Quatermass II (1957)

When it’s on: Saturday, 6 June (1.05 am, Sunday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I’ve mentioned before on these pages that the scheduling of late night classic horror on BBC2 comes as a very welcome thing, potentially introducing a new generation of viewers to golden age thrills and chills. The likes of Quatermass II (released as Enemy from Space in the USA) might be a minor footnote in the genre, surpassed at the time by the technicolor macabre treats of The Curse of Frankenstein, but as a piece of formative horror/science fiction cinema it has its place as an influential piece of work, its mixture of science, paranoia and subtle criticism leaking into the make-up of later productions. It was unavailable for many years. But, restored now, its place within the evolution of British cinema stands out, and it’s impossible to watch Doctor Who, for one celebrated example, without seeing the roots here.

Brian Donlevy – who last appeared on the site, in a younger and more villainous guise, in 1939’s Destry Rides Again – returned to the role of Quatermass, having played him previously in the highly profitable The Quatermass Xperiment. Both films were adaptations of the BBC serial, scripted by Nigel Kneale, who had a much bigger influence on this film. The name of the title character might have come almost randomly via a search through the London telephone directory, but he was very deliberately shaped as a credible man of science, an intellectual authority who possessed the imagination to take on new concepts in a rational way, such as the threat of alien invasion, which broadly covers the plot of both films. Donlevy’s Quatermass was, however, a departure from the television version, playing the character as little more than a superior bully who treats those around him like subordinates because he’s always one step ahead, seeing threats long before anybody else can fathom their existence. Kneale didn’t like this portrayal as it took its toll on Quatermass’s humanity and his appeal as a hero, but it did add gravitas to the character, making him more believable as a brilliant scientist who inspires others through sheer authority. That said, stories were rife of Donlevy acting via a constant supply of black coffee to fend off his considerable alcohol intake, rumours that each cup was laced with something stronger.

At the beginning of the film, Quatermass is in charge of a project that plans to send a rocket to the moon, carrying people who will colonise it. There’s even a rocketship on his base; absent, however, is the government funding. Quatermass soon finds out where the money is going, on a plant that looks identical to his own, based at Winnerden Flats. The area is of interest due to a prolonged meteor shower that has occurred there, and when Quatermass investigates he discovers they’re very far from rocks hurtling randomly to the earth’s surface. A colleague is unlucky enough to be holding one of the meteorites when it explodes in his face, releasing a gas that leaves him with a v-shaped mark on his face. Soldiers arrive and take the man away, ordering Quatermass to leave. A visit to Inspector Lomax (John Longden) sends him to Whitehall, from where he inveigles himself onto a guided tour of the mysterious facility. On the surface, it seems benign enough, but the tour guide is intent on nobody straying from the group, and Quatermass learns to his horror that unless he does he’ll never leave the place with his life.

They key to it all is a nearby town (in reality, Hemel Hempstead) built for the construction workers, which Quatermass visits and from where he recruits a boozy reporter (Sidney James) to get the word out about what’s really happening at Winnerden Flats. There’s an air of complacency about the community that Quatermass shatters with his arrival, but what’s really interesting about it is that it’s at the heart of the conspiracy he’s uncovering. The people are oblivious about what’s happening at the plant, and everything’s fine as long as they remain so, led by the community centre, which wants absolutely nothing to do with Quatermass’s concerns. The stink about the government driven imposed silence only grows as the people realise what is actually happening, leading to a posse of angry townspeople converging on the plant, a group containing Michael Ripper in one of his early, celebrated Hammer cameos. A barmaid (Vera Day) is injured when a meteor crashes inside the pub, and this turns the community’s mood to one of retribution, building to the climactic attack against the plant. Terrifyingly, people who have been ‘infected’ by coming into contact with the meteors all have scars on their skin, a visible sign that they aren’t what they used to be.

