Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Cry of the Owl (2009)

Absorbing, well-acted, moody adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, previously filmed by Claude Chabrol as one of his less well-received works, now serving as the feature debut for director Jamie Thraves. Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) is a depressed, divorcing corporate man who moves out of Chicago to set himself up in a smaller town. His soon-to-be-ex-wife Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas) is an impudent game-player, and he’s far too passive to be any use to anyone, recovering from a crippling bout of depression. He finds solace in his emotionally blasted state standing in the yard of Jenny (Julia Stiles), watching her in the apparent bliss of her life, sometimes with her boyfriend Greg (James Gilbert). One night they accidentally meet, Robert urgently trying to reassure Jenny he’s not a common or garden peeping tom, and to his utter surprise she’s not only civil to him but soon seems to form a bizarre attachment to him, turning up at his house and generally dogging his footsteps.

From there on the narrative only winds further and further into excruciating circumstances where Robert falls under suspicion of being a killer and general creep, and everything he touches seems to shrivel and die. Robert suffers such a run of punishments for his minor transgressions that it’s impossible not to empathise with him, even if he’s not an especially worthy exemplar of humanity, and yet that’s part of the game. Considine is at home in such a role, his utterly everyday face and manner riven with increasing, physically and spiritually manifest discomfort, suggesting the wormier aspects of his character with a fearless lack of vanity. Robert suffers blow after blow because something about him attracts the pity of the doomed and the fury of the spurned, and his efforts to slip quietly out of his old life and subsist on illusions of perfection prove fruitless and, indeed, utterly destructive, for his evasions, his illusions, his inability to take a stand or tendency to take them at the wrong time, finally consume him. Jenny, for her part, is a troubled young woman in spite of her picture postcard home life, moving according to perceived signs and symbols in her life. Where Robert feels at the mercy of malevolent chance, Jenny sees herself at the mercy of malevolent fate.

Being based on first-rate material helps The Cry of the Owl a lot, for nobody wrote perverse psychological mystery better than Highsmith, but the film’s formal elements are strong, particularly the excellent performances of Considine and Stiles as Robert's delusional, self-destructive muse. Dhavernas is also eye-catching, in portraying an ambiguous character (Highsmith was often particularly unforgiving to her own sex), her Nickie projecting feline humour and attractiveness imbued with something altogether despicable in her blithely cruel wit and narcissism, whether or not her desire to keep Robert in her clutches suggests latent concern and remnant affection for Robert or deep-smouldering determination to revenge herself upon him for his having committed the crime of disappointing her.

Like many of Highsmith stories it’s filled with unexpected, bizarre twists of circumstance and motivation that risk absurdity, but stay compelling in portraying how bad luck can bring people together in a perfect mesh of tangled intentions and dark impulses. The characters are mysteries to each-other and, indeed, to themselves, and just when the whirlpool of bleakness seems exhausted, there’s still a final trap to be sprung on Robert as the two halves of his life come together and leave him in limbo. Thraves is a Briton who made his name with music videos, unlike many who learn their craft that way he resists pizzazz, preferring instead a steady, incipiently menacing tone. Perhaps, indeed, a touch too muted, for there’s little about Thraves’ style that distinguishes it firmly from made-for-TV mystery fodder, and it’s rather too obviously shot on the cheap in Canada. And yet Thraves evokes a wintry, despairing locale with care and concision if little poetry, of which there is a dash lurking in the story and requiring a slightly less restrained approach to make it truly memorable, suggested however in such moments as when a suicide victim lies sprawled in the snow with streams of freezing blood running from her wrists, or when a murderous Greg’s face appearing outside a window like a wrathful spirit prior to a totally unexpected, utterly surprising shooting. It’s highly preferable in its dark, deceptively becalmed realism to, say, the overblown Anthony Minghella adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), and indeed perhaps rather sharper and less self-satisfied and showy than the similar-in-mood In The Bedroom (2001). The story, most importantly, maintains its cruelly amusing, utterly cynical, unrelenting menace right until the end.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Monday, 22 February 2010

