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Rocketship X-M (May 26, 1950)

RocketshipXM
Rocketship X-M (1950)
Directed by Kurt Neumann
Lippert Pictures

The classic era of Hollywood science fiction begins here.

There were science fiction from the very birth of the medium. One of the earliest narrative films ever made was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), and the silent era saw science-fiction masterworks like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

In the 1930s, sci-fi ranged from the Saturday-matinee action of Flash Gordon to the serious-minded speculations of Things to Come (1936).

During World War II, sci-fi all but disappeared from movie screens. (Although it always flourished in the pulp magazines no matter what Hollywood was doing.) But the 1950s were an incredible time for cinematic sci-fi, and that era started with Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon (1950).

Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M came out just a month earlier than producer George Pal’s Destination Moon, which was a lavish and much anticipated Technicolor extravaganza. Rocketship X-M, on the other hand, was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which was how it was able to beat Pal’s production into theaters. (Apparently the similarity of the two films led Lippert Pictures to include the disclaimer “This is not ‘Destination Moon'” in the promotional material they sent to distributors.)

Just like Destination Moon, this film takes many elements from Robert A. Heinlein’s “boys’ adventure” novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which was published in 1947. Unlike Destination Moon, it’s not an official adaptation, which might account for the decision to have unforeseen circumstances lead to the crew of the Rocketship X-M (which stands for “expedition moon”) badly overshooting the mark and winding up on Mars.

Aboard the rocket

The equipment seen in the film was provided by the Allied Aircraft Company of North Hollywood, so it doesn’t look particularly cheap or overly “fake,” but you’ll run out of fingers if you start counting all the inaccuracies in Rocketship X-M — the crew give a press conference with less than 15 minutes to go until launch, meteoroids fly in a tight cluster and smash into the ship at one point, there is sound in space, and so on.

Some of the scientific inaccuracies can be chalked up to the low budget. The film acknowledges that weightlessness is a part of space travel, but only partway. Small objects float up into the air and enormous fuel tanks are easy for the crew members to lift and maneuver, but their bodies all stay firmly in place.

Despite the budgetary limitations and scientific inaccuracies, I thought Rocketship X-M was a phenomenal sci-fi movie. All the things that money can’t buy — good performances, exciting story, crisp dialogue, imaginative use of earthbound locations to suggest other planets — are up there on screen.

Massen and Bridges

The script for Rocketship X-M was mostly written by the great Dalton Trumbo. Because he was blacklisted, Trumbo’s name doesn’t appear in the credits. The sharply drawn characters, the believable dialogue, and the progressive politics are all Trumbo trademarks. Several of the male characters in the film say and do sexist things, but the script itself is not sexist. For instance, after the crew has had their medical examinations, Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) points to Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen) and wryly says, “The ‘weaker sex.’ The only one whose blood pressure is normal.” Later in the film, a male scientist confidently tells her to recheck her calculations because they don’t jibe with his and she apologizes — but it turns out later that hers are correct, and his insistence that he is right has dire consequences for the mission.

Most significantly, the film imagines a Mars devastated by a long-ago nuclear war. The possibly cataclysmic consequences of atomic war is a science-fiction concept that can be found in E.C. Comics (specifically Weird Fantasy #13) published around the same time that Rocketship X-M was released, and even earlier in a radio show written by Arch Oboler, but it was a new concept for a Hollywood film.

The 1950s would see plenty of politically reactionary sci-fi movies in which square-jawed American he-men faced alien menaces and came out on top, but there were a fair number of ’50s sci-fi movies that took a dimmer view of America’s growing nuclear arsenal and burgeoning militarism, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Rocketship X-M was the first of these type of sci-fi movies, and it still stands up as superior entertainment.

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Spellbound (Dec. 28, 1945)

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United Artists

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound gets knocked around for its basis in Freudian theory. Many reviews of the film written in the past 20 years use words like “dated,” “implausible,” and “preposterous.” A lot of these same reviews also praise the dream sequence, which was designed by Salvador Dalí, as the most memorable part of the film.

Freud has been knocked around, criticized, and discredited since the turn of the century, so to dismiss a film’s plot and ideas merely because they are “Freudian” seems like picking low-hanging fruit. Granted, Freud had a lot of wild ideas, but he was a brilliant thinker, and should be viewed as a philosopher and a humanist as much as a doctor or scientist. Also, many people who dismiss Freud out of hand haven’t actually read any of his writing, and cannot discuss his ideas beyond the fact that they’ve heard that they’re loony.

Upon revisiting the film, I found the much-praised dream sequence by Dalí overly gimmicky, adding little to the narrative beyond a “gee whiz” moment. (Hitchcock had almost nothing to do with its production. Dalí worked with a production unit from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures on the sequence.) There’s nothing wrong with “gee whiz” moments, but Spellbound is an underappreciated film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it bears rewatching as a complete work of art, not just as a showcase for pop surrealism or “dated” notions of neuroses and the unconscious.