Despite the modest budget and special effects that are clearly dated, it’s a riveting picture, a British take on the paranoia-fuelled science fiction movies that America was putting out during the 1950s. Where the USA film industry played on people’s Cold War fears of a communist invasion through stories of hostile alien visitors (on this subject, I’m hoping to cover The Thing from Another World in a couple of days), Quatermass II concerns itself with a government riddled with secrecy that takes part in allowing the otherworldly villains to set themselves up in the country and build from there. Donlevy is great as the hero, not very likeable yet still effective in leading the fightback from ordinary people. The Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex doubled as the alien plant, with matte paintings also used for the more ‘alien’ areas.

Quatermass II is a little gem of a picture, much cleverer than it appears to be both as an exercise in mounting fear and a barometer of contemporary moods. It’s highly recommended.

Quatermass II: ****

Destry Rides Again (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 23 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Destry Rides Again came out in 1939, the same year as Stagecoach, and it seems that it will go down with the epitaph ‘The One that wasn’t Stagecoach.’ 1939 was the year that also brought us Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the tale of an idealistic young Senator played with such conviction by James Stewart, at this stage a star on the rise. Stewart was suddenly hot property, and ensured Destry Rides Again would be pumped out quickly to capitalise on his winning ‘Aw shucks’ charisma. In the years that followed, especially after his experiences in World War Two, Stewart’s range would broaden and become far more complicated, but for now it was easy to see him as the idealistic young American, with his provincial, awkward manner of speaking, his steadfast resoluteness and offbeat appeal.

The real star of the show at the time, however, was Marlene Dietrich, the Berliner who was approaching 40 and presumably nearing the tail end of her long, glittering career. As Frenchy, the owner of lawless Bottleneck’s rowdy saloon, she’s a jaded singer who’s seen it all, betting the pants off other barflies over card games and being embroiled by association with the schemes of the town’s unofficial boss, Kent (Brian Dunlevy). She knows all the twists and angles, and she also sings for the bar’s denizens, her tunes lampooned mercilessly in the later Blazing Saddles (fascinating for viewers like me who saw Saddles first and had no idea Madeline Kahn was satirising Dietrich throughout the film).

Like the rest of Bottleneck, she is at first optimistic when former soak and new, ‘tame’ Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) declares he will clean up the town by hiring as his deputy the son of famous lawman Tom Destry, and then falls into jaded cynicism when young Destry (Stewart) turns up and shows he’s far from the action hero she thinks is needed. Destry Jr doesn’t carry guns. He orders a cup of tea at the bar. He talks of resolving problems without shooting, which sends everyone into confusion and makes him appear at first ridiculous. And Frenchy, the one who seems to have had her hopes dashed hardest, turns to the bottle and enters into a no holds barred catfight with another woman.

Destry might indeed abhor violence, but he has steel. Resolving as much as he can without resorting to reaching for ’em, he nonetheless shows he knows how to shoot in one bravura scene, and only dons the pistols when there’s no other way. The parallels with America itself are clear enough. Fashioned as the peace loving, pacifist nation that only entered conflict when the bloodletting became too great, the USA was wavering over whether to enter the brewing conflict that would escalate into the Second World War and provided decisive when it finally flexed its mighty muscles. The same with Destry, who resorts to action when Dimsdale is gunned down senselessly, the shameful result of a town that uses violence cheaply.

For Stewart, this and Mr Smith were career making turns, transforming a jobbing actor into one of Hollywood’s major stars, though the juxtaposition between Destry and the characters he played in his 1950s Westerns are stark. Dietrich worked hard on the film, at turns tragic and comic, retaining her beauty whilst looking lived in and with sad stories to tell.

The film’s part comedy, but one with dark overtones as the situation in which Bottleneck finds itself in is all too credible. Credit goes to Donlevy as the oily Kent, his eyes on everyone whilst remaining a credible low key villain. It’s good stuff, and alongside Stagecoach helped to revitalise the Western genre.

Destry Rides Again: ****