Countess Dracula (1971)

One of the most ambitious Hammer Films productions, especially by the standards of the studio’s ‘70s output, Countess Dracula provided Ingrid Pitt, a mildly hot property after the success of her starring vehicle The Vampire Lovers the years before, with a role of great promise: a figure based on the legendary Erzsebeth Bathory, the infamous 17th-century Hungarian countess who reputedly had a fondness for bathing in virgins’ blood to retain her youth. Peter Sasdy’s film retained the period setting, with its exotic mix of Magyar and Mohammedan culture, in an unusually elaborate production, combining the typical Hammer template of stylised physicality in settings and costuming, with a rather more remote kind of historical milieu than the studio’s films usually offered.

Like Sasdy’s other films for Hammer in this period, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1972), Countess Dracula is defined by a keen understanding of the psycho-sexual and socio-historic elements at stake, describing without demure the Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen’s desperate need to sustain her waning sex appeal and supplant her young daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) as object of desire for dashing young soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Elès). The Countess’ hysteria over losing her physical charms, the source of her power, is intrinsically linked to the aristocratic need to maintain the aura of strength and the threat of force over the populace, and willingness to use that populace like cattle for her own ends. Elisabeth is aided, not ungrudgingly, by her long-time lover and steward, the bristling cavalier Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), who’s willing to make her happy just so long as it binds her closer in complicity to him, and even less happily by Master Fabio (Maurice Denham), a scholar who recognises the need to play along to survive, but finally attempts to intervene as disaster threatens to consume them all.

The chief conceit is to present Bathory’s delusion as true, for the blood-bathing really does restore Elisabeth’s beauty and vitality, at the cost of becoming increasingly decrepit when she reverts, demanding more and more cost in lives and growing danger of discovery. The Countess has Ilona kidnapped before she can arrive at the castle and steal her thunder, held captive in a remote cabin by a leering pervert. Dobi tries first to sour Elisabeth on Toth by setting him up with a sluttish barmaid Ziza (Andrea Lawrence), a stunt that fails, so he then reveals Elisabeth’s true state to the disgusted young man, but she’s able to grip him far too tightly in her claws by this time, and forces him to marry her.

Within the pointed portrayal on female vanity turned utterly insatiable, there’s a subtle edge of incestuous anxiety, which comes to a keen edge when Toth pays homage to the Countess, in her aged form, believing her to be the mother of his beloved, and she grasps his head to her belly in supposedly maternal, but actually acutely sexual longing. In a dizzying climax, however, she reverts to her grotesque shape before her marriage congregation, and furiously moves to kill her daughter in a flurry of jealous, nakedly infanticidal rage to use her blood.

The trouble is that, as with Sasdy’s other major films, the results are bewildering in their unevenness. Hammer had long since switched to bland, inexpressive Eastmancolor after the Technicolor of its early productions, a choice which ruined the traditional Hammer look with its drenched tones and picture book atmosphere, but Sasdy, with Ken Talbot as DOP, offers a crisply good-looking movie in compensation. Sasdy’s graceful compositions, and sense of detail and lighting, offers some fine visualisations, such as the image of the Countess revealed during one of her sanguinary beauty treatments in the most extreme vision of a specifically feminine variety of egotistical angst imaginable; the fairy tale prettiness of the marriage ceremony under wreathed flowers seguing into ogrish ugliness and psychotic rage; and the memorable last sight of the immured Countess, now a hideous hag, gazing out from a prison dungeon with undimmed yearning and lost hope.

