(5/10) The last of actress Faith Domergue’s three science fiction movies of 1955 was a British quota quickie. Released as The Atomic Man in the US, it concerns two journalists investigating the case of a radioactive man who gets pulled back from death on the operating table and seems to be out of sync with time, all while his doppelgänger is involved with secret and potentially dangerous nuclear experiments. The sci-fi is underdeveloped, the science laughable and the script flawed, but entertaining and even exciting. Ken Hughes directs solidly and the acting is excellent.
Timeslip (1955, UK). Directed by Ken Hughes. Written by Charles Eric Maine. Starring: Gene Nelson, Faith Domergue, Peter Arne, Joseph Tomelty, Donald Gray, Vic Perry. Produced by Alec C. Snowden for Merton Park Studios.
IMDb score: 5.5/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
In 1955 science fiction still hadn’t really caught on with British movie producers. But the trend was pointing upwards. A change happened in 1953 when BBC made the live-aired TV series The Quatermass Experiment (review), in which an astronaut returns from space, and begins mutating into a dangerous alien life-form that he has been infected with. The series became a phenomenon, and soon thereafter British quota quickie companies started making cheap sci-fi movies, such as Spaceways (1953, review), Devil Girls from Mars (1954, review) and Stranger from Venus (1955, review). They were seldom masterpieces, but never complete turds, either. However, with the exception of The Quatermass Experiment (review), it feels like British producers weren’t quite sure about how to handle sci-fi, and often bungled the sci-fi element in favour of weak romantic plots or an over-emphasis on classic film noir trappings. Such is partly the case with Timeslip, which was released as The Atomic Man in the US, but it is nevertheless one of the better sci-fi quota quickies.
First of all, what’s a quota quickie? Well, in order to advance the British film industry, the British government in the forties imposed upon movie theatres that a certain quota of the films shown had to be new British movies. Established movie studios didn’t have the capacity to make the amount of films required for cinemas to fill their quotas with quality movies, and this gave rise to quota quickie companies, the sort of studios that were called Poverty Row studios in Hollywood, to create cheap exploitation movies for British distributors. Made cheap, they could be sold cheap, and the studios engaged in contracts with distributors to deliver X amount of films during a year. Often the production companies would also sign contracts with American distributors for either theatrical or TV distribution.
This in turn gave rise to the oddity that British quota quickie films often had American leads. American distributors didn’t trust that an unknown British cast would be able to catch the interest of American audiences, so they demanded that the films intended for US distribution have recognisable American names. Of course, quota quickie companies couldn’t afford Humphrey Bogart, so more often than not they had to find former minor stars who were now slumming, or that for one reason or the other wound up in Britain – actors who were happy to do leads for a small salary. This is how Gene Nelson and Faith Domergue ended up playing the leads in Timeslip.
The screenplay for Timeslip was written by Charles Eric Maine, one of the pen names of David McIlwane. Maine was the name he predominantly used for writing science fiction, and we have encountered him before on this blog, as the screenwriter for Spaceways, another film in which the science fiction element is underplayed to make room for more traditional noir elements. However, Timeslip is the better of the films. Timeslip had actually been made as a British TV movie in 1953, to cash in on the hype of The Quatermass Experiment, and the productions have a few similarities. Both concern men with strange ailments that doctors can’t explain. In the case of The Quatermass Experiment, an astronaut shows weird physical changes and is in a catatonic-like state. In Timeslip, a John Doe left for dead in the Thames, that looks just like a famous American nuclear scientist, seems to be perfectly lucid, but seemingly talks gibberish and turns out to be highly radioactive. In both plots, the key is to find out what has happened to the men.
The film was novelised in 1957 as The Isotope Man, giving some later commentators the idea that the film was based on a book. The novel became the first entry into Maine’s only book series, about reporter Mike Delaney. 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).
Timeslip is typical of Maine’s writing, inasmuch as it leans heavily on the thriller plot and sort of tip-toes over the science. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes about Maine that his SF novels have a ”a disinclination to argue too closely scientific pinnings that are often shaky”. Damon Knight in his book In Search of Wonder 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.”
So, on this shaky scientific ground, let’s get to the plot of the movie: The film depicts the ordeals of American science journalist Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) and his photographer/girlfriend Jill Rabowski (Faith Domergue) as they investigate the case of a mysterious John Doe who is fished out of the Thames with bullet holes in his back. The mysterious man dies on the operating table, but miraculously recovers 7,5 seconds after receiving an adrenaline shot. What first draws the attention of Delaney is the fact that the pictures of the man turn out all blurry, as if some radiation would be messing with the film. The second thing he notices is that the man looks just like American nuclear scientist Stephen Rainer (Peter Arne).