In 1942, after winning back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture (then called “outstanding production”) for Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), producer David O. Selznick was morose. He took time off and sought treatment. His experience with the “talking cure” was so positive that he decided to produce a picture with psychoanalysis as its subject. In 1943, Hitchcock mentioned to Selznick that he owned the screen rights to the 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym “Francis Beeding.” The Gothic potboiler was about a homicidal lunatic who kidnaps a doctor named Murchison and impersonates him, taking over his position as head of a mental institution. A female doctor named Constance Sedgwick uncovers the impostor’s ruse and eventually marries the real Dr. Murchison.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and his friend Angus MacPhail crafted a preliminary screenplay in which Dr. Murchison was the outgoing head of the institution and Dr. Edwardes was his successor. They also created a romance between Constance and Dr. Edwardes, as well as the downhill skiing set piece that cures Edwardes of his amnesia. In March 1944, Selznick offered Hitchcock the talents of Ben Hecht, and Hitchcock and Hecht worked together for months to refine the screenplay. They even visited mental institutions, and preliminary versions of Spellbound featured more semi-documentary material than the final product does.

The final product may be, as Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” But with Hitchcock behind the camera, even the most pedestrian manhunt story can become something dazzling. Hitchcock considered Spellbound one of his minor works, but part of his underestimation of the picture could have been due to all the clashes he had with Selznick, who was known for meddling with his productions. Selznick even hired his own therapist, Dr. May E. Romm, as a technical advisor for the film. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dr. Romm told Hitchcock that an aspect of psychoanalysis in Spellbound was presented inaccurately, Hitchcock responded, “It’s only a movie.”

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the director of Green Manors, is being forced into retirement shortly after returning to work following a nervous breakdown. His replacement is the young, handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). “My age hasn’t caught up with me,” Dr. Edwardes responds when someone mentions how young he appears. But this isn’t the case, of course. He is actually an amnesiac who has no idea who he is or how he arrived at Green Manors. His state of confusion is such that he initially believed he was Dr. Edwardes, and is now playing the role because he doesn’t know what else to do. Dr. Petersen uncovers the truth, but she has already fallen instantly, madly in love with him. When the rest of the world learns the truth about Dr. Edwardes, he flees Green Manors. He still has amnesia, but he knows that his real initials are “J.B.” He heads for New York, and tells Dr. Petersen not to follow him. Does she follow his advice? Of course she doesn’t.

The romance is a high point of the film. The presentation of Dr. Petersen’s initial “frigidity” is certainly dated, but it leads to one of Hitchcock’s wildest sequences. When Bergman first kisses Peck, a shot of her forehead dissolves into a shot of a door. The door opens, revealing another door, which also opens, revealing another door, and so on.

Bergman’s performance is pitch perfect in every scene. Peck’s performance is less natural, but it works, since he is playing a man who literally doesn’t know who he is. (Apparently Peck craved more direction from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock just kept telling him things like “drain your face of all emotion.” Hitchcock had little patience for method acting.) Also, you would be hard-pressed to find two actors in 1945 who were more physically attractive than Bergman or Peck.

The cinematography by George Barnes is another high point. Each shot in Spellbound is beautifully constructed, and gives off a silvery glow. There are a number of choices that are still shocking, such as a flashback to an accidental death, or the penultimate sequence in the film, in which a P.O.V. shot shows a revolver being turned directly on the audience. When the trigger is pulled, there is a splash of red, the only instance of color in the film. It’s an assault on the audience par excellence from a man who spent his entire career assaulting his audience while almost never alienating them, which is not an easy thing to do.

Miklós Rózsa’s score for the film incorporates a haunting theremin melody, as did his score for The Lost Weekend, released around the same time. Rózsa won an Academy Award for best score for his work on Spellbound. Hitchcock was disappointed in the music, however, since it emphasized the romantic aspects of the film, and was more to Selznick’s liking than his own.

Sometimes creative dissonance leads to great creations, however. Spellbound is a great movie, whether or not its producer and director ever saw eye to eye.

Blood on the Sun (April 26, 1945)

BloodSunJames Cagney made a big splash in William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). It was his first starring role. Some people claim that when Cagney first walked on screen in that picture, it was the beginning of “modern acting.” Whether or not you believe that claim, there’s no denying the impact Cagney had on Hollywood, especially gangster films. The scene in which he shoves a grapefruit half into Mae Clarke’s face is iconic. Late in his life, Cagney claimed that people still sent grapefruits to his table in restaurants, with a wink and a nod. The Public Enemy ushered in a new era of onscreen violence, and an icon was born.

Cagney would go on to play many criminals, gangsters, and con men, in films like Smart Money (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), Hard to Handle (1933), Picture Snatcher (1933), The Mayor of Hell (1933), Lady Killer (1933), He Was Her Man (1934), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He was so good in these roles that when a lot of people hear the name “Jimmy Cagney,” they can only think of a sneering mug with a gat clenched in his fist and a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. But Cagney was a versatile actor. He also played cops, G-men, servicemen, and comedic roles, as well as singing and dancing in musicals. In fact, the only Academy Award he ever won was for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a drama and musical that told the life of George M. Cohan.