Sasdy builds a pitch of queasy panic in scenes where the Countess paces in her room, distraught at her disintegrating beauty and momentary confusion as to why her regimen fails at one point. But other scenes are flatly handled, and the finer elements are undone by an awkwardly proceeding narrative and constant, increasingly campy concessions to the heavy-breather quotient of Hammer’s fan base. Every now and then Countess Dracula turns into a Carry On film, with a proliferation of cavorting belly dancers and busty barmaids, as when Ziza thrusts her globular boobies in Toth’s face and ejects a one-liner worthy of Barbara Windsor. It’s all too irritating in exposing Hammer’s pandering but confused attempts to sex up their films with no real sensuality or coherence.

That’s especially disappointing in a story that could readily evoke opportunities to describe opposites in terms of desire to possess female flesh, both in envy and through varieties of desire, and expand on a peculiarly gender-specific brand of psychopathy. Such confusion doesn’t help Sasdy, who had pictorial and thematic intelligence, overcome his less confident capacity to make the pieces fit together into a compelling whole, particularly in regard to sustaining subplots like Ilona’s captivity and attempts to escape, and the growing panic of the castle’s servants as they come to believe they’re working for the devil. Even when playing later Hammer’s exploitative game, Sasdy could have done better to make his drama contiguous and compelling, and in this regard, he remained one of horror cinema’s great might-have-beens.

Pitt, reportedly press-ganged into the film after original choice Diana Rigg dropped out, hurled herself bodily into the part, too, but the impact of her performance is hampered by her real, Polish-accented voice having been dubbed over by Sasdy, a decision which so offended Pitt she later took very public revenge on him. Otherwise the cast is interesting, even elevated, including reputable character actors like Green, Denham, and Peter Jeffrey. Elès isn’t bad as her anointed pretty-boy idol/victim, and the great Green, in one of his last roles, offers a compelling mixture of martial fierceness and pussy-whipped weakness as Dobi. Down however is only allowed to be paltry and disposable in her role. There’s also a brief appearance by Nike Arrighi, the luminous star of Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967), as one of the Countess’ gypsy victims.

Leningrad (2007)

A choppy, maddening, occasionally compelling feature culled from a Russian-made mini-series, featuring Hollywood actors Mira Sorvino and Gabriel Byrne, Leningrad has pretences to panoramic portrayal of one of the Great Patriotic War’s darkest chapters. But what’s left is mostly the immediate personal story of Lisa Davis (Sorvino), a British journalist, and the anglicised daughter of a former White Russian general, who wrangles an assignment to Moscow during World War 2.

Lisa finds herself trapped in the title city when she goes there with other reporters, including her American correspondent boyfriend, Phillip Parker (Byrne), to report first-hand on the Nazi siege as it tightens the noose around the city, only to be left for dead after a bombing raid. She is found and protected by an unlikely ally, Nina Tsvetkova (Olga Sutulova), an overzealous policewoman, introduced in the film’s opening scenes threatening to shoot her own side’s soldiers in her efforts to live up to decrees against retreat, in the midst of bloodcurdling combat.

When the Soviet authorities catch wind of Lisa’s parentage, they suspect she’s not merely a victim of circumstance but in fact a British Intelligence plant, and begin combing the city for her. Nina secures for Lisa the falsified papers of an exiled Spanish Republican, allowing her to hide from the NKVD and claim rations. She is drawn into the hardscrabble life Nina and the people she shares an apartment block with, including an opera star, her maid Sonya Krasko (Alyona Stebunova), and Sonya’s two children, Sima (Janna Nesterenko) and Yuri (Vadim Loginov), a chess prodigy wasting away more swiftly than her sibling because he mother is giving more food to the girl on the bet she’s the more likely to survive. Lisa comes to be care for the two children and she risks incurring Nina’s wrath in stealing some of the singer’s jewels to buy food for them. Finally, Nina volunteers for the outrageously dangerous expedition of trailblazers for the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga, in order to secure passage for all her “family” out of the city.

