First Man Into Space (1959) *½
It seems to me that the best way to begin a discussion of First Man Into Space is to take a moment to talk about the modern American attention span. We in this country are famous for having short ones. Nowhere is our ability to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time taken very seriously, and by most accounts, we are only getting worse. Most people who express an opinion on this subject seem inclined to blame television for the phenomenon, and MTV in particular (which, to be fair, really does seem to view the intellectually undisciplined as its main target demographic) often comes under attack for its supposedly baleful influence in this department. But long before there was such a thing as MTV, social critics and windbags of every persuasion had already begun harping on the idea that TV = short attention spans. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit, in fact, if the first publicly disseminated comment to that effect post-dated history’s first television broadcast by about 20 minutes. The embarrassing thing is that the aforementioned windbags seem to have at least the kernel of a point. So what in the hell can any of this have to do with a late-50’s Brit sci-fi flick about a test pilot who gets himself turned into a blood-drinking humanoid casserole? My point is simply this: is it possible that anybody could have had an attention span equal to the task of watching First Man Into Space, even in England, even in 1959?
This is a movie that scrupulously avoids any hint of action. You’d think it were worried about giving itself a stroke or a heart attack. The story begins with the launch of an experimental rocket plane called the Y-12. (Actually, what you are watching is film of Chuck Yeager’s famous, pioneering flight in the X-1, the world’s first supersonic aircraft.) The pilot of the Y-12 is Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards). His brother, Commander Chuck Prescott (Marshall Thompson, from Fiend Without a Face and Bog), is in charge of the experiment. The idea seems to be similar to the real-life X-15 program of the 1960’s-- the experimental aircraft is launched from the belly of a bomber and then taken up to the very edge of space. Unfortunately for our tax dollars, Lieutenant Prescott is a somewhat unstable man, better known for his skill in the cockpit than for the soundness of his judgement. Prescott decides to take the Y-12 to a much higher altitude than the experiment envisioned, and of course, he loses control and crashes the plane in the New Mexico desert, outside the range of his air base’s tracking radar.
Late that night, local police find the wrecked Y-12 and its downed pilot, and alert Commander Prescott and his superiors. By the time Chuck and his captain arrive on the scene, Dan has already slipped away to the nearest town, where he is predictably visiting his girlfriend, Tia Francesca (Marla Landi, from the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles). Chuck tracks his younger brother down and has the MPs haul him off to the base where he is to be confined to quarters until such time as he is required to pilot the new Y-13.
When it finally arrives, after much unnecessary and directionless belaboring of inconsequential plot points (Tia turns out to work at the base as an assistant to the in-house psychiatrist [Carl Jaffe, from The Atomic Man and Satellite in the Sky], for example), the flight of the Y-13 bears a mind-numbing similarity to the earlier flight scene. The rather snazzier-looking aircraft (probably another X-plane, though I have no idea which one) is launched from the underside of another B-29, and again Dan is to take it up to the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. And again, Dan disregards the plan, and continues on past the point at which he was supposed to turn around and go home, ultimately losing control of the aircraft in the process. This time, though, he flies through some sort of floating debris that shatters the cockpit canopy just before he throws the switch that will separate the Y-13’s nose section and return it safely to Earth.
And then there’s some more plot. Oh boy, is there ever some more plot. And just in case you missed it, let me be absolutely clear that I mean that entirely in the negative sense in which Joe Bob Briggs uses the term-- that is to say, uninteresting shit that mainly serves to take time away from those elements of the film that cause us to want to see it in the first place. For the most part, what happens next is a whole lot of nothing. But interspersed with that nothing are random hints that something might soon be happening that would justify our sitting still for the rest of this movie. To wit: when the Y-13’s wreckage is found, it is covered with something that rather closely resembles that bulletproof cheese that forms the upper skin of a bowl of French onion soup, and at about the same time, the local ranchers begin losing their cattle to something that attacks by slitting the throats of its victims and exsanguinating them. And because there is no sign of Dan anywhere near the crash site this time, it doesn’t exactly take Stephen Hawking to figure out that something in that debris field he flew through both enabled him to survive the crash and gave him an irresistible lust for bovine blood. (I’m sorry, but you get no extra points for figuring out that, when we next see him, Dan will also be covered in that mysterious crap with which the Y-13 was encrusted; it’s just too obvious a trick.)
As a matter of fact, it isn’t just bovine blood that Dan wants, either; any kind will do. Our first look at Dan as a monster comes when he stops by a nearby blood bank, kills and exsanguinates the nurse on duty, and guzzles down as much of the stored blood as he can keep down. We’ll get a better view a few minutes later, when he steals a truck and offs its driver-- humanoid casserole really is the only phrase that does the monster costume justice. Meanwhile, Chuck Prescott is doing some painfully slow-moving detective work regarding the attacks on the cattle and the nurse, cross-referencing everything he finds out with the results of the base psychiatrist’s chemical and metallurgical examination of the Y-13. (Read that sentence again, and see if you can spot why it doesn’t make any sense.) Finally, Chuck discovers the nature of his brother’s transformation, just in time for a visit from Dan himself, who chooses that moment to attack the air base. Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere, right? Well, no. Actually, it seems all Dan wants is to sit for a while in the base’s high-altitude simulation chamber and tell the assembled characters what happened to him, making for what may well be the sorriest let-down of a climax ever committed to film.
First Man Into Space actually did have a little promise. Between the casserole-man monster and the various less conspicuous slip-ups like the psychiatrist who specializes in metallurgy, you might expect the movie to be funny at least-- the amazingly cheap-looking sets and demented sound effects in the first scene, along with the clumsily-worded title (not enough money in the budget for the definite article, huh?), certainly put me in that frame of mind. But alas, it is not even that. Instead, it’s mostly just long and slow, so much so that I several times caught myself starting to fall asleep. And just so I know we understand each other, I wasn’t actually tired when I sat down to watch this.