Archive for March 7, 2023

Things I Read Off the Screen in UNKNOWN WORLD

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2023 by dcairns

There were two excellent reasons to watch UNKNOWN WORLD, the 1951 sci-fi movie directed by Terry O. Morse (here credited as Terrell, to give the thing gravitas. There were probably a thousand excellent reasons NOT to watch it, but these need not detain us since I ran the bloody thing.

  1. This is the only other movie to feature MONSIEUR VERDOUX’s ingenue, Marilyn Nash. Nash had planned to become a doctor and here she plays one. Married to screenwriter Philip Yordan, she had met Chaplin through tennis activities, as did so many people it seems.
  2. I’ve just published a novel about journeying to the centre of the earth in a drilling machine (parodying Verne and Burroughs) and here’s a movie that does the same thing with a painfully straight face.

This is an earth’s core movie for the atomic age, with its intrepid team of spelunkers motivated by the urge to preserve a nucleus of humanity underground, safe from atomic war.

We begin with a newsreel, and the comparisons with CITIZEN KANE, unflattering to this movie though they are on every level, seem to be conscious, as the newsreel turns out to be produced by a man named Thompson. He has a son, a rich playboy type (Bruce Kellogg) who agrees to fund the core mission, if you’ll excuse the term (that’s one pun I failed to get into my book, you can have it for free) for kicks.

Director Morse was an editor more often than a director, and he was responsible for interpolating Raymond Burr into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. His solutions to special effects and narrative questions tend to be editorial, which is why this film has so much text in it. Cutting to a bit of writing is so much cheaper than showing actual lava or caverns or interior seas.

It’s the contention of this film’s Lindenbrook/Challenger figure that the earth is actually cooler on the inside, which makes the volcanos which feature so prominently in the plot a mite inexplicable. Still, I’m pleased to see the team of subterranauts decamp to a deserted island to start their descent, just as mine do. We’re at the world’s largest fictitious extinct volcano, Mount Neleh, which the Prof (former Hawks team player Victor Kilian, wisely going uncredited) pronounces as “Mount Nelly,” because why should he impart any more dignity to this tripe than he has to spare?

The “cyclotram” used as conveyance — described as a crossed between a submarine and a tractor — doesn’t have to do to much digging, as the earth’s frigid interior is supposedly riddled with conduits. Burrowing from one to another is child’s play if your tractor has a drill bit mounted on the front.

The cave locations — not JUST Bronson Caves but Carlsbad Caverns also — are atmospheric and would be perhaps even more impressive if the print were better and you could see an actor’s hand in front of his inexpensive face.

Recklessly ripping off his gas mask, Kilian declares “The air is fresh and clear!” with such wonderment that you have to ask why, if he were expecting sulphurous asphyxiation, he chose to unmask. It’s not as good a piece of scripted idiocy as “Good old H2O!” in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON but the line reading makes up for it.

Actual filmmaking — as the scientists embark on an unnecessary explanation of the formation of stalactites and stalagmites, Morse cuts rapidly between shots of drips forming and falling and splashing down. As usual, it’s an editor’s mind we see working, but it’s rather poetic for a film of this kind. “About an inch every thousand years.” The How and Why Wonder Book of Science might put it better, but the visual accompaniment here has the advantage of motion.

That’s what we do at Shadowplay — find beauty in ugliness, down dank holes and in dank films.

The question now confronting us is, will we encounter a lost civilisation, or some enlarged iguanas, or something equally photogenic at the earth’s core? Of it this film going to be entirely composed of murky caves, plus close shots of actors in Davey lamps in an underground tram, with occasional insert shots of the instrument binnacles?

Instead, the film pursues a psychological angle, with the crew bickering under the pressure of isolation miles underground. This is honourable, but with the D-list actors and duff psychology, it’s not a route the movie is well-equipped to explore. The inexperienced Marilyn Nash does at least as well as her co-stars, but the writing isn’t there to support them.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman has some interesting credits, though: GUN CRAZY, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and, uh, THE KLANSMAN (messing up Sam Fuller’s draft, reportedly — the film is appalling — the bits that feel Fullerish aren;t any good either).

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of the few sci-fi films of this period with much humanity in it — actual human behaviour or an acceptable movie-ish analog of the same. I’ve read defenses of the stodgy characters in sci-fi prose, where it was alleged that the IDEAS were so wild the characters just HAD to be wooden or else the readers’ heads might explode. I think Kingsley Amis, a genre fan, actually accepted that canard. It reminds me of the creators of The Simpsons deciding to make it the most boring nuclear family based set-up conceivable, so that they could then run amuck with the style and the humour.

Maybe the problem here is that the characters are largely defined by attitudes and outward appearance, without much else going for them. Writer Kaufman may be struggling with a genre he doesn’t understand, although the concern for the nuclear threat seems sincere.

Mild peril is produced in super-cheap ways — toxic gas, a polluted water supply. These do have the benefit of being credible, but they’re not too exciting. Morse never modulates the pace for tension, despite all the cutaways of knobs and dials he’s got hanging in his trim bin, waiting to be spliced into the action like so many shiny Raymond Burrs.

“Haven’t you ever been romanced before?”

“Not nine hundred miles below sea level.”

Occasionally the troupe take a stroll outside in the caverns and Morse substitutes his dials and switches for inserts of crampons and suspensefully fraying rope.

Finally, a giant, mysteriously illuminated cave with an underground sea is happened upon — Pismo Beach, and all the clams we can eat! According to the IMDb, this really IS Pismo Beach, which is perfect — the destination Bugs Bunny was forever tunneling towards, forever diverted by his failure to make a left turn at Albuquerque. We do get a nice multiplane animation painted landscape, too, though.

“Let’s face facts, Morley: this is a desert! The very word means ‘deserted by life.’ And you talk of ‘crops!'”

It gets worse — the little bunny rabbits Nash has been tending give birth to corpses (baby rabbit ones — I saw you looked nervous). “We can’t bury ourselves in the earth and expect to live.”

Finally, some lava! Along with a deluge of stock shots, animated lightning bolts, miniature volcanos — an internal apocalypse sends the cyclotram sinking towards the MAXIMUM POSSIBLE READING.

Fortunately, for no reason, the cyclotram reverses its descent and bobs up towards the surface — an extended Kuleshove experiment follows with shots of turtles viewed through the windscreen and the smiling faces of the three surviving cyclotramists.

Fade out on them all beaming from a porthole at a tropical island. The fact that the film would OBVIOUSLY have been improved by the eruption of a mushroom cloud at this juncture sadly did not occur to anyone with the clout to make it happen.

Department of the Interior is RIGHT!

UNKNOWN WORLD stars The Girl; Deerslayer; Tiny Davis; Dr. Heinrich Von Loeb; Red Ryder; Leatherstocking; and Official (uncredited).

While you’re waiting for this to get the 4K Criterion treatment, buy my book! Is Your Journey to the Centre of the Earth Really Necessary? is available from Amazon UK, US, and everywhere else.