Archive for William Shatner

Picking Up Clouseau

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2020 by dcairns

Having seized on the fact that there was more value to be gotten out of the character of Inspector Clouseau, Blake Edwards went in to A SHOT IN THE DARK with his eyes at least somewhat open — he’d had a hint of how crazy Peter Sellers could get, but he hadn’t yet had to direct him during a full-on delusional tantrum (I’m not aware if psychoanalysis or psychology or psychiatry have invented a term describing exactly what it is Sellers had, or was — perhaps we had best think of it as Peter Sellers Syndrome, and content ourselves with delineating its symptoms as best we can).

This film really births the Clouseauverse — if we’re going to focus on this idiot, then he needs a life, surroundings, people in that life. A boss, obviously. And how does this boss feel about Clouseau? The brilliant answer is to make Chief Inspector Dreyfus not only fully aware of his subordinate’s incompetence, and personally offended by it, one of those apoplectic police chiefs that American cop shows would become full of, but also someone who is so tortured by the mere idea of Clouseau — “How can I relax in world which has Clouseau in it?” — that he’s driven to madness. As Lom’s eyes close in distress, we cut to Clouseau an instant before his eyes widen with a look of messianic intensity. Alone in a vehicle he can believe in his fantasy of brilliance. Anywhere else, he has a front to keep up because he knows damn well he’s a clown.

Clouseau’s name seems to be a combination of Jacques Cousteau — famous Frenchman — and H.G. Clouzot — French crime exponent — and “clues” and “oh” — detection and disaster. Dreyfus’ name, on the other hand, calls to mind a famous case of unjust persecution, which is about right.

It’s absurd that Blake Edwards didn’t direct under his birth name, on the other hand. The name William Blake Crump is like a strip cartoon that builds up an image of spiritual poetry and ends with crashing to the ground in a tangle of bruised limbs.

We start with a sequence comprised mainly of two very elegant roving crane shots, telling a story which is mysterious — a bedroom farce viewed from the outside. With a tragic chanson that kind of quashes any humour. But that’s OK, we don’t need the film to be funny until Clouseau.Animated titles — with a different theme tune — I really love this bit of Mancini and I don’t know why it wasn’t used again. The cartoons are cruder this time, but in a lovely stylised way. Without a Panther to persecute the Clouseau cut-out, Depatie-Freleng resort to having the cartoon universe turn on him, with doors and lights and fizzing bombs from nowhere persecuting the poor guy, kind of like the hostile film Keaton gets stuck in in SHERLOCK JR (which will be a reference in future title sequences).

But we do get a nice gag about Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus being an adulterer. And he has a little desk guillotine for his cigars, that’s… sweet? Fiona became excited. “Of course he’s got a guillotine! That was Herbert Lom’s dream project!” And indeed, Lom wrote one book, Dr. Guillotine, about the inventor of the humane execution device that ended up being used to decapitate on an industrial scale. “Hoist by your own petard,” as Claudia Cardinale’s Princess would say. The idea of inventing something that proves to be a catastrophe for you seems pertinent to William Blake Crump and Richard Henry Sellers, too.

I have actually already written about this one, so you can check out my earlier appraisal here. It covers Lom’s account of his casting and the first shot of Sellers. But how quickly can Clouseau make an idiot of himself?

In his second shot in the film. He gets out of his car and immediately falls in the fountain. He doesn’t hang about. Each of THE PINK PANTHER films, of which this is one despite the lack of P words in the title, takes a different sub-genre of crime film/fiction — so this is a country house murder mystery, RETURN will be a Hitchcockian wrong man chase film, STRIKES BACK is a Fu Manchu/Bond master-criminal caper, and REVENGE is Eurothriller meets Mafia. I can’t remember anything about ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER, the film Sellers planned just before his death, having wrested the character away from Edwards, but I’ve tracked down the script of this unmade monsterpiece, which I fantasise as akin to Norma Desmond’s SALOME, and if I can work up the courage I may read it and report back.

I’m not sure the post-Sellers films continue to neatly explore the byways of crime fiction — I think maybe they just fart about in the Clouseauverse.As a basis for the piece, Edwards and William Peter Blatty of THE EXORCIST fame, selected Harry Kurnitz’s adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play L’Idiot. In which the Clouseau-equivalent character was an examining magistrate played by William Shatner. Using only the bare bones of the story, Blatty and Edwards amused themselves with a convoluted series of murders all of which tend to implicate leading lady Elke Sommer, but which turn out to be (spoiler) the work of separate culprits with separate motives, a wrinkle even Agatha Christie never attempted.