The two reporters enter into some friendly competition as well as cooperation with police inspector Cleary (Joseph Tomelty), and to their astonishment find that Dr. Rainer is all healthy and normal, working on a secret experiment at a nuclear lab in London, although he has some strange scars on his face, that he said he acquired ina car accident. So either Rainer has a natural doppelgänger, who just so happens to be as radioactive as the nuclear physicist, or something very fishy is going on. However, the audience soon gets in on the gag: it is in fact the real Dr. Rainer who’s lying in a hospital bed talking gibberish. He has been replaced with an outlaw scientist called Jarvis, who has undergone plastic surgery to make him look like Rainer, carried out by an ex-Nazi doctor (Paul Hardtmuth). They work in league with the shady, arrogant tungsten magnate and gangster Emmanuel Vasquo (Vic Perry) in order to blow up Rainer’s lab before he goes through with a critical experiment intended to find a way to artificially produce tungsten by means of nuclear fission – thus ruining Vasquo.
The clue really is in the title, but if you want to keep the suspense, then from here on there be minor spoilers.
It is Jill Rabowski who really solves the case, as she listens to an interrogation with the John Doe, and realises that he seems to answer all questions before they are asked. This gives Delaney the idea to have Rabowski read the questions aloud – exactly 7.5 seconds ahead of the tape – and lo and behold: suddenly the John Doe’s answers line up perfectly with the questions. They just made no sense earlier, because he answered the questions exactly 7.5 seconds before they were asked. Consulting an expert neurologist, the police and the reporters learn that while ”the brain is usually the first thing that dies” in a person, Dr. Rainer is so radioactive, that his brain kept going even though the body was dead. This meant that for the body, time stood still, while the brain kept moving forward in time as normal. When the body was revived, the brain was snapped back into the same timeline as the body, which meant it was now 7.5 seconds ahead of normal time.
This must surely be one of the most absurd explanations ever given in a sci-fi picture, and is further proof of Charles Eric Maine’s feeble grasp on science. Of course the brain isn’t the first thing that dies. The normal state of things is that when people are clinically dead, the brain slowly shuts down as it is being deprived of oxygen. Then the concept of the brain going forward in time without the body is, of course, completely absurd on so many levels. If this actually worked, then all people who have ever been revived from a flatline should be living ahead of time. People can commonly survive 3-4 minutes without a heartbeat, without any ill effect on the brain, so the doctors’ astonishment when Rainer snaps back to life 7.5 seconds after a flatline is highly unscientific. And even if we buy in to the idea, it comes with a number of problems. Rainer delivers his answers 7.5 seconds ahead of time, but his other functions seem to follow ”real” time, as he has no problem accepting a glass of water when it is offered to him. By the prevailing logic, he should have accepted it 7.5 seconds before it was offered to him. Conversely, if his body was out of sync with his brain, his mouth should’t be able to give the answers ahead of time, but would add a 7.5 second delay to the answers, thus giving them in ”real” time.
And of course, there’ the fifties notion of things like nuclear radiation and plactic surgery. It’s a staple of thrillers and detective stories that one can create a doppelgänger through the means of plastic surgery. However the head isn’t made out of play-dough, and much of what gives our faces their form is bone and muscular structure. Sure, those are also possible to alter, but as we know from a number of celebrities, it is pretty easy to spot when someone’s had major plastic surgery, as the face tends to look stiff and stretched, at least for a few years after the procedure. But this is a minor complaint, perhaps the good alcoholic washed-up Nazi doctor had secret techniques.
Radiation in this film is portrayed much in the way it was portrayed in many forties movies – as a magic formula able to do all sorts of impossible things, like keep a man’s brain alive without oxygen, or turn lead into tungsten, becoming the alchemist’s ”philosopher’s stone”. It was also a common trope in science fiction films that a high dose of radiation could kill you, but a slow build-up had no adverse effects, meaning people could walk around like glow-sticks without any ailments. Granted, this was a time when the US was still conducting open-air nuclear tests, sometimes with disastrous results, as the full devastating effects of nuclear fallout wasn’t yet completely understood. But still, by 1955 a scientific consultation would have shot down many of the Hollywood ideas about radioactivity.
As this film was not made in the US, the tropes of Soviet invasion and the atom bomb are absent from it. Maine simply uses the nuclear material as a McGuffin for a traditional detective story, even though the villains are foreign. As such, the movie has more in common with later James Bond films than with the cold war nuclear scare films of the US at the time.
