(3/10) In a nutshell: This is the oldest surviving British space flight film, produced by Hammer Films and directed by Terence Fisher. The low-budget production mixes a murder whodunnit with a love triangle and a spy thriller, and despite the name, most of it’s a pretty mundane and Earth-bound programmer. Featuring Eva Bartok and American hunk Howard Duff and some very good English talent. Visual effects innovator Les Bowie doesn’t have the budget to do anything fun. A messy script with moon-sized plot holes don’t help things along. A mildly entertaining run.
Spaceways (1953). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Paul Tabori & Richard H. Landau. Based on the radio play Spaceways by Charles Eric Maine. Starring: Howard Duff, Eva Bartok, Alan Wheatley, Philip Leaver, Michael Medwin, Andrew Osborn, Cecile Chevreau. Produced by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films and Lippert Pictures. IMDb score: 5.1/10
”An interesting little curio” seems to be the collective opinion on this British mishmash of a film from 1953. Hammer Films had not yet become the powerhouse of gory Technicolor horror it was destined to be – The Curse of Frankenstein was still four years away. Instead, the small company focused mainly on churning out so-called quota quickies to satisfy legally binding cinema quotas of British films. Most of Hammer’s output consisted of cheaply made spy or murder thrillers logged down by romantic dramas. But the studio was also taking tentative steps toward science fiction.
Hammer had dipped its toes in the genre with the proto-James Bond films Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949, review) and Dick Barton at Bay (1951, review), and early in 1953 the studio released its first all-out sci-fi film, a Frankenstein-inspired cloning drama called Four-Sided Triangle (review), which nevertheless lost its way in a lukewarm love triangle. And even though released in the fall of 1953, Spaceways was in production long before BBC started broadcasting its influential TV serial The Quatermass Experiment (review) in June.
In fact, the idea for Spaceways was born out of Hammer’s collaboration with little US studio Lippert Pictures, who had a surprise hit in the low-budget space exploration film Rocketship X-M (review) in 1951, which was distributed by Hammer in the UK. When looking for a story to adapt into their own space adventure, Hammer did what they usually did, looked at what BBC was doing. And what BBC was doing in 1952 was broadcasting a radio serial called Spaceways, written by David McIlwain, under the pseudonym of Charles Eric Maine. Just like they did with the Dick Barton franchise and later with the Quatermass franchise, Hammer bought the rights from BBC to make a film out of Spaceways.
The film follows the basic structure of the radio serial, it’s a love triangle, murder whodunnit and spy thriller set against the backdrop of Britain’s first manned space flight. The film opens in a secret research base in the British countryside, where top scientists Dr Philip Crenshaw (Andrew Osborn), Dr. Toby Andrews (Michael Medwin) and Dr. Lisa Frank (Eva Bartok) work under the watching eyes of the roly-poly research chief Professor Koepler (Philip Leaver). Their number one asset is an American scientist on loan, Dr. Stephen Mitchell (Howard Duff). There’s a lot of techno mumbo-jumbo about speed, trajectories and fuel calculations as they try to convince a cabinet minister to green-light a project that will send an unmanned rocket in a slingshot orbit around the Earth and back, which he naturally does, otherwise there would be no film.
But before we get there, there’s some very Earth-bound drama to deal with. There’s a bit of passion play at work at the secluded station; Steve’s wife Vanessa (Cecile Chevreau) is mad at her husband for not making her a rich woman by accepting a lucrative offer from a private company, and she is tired of being cooped-up behind the secretive walls of the research station. For adventure, she instead has an affair with Steve’s colleague Philip. All the while, Toby has the hots for Lisa, but Lisa only has eyes for Steven, and Steve is starting to notice Lisa. The day before the launch things come to a head, as Stephen catches Vanessa making out with Philip in the doorway. However, he doesn’t care enough to reprimand her, as he has long since lost his love for the golddigger woman.
