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DVD Review Of First Man Into Space

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/16/11

 

  I first watched the 1959 black and white English film, The First Man Into Space (Satellite Of Blood in the U.K.), on television, as an eight or nine year old child. I believe it was on a twilight double bill with The Unearthly Stranger, another British horror film, made a few years later. Like many similar films, The Quatermass Xperiment or The Crawling Hand, this low budget film has a standard premise. But, like The Unearthly Stranger, it is a bit more literate and enjoyable a sci fi romp. The odd thing is that it was one of four The Criterion Collection titles in a release called Monsters And Madmen, as all four films were produced by the same people, Amalgamated Films- a sort of junior rival to the American AIP (Roger Cormanís folks), and the Hammer Studios of England.

  The short 77 minute film, directed by Robert Day, a journeyman director with scant credits to his name, outside of Amalgamated and the horror and sci fi genres, rises above its cousins with some good moments in the screenplay, written by Wyott Ordung, John Croydon, and Charles F. Vetter, minimal exposure to the astronaut-cum-monster, and good use of black and white cinematography and fairly effective scoring. Granted, none of it will challenge fans of Akira Kurosawa or Bernard Herrmann, but for its genre, itís quite impressive, especially considering its low budget and re-use of stock military footage, including cockpit shots of the legendary Chuck Yeager during some historic flights. Although shot in England, the stock footage, use of nighttime forest shots, and some random pickup shots in the New Mexico desert, adequately convinces one that the tale, indeed, does take place near White Sands.

  The plot is propelled less by the Dumbest Possible Action, and more by that old standby: sibling rivalry. It follows Commander Chuck Prescott (Marshall Thompson, later of televisionís Daktari fame, but also talented veteran of many B films) who doubts his younger brotherís bona fides to pilot the first experimental rocket into outer space. The brother is Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), and he yearns to get the Y-13 rocket going. He is a cowboy, an arrogant wannabe playboy, with a sexy Italian girlfriend, Tia Francesca (Marla Landi), who just happens to be a Ďscientist.í After an initial flight succeeds, a second flight is prepared, and Chuck worries of Danís cockiness. Chuckís boss, Captain Ben Richards (Robert Ayres, another well known B film and television actor), head of the New Mexico Air Force Space Command (this was made pre-NASA), disagrees, and Dan undergoes physical and psychological tests to prepare himself for the next trip, and is under the care of the prototypical (although implied, not stated) Nazi defector doctor, Doctor Paul Von Essen (Carl Jaffe, yet another venerable minor actor).

  The second flight proceeds, and Dan gets careless. At 600,000 feet, when he is supposed to descend, he continues to climb to nearly 300 miles, then loses control of the ship, via anoxia, and has to abort, when space dust (one of many laughable scientific inaccuracies in the film, such as breaking Ďthe controllability barrierí- huh?, and Von Essenís using an x-ray machine while he and others are not standing behind a lead barrier) encrusts him and the ship. Dan is presumed dead, after the rocket plane is recovered. But, it is encrusted in some more dust. Then, killings of cattle and people occurs nearby, After investigation, Chuck concludes it is Dan who is the blood drinking monster. How this mutation has occurred is not known, but Dan soon ends up back at the Space Command, and is lured into a high altitude chamber. Inside, with his brother, Dan recovers his senses, and speaks a bit, of what happened, and dies claiming that he just had to be the First Man Into Space. The film ends with solemn intonations, from Dr. Von Essen, about the dangers of exploration, and there always being men willing to risk it all. Chuck and Tia, meanwhile walk down a hall, together.

  The DVD package is solid, and was the first in an aborted series devoted to B films (similar to the no frills Eclipse Series). The film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There is a brief making of featurette called Making Space, the original theatrical trailer, four radio spots, and a photo gallery. There is also an audio commentary with sci fi film historian Tom Weaver and producer Richard Gordon. Itís a solid commentary, but one with a goodly amount of dead air. Weaver is enthused, but instead of exploring more deeply into the making of the film, he seems content to merely prattle on about real space history. There are some interesting anecdotes on Gordonís past as a producer, and on related films he, and his brother Alex, made, but, overall, thereís just not much heft that is mined in the stale question and answer format used. Itís too bad because itís so rare that B films get this sort of treatment, and to squander it is a shame. Even worse is when both men mispronounce the similar film The QuaterMass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown, in the USA) as Kwaitermass, rather than Quarter-mass.

  All in all, First Man Into Space is a solid example of mid-level 1950s science fiction. Itís not on par with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, Gojira, nor The Day The Earth Stood Still, but itís amongst the better entries in the second tier, and a good deal of the Ďbelievability factorí has to be credited to the always underrated Marshall Thompson. In both presence and ability, he was one of the few B film actors it can honestly be said it was a shame that he wasted his talent in them. The obvious exemplar of this was Vincent Price, but not even Price could pull off military and leading man roles the way Thompson did. And, although he eventually did garner some level of fame on television, to me, he will always be best recalled in such films as this, where the joy received, especially to young boys, was always far greater than it reasonably should have been. And how many films, A, B, C, or Z, can claim that?

 

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]

 

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