The Mirisch Corporation had been developing the Kurntitz/Achard play for Anatole Litvak (yay!) to direct, but could never get a script they felt was filmable. Edwards accepted the job of fixing it in a hurry if he could have carte blanche, and he and Blatty grafted Clouseau into the piece on the boat over to England where filming was to take place (with a few second unit shots in Paris). So the idea of Clouseau having a boss who despises him comes from the play + the idea of putting Clouseau into it. And the boss in the play was Walter Matthau. I’d love to have seen Shatner as an idiot being yelled at by Matthau.Instead we get Sellers and Lom, who Edwards reportedly told (Lom’s version) “I’ve seen you in all these terribly serious films. I think you’re very funny.”

Another guy who should have used his real name, Herbert Charles Angelos Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. I mean, if I were going to change anything it would be the Herbert. Dreyfus inherits the Charles bit, which was going spare.

Anyway, Edwards directs this one with panache — as an actor, he’d worked with “Ford, Wyler, Preminger – and learned a lot from them.” So his long, elegant sequence shots, so admired by the French, are much in evidence. Preminger, another widescreen specialist, seems like an apt model. And, as Vincent Price tartly observed, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” Edwards also has Christopher Challis, who shot a bunch of films for Powell & Pressburger, coming along at just the wrong time (THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL and OH…ROSALINDA!!), and had more recently done some super-stylish work with Stanley Donen. You only really sense it’s Challis when we get to the round of themed nightclubs with specialty dancers…

Oh, and there’s Cato. Since Madame Clouseau has departed the picture, and to refer to her at all would just raise awkward questions about story continuity which the series would continue to ignore, brazenly, Clouseau should have someone else in his life. Bruce Lee had caused a sensation in The Green Hornet TV show (a reference lost on me as a kid). Burt Kwouk, a tireless supporting player in British films — he was a henchman in GOLDFINGER the same year — makes his first appearance here and it doesn’t matter at all that we probably all know the joke by now. The brevity and relative lack of spectacle in these early fight scenes isn’t a problem. As the joke of Cato attacking at inopportune moments, often “romantic” ones — what Fiona calls Kwouk-blocking — became more and more familiar, the films were forced to pump excess production values into it, but the joke is still pleasing enough to stand on its own. With Cato, Clouseau is pretty unsympathetic, and we also feel for the long-suffering Hercule Lajoy (Sellers chum Graham Stark) — anyone who’s ever suffered under an idiot boss can admire his infuriating placidity. Dreyfus is interesting because he’s the heavy, but he’s also absolutely right about Clouseau, a truly lethal buffoon. But then, in the scenes with Elke, Clouseau gets to be sweet. His puppyish fawning over Capucine in the previous film was already touching. Here, the joke of him being so hopelessly smitten with his leading lady that he literally can’t see her obvious guilt, is neatly topped by the joke of her being innocent. The universe somehow conspires to protect the holy fool, whereas he who sees the truth gets it in the neck. Elke Sommer represents a kind of decline from the elegant femmes of the first film — a bourgeoise fantasy of Yves St Laurent frocks and ski chalets with built-in musical numbers is replaced by a marginally grittier Parisian setting, and the leading lady is now of the modern, booby school of sixties cinema. The role is also a bit of a cipher, since the character is intentionally unknowable for virtually the whole film. Elke does very well with what she’s given. The anxiety-dream naked-in-public car scene actually allows her to do some real acting, which movies didn’t often do.“And introducing Turk Thrust.” The nudist camp scene (a huge and hugely unconvincing interior set) gives us this pseudonymous Bryan Forbes, with a butch queen joke name later taken up by Roger Moore for his guest spot in CURSE, and also the medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON, essaying a bizarre garbled accent that veers between Wales and the West Indies.

