My notes on the 1958 Italian science fiction film.‘Hello everyone, in just two hours, the atomic rocket will take off on its flight to the moon, circumnavigating it on its journey, and then returning to this Earth, thus achieving the most ambitious scientific achievement of all time …’
An early stab at non-monster science fiction from Europe, this Italian-French co-production starts at a night-time launch site (‘Cape Shark’, which seems to have been in Australia in the Italian version but is implied to be American in the dubbed cut) with a silver needle-look rocketship (the XZ) ready to take off and American scientist John McLaren (Paul Hubschmid) selected at the last minute as the man to pilot a Verne-like mission around (but not to) the moon. As in several non-American films of the period (First Spaceship on Venus, etc.), the space project is international in scope, with even a jolly, semi-bearded Russian (Jean-Jacques Delbo) on hand to be modestly proud of the role his Sputniks (cutaway to a beeping satellite which looks like something from Space Patrol) is playing in the project (in a topical post-Sputnik, pre-Gagarin touch, the importance of satellites to eventual manned missions is stressed). There’s some control room soap, with Mary McLaren (Fiorella Mari) communicating via a TV hook-up with the XZ, some stiff romantic banter — smooth manly boffin Peter LeDuc (Darrio Michaelis) vainly tries to chat up bespectacled labcoat Katie Dandridge (Madeleine Fischer) with ‘that cool beauty, it freezes my powers of concentration’ – and a celebration which features cocktails mixed from the national drinks of the scientists on the project (even shared with the base’s dog, Geiger). The mission is a bust, and the rocket crashes back to Earth – though McLaren survives, and there’s some mystery about what went wrong.
The whole opening stretch of the film seems modelled on The Quatermass Experiment – strangely, more by the TV serial (which the makers almost certainly couldn’t have seen) than the Hammer Film, with the first manned mission to space going wrong, byplay among the scientists (much more conventional here – Katie is warming up to Peter but overhears that he has made a bet with the others he can cop off with her, which earns him a slap while John and Mary have a marital spat about his commitment to work) and an astronaut who returns to Earth troubled by what he’s gone through (‘so we’ve launched a missile into outer space, loaded full of potential death …’). The crisis, however, is different: as intuited by Geiger (who is off his cocktails) and then a lot of other stock footage animals (news reports come in that there have been unusual migrations), there are dangerous days ahead, prompted by ‘an atomic explosion in the delta asteroids’ which was somehow caused by the XZ. A shower of meteors is on the way, and threatens the world, which makes for a montage of news outlets around the world declaring a state of emergency (‘they will reach and destroy out planet’). A lot more stock footage of panic, riot, evacuation, flood and displacement is deployed, as harsh voices issue orders reminiscent of the War (‘you will await your turn in an orderly manner’).
The Cape Shark boffins apply themselves to the problem by sitting at tables of equipment and listening to weird whooshing sound effects, while soap opera strands are resolved – John gets his wife (and obnoxious son) back, and Katie naturally turns out to be a weepy dame after all – and people file into concrete shelters (nicely-lit sequence, using an interesting location). Now, it’s disaster stock footage, even more radiophonic sound effects and astronomical views, and eventually shots of the rocks tumbling slowly through space. Randowsky (Sam Galter), a tech, freaks out and shouts that this is all the judgement of God (‘it’s your fault – your rocket has brought destruction from outer space’) but his ‘lunatic ravings’ surprisingly give McLaren a good idea: he claims the sin of the space program is that it’s based on a weapons system, which prompts McLaren to suggest that Russia and America use all their ICBMs to pot the meteors as they whoosh towards us. There’s almost a neat idea in this: presumably, the sane scientists have so deeply repressed the fact that their pure research is indebted to the military that only a fanatic remembers this when the Earth actually needs weapons.
It’s still stuck with a lot more scenes of people talking into microphones and poring over consoles than anything as spectacular as, say, the sky exploding as promised in the title. Stock footage of forest fires and some city blazes don’t really help. The people in the shelters panic, and a woman’s voice repeats ‘my baby’ over and over in the dubbed mix. Some actual on-set fire effects and a strike at the scientific facility allow for some wreckage and interaction of the characters with the first-hand disaster (a corpse is hung up artistically on a ladder). Randowsky gets a gun and bars the way to ‘the air conditioner’, which needs to be turned on so the computers will remain operative: only Cape Shark has the ‘calculators’ capable of working out the missile trajectories, and this is a rare early film depending on computer fans as a plot device. The scientists rush the nutcase (who is electrocuted after grabbing something live), and fix the big turbines, though fatherly Herbert Weisse (Ivo Garrani) dies nobly (‘LeDuc, carry on with the calculations … there’s still a chance to save humanity’). McLaren fills in the gap before the mass-missile launch with some moralising: ‘at this moment, the safety of the human race is entrusted to the very weapons which were created for its own destruction.’ Every missile launch stock shot available in 1958 is spliced together, and those meteors are taken out in an unrealistic, but rather pretty, effects shot which looks as much like an ultra-magnified shot of sperm shooting towards an egg as any astronomical phenomenon. Everybody’s happy to be alive, including Geiger.
In the English version, Hubschmid – whose US career under the name ‘Paul Christian’ included a turn as hero of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – is dubbed by the very recognisable Shane Rimmer, later the voice of Scott Tracy; the lab assistant played by Annie Bernal sounds a lot like Lois Maxwell, later Miss Moneypenny and Atlanta Shaw from Stingray. The excited announcer either is or does an imitation of Paul Frees, who often voiced such helpful expositioneers. Directed by Paolo Huesch, just before his better-remembered Lycanthropus (aka Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory); photographed by Mario Bava (billed as ‘Mario Baja’ on export prints), though some claim he directed it too.
Tim Lucas Ivo Garrani, who worked frequently with Bava (including BLACK SUNDAY), revealed in the interview for my book that Mario was the real director of the film. It was his concept, design, special effects and direction, he said. Bava had not officially directed before and the producers demanded someone of experience be credited and on set, so Paolo Heusch functioned as a kind of beard. Bava was never one to care too much about taking credit.