Leningrad is initially intriguing for offering a distinctly Russian perspective on the events whilst also willing to embrace other viewpoints, and for its focus on women in war and the exigencies of survival for civilians, the stringent difficulties of retaining humane conscience and responsibility in a grinding, utterly inhuman situation. Especially in its later scenes, played for agonising suspense, in which Lisa is too exhausted by hunger to carry her young charges out of their apartment, Leningrad does achieve an achingly physical sense of such dire straits. Lisa faces the crushing choice of either leaving one of the youngsters to die or to return herself and risk her own life. Lacing this and leavening it slightly is the sisterly affection between Nina and Lisa, the former, under her hard-bitten shell, eager to learn of Lisa’s sensual Western style and easier variety of liberated femininity, and the latter, in returning to her roots, finding a sense of mission in trying to keep the two Krasko children alive. Unfortunately, interesting themes of female solidarity and the agonies of Soviet Russia's schizoid efforts to both repel and yet court the West's aid remain undeveloped.

Sorvino is not convincing as a period Englishwoman, and Byrne has very little to do, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in the film. Sutulova, on the other hand, drives the piece with her excellent work as Nina, an angry, indomitable tomboy. Nina chases down her mother’s murderers, a pair of thieves, with steely determination, and throws herself into dangerous situations again and again purely because she can’t keep away from the action, and yet is a compassionate soul. Scattered throughout are some eye-catching vignettes, like the PA broadcaster who dies at his post, the hungry butchers who start hacking meat of a still-living horse, and, later, corpses of their fellow citizens, and the time-delay bomb that blows a crowd of desperate, gullible folk to pieces. But these scenes are mere shrapnel amidst a near-incoherent explosion of ill-focused elements.

The curtailed Leningrad rockets along with little care for grace of narrative, incision of character, or clarity of story, and the whole thing retains an air of plastic, bestseller hype. Writer-director Aleksandr Buravsky tries too hard to shake up the stately tradition of the WW2 flick with an almost Michael Bay-esque technique, with rampant, often bewildering edits, so that what’s going on often threatens to become opaque. The story half-heartedly employs thriller and action-movie elements, as if to distract from the truly compelling and yet severely depressing tale at hand, and fails to explore a deeply tragic and desolate time and place, totally missing the sense of apocalyptic ruin that, say, Elim Klimov managed in his mighty Come and See (1985) or Joseph Vilsmaier with Stalingrad (1992), and even what Richard Attenborough conjured at the end of A Bridge Too Far (1977). Glimpses of the slide of the city’s citizens into the worst pits of depravity remain are played as horror movie stuff not actually concerning our pretty heroines, and the final twists to the tale lack force because Kate’s emotional adoption of the kids feels is stated rather than truly realised, rendering her decision to venture back into hell and face certain death unconvincing.

Although a tremendous amount of care and cash seems to have been expended on evoking the milieu of the ruined city and the spectacle of war, it’s hard to tell what’s been left on the editing room floor and how much this might have improved the confused film, which, as it stands, is littered with plot holes, like why Kate, obsessed with her Russian heritage, can’t speak a word of the language, which seems mostly a device to allow the proceedings to go on in an exportable language. As it is, most of the efforts to portray a broader scope of the event are purely tokenistic, like an exploration of the German side, with a young officer (Alexander Beyer) becoming disenchanted with the cold equations pronounced by his General uncle (a wasted Armin Mueller-Stahl) and through him the whole pretence to German superiority, an aspect far too briefly and clumsily employed. Even without editing, however, Buravsky’s script probably still lacked sophistication, sporting awkward English dialogue and mostly flat and provisional supporting characterisations. Because of all these faults, Leningrad significantly fails to live up to whatever potential it had.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Cinema Oz Part One: 1896-1968

...and just a polite link for loyal readers: I recently had the pleasure of assembling a primer on the history and personages of Australian cinema for GreenCine, a task which I tackled with customary disproportionate gusto, and they will be posting the results at intervals in the next two weeks. Here we go:


The Last Valley (1970)

In many ways a far more accurate cross-cultural transcription of The Seven Samurai than The Magnificent Seven, James Clavell’s single film as director, drawn from J.B. Pick’s novel, is one of the few movies to take on the vital historical era of the Thirty Years War, which laid much of Central Europe to waste and completed the work of the Renaissance in burying the certainties of the Middle Ages. Former teacher and intellectual Vogel (Omar Sharif), now a peripatetic survivor, flees the slaughter, plague, and famine that have denuded the landscape. He stumbles into a Tyrolean valley that has remained untouched by marauders, into which he is followed by the company of a hardened, shrewd soldier of fortune known only as the Captain (Michael Caine).