Clouseau has begun to disguise himself, perhaps inspired by the very funny costume party stuff in the first film, and this would later lead to Edwards wondering where the disguises came from, and so Auguste Balls would eventually be born…For now, we have some distinguished actors quite underused — George Sanders is mainly a sounding board for Clouseau’s mistakes, with more than one “reaction shot” showing no reaction whatsoever. Douglas Wilmer, a celebrated TV Sherlock Holmes, butles about snootily. Apparently the hilarity on set was so disruptive, Sanders proposed a fine of £1 for each actor who corpsed, raising £250 by the time a usable take was achieved. Stark and David Lodge, who can’t do a French accent alas, were Sellers’ mates and were frequently brought on to his films in the hopes they’d keep him happy and stop him acting up. Some hope. The Roger Lewis bio has Sellers calling up Lodge after a particularly vicious day and asking, “Was I really awful today?” Before his friend could answer with some mild scolding words, an evil chuckle sounded from the receiver.

The movie does over-rely on running gags, but I finally figured out why — Clouseau is incapable of learning from his mistakes, so he keeps trying the same thing, and he’s also too inept to make progress as an investigator, so the only way to advance the mystery is to keep piling up corpses. This seeming inadequacy of the character as an active protagonist will continue to trouble the series, with various solutions being attempted.In Sam Wasson’s Edwards study, Splurch in the Kisser, the director recalled, “Things were fine for the first half of filming, but then the shit hit the fan. Sellers became a monster. He just got bored with the part and became angry, sullen, and unprofessional. He wouldn’t show up for work and began looking for anyone and everyone to blame.”

Edwards called this relationship the enigma of his life. And that mystery, as much as the money and clout to be made from the franchise, may account for his obsessive worrying at the character and the relationship.Despite the genre-hopping, the next three films in the series do not show the invention of this one — having created Clouseau, Dreyfus and Cato, Edwards didn’t see any need to come up with many new elements. There might be some bad guys, and some leading ladies, but with Lom and Kwouk, there was a limited amount of room for new stuff, with only Balls and his hunchbacked assistant, Cunny, expanding the Clouseauverse in any lasting way. A format has been established.

A SHOT IN THE DARK stars Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake; Lisa Reiner; Addison DeWitt; Captain Nemo; Miss Scott; Professor Auguste Balls; Mrs. Leverlilly; Mr. Ling; Prof. Trousseau; Father Spiletto; Mr. Meek; Sherlock Holmes; Jimmy Winslow; and the Fiddler on the Roof.

 

An Odyssey in Bits: Keir Dullea and Gone Tomorrow

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by dcairns

Thanks to the acid wit of Noel Coward for the title. Noel co-starred with Dullea (happily still very much here today) in Otto Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING.

2001’s second superimposed caption appears: it’s not altogether certain that THE DAWN OF MAN has finished (it was apparently in play all through the orbital and lunar ballet) but at any rate the JUPiTER MISSION has begun.What was strange to me, this time around, was how fast this section of the film seems to go by, when you watch it in isolation. The pace of the shots may be slowish, but the narrative is super-economical.1. The Discovery sails past us.

(Various spaceship designs were considered with various propulsion systems, but the final look chosen is less about scientific practicality and more about style. The bony colouring adds to the Discovery’s resemblance to a giant skull and spinal cord. Also a little like a spermatozoa. So it also makes me think of the miniature Spike-creatures in ERASERHEAD.) 2. We cut to inside Kubrick’s giant hamster wheel. Here’s Gary Lockwood jogging, in a whole series is striking shots, including an up-butt angle as startling as the one George Sidney devotes to Ann-Margret in VIVA LAS VEGAS. Bruce Bennett’s citation of TRAPEZE as an influence gets backed up here — not only for the earlier use of the Blue Danube, but for turning the image sideways so it can fill the WS frame. It’s true that Kubrick lingers over these images, but they’re well worth it. My problem with EYES WIDE SHUT was its, to my mind erronious, supposition that Tom Cruise walking down a street or into an apartment was worthy of the same following-too-close attention.

(How does the craft generate its gravity? It’s not rotating in the exterior shots. Is there actually a big rotating wheel inside it for the living space? Seems to be the case. Wild.) 3. & 4. Then we get a couple of video bits — Lockwood’s taped message from home, and the BBC interview with the crew and HAL, which infodumps all the necessary exposition on us in a reasonable engaging and natural way.

Bowman and Poole have i-Pads so they can watch TV as they down their space-chow (from plastic pallettes packed with nutritional coloured pastes. Yummy).5. And then HAL is glitching right away — his mental breakdown is really just as speedy as Jack Torrence’s in THE SHINING. It’s when he says, “Just a moment. Just a moment.” Computers shouldn’t repeat themselves. It feels wrong. Later, he will repeat himself A LOT, so I know I’m right.

