Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 21, 2007
Please forgive the subject header of this post – but there is a thought behind it.
As part of the American Cinematheque ’s annual Fantasy, Sci-Fi & Horror Festival, held at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre and Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre, the British science fiction films Crack in the World (1965) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) were shown as a double bill last Friday night. Quatermass is a childhood favorite, which I first saw under its American release title Five Million Years to Earth; I’ve owned the movie on VHS and currently keep the Anchor Bay DVD close by but it’s still a treat to see this crackling thriller on a big screen. It’s perfectly cast (Andrew Keir, James Donald, Barbara Shelley and Julian Glover, whose death scene brought cheers from the crowd on Friday), snappily written by the late, and literally great Nigel Kneale, and played to the hilt by director Roy Ward Baker. A lesser work but a lot of fun in its own way is Crack in the World, which I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. Dana Andrews plays a brilliant physicist attempting to solve the world’s energy crisis by tapping into the magma at the earth’s core; instead of saving the world, he winds up causing a… well you know. Some dodgy science here but good actors, inventive special effects by Eugene Lourie, and a great popcorn disaster scenario courtesy of peripatetic executive producer Philip Yordan. Although both movies have abundant charms, the jewels in their respective crowns are their leading ladies.
In Crack in the World, Janette Scott plays Maggie, former student and now younger wife of Dana Andrews’ vainglorious Dr. Stephen Sorenson. Maggie’s biological clock yearns to create life just as her egghead husband (who has been rendered not only terminal by radiation poisoning but impotent to boot) has doomed the globe to disaster. In her desperation, Maggie turns to old flame Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), a younger, more virile colleague of her husband’s who not only opposed using a thermonuclear warhead to tap into the magma but still carries a torch for her. Scott and Moore were first paired in additional scenes added to Day of the Triffids (1963) to bulk up its running time; in that film, they were bickering young marrieds who had to put their issues aside to survive. It’s the same equation here, albeit slightly less acidic.
Janette Scott’s almost Aryan, slightly masculine looks and remarkable bone structure give her a mythic beauty, whether dressed in laboratory whites, kitted out in expedition khaki or clad in sopping tatters as she and Ted climb out of the ruin of Stephen’s subterranean laboratory towards a flame-roasted and entirely uncertain future. Posters for Crack in the World emphasized the disaster aspects of the script without condescending to adding sex appeal to the mix… which is odd, as Crack fairly vibrates with sexuality, and I’m not just talking about the obvious penetration metaphors. By the fiery denoument, poor Janette Scott must play Jane to Kieron Moore’s Tarzan, climbing and sweating and screaming big when she needs to be rescued, which is fairly often. At times we do see Maggie behind various technical looking consoles but other than talking the talk we never really see her do anything scientific. Brainy by association, Maggie is really just a broad to director Andrew Marton, scenarist Jon Manchip White and rewrite man Julian Halvey. But she’s a game girl and we love her for it.
It’s quite a different story in Quatermass and the Pit. Although it’s not common knowledge in the film world, aficionados of Hammer Studios know full well that Barbara Shelley’s sexual preference kept her off of Michael Carreras’ legendary casting couch – and yet Carreras, to his credit, made a star of her anyway. By the time she came to the studio, however, Shelley was older than most of their leading ladies and often played edgy, difficult women – the changeling title creature in The Gorgon (1964), the repressed Victorian turned wanton blood-sucker in Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966), and, in her best role for Hammer, a WWII spy whose plane is shot down near a Japanese POW camp, forcing her to become The Secret of Blood Island (1964) – and Quatermass and the Pit’s Barbara Judd is no different. We don’t get much in the way of background on Barbara (in fact, none) but as played by Barbara Shelley you can intuit that Miss Judd is burying some past grief in the pursuit of science, assisting the indefatigable Dr. Roney (James Donald) and joining Bernard Quatermass (an appropriately irritable Andrew Keir) to uncover the mystery of Hobb’s End.
British poster art for Quatermass and the Pitt goosed the sex factor by depicting a bosomy screamer who resembles no one in the film while onesheets for the foreign markets made Barbara Shelley out to be a bit of a leggy tart, which is certainly not the case here (or ever). The female depicted in this insert on the right looks a bit like Valerie Leon, who wouldn’t join the Hammer ranks for several years. Allegations of blantant false advertising notwithstanding, it is a great poster, and one I’d be proud to hang over my breakfast nook. As a bit of useless trivia, Barbara Shelley once went on record to say that during principal photography the cast and crew were in the habit of calling the film Quaterpiss on the Matt.
Even though Barbara Judd is etched as buttoned-up, warm-hearted but a bit grim and somewhat repressed, she’s the film’s sole hottie… every other actress pressed into service is quirky (Goodbye Mr. Chips’ Sheila Steafel, as a bespectacled journalist) or dumpy (Fahrenheit 451’s Bee Duffell, as a grandmotherly anthropologist) and altogether sexless. Still, it’s one of Barbara Shelley’s best films and she looks great in it. (I love how, early on, she’s always framed with light bulbs over her shoulder, making her a wellspring of good ideas but also a source of warmth.) When Barbara goes mad towards the end of the film, as long-dormant Martian astronauts hold all of London in a posthumous mind-lock, she really gets to cut loose in a way that Hammer rarely allowed her – and it’s to Shelley’s credit that the madness of Barbara Judd carries true weight and feels as awful and as transgressive as it should. Sod London… you want Roney and Quatermass to save Barbara from doing anything she might later regret.
The American Cinematheque’s summer Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror Fest continues for another week.
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