Director Ken Hughes had made his film debut in 1952 with a crime drama, and then went on to make another crime drama and yet another crime drama, and then some more crime dramas, both writing and directing, so it is no surprise that his only sci-fi film also comes in the form of a crime drama. He had some early success with Joe MacBeth (1955), a film noir retelling of Shakespeare’s play, and the TV movie Sammy (1958), which he both wrote and directed – a film that has since be remade on the big screen, on TV and on stage all over Europe (including my home country Finland in 1962, for the TV show Teatteritoukio).
Hughes first real hit film was a historical drama, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), and he cemented his reputation with the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a critical flop but a commercial success. Hughes himself had no love for the movie. His masterpiece was another historical epic, Cromwell (1970), starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness. However, after that his star faded, although he kept working until 1981, when he retired.
The film moves along at a good pace and is infused with snappy dialogue and some very British humour, although Hughes is clearly emulating an American noir style. It is well shot and beautifully lit (or rather – not lit), and seems to be taking place almost exclusively at night. The script is cleverly written in the sense that it gives the viewer just enough information to stay slightly ahead of the game, but without revealing all the cards until late in the film. This way, the audience gets to work out the mystery alongside Delaney and Rabowksi, which makes it much more fun to watch than so many other movies of the same ilk, where one spends most of the film waiting for the protagonists to catch up.
Nelson and Domergue do a great job in the lead roles, and bring a good dose of Hollywood charisma and a good dose of humour to the plate. That they have good on-screen chemistry doesn’t hurt either. Nelson is instantly recognisable as an American, but Domergue does her best ”Mid-Atlantic” accent and for a non-English speaker it would probably take some time to pinpoint her as an American unless you knew who she was. Which, in all fairness, you probably did if you were a science fiction fan in 1955.
1955 was the year that Faith Domergue ruled genre cinema, with appearances not only in Timeslip, but also in the horror film Cult of the Cobra, the sci-fi classic This Island Earth (review) and the cult movie It Came from Beneath the Sea (review). For a more insight into her life and career, please see the reviews of either one of those films. Suffice to say that Faith Domergue had an interesting but troubled career. She was briefly Howard Hughes’ girlfriend in her teens in the forties, only 17 at the time, and he had her slated as a future star. However, when two hyped films with her in the lead flopped in 1950, her career plummeted.
Domergue still kept busy in B movies, mostly westerns and sci-fi, until she switched to TV in the late fifties. She lived for decades in Europe – she lived for a short while in Britain when Timeslip came her way, and in the late fifties she switched to TV, with the occasional European film in between. In 1965 she appeared in the American re-shoots that that were added to the Soviet sci-fi film Planeta Bur (1962), that ultimately became the Roger Corman movie Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. She prolonged her genre legacy in the first half of the seventies with two horror films opposite John Carradine. After that she retired and moved permanently to Spain with her Spanish husband.
While it’s a bit unfair to say Domergue was ”slumming”, her co-star Gene Nelson probably must have wondered what happened to his career when he found himself in a British B sci-fi movie. Nelson was a dancer and musical actor, who had starred opposite Doris Day in two pictures in the early fifties, but in the mid-fifties increasingly found himself in non-dancing parts in B films. It’s popularly believed that a fractured pelvis due to a riding accident in 1957 was what ended his dancing career, but Nelson’s denied this himself. His dancing days declined before the accident, partly because musical films were falling out of fashion. ”There just aren’t enough musicals to keep dancers busy these days. You have to learn to do something else,” he is quoted in an AP obit in 1996. 1955 also brought on his last musical film role, and ironically the one he’s best remembered from: as cowboy Will Parker in Oklahoma.