Dullea and Lockwood are beautifully blank. GL said they looked at reports on what astronauts were like, and their inexpressive performances reflect the demands that those fired into space should NOT be hysterical, hand-flapping types of furious fist-wavers. Ryan Gosling’s unemotive Neil Armstrong in FIRST MAN makes this a big story point, whereas Kubrick and Clarke and the cast just take it for granted. The fact that HAL is more appealing and warm is certainly no accident — Kubrick liked machines. Unfortunately, the story he’s telling requires HAL to turn homicidal, so this is far from the “alternative Frankenstein myth” he hoped to achieve with A.I., proving to us that our machines might be our heirs, our best hope of leaving something of ourselves behind.HAL trounces Poole at chess.

Clarke thought it a shame that the film didn’t make clear the reason for HAL’s malfunction: mission control had instructed him to withhold the true purpose of the voyage, in effect to lie, which was against his programming. (To lie is already to err.) When he tries to sound out Dullea’s Dave Bowman about the mission parameters, he’s probably looking for a chance to open up and get things off his metallic chest. Bowman brushes him off, and so he has to kill all the damn humans who are clearly going to screw this thing up. Again, his motivation connects him with Jack Torrence’s rant about “MY responsibilities to my employers,” though he expresses himself with a less hysterical tone.

I read somewhere that all Kubrick films are about somebody being entrusted with administering a system, and then screwing it up due to “human error.” Which sounds sort of right, but then you need to get out the old shoehorn to make it fit LOLITA (how not to be a step-parent) and THE SHINING (how not to look after a hotel: a sort of Fawlty Towers with axe murders) and EYES WIDE SHUT continues to be an outlier (the system failing to be administered is what, adultery?). But anyway, mission control has screwed up royally, somewhere in between the Clavius freak-out signal and this sequence, and now our eerily calm astronauts are going to pay the price. 6. The first EVA scene, though we’re our Extra Vehicular Activity is taking place in another, smaller vehicle. Contemporary critics harped on about the heavy breathing here, as if it were a showy and clumsy stylistic touch, rather than a logical solution to the problem of What can you hear in space? Kubrick alternates bold silences with music and subjective space-suit sound, all of which are great choices.

(William Friedkin on the excellent The Movies That Made Me podcast complained of Kubrick’s extreme low angle shot in THE SHINING when Jack talks to the food locker door. “Who’s POV is that meant to be?” But it’s another logical solution: how to shoot a man talking to a door and see all of his face rather than a profile. If you just do very logical things, like a machine would do them, maybe you will develop a striking personal style, because everyone has their own logic. And that’s why there’s so much trouble in this world.)7. HAL can read lips.

(Just like in real life, as soon as somebody goes a bit wrong mentally, everyone else starts tiptoeing around and lying and humouring them and unintentionally but very effectively escalating their paranoia…)

Though his eyeball was a fisheye lens earlier, and I think he even asks Dave to hold his drawings closer, but now he has a zoom and can follow a conversation in which his two pals are plotting to murder him. Which confirms him in his decision to off them first, which presumably he was going to do anyway since why else is he tricking them into cutting off communication with Earth and going E.V.A.?

And at this point, Kubrick goes audaciously to an intermission, and so shall I.Incidentally, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY stars the Marquis de Sade; Sir George; Sam Slade; Emanuel Shadrack; Lord Beaverbrook; Off-camera voice of Jesus; Scrimshaw’s henchman; Commander Ed Straker and Hank Mikado.

Imagine you somehow find yourself watching a sixties Canadian TV play and the off-camera voice of Jesus rings out and it’s instantly, chillingly recognizable as the dulcet tones of HAL-9000.

Also, you should see the 1957 version of OEDIPUS REX directed by Tyron Guthrie and Abraham Polonsky, in which among the voices issuing from behind Greek tragic masks are those of Douglas Rain and William Shatner. Sophocles has never seemed so interstellar!

Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2018 by dcairns

I was pontificating about the season of Tuesday sci-fi movies I saw on the BBC as a kid, and Sheldon Hall was good enough to supply the exact schedule, which went as follows: FORBIDDEN PLANET (06/11/1974), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (13/11/1974), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (20/11/1974), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (27/11/1974), VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (04/12/1974), THEM! (11/12/1974) and THE TIME MACHINE (18/12/1974).