Vogel convinces the Captain that, rather than pillage the farms and torch the hamlet as per the usual practise, the valley offers a safe harbour that will offer his men a fine chance for rest and comfort living off the fat of the land and the flesh of the village females for the duration of winter. The Captain kills off some of the more problematic members of his team, including the bestial ideologue Korski (Brian Blessed), and quells the doubts of the rest, being composed of a disparate array of nationalities and religious creeds whom the Captain must keep tightly leashed to prevent quarrelling – one of their rules is to burn every church, so as to please everyone. He uses Vogel to strike a bargain with the villagers and their most respected, powerful member, Gruber (Nigel Davenport), for amenable treatment, and then appoints him as mediator and judge between the soldiers and villagers.

Vogel and the Captain embody a split between humanist empathy and unemotional expedience, but not without points of accord and growing, if grudging, comradeship. Both men are exhausted of any convincing religious scruples, but are still searching in disparate fashions for values to live by. Both stand entirely divorced from the fanatical local priest (Per Oscarsson, maniacally convincing) who maintains the village has been protected by a holy shrine that he, the residents, and the Catholic members of the Captain’s party will risk mutual annihilation to defend. Gruber indulges the soldiers whilst waiting for his chance, and the rapacious Hansen (Michael Gothard) is given to stirring up trouble, eventually raising a rival band of brigands to contest the valley. Vogel does his best to survive between the fractious parties, romancing remarkably blonde shepherd’s daughter Inge (Madeline Hinde), but haunted by the death of family in the sack of Magdeburg, a battle the Captain participated in, and he describes both that event and the epoch in the curtest of epigrams: “We killed God at Magdeburg.” The Captain himself takes on Erica (Florinda Bolkan), formerly Gruber’s girl, a lady who earns the priest’s wrath by practising her own dark religion in the forest.

Clavell’s smart, layered screenplay is filled with pithy, memorable lines and sharp twists of story, and he evokes the era in depth and comprehension. The Last Valley bites off almost more than it can chew it terms of taking on such a wide variety of themes and figures to embody them: varieties of religious faith and the loss of it, the nature of power and the frailty of humanitarianism in the face of anarchy, of social responsibility as distinct from intellectual perception, historical politics and institutionalised misogyny. The evocation of a blasted, cruel, evil epoch isn’t as ineffaceable or provocative as that in Ken Russell’s The Devils from the same year (they both sport cast member Gothard, with his gift for portraying multiple varieties of creep) but shares some imagery and mood, combined with high-riding sweep of narrative. As it is, it still stands well above most large-scale films of its time: Clavell admirably avoids the pitfalls that ruined the likes of Clive Donner's Alfred the Great in trying to evoke a feeling of contemporary parable, and hint at links between the late '60s counter-culture and similar historical reactions to times of turmoil. Most importantly, it succeeds in conjuring an earthy drama out of the building blocks of the distant conflict it portrays, with the action and characterisation furthering the urgency of the detailed philosophical drama.