After 1955 Nelson made a gradual transition into TV, not only as an actor, but as a director. Trekkies may know him as the director of the classic Star Trek episode The Gamesters of Triskelion (1968), where Kirk, Chekhov and Uhura are enslaved as gladiators. He also directed the low-budget sci-fi monster movie Hand of Death (1962) for API. As a director he is probably best known for two Elvis Presley pictures: Kissin’ Cousins (1964) and Harum Scarum (1965). He was a rather busy journeyman director up until his retirement in 1980, and said he enjoyed directing more than acting. However, he felt that both his careers ended with unfulfilled ambition, illustrated by his very sad quote, in several ways: ”I didn’t become the star I wanted to be”. He did, however, receive accolades upon his return to Broadway in the seventies, as he was nominated for a Tony Award for his appearance in Follies in 1972 – the second time he was nominated for that musical. In 1990 he won a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Excellent is also Peter Arne in the dual role as Dr. Rainer and his sinister impostor. This was during a short time when Arne had a number of villainous roles in British B films, perhaps best remembered from The Pirates of Blood River (1962) with Christopher Lee. He made himself known as a capable character actor with a wide range, acting in both dramas and comedies, and soon started getting cast in supporting roles in A-list pictures, often US-UK collaborations filmed in Europe. Among these were Khartoum (1966) with Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Charlton Heston’s Antony and Cleopatra (1972). Arne became a favourite of Blake Edwards’, who cast him in no less than three of his Pink Panther films – the best remembered of these performances is perhaps the one as Colonel Sharki in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975); “Good Sharki, Colonel God!”. In 1967 he appeared in his only other science fiction film Battle Beneath the Earth. His last film was Tangiers (1985). Arne was brutally murdered in his flat in 1983 by a homeless school teacher to whom he had been giving food. The killer drowned himself before he was caught and the motive for the murder has never been established.
Another notable actor is Joseph Tomelty, who is brilliant as the police detective, and whom we’ve seen before in a less brilliant role in Devil Girl from Mars. Donald Gray appeared in three other minor British science fiction films, The Diamond (1954), Supersonic Saucer (1956) and Satellite in the Sky (1956) as well as in the movie remake The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). He is perhaps best known for providing the voices for Colonel White, Captain Black and the Mysterons in the puppet animation series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968). Donald Gray is also the reason as to why another actor called Donald Gray chose to adopt the artist name Charles Gray and go on to immortality in roles such as Ernst Stavro Blofelt in two Bond movies, and the Criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Vic Perry plays the bloated, evil mastermind Vasquo with great panache, stealing all his scenes, Perry only appeared in five films, but made his whole life one grand performance. He was best known as ”The Greatest Pick-Pocket in the World”, but also worked as a mentalist and escape artist. A larger than life person, few people ever knew if anything he said held any truth, and according to this forum, Perry claimed to have been … krhm: doctor of hypnosis, ex-international playboy, a WWII spy, master chef, master florist, European heavyweight wrestling champion, ex-witch doctor, ordained minister, as well as the first white man to traverse the Colorado River lashed to a wooden raft as the Indians did. A poster on the forum writes: ”Someone once described Vic Perry as a man riding pell-mell through life on the back of his own personal demon. And, he went on to note, at times it was difficult to determine who actually was riding whom, Perry or the demon.” Perry was also an alcoholic who twice attempted suicide. He passed away in 1974, only 54 years old.
German immigrant Paul Hardtmuth does a decent but stereotypical washed-up Nazi doctor. Hardtmuth showed up in a number of Hammer horrors, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). He also had a role in the sci-fi film The Gamma People (1956). In a very small role one can catch the big nose of Percy Herbert, who would go on to great success in films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Mutiny on the Bounty (1964) and Becket (1964). He also appeared in Quatermass 2 (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Doomwatch (1972).
All in all, this is a rather contrived story, and Maine fails to do anything especially exciting with the science fiction element. Basically, the same effect could have been achieved if the timeslipped character spoke some rare foreign language and they had to figure out what he was saying. Once they work out the mystery, it’s really just a staple noir detective thriller. And once it is done, it is clear that it would have been quite an easy task to find out what Rainer was trying to say. For example, give him a pen and some paper and have him write down his story. Problem solved. However, the movie is well filmed and well acted, and has a really nice, dark atmosphere punctuated by good-natured humour that’s actually rather funny. British sci-fi films of the age were often made on pretty crappy scripts, but they all seem to have a solid craft to them, as opposed to many of their cheap American counterparts. Timeslip is an engaging, entertaining and enjoyable B movie, if you can get past the utterly bonkers science and the lack of logic in the film.
Timeslip (1955, UK). Directed by Ken Hughes. Written by Charles Eric Maine. Starring: Gene Nelson, Faith Domergue, Peter Arne, Joseph Tomelty, Donald Gray, Vic Perry, Paul Hardtmuth, Martin Wyldek, Percy Herbert. Cinematography: A.T. Dinsdale. Editing: Geoffrey Muller. Art direction: George Haslam. Makeup artist: Jack Craig. Hair stylist: June Robinson. Sound supervisor: Richard A. Smith. Sound editor: Jim Groom. Wardrobe: June Kirby. Produced by Alec C. Snowden for Merton Park Studios.