The day of the crucial launch comes, and Stephen makes the final checkups on the rocket before it is launched into space. But something goes wrong, and the rocket splutters to a halt too soon, and gets trapped in a never-ending orbit around Earth. Even more curious, both Philip and Vanessa have disappeared. An investigator, Dr Smith (Alan Wheatley) gets called in, and immediately starts questioning the staff, and soon comes to the conclusion that Stephen is the culprit. Stephen had motive and opportunity to murder Philip and his own wife when he found out about their affair, empty two or three tons of fuel from the rocket to make it stick in orbit, and then dump the bodies in he fuel tank, thus getting rid of all the evidence, which now circles the globe: ”The perfect murder!”
But Steve has the obvious solution – send him into space with another rocket, so that he can retrieve the first rocket and clear his name, in the process allowing for the first experiment with a manned space flight. Consensus seems to be that as he is as good as convicted for murder anyway, his life won’t matter much. Agreed. But Smith is not completely convinced, as he also happens to suspect that Philip was in league with ”the enemy”, and was in fact a spy out to steal the British rocket secrets for the Soviets. So he starts off an investigation on the other end of the spectrum, which then has him tracing the footsteps of a shady security guard, who has conveniently been killed in a car crash.
At the same time Lisa convinces Toby to ”volunteer” to go up with Steve in the rocket, but she is only asking him ”to volunteer, not to go”. Toby catches the drift: Lisa is in love with Steve and wants to be with him to the end, be it in a never-ending orbit around Earth if it must. He agrees, but then gets second thoughts, as he thinks he is the one who should go up in the rocket. However Lisa again convinces him. And as the spacesuits conveniently have extremely narrow and highly impractical slits for the eyes, Steve doesn’t notice that it is Lisa and not Toby in the spacesuit before they are miles above Earth, because when attempting the first manned space flight (for which none of them have actual training), no communication between pilots is apparently necessary.
In between Dr. Smith has time to actually find Philip and Vanessa, conveniently the very same second that Philip shoots and kills his bride on the run after she refuses to come with him to Mother Russia. Philip is arrested and Steve’s name cleared, but too late. But when Steve finds out who actually accompanied him on his space flight, he immediately aborts mission and tries to turn the rocket around – but there’s an explosion and the boosters are stuck! How will this end?
So as you can see, this story is more than a little convoluted, and the drama is mostly Earth-bound. I think it may have worked well as a serialised version on the radio, but as a film it becomes just a little too disjointed.
This is the second science fiction film where Hammer surrenders any interesting notions that may have arisen from the science fiction premise of the movie, and substituted it with a tepid romantic drama. It’s like they didn’t have faith that sci-fi would sell enough, and were perhaps hoping to appeal to an adult audience with the drama. The problem is that the romance gets too little to to really develop into anything interesting, the spy story gets stort of pushed to the outliers, the murder whodunnit takes the drivers sea and the science fiction seems most like a plot convenience.
Spaceways was British author Maine’s first sold radio play in 1952, and in 1953 it became his first published novel. Over the years he published a number of books up until the seventies. His screenplay for the film Timeslip (1955, review), was developed into the novel The Isotope Man in 1957, and was the first entry into his only series. Escapement was turned into a film with the same name in 1958, and his last sci-fi novel The Mind of Mr. Soames (1961) got a film treatment with the same title in 1970. Other noteworthy sci-fi books were Timeliners (1955) High Vacuum (1956), World Without Men (1958) and Calculated Risk (1960).
We need not worry that Spaceway’s screenwriters Paul Tabori and Richard H. Landau have mangled some masterpiece by turning Maine’s play/novel into the film it became. Sci-fi expert Damon Knight in his book In Search of Wonder writes, in so many words, that Maine’s writing is stylistically and story-wise decent, if unsurprising. He calls Maine’s 1955 novel Timeliners ”an amateur flight of fancy” in which ”anything can happen, except the unexpected”. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes about Maine that his SF novels have a ”leaning towards thriller-like plots and a disinclination to argue too closely scientific pinnings that are often shaky”. Knight agrees, pointing out that Maine seems to lack knowledge in the most basic scientific facts. He writes that ”Maine’s physics is bad, his chemistry worse /…/ The gross errors in [High Vacuum] are in the area of common knowledge (as if a Western hero should saddle up a pueblo and ride off down the cojone): any one of them could have been corrected by ten minutes with a dictionary or an encyclopedia.” About Spaceways P. Schuyler Miller wrote in the magazine Astounding that it was ”not memorable, perhaps, and fairly pedestrian, but a good job that’s going in a good direction”, while Anthony Boucher of F&SF magazine wrote that it ”Falls far short of passable /…/ once you have swallowed all the scientific, political and geographical absurdities, you are still faced with the plot”. Many reviewers point out though, that despite his novels’ flaws, they are often both entertaining and enjoyable. Others call them ”dismal”.
