I assume most of my readers are experiencing life on earth — apologies if this excludes anyone). Edward Judd is an acerbic, alcoholic hack, the first in a series of somewhat unsympathetic sci-fi heroes he’d essay — he’s a fantastic jerk in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, but I can’t remember if either INVASION or ISLAND OF TERROR holds the rightful place as third film in an Obnooxious Bloke Science Fiction Trilogy.

Though Guest is European in his sexual frankness, his sensibility also skews American in his respect for genre conventions, and so this is a fast-talking reporter film in the Hollywood vein, with Judd, Christiansen and the always excellent Leo McKern barking out their dialogue as if commentating on a steeplechase. And the talk is well filmed, especially in those newspaper room scenes, with complex blocking and overlapping dialogue.

Add in the novelty of the opening and closing minutes being tinted gold, which has an authentically claustrophobic, hot, stifling quality — with b&w, you can mentally paint in your own colour, but tinting takes away that possibility. And that ending, a classic, and a very ballsy move. I think the two headlines idea — one saying EARTH SAVED and one saying EARTH DOOMED — is brilliant, and could have supplanted Judd’s final monologue, and the closing shot on a crucifix has to be a cynical sop to those Hollywood conventions, which always seemed to reference the deity in the last minutes of an sf movie — and anyway, Guest was Jewish (Valmond Maurice Grossmann). So, call it showmanship.

The whole thing’s on YouTube, but for how long?

9 Responses to “Too Darn Hot”

  1. Still on YouTube, apparently – but only as a rental.

  2. It’s worth paying for. I have the DVD, although admittedly I bought it secondhand.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Haven’t seen this, but have seen “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, which has the Van Allen Radiation Belt catching on fire (?) so Walter Pidgeon takes his super-duper submarine to an optimal point to fire missiles at it. There’s one crazy bearded guy, driven mad by the heat, who’s taken aboard to spout dire prophecies, but otherwise little or nothing about what’s happening with the human race.

    It’s an apocalypse film for the kiddies.

  4. A fantastically counterintuitive idea — space is ablaze, fix it from the sea bed. I think tosh like that ought to have more internal logic or at least dumb commonsense. Blasting off from a mountain peak would be silly, but at least would seem vaguely logical onscreen.

  5. Did the film inspire one of my favourite childhood jokes, or was it inspired by it?

    The world will end at noon tomorrow, so all religions have announced a day of mourning.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Science and even common sense get very short shrift. Under the North Pole the sub is menaced by great sinking blocks of ice; a narrow walkway sans railing runs over an open shark tank (lovable scientist Peter Lorre is studying them on board); submarine commander Pidgeon smokes cigars; and there’s unsecured furniture everywhere even though the Sea View (nice cruise ship name) breaches the surface like a whale.

    And the theme song’s lyrics don’t bear close analysis:

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