I now intend to blog about all of them.

I already wrote a substantial piece on the last-named, but will revisit it and see what happens. I should see if my Dad is up for watching any of these, since he accompanied the just-turned-seven me last time round, and helped explain some of the more difficult stuff. I might still need his assistance.

Seeing all those films for the first time in such a compact pattern and at such an early age was definitely eye and mind-opening. I was already a Doctor Who fan — that character was about to transform from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, which made me if anything an even bigger fan, but what impressed me about these movies was less the higher production values, which didn’t make any direct impression on me, and more the striking imagery and wild concepts. For sure, images like the decomposing Morlock or the invisible Monster from the Id outlined against a force field were made possible by the movies’ bigger budgets, but also by the greater imaginative scope.I can’t recall for sure, but I suspect FP was the first 50s sci-fi movie I ever saw, and I don’t see that I could have done better, even though the film must have been pan-and-scanned and seen on a b&w TV (I recall our first colour TV arriving a little later — I was excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Baker’s scarf in colour). By virtue of being set in deep space and in the far future, it hits the viewer with exciting imagery from the very start — a flying saucer piloted by a crew of staunch earthmen (did they back-engineer the Roswell UFO?), an exotic alien planet, and the first inhabitant we meet is a friendly robot. There wasn’t much chance of me getting bored. (But I was riveted by all the other films in the series, except the one I missed, and which I will be seeing… for the first time… in a few weeks.)

Before Leo the lion has even faded up fully, the beep-beep-bloop of Louis & Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities adds a sonic strangeness, and the first thing we see after our leonine emcee is not the main title, but a spacecraft. MGM evidently decided to make not only the biggest and most impressive of SF-SFX movies, but one with a hint of the unconventional. The score, like the costumes, would be recycled endlessly in future films, but the composers received no fees for the re-use, since their work wasn’t classed as music.

 

Four minutes into this upload of a Shirley Clarke experimental film you can hear more of the Barrons’ “tortured circuits” music

Before Robby, we get a bit of backstory setting up man’s hyperdriven expansion into the cosmos, and we meet the crew of Starship C-57D, including Space Commander Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The cast also includes Mr. Miniver, Steve Austin’s boss and Honey West, whose affinity for wildcats is first established here. The stuff about hyperdrive demonstrates the film’s seriousness and largesse: it feels the need to make interstellar travel in some way scientifically explainable — or, if it doesn’t really offer an excuse for faster-than-light travel’s existence, it at least acknowledges the need for an excuse, and uses the problem to motivate some neat VFX from Joshua Meador from Disney, and his uncredited team.The set-up is very Star Trek. Though there are no living aliens in this scenario, there’s a benign, American-dominated space force (maybe in the future EVERYONE is American?) and a tough ship’s captain and his chum the doctor. When they were trying to come up with ideas for Star Trek motion pictures, I thought they could do worse than remake FP. And as I recall, James Cameron wanted to. Maybe the scary lost alien civilisation stuff, which is very Lovecraftian, would have informed Del Toro and Cameron’s planned adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Much has been made of the connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though as with William Wellman’s western version, it’s not 100% sure who came up with the notion, or if it was even consciously in place. The story is credited to two special effects artists, Irving Block and Allen Adler, who seem to have made their brief careers as screenwriters by pitching stories based around effects they knew they could provide. Although Roger Corman, director of THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE LAND OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT, felt that he was essentially conned into making the movie on the strength of spectacular production art which was then impossible to realise. The smart dialogue (apart from Robby’s weird misuse of the word “monitor” and a few other odd touches) is by novelist Cyril Hume, whose The Wife of the Centaur was filmed by King Vidor in 1924. It has one IMDb review, by our old friend F. Gwyneplaine MacIntyre, which means it’s almost certainly a lost film. Hume sold his talent to MGM and became their go-to guy for TARZAN pics. It seems plausible that he noticed Tempest-like qualities in Block & Adler’s scenario, and emphasised them.Ariel and Caliban are sort of flipped here — Ariel, the good and faithful servant is Robby, the solid, earthly one,  whereas the rebellious native Caliban is the monster from the id, the floating spirit. But Robby is also someone else —

This movie seems to invent the trope of the robot butler. As emotionless as Jeeves, Robby’s lumbering gait prevents him shimmering into existence like Wooster’s manservant, but he seems to have been inspired by the natural associations of butlers and desert islands which dates back to J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, first filmed in 1918, again as MALE AND FEMALE by DeMille in 1919, and at various times since. Unofficial adaptations abound, and there have been two actual robot Crichtons on TV — Jeff David’s obnoxious Crichton in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Robert Llywellyn’s timorous Kryten in Red Dwarf. It probably all goes back to Man Friday, though.