The film, of course, was directed by Terence Fisher, the former editor, who would later go on to great success as the auteur of Hammer’s re-imagined Universal horror movies, like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). By 1953 Fisher was one of Hammer’s most promising directors with over a dozen films under his belt. He was proficient, knew how to work fast and cheap, and also had a nice visual flair. He showed off some of his stylistic chops in Hammer’s previous sci-fi, Four-Sided Triangle, but unfortunately very little of it is on display in Spaceways. Perhaps there simply wasn’t time, or perhaps Fisher just didn’t care all that much – he didn’t have much love for science fiction, and was much more interested in character-driven horror. Spaceways is flatly filmed in obvious studio settings and there’s not a single interesting camera angle in sight.
Screenwriters Tabori and Landau do what they can with the material, and in fact it at least isn’t ”dismal”. The plot is extremely contrived and hasn’t a single shard of logic, but that’s probably more Maine’s fault that the screenwriters’. That the suspicion should first fall on Stephen is odd – after all, it’s Vanessa and Philip who are gone. The script tries to remedy this by showing that the security of the science station is so air-tight that there is no chance that the two could have gotten away unnoticed. In fact, the security seems to consist mainly of jovial guards and paper passes, and any spy with some self-respect could surely have dealt with that. So Dr. Smith’s (initially) unshaken belief that Steve must be the culprit seems oddly illogical. Steve’s motivation to sacrifice himself because of a poorly presented case with absolute zero evidence is also illogical – and again the script tries to remedy this by having Stephen talk about how suspicion will loom over him for the rest of his career – it’s almost like a sentence in itself, he tries to convey. And these things just keep coming up, one inconsistency after the other. In fact it’s almost as if the screenwriters have discovered these huge, gaping holes in the logic of the novel, and tried desperately to cover them up with contrived solutions and vague lines.
Hungarian-born journalist and author Paul Tabori, had dabbled slightly in sci-fi when he wrote the script, mainly through future and alternate history before he co-wrote Four-Sided Triangle, based on a novel, along with Fisher. In the sixties he started writing biting speculative social satire, which turned him into a full-on sci-fi writer. Tabori also translated Hungarian novels into English. In the early sixties he became a well-known debunker of psychics and pseudoscience, and wrote a number of books on the subject, as well as on sexuality, eroticism and taboos explored in folk tradition and fairy tales.
Richard H. Landau was a studio hack, at the time best known for co-writing the script for Edward Dmytryk’s WWII film Back to Bataan (1945). He did, however, create something of a name for himself in science fiction by co-scripting the Hammer adaptation of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, review), and writing for Frankenstein 1970 (1958), as well as The Black Hole (1979), which was nominated for a Hugo in 1979, a year which saw competitors like Alien, Mad Max, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Stalker. He also worked on many sci-fi series, including The Wild Wild West and The Six Million Dollar Man.
As a curiosity, it may be that this is the first time in movie history that it’s posited that conquest of space might be done solely for scientific reasons, even though the overall plot revolves around the idea that we would also probably have to build nuclear missile platforms in outer space. An interesting notion, this prevalent idea of nuclear bombs from space. Apparently building rockets to go to the moon didn’t seem like a problem in the fifties, but building one that could be fired from America to Russia was was so difficult that it was apparently easier to first build another rocket to ship them to the moon, from where one could launch them at Russia. The film makes a fleeting notion of these possible space stations. but Lippert took this as the cue for their US marketing of the film. The US trailer promised that the film would be “revealing INCREDIBLE SPACE ISLANDS of the Future”, and the poster even showed artwork depicting circular space stations, and loads of rockets competing to get to them (see pic above).
