First Man into Space (1958) First Man into Space (1958/1959) *½

     It’s easy to underestimate the British contribution to 1950’s sci-fi cinema. Indeed, casual fans can be forgiven for failing to notice that there was such a thing in the first place. That’s because most British sci-fi movies of that era made at least some effort to disguise their true origin, especially the ones situated where science fiction and horror overlap. At a minimum, one could expect to see the native talent pushed to the sidelines in favor of imported Hollywood stars of minor standing, but unmistakable American nationality— people like Brian Donlevy, Forrest Tucker, and Dean Jagger. But in the more developed version of the phenomenon, the films would go so far as to be set on this side of the Atlantic, whether in Canada or in the USA itself. (Naturally, the former subterfuge was usually more convincing than the latter.) As you’d probably expect of such a curious practice, there was a whole complex of motives at work, but it ultimately boiled down to a sound business decision. On the one hand, the US market was just much bigger than the domestic one, and Americans had more disposable income than Brits at a time when the UK was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. Furthermore, American audiences (especially American audiences for disreputable genres like sci-fi) were generally assumed to be suspicious of foreign product, so there was an incentive to make any movie destined to play over here look, to the maximum extent possible, like it was made here. And finally, there was the issue of censorship. Any movie with a monster in it (and there were obviously plenty of those in science fiction) was virtually guaranteed back then to be restricted to adult audiences by the British Board of Film Censors— which is to say, to precisely those audiences least likely to want to see it. A British monster movie in the 1950’s was therefore critically dependent upon overseas distribution deals to make any money at all.

     Hammer Film Productions pioneered such reliance on American distribution, but the company that worked hardest to Americanize its sci-fi pictures was Amalgamated Productions (subsequently renamed Anglo-Amalgamated). They went beyond casting and setting to hire US writers, so that their entries in the genre would be sure to feature exactly the same sorts of characters and situations, portrayed with exactly the same sensibility, as the spawn of Them!, The Thing, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I defy you to detect in Fiend Without a Face, for example, any clear marker of UK production beyond the company’s own name in the opening credits. Amalgamated outdid themselves, though, with First Man into Space. With its original screen treatment by Wyott “Robot Monster” Ordung and its rogues’ gallery of square-jawed, pomaded Yank and Canuck D-listers marching stiffly about in military uniforms between eruptions of stock USAF flight test footage, First Man into Space has the tone and personality of a crummy American sci-fi B-flick down pat. Meanwhile, I can think of few subjects less British than a test pilot flying to the verge of outer space, suffering some kind of inexplicable accident, and returning to Earth as a blood-drinking, humanoid, shepherd’s pie. Really, the one aspect of its impersonation that First Man into Space gets wrong is the cinematography, which is far too stylized and atmospheric for an American film of this type.

     Oh— and there’s one more thing this movie has in common with its Hollywood counterparts: a ponderously leaden pace. You’d think director Robert Day was worried about giving the movie a heart attack, or something. The story begins with the launch of an experimental rocket plane called the Y-12, designed to gather data on conditions in the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere. (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 elder brother, Commander Chuck Prescott (Marshall Thompson, from Fiend Without a Face and Bog), is in proximate 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 showboating daredevil, better known for his skill in the cockpit than for the soundness of his judgment, even at the best of times. Giddy with both triumph and insufficient oxygen, Prescott disregards his mission plan to take the Y-12 to a much higher altitude than the experiment envisioned. He inevitably loses control of the plane having done so, flies miles outside the range of the airbase tracking radar even after he gets the Y-12 flying straight again, and lands with a controlled crash in the New Mexico desert.

     Late that night, local police find the battered Y-12 and its downed pilot, and alert Commander Prescott and his superiors. By the time Chuck and Captain Ben Richards (Cat Girl’s Robert Ayers) arrive on the scene, Dan has already slipped away to the nearest town, which happens to be the home of his girlfriend, Tia Francesca (Marla Landi, from the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles). Chuck tracks his brother down and has the MPs haul him off to the base, where he is to be confined to quarters until such time as Richards figures out what’s to be done with him.

     What’s to be done with Dan, as it turns out, is to give him another plum test-piloting assignment. Chuck is furious at seeing his irresponsible kid brother get to fail upward yet again, but as Richards points out, there’s no one else in the program with his raw ability, and now that word is out about the Y-12 launch, the press have made a hero of him to boot. There’s simply no way the captain could give the job of flying the new Y-13 (portrayed by the X-1’s swept-wing successor, the X-2) to anyone else. That said, Richards does understand the risk he’s running, and he wants the younger Prescott sent over to Aviation Medicine for a thorough physical and psychiatric checkup. Even that acknowledgement of Dan’s unreliability ends up annoying poor Chuck, though, because it just so happens that Tia is on the staff over there, working as an assistant to department head Dr. Paul von Essen (Carl Jaffe, from The Electronic Monster and The Atomic Man).