Robby is a great robot. If I had to choose a feature of A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert Kinoshita’s design that makes him most wondrous, I would be torn between his little stumpy arms and his big glass bubble head, both of which make him less obviously humanoid, although both are completely compatible with him being a man in a suit. In these dark days of robot rebellion, of T-1000s and EX MACHINAs, Robby reflects the comforting certainty of the fifties. Robby will never let us down.His ability to synthesise anything from bourbon to diamonds on demand anticipates Star Trek too — Gene Roddenberry did acknowledge the influence. The future seems to be without want, like Powell & Pressburger’s heaven, “with all our earthly problems solved and bigger ones worth the solving.” As Robby accompanies the surviving crew of the C-57D home at the end, he’s presumably going to put his awesome powers at the service of humanity. As a product of Morbius’s alien-boosted brain, he may bring some dangers too, but non-sequel THE INVISIBLE BOY fails to explore these promising possibilities.

Of course, he’s a mechanical red herring in this story, as the one visible suspect who could be responsible for the upcoming murders. Does Forbidden Planet fail as a fair-play murder mystery? Perhaps so, as by its science-fictional nature it depends on producing unpredictable elements which alter our understanding of the world we’re in — nobody’s likely to guess the presence of a monster from the id in this one, because the possibility of such things isn’t established at the outset.

Check out the two end ones.

So, now we meet the other inhabitants — Dr. Edward Morbius (great name!) and his comely daughter, Altaira, a very Star Trek female, with her miniskirts and what-is-love? naiveté. She also gets the best deliberately funny line in a fifties sci-ci flick as she admires the sudden influx of male specimens — “The two end ones are unbelievable.” It may not rival “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” but it’s highly amusing and a touch risqué.

If this is a whodunnit, then everybody immediately guesses that Morbius is the who who done it, though we can’t know how. Attempts to throw suspicion on Robby falter in the face of his portly benevolence, and a brief moment where Altaira seems to have a nightmare depicting the monster’s onslaught only hints vaguely that she might be involved. We know Morbius knows more than he’s telling, and once we learn about the lost Krell civilisation we know those guys figure somehow, but there’s no way to really guess it.

Possible explanation for Altaira’s psychic dream: did Morbius resist the temptation to brain-boost his young daughter? And perhaps the effects will only truly kick in as she attains full adulthood. Is the C-57D starship hosting a Midwich cuckoo in the nest?

Director Fred MacLeod Wilcox was something of a mystery to me — I’ve loved his film for over forty years without ever looking into his career. That ends now!

Charles Butterworth addresses Fred Wilcox’s sister, Ruth Selwyn, in BABY FACE HARRINGTON.

Wilcox was lucky enough to be brother-in-law of Loew’s Inc. chairman Nick Schenck. Actress Ruth Selwyn was one of his several sisters, wife of director Edgar Selwyn. His direction is better than workmanlike here, with a sure touch for generating suspense. No doubt he’s aided greatly by his effects artists, who find neat ways to portray the invisible enemy’s advances, including those subjective camera crane shots.

Wilcox started as an assistant to King Vidor, who gets everywhere, doesn’t he?