I think Cagney is a great actor with a unique style and personality. Anything he appears in is worth watching. Blood on the Sun was directed by Frank Lloyd, a Hollywood veteran who’d been making pictures since the silent era. It’s a wartime potboiler with a dubious MacGuffin; the Tanaka Memorial, an alleged strategic document from 1927 in which Prime Minister Baron Tanaka Giichi created for Emperor Showa a strategy to take over the world. It is believed by many historians to have been a forgery. In the ’30s and ’40s, however, the document was widely accepted as true. It was mentioned in Frank Capra’s agitprop documentary series, Why We Fight, and translations were published in Chinese and American periodicals. Of course, one reason why it was widely regarded to be an actual document is because Japan’s actions so closely mirrored the strategy that the Tanaka Memorial outlined; the conquest of Manchuria and Mongolia, followed by the invasion of China, the establishment of bases in the Pacific, and the eventual conquest of the United States. So although General MacArthur’s armies were unable to uncover any original Japanese-language versions of the Tanaka plan after World War II, perhaps its authenticity is beside the point.

In Blood on the Sun, which takes place in Tokyo in the late ’20s, Cagney plays an American reporter named Nick Condon. Condon writes for the Tokyo Chronicler, which is essentially a mouthpiece for the Japanese government, and is aimed at the Western business community. When Condon writes and publishes an article about a secret plan that outlines Japan’s plans for world domination, his editor tells him to print a retraction. He refuses, and the Japanese secret police plant a false story in the newspaper designed to discredit Condon. When Condon still refuses to back down, the Japanese secret police raise the stakes by murdering two of Condon’s friends, whom they believe are smuggling a copy of the Tanaka plan out of the country. Eventually, the film becomes a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller, with Condon on the run with a “half-breed” named Iris Hilliard, played by Sylvia Sidney, who is originally sent by the secret police to ingratiate herself to Condon and find out if he has a copy of the Tanaka plan. (Since Sidney is a white actress in yellowface makeup, I wasn’t clear for awhile which two races she was supposed to be descended from. One is Chinese, but I could have sworn that at one point, another character described her as being half Japanese/half Chinese. Her surname, however, implies that her father was British or American. So I must have misheard the line of dialogue.) Besides the questionable historical accuracy of Blood on the Sun, the white actors playing Japanese roles will probably be the hardest thing for modern audiences to swallow. John Emery, who plays Tanaka, and Robert Armstrong, who plays Col. Hideki Tojo, are not the worst examples of yellowface I’ve ever seen, but with their indeterminate, lisping accents, they’re still pretty bad. Blood on the Sun isn’t a particularly racist film, however, especially when one considers the context in which it was made. All of its villains are representatives of the Japanese government, which committed horrifying atrocities during World War II, and with whom the United States was still at war when this film was made. Several of the actors in smaller roles are actually Asians (although it’s unlikely that too many, if any, are actually Japanese).

The main reasons to see this film today, aside from historical curiosity, are the performance of Cagney and the well-choreographed fight scenes. Blood on the Sun won a single Oscar at the 18th Academy Awards in 1946, for best art direction in a black and white film, but it should have won for “most awesome martial arts battle in an American film.” Sadly, such a category did not exist. How could it? Martial arts were new to Hollywood. Some people cite John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as having the first real martial arts fight scene in an American film, which is clearly not the case. Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva’s karate chops were fine, but they pale in comparison to the brutal judo smackdown that crowns Blood on the Sun. Cagney studied judo for this film, and liked it so much he kept it up for most of his life. How could he not? A born-and-bred brawler, Cagney clearly took to martial arts like a fish to water. The combination of judo throws and boxing as he fights the leader of the secret police, Capt. Oshima, played by Jack Sergel (who acted under the stage name “John Halloran”), is fairly basic by today’s standards, but it’s still impressive. Cagney and Sergel go to the ground several times, and the chokeholds and arm bars look as if they hurt. So do the throat punches. Sergel was actually my favorite actor in the film after Cagney. He’s tall, menacing, and has a shaved head and black mustache. He doesn’t look particularly Japanese, but he’s more convincing as an Asian than any of the other white actors in the film. Sergel was a former LAPD officer who had been investigated by the FBI because of his involvement with the sport of judo, including his participation in at least one judo tournament that was held in a Japanese internment camp. Even though he was a Los Angeles police sergeant and loyal American citizen, his admiration for Japanese culture and sport was seen as suspicious by federal and local authorities, and he ended up resigning from the LAPD in 1944. Cagney spends a lot of his time in this film punching, kicking, and throwing the bad guys who come after him, but his fight with Sergel is the high point. Cagney was a small man, and Sergel towers over him, but Cagney’s sheer physicality makes you believe they’re evenly matched.