     When it finally arrives, the launch of the Y-13 bears a mind-numbing similarity to the earlier flight scene. The rather snazzier-looking aircraft is dropped 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.

     Reasonably enough, everyone on the ground assumes that Dan is dead at this point, and a proportionately immense amount of time is spent on Chuck and Tia hurling recriminations at themselves and each other as they each process their grief. The discovery of the Y-13’s wreckage (half locally, and half in the middle of a bull ring in Mexico) tends to support the assumption of Prescott’s demise, even though there’s no sign of his body at either site. The plane is just too badly beaten up for anyone to have walked away from it. Sill, there is a mystery to be solved there, because what’s left of the Y-13 is covered with something that rather closely resembles the bulletproof cheese that forms the upper skin of a bowl of French onion soup. No one who sees the stuff has any idea what it is, and Dr. von Essen’s various examinations of it are no help at all, either. Also, on what initially seems to be an unrelated note, a rancher not far from the US crash site complains to Chief Wilson of the New Mexico State Police (Bill Nagy, from Fire Maidens of Outer Space and Satellite in the Sky) about losing several of his cattle to something that attacks by slitting the throats of its victims and exsanguinating them. Naturally, the two mysteries are in fact not just related, but very closely so, because the thing that killed those cows was really Dan. Whatever that crap was that he flew through, it has encrusted his body even more thoroughly that it encrusted the plane, altering his metabolism, rendering him essentially impervious to injury, and giving him an insatiable thirst for bovine blood.

     As a matter of fact, it isn’t just bovine blood that Dan wants, either; any kind will do. He hits a blood bank next, guzzling down as much of its supply as he can fit down his throat, and murdering a nurse while he’s at it. Wilson investigates that incident, too, and is sharp enough to spot the similarities with the case of the slaughtered cattle. He calls in Chuck Prescott to have a look at the scene of the crime, and it’s Prescott who notices what will turn out to be the essential clue. There’s strange, glittery dust sprinkled lightly over everything, with the greatest concentration to be found inside the nurse’s wounds. That stuff matches not only similar material recovered from the victims of further slayings, both human and animal, that begin occurring all over the county, but also the encrustations from the Y-13. Chuck puts all the pieces together just in time for a visit from Dan himself, who chooses that moment to attack the university where von Essen and Tia work when they’re not on the airbase. 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 to tell his former colleagues what happened to him before he dies of his mutations, making for one of the sorriest letdowns of a climax I’ve ever seen.

     First Man into Space’s climax isn’t merely a letdown, either. In its eagerness to let bygones be bygones regarding all those people Dan bled out while he was rampaging around New Mexico, it’s also a misalignment of text and subtext not far short of Plan 9 from Outer Space’s concluding incitement to terrestrial genocide or the “and they were all nuked happily ever after” ending to Kronos. As the Inexorable March of Progress music swells on the soundtrack, Dan croaks out, “I just had to be… the first man into space…” and Dr. von Essen solemnly observes that “Whenever there are new worlds to conquer, there is always a cost in human life.” Hey, omelets and eggs, right doc? Now one could argue that this is little different from the closing note to The Creeping Unknown (in fact, I’d be a little surprised if screenwriters John Croydon and Charles F. Vetter didn’t think that was exactly what they were doing), but that movie, we were clearly meant to understand that Professor Quatermass is talking madness when he announces, immediately after destroying the monster that his own work unleashed upon London, that he’s going to start again. In First Man into Space, however, there isn’t the slightest trace of irony or self-awareness.

     Nor does it help that First Man into Space is so circuitous and lackadaisical in getting to that point. The repetitiveness of the two lengthy test-flight sequences, the outsized and heavy-handed emphasis on the Prescott brothers’ sibling rivalry, the mope break smack in the middle of the film— they all seriously interfere with any possible appreciation of what limited virtues this movie has. They even get in the way of enjoying such comforting genre standbys as Applied Technobabble and Preposterous Polymathy. But what irritates me most, of course, is how far offscreen Dan is kept in his monstrous form until the final approach to the climax. You see, this is one of those rare monster suits that are both brilliantly executed and hilariously misconceived at the same time. I remember when I was a little kid, there was a casserole that my mom used to make, which I (precocious monster-lover that I was) dubbed the Thing with the Mashed Potatoes. Monster-Dan is the Thing with the Mashed Potatoes in ambulatory, vampiric form, and it’s fall-off-the-sofa-laughing funny. But once it’s explained what that absurd appearance is supposed to represent, you realize that it’s perfectly and exactly what that ought to look like. It’s also worth pointing out that the suit has a good side to counterbalance its several bad ones. Seen in three-quarter profile from the right, what is otherwise an indecipherable, man-shaped pile of crusty slop resolves itself into a single, lidless eye glaring balefully out of the corroded and otherwise almost featureless ruin of a face— and from that angle, the Prescott creature is terrifying. Just showing us more of the thing would have gone a pretty long way toward improving this fairly dismal film.

 

 

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