His other best-known film is LASSIE COME HOME, and he helmed a couple of later pics with the heroic trans dog, who moved through spacetime as fluidly as Doctor Who, turning up wherever s/he was needed. Wilcox makes a better brother-in-law than he does an auteur, but we can guess that his favourite actors may have been Edmund Gwenn and Ralph Meeker, who each worked with him twice, and Pal, who played that dog for him three times. Themes recurring in his work include the perils of the wayward mind, afflicting Pigeon here and Meeker in SHADOW IN THE SKY, and hydrophobia, afflicting Meeker in that film and Lassie in HILLS OF HOME. As a kid, I was amused by Walter Pidgeon’s name, but thought him a fine actor. Anybody who could play someone called Dr. Morbius HAD to be a fine actor, to my seven-year-old brain. I was probably right, but not in the way I thought. Pidgeon’s stiff manner is fine for producing gravitas, though I find his pausing a little off today — he breaks up sentences not like a man thinking where his next thought is leading, but like an actor trying to remember his lines. It’s skilled subterfuge, but not as invisible as the id-monster. Today I imagine someone like Charles Laughton in the role… William Powell… James Mason…Leslie Nielsen, who joked in later years that his early career all looked like comedy to him now, is perfectly adequate as the starship commander, though he’s no Shatner (the Shat is animated by a WILL TO GREATNESS that he may not be able to make good on, but which makes him kind of exciting and risky). The character is pretty much an asshole, punishing one of his crew for being asleep OFF duty, and slut-shaming Altaira because he simply doesn’t understand how innocent she is. Screw that guy. And when he tries his IQ on the Krell Test-Your-Strength brain machine, his brain fails to ring the bell. (Current reading: Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which contains the apt line during a fairground scene, “That bell will never ring again.”)Asides from Robby, Anne Francis gives the best performance — if you get a chance to see the pair reuinited in the documentary The Android Prophecy, it’s really sweet (she asks him for a new dress, translucent, with sequins round the nipples). Her “nude scene” here is a tease, and just as with Amanda Barrie rising from the milk in CARRY ON CLEO, the invention of VHS and the pause button allowed my teenage self to be disappointed at how much she’s actually wearing during her skinny-dip. A lot more than sequins.The Krell subterranean power station is a fantastic setting, a mixture of sets, matte paintings and miniatures (allowing vertiginous roving POV shots. It’s very clean and bright, but still scary because it’s ancient and deserted and we know something bad happened here. While showing a lot of state-of-the-art 50s FX, the movie also enlists the audience’s imagination. We never see a Krell. We see the outlines of an invisible monster from the id, created by Disney animators but looking a little like the bulldog in MGM’s own Tom & Jerry toons, but is this the accurate image of a Krell or merely Morbius’s imagining of one? That middle image is VERY Death Star chic, isn’t it? George Lucas certainly saw and admired this movie too.

The solution to the mystery — Morbius’s id runs amok — the sleep of reason brings forth monsters from the id. The image of him slumped over his desk seems a direct nod to Goya. Fiona and I still love the protective steel panels that appear around Morbius’s pad, slamming into place by jump cut, but Fiona is today unimpressed by the rubbery distortions when they buckle under the force of an id-attack. The wobbly material gives itself away. But I still remember how thrilling it seemed to me at age seven, so I don’t really mind.As a kid, the thing that baffled me was, is Morbius dead at the end? Obviously he is — he’s not on the spaceship, his planet blows up, and Commander Drebin talks about how he’ll be remembered. I think what puzzled me was his CAUSE of death. He isn’t obviously struck down by the monster from his id, so his death doesn’t have the visceral, physical quality of previous victims (even the offscreen ones described as “torn limb from limb” etc). The destruction seems to be mental, the forces of his mind turned against one another — just like Robby’s sparking circuits when he’s given an order that violates his Asimovian programming. That earlier scene works as foreshadowing here.

Another moment anticipating the later developments is when Altaira’s tame tiger pounces at her, apparently failing to recognise her. She can’t understand why, and Drebin expresses a kind of wonderment at her inability to see the reason. It’s because she’s with him, I guess. Either her awakening to womanhood has confused the tiger who genuinely no longer knows who she is, or he’s jealous. (In a deleted scene, the doc equates the cat’s tameness to that of the unicorn who is in thrall to the purity of a maiden — so that must be what the script intended — an implication that Altaira has lost her purity through her association with the commander.) Which is interesting when you think of it in terms of the monster’s motivation. Is Morbius at some deep Krell sub-level of his mind as jealous of his daughter as he is off his planet paradise and his ancient alien knowledge? The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

“After all, we are not God.” Seems like almost a genre requirement to invoke the deity in the closing words of an sf thriller of this era — see also WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Let’s see if this holds true in subsequent films. It may be the result of nervousness about drama in which the recognized norms of earthly existence are subverted or vanished — a reminder that, after all, the big beard guy is still in charge, even if our characters are IN the heavens and see no sign of angels. And, well, MGM was the most conservative studio. Jere, the dumb hero triumphs and the alien tech is destroyed — something a man like Morbius would NEVER do. Outside of their musicals, they’re not my favourite dream factory by a long chalk, but still, this is one I love.