Sharif and Caine, both to a certain extent unusually cast, are nonetheless excellent, especially Caine with a light Germanic whistle and utterly convincing glaze of chill pragmatism; indeed the whole cast is intelligent. A particular asset is John Barry’s florid but not overstated score. For the most part only competently directed, The Last Valley hesitates particularly when it comes to action sequences, which are stodgy and ineffectually shot by Clavell, and the very finish is muted and disappointing. This limits the film’s potential to hit rare heights of epic grandeur. With a more experienced and dynamic hand behind the camera, The Last Valley might have been a major classic.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Transporter (2002)

Ür-text for much of the past decade’s high-flying thrill-rides, with future House of Besson protégés Pierre Morel as Director of Photography, and Louis Leterrier credited as “Artistic Director”, suggesting he did most of the work in marshaling the cast and camera, whilst the film is officially helmed by reputable Hong Kong kick-ass auteur Corey Yuen, who presumably did the heavy lifting in creating this cheerfully absurd series' distinctive brand of comic-book action. The tone and style does retain something of the brutal but tongue-in-cheek, even innocent flavour of much HK swash’n’buckle. Like its immediate predecessor in Besson’s efforts to invent an internationally-seasoned B-movie kingdom, Kiss of the Dragon (2001), it has the feel of a ‘30s B-quickie infused with the chitinous visual sheen, rocking action, and careless expense of a contemporary blockbuster. The actual story set-up channels ‘70s flicks like The Last Run and French Connection II, but with their noir cool and modish existentialism replaced by pop naïvete and arrow-straight, crowd-pleasing focus.

Jason Statham established firm claim to his status as the supreme action star of the '00s with his effortless charisma and laid-back grit as antihero Frank Martin, a former military adventurer and disappointed humanitarian who now resides in his customised Monaco villa and specialises in transporting anything – usually shady, like the mob of idiotic bank robbers he picks up at the opening – from Point A to Point B, a kind of FedEx for criminals, whilst maintaining a strict regimen of rules. These rules fall victim to his innate humanism, however, when he’s hired to transport a bound and gagged Chinese girl in a bag, Lai (Shu Qi), incurring the wrath of a gang of ruthless human traffickers run by the cutely named “Wall Street” (Matt Schulze) but also including Lai’s own ruthless father (Ric Young). She’s been trying to throw a spanner in their works, and doesn’t mind spinning a yarn or two to get the taciturn Martin to lend a hand. Aided by amusingly crumpled local cop Tarconi (François Borleand), Statham sets out to save Lai and a container full of imported, slowly suffocating slave labourers in a flashy finale that crossbreeds the conclusion of Licence to Kill with Raiders of the Lost Ark’s immortal desert chase.

Seeing Qi, the luminous star of Hsiao-hsien Hou’s mighty Three Times (2005), in such a context is bewildering, and she reportedly had to learn her dialogue phonetically, but she still brings a spry energy to an underwritten role. Complaining about underwritten anything here is indeed beside the point, in a film that doesn’t give a toss for anything more than maintaining an amusing drive and conjuring dizzying stunts, but the glibness of the story development does rob the film of truly involving impetus. Yuen’s cutting, moreover, is slightly less concussive and not so illustratively well-composed as that which, say, Morel would impose on the later District B13 and Taken, with some brawls rendered slightly too frenetic for maximum amazement in the physical effort, and the project resembles today a first draft for something Besson’s boys would perfect later. Stanley Clarke’s jaunty music score infuses an almost comedic tone.

Still, the action stunts and martial arts are conceived and executed with giddy gusto, showcasing in particular Statham’s excellence as an athlete, full of imaginative and funny flourishes, especially in a set-piece slug-fest where Statham takes on a horde of thugs in a lake of grease, a sequence which confirms the feeling I’ve had for a long time that the real heirs to the slapstick physical tradition of Keaton and Chaplin are in today’s action stars.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

Often noted for its amazing similarities to Alien (1979) and yet, as an individual film, often treated derisively, It! The Terror From Beyond Space is in fact a compact and well-handled B-movie. It certainly, for me, stands at the head of the pack in regards to the low-budget, late-‘50s sci-fi cycle, as the genre's heyday declined and budgets dipped. The terror is hardly from beyond space, wherever that is: it’s from Mars, upon which the first ever expedition crash-landed, and now, six months later, a rescue party has