Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Film from the past

It's tough to escape your past, as I discovered Tuesday night while watching Turner Classic Movies for a few minutes.

Let me explain.

It apparently was "sci-fi" night on TCM, and at about 12:30 a.m. the channel ran down its selections for the rest of the night. The 3:45 a.m. movie was "The Lost Missile." There's no particular reason to remember that motion picture from an artistic standpoint, as it didn't even make Leonard Maltin's handy guide to movies. (By the way, if you like movies and don't have Maltin's book, get it.)

After a moment of thought, I realized that "The Lost Missile" had been buried deep in the recesses of my memory for more than 40 years. I would bet that I had wanted to see it when I was 9 or 10 when it was on WOR's "Million Dollar Movie," or on WPIX after "The Honeymooners." It had a plot that must have sounded good to me back then -- missile cruising toward New York, threatening destruction. But for whatever reason -- homework? sleep? Putt-Putt? -- I never saw it.

I recorded it overnight and watched it today -- all 70 minutes of it. It was made in 1958, and definitely looks like a product of its time. A missile has suddenly appeared in the atmosphere around the Arctic Circle, and carries such heat that it is burning the ground below it. New York's destruction is less than an hour away. The nations of the world are all puzzled. After some failed attempts to shoot down the missile, scientist David Loring (Robert Loggia) comes up with a plan to send some sort of plutonium-based bomb into space on a U.S. missile to blow up the approaching missile.

The fun part about the movie is trying to pick out the holes in the story, as well as the Fifties-based thinking involved. For example:

* The missile is spotted somewhere near the North Pole, goes over Alaska, heads over the corner of Hudson Bay, wipes out Ottawa and heads over Lake Champlain toward New York. I wouldn't call that a straight line.

* The missile is said to be one million degrees, and is only five miles up. You think it would only wipe out a five-mile path on the ground on its path? Seems like it might do a little more damage on a global scale in short order.

* When it's time to arm the missile with plutonium, our hero scientist and his fiance/assistant (Joan Woods as Ellen Parker) drives the radioactive material over to the missile base in a jeep. Mr. Loring gets exposed to the plutonium when he gets back into the jeep after a carjacking (long story) and is said to have minutes to live, but his fiance -- only a few feet away -- is just fine. Loring even personally loads the payload into the nose of the missile, moments before blast-off.

* Spoiler alert: When the two missiles collide, it causes a nuclear explosion of massive size in upstate New York. New York City may be saved, but I'm not sure the citizens of, say, Albany would consider this a happy ending.

There's a side story about the scientist couple trying to get married, but Loring keeps worrying about his work and doesn't go through with it shortly before the crisis begins. Woods is crushed, but realizes later that Loring's work is so important that she was foolish to put herself before the lives of millions. Nice message for Fifties' housewives, eh?

And even with the short running time, there's enough stock footage taken from the military and other sources to make up about 30 minutes of the 70-minute running time. There sure are a lot of planes shown taking off here. The special effects consist of a picture of snow-covered mountains, followed by a bunch of smoke, followed by a picture of scorched earth. "Jurassic Park" it ain't.

If you need to watch one of these Fifties sci-fi films, try "Them." The part about ants in the Los Angeles sewer system is much more believable, and done with some intelligence and style. ("Forbidden Planet" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" work too.) Meanwhile, at least "The Lost Missile" is now off my bucket list.

1 comment:

Suzie said...

One of my French professors once asked me how I could get scared at horror movies, when I not only know that it's all special effects, but I know how they're all done. Suspension of disbelief. I enjoy movies more than anyone I know because I just take the ride the director is offering, and figure it out later. I never question ANYTHING while I'm still watching the movie. And I think even gullible ME would have balked at the North Pole, Alaska, Ottawa, Lake Champlain route. Did they think no one from New York State would be watching? Clearly they thought they'd eliminated the Albany market...