Of course one can understand Lippert Pictures decision. The movie was released in the US around the same time as The War of the Worlds (review), and had to stand out of the crowd somehow. The British could be expected to see the first British spaceflight film since 1917, but for a US audience a film about a trip around the Earth was old hat. Lippert, like many other studios, had released films about landings on the moon and Mars in the previous three years. One thing that had not yet been done was a film about a space station – Galaxy Picture’s Project Moon Base (review)was still a month away. So they went with that small offhand remark and hopes the audiences wouldn’t be too disappointed when none of the promised “space islands” showed up in the movie.
The acting in the film is a mixed affair. Philip Leaver as the roly-poly professor does exactly what is expected of him as the goodie-two-shoes roly-poly professor, churning out one of the most staple caricatures on film. Andrew Osborn as Philip does the same, and doesn’t really leave any particular impression.
Howard Duff sticks out like a sore thumb, for good and bad, as the broad-shouldered, tall American in the cast. One might wonder why the Brits would have chosen an Umurrican for their hero in a film about the first British space flight. The reason was fairly unspectacular. Hammer’s distribution deal with Lippert Pictures stated that they had to have an American star in their films, so better to be able to market them to an audience overseas. ”Star” being a relative term, of course. In Four-Sided Triangle Hammer had used Barbara Payton, a starlet whose rose to giddy heights of fame in 1951, and crashed and burned just as quickly, and was shunned by all major studios in 1952 because of her scandal-prone private life. Duff’s story wasn’t quite as raunchy as Payton’s – he was blacklisted as a communist sympathiser in 1950 and was subsequently relegated to Z-grade independent films and had a hard time finding any acting work.
Before 1950, Duff had been a very well-recognised name in US radio, best known for his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s private detective Sam Spade, and began a tentative film career in the late forties. He lost all his radio work due to the blacklisting in 1950, but as opposed to many other actors, who retreated to the stage or simply gave up acting, Duff soldiered on in bad movie after bad movie, always finding work somewhere, thanks to his dark, smoky voice and his rugged good looks, a bit like a beefed-up James Dean. He also worked in TV in the fifties, and as the decade drew to a close, and the idea of blacklists slowly started losing their significance, found himself the star of his own show along with his wife Ida Lupino in Mr. Adams and Eve (1957-1958), and from there on his career was definitely up and running again with leading roles in a number of serials in the sixties and numerous recurring or guest parts in the seventies and eighties. He returned to radio and never left the movies, even if his film career never quite took to new heights. He is remembered, though, for his role as Dustin Hoffman’s lawyer in the Academy Award-winning 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer. He played the lead in the sci-fi movie Panic in the City (1968) and appeared in Monster in the Closet (1986), and had roles in a few sci-fi series like the original The Twilight Zone, Batman and Night Gallery.
In Spaceways Duff walks through the film occasionally looking interested in what he is doing, but he’s got the chops to pull off a decent effort even without trying. Duff sets the film’s tone by doing his best Dashiell Hammett thing, almost tipping the movie into film noir territory, with a little help from Fisher and cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer. He does come off a bit like a bull in a china shop opposite the sensitive British actors, but he works well opposite Eva Bartok’s equally one-dimensional acting.
Speaking of Bartok, this is a woman with an interesting story. Born in Hungary in 1927, her Jewish father disappeared during the Nazi occupation in the forties ans she was forced to marry a Nazi officer when she was 15 to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. After the Nazis were defeated, Hungary suffered under the new Communist regime, which is when Bartok got in touch with Hungarian expat and film producer Alexander Paal, who agreed to marriage so he could get her out of the country and registered in England (they broke off the fake marriage a year later).
Bartok had appeared on stage in Hungary, but only in one small film, and her almost non-existent English made her difficult to cast on stage in England, the home of Shakespeare. Alexander Paal placed her in a small, but noticeable role in his film A Tale of Five Cities in 1950, but after that she had difficulty finding work despite getting better at the language. However, when the movie was released in 1951, actor-producer Burt Lancaster was so impressed that he cast her as the female lead in his next big movie, The Crimson Pirate (1952). Despite the fame that the role brought her, her film career was continued mainly in B movies in England and some slightly higher profile films in Germany. Her best known role today is that of Countess Cristina Como in Mario Bava’s gory murder thriller Blood and Black Lace (1964), often seen as the film that gave birth to the Italian giallo, and in effect the slasher genre. The film did not do particularly well at the time, though.
Eva Bartok’s name has continued to fascinate even today, but more because of her public persona and her fascination with spirituality and new age humbug. Bartok did have a wonderful talent of throwing herself into her roles and doing strong emotional scenes, not least seen at the end of Blood and Black Lace, but her success as an actress probably hinged more on her sex appeal than her acting talents. She isn’t bad on Spaceways, but seems somewhat disconnected, possibly because she probably still had difficulties with the language. It is nice, though, to see her in a role as a fairly normal person, as opposed to some of the other roles she did. Her only other sci-fi film was The Gamma People (1956).
Alan Wheatley as Dr. Smith is probably the second most distinguished of the actors on hand, and does his intelligent and slightly shifty, but ultimately good-hearted detective with great aplomb, doing a sort of send-up of inspector Maigret that precedes inspector Clouseau by over a decade, roaming the rooms while he lays out his theories, always fiddling with furniture and decoration, making the pulling of a roll-up curtain seem like a grand revelation.
Wheatley was a stage and radio actor who got his start in the twenties, and soon made his transition to film and TV. His IMDb page lists him as having had first go at both Sherlock Holmes and the sheriff of Nottingham on TV, but this is not entirely true. He was the first person to play Sherlock Holmes in a TV series , in six live-broadcast films at BBC in 1951, but Alan Napier had appeared as he famous detective in a single show as early as 1949, also at BBC. The first person to play the sheriff on TV was David Kossoff, on the live-broadcast series Robin Hood, again at BBC. However Wheatley was one of the best-known sheriffs in long-running, filmed and edited show The Adventures of Robin Hood, and it remains his best-known role to date. But Wheatly was the first person to be killed on-screen by a Dalek in the hugely popular sci-fi series Doctor Who in an episode in 1964. (A side-note: I just watched a BBC-produced four-part documentary about the history of sci-fi films and TV, and about one third of the time they kept talking about Doctor Who. I wish that someone, please, would tell the Brits that outside of the British Isles, we mainly see the series as a fun little curiosity with crappy production values and robots that look like dust-bins.)
The most distinguished actor on hand is Michael Medwin, 30 at the time, as Toby, the lively and sympathetic redhead who is a constant companion to Stephen and agrees to play along with Lisa’s ruse to make it onto the rocket. Medwin has an ease and a charm to his acting, making it all seem perfectly natural and effortless. Although never a great star, he remained one of Britain’s most most respected character actors through decades, often playing charming, eager and slightly eccentric characters. From TV he is remembered for his roles in The Army Game (1957-1961) and Shoestring (1979-1980). He also appeared in over 50 films, including The Longest Day (1962), Scrooge (1970), The Sea Wolves (1980), The Jigsaw Man (1984) and most recently The Duchess (2008), starring Keira Knightley. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to drama in 2005, and is currently, February 2016, (hopefully) enjoying his retirement.
The movie was produced by Michael Carreras, the son of Hammer co-founder James Carreras. Michael worked as an executive producer at the studio during its heyday in the late fifties and sixties. He also started directing in the sixties, perhaps best known for directing The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), Slave Girls (Prehistoric Women in the US, 1967) and The Lost Continent (1968). He also produced the sci-fi films X the Unknown (1956), The Abominable Snowman (1957), Quatermass 2, The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Damned (1963), Moon Zero Two (1969) and Creatures the World Forgot (1971).
Cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer also shot Four-Sided Triangle, Masters of Venus (1962), Unearthly Stranger (1963), Island of Terror (1966), Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967) and The Night of the Big Heat (1967). Editor Maurice Rootes worked on Four-Sided Triangle and First Men in the Moon (1964).
The art direction of the film naturally suffers from the low budget. There’s a lot of sterile rooms with just plot-related accessories, and the science station looks a lot like a studio. The rocket looks like something out of Flash Gordon and is really only seen as a miniature or matte painting. It’s inspired by George Pal’s early space films, sleek and silvery, but has even more crazy wings. When it takes off, it suddenly changes into an ordinary V2-rocket, in fact it’s the very same V2-takeoff that was used for another film, where it didn’t match the designed rocket either, Lipper Picture’s Rocketship X-M. However, once you get into the cockpit it’s not all the bad, and some effort clearly went into designing the thing. It looks as if Hammer scoured London for all the gauges it could find, and a nice touch of old European style is the teak-lined dashboard.
The spacesuits are modelled on diving suits, as they often tended to be in pre-spaceflight films, but they are reasonably well made, except for the impractical tiny eye-slit in the helmet, really just there for plot convenience, so that Steve can’t see who’s actually in the suit. And it looks as if the helmet doesn’t really fit snugly to the suit, which would be a problem. The special effects, apart from the scene lifted from Rocketship X-M are more or less non-existent. Art director J. Elder Wills also worked on the early British sci-fi comedy The Perfect Woman (1949, review), Four-Sided Triangle and later or The Quatermass Xperiment, which remains his best known film.
Working the few visual effects, mostly matte photography, were two chaps called Les Bowie and Vic Margutti who later found themselves working on some of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Margutti did the effects for The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown, and worked with Ray Harryhausen on The Mysterious Island (1961), but also got enlisted as travelling matte creator on Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Les Bowie is one of the legends in British special effects, known for his work with Hammer in particular, but he worked freelance through his own company, of which Margutti was a part of for a while. Bowie refined matte work by being able to speed up the production, and supervised the effects and miniature work for many of Hammer’s legendary sci-fi and horror films. Apart from many of the horror monster movies, he also worked on things like The Trollenberg Terror (1956), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), The Damned, First Men in the Moon, Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), The Terrornauts (1967), They Came from Beyond Space (1967), Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967) and Moon Zero Two (1969). He was one of the multitude of people called in to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), (un)credited as special effects additional supervisor. He worked on an even bigger team in creating the visual effects for Star Wars (1977) and had a big – and finally credited – role on Superman (1978) as creative supervisor of mattes & composites.
Assistant director Jimmy Sangster later climbed the ranks to writer, producer and director, both with Hammer and other companies, writing the scripts for some of Hammer’s later classic horror films. But we’ll get to him in a later post.
The film, despite its flaws, is not as bad as some of the Z-grade crappers that American independent companies churned out in the fifties. Despite the obviously low budget, the film is at least professionally and cleanly filmed and the editing holds up well. The one major flaw of the movie is the script, as it feels as if it is constantly preoccupied with covering up the flaws, plot holes and illogicalities of the source material. The first part of the film drags awfully, but it becomes pretty intense towards the end when the spy plot kicks in. There’s a good deal of rather witty British humour and some nice one-liners and Fisher’s direction has a few nice little quirks. Nevertheless, it’s probably one for the completists, as I wouldn’t recommend it for casual viewing.
Spaceways (1953). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Paul Tabori & Richard H. Landau. Based on the radio play Spaceways by Charles Eric Maine. Starring: Howard Duff, Eva Bartok, Alan Wheatley, Philip Leaver, Michael Medwin, Andrew Osborn, Cecile Chevreau, Anthony Ireland, Hugh Moxey, David Horne. Music: Ivor Slaney. Cinematography: Reginald H. Wyer. Editing: Maurice Rootes. Art direction: J. Elder Wills. Makeup: Polly Young. Sound recordist: Bill Salter. Visual effects: Les Bowie, Vic Margutti. Produced by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films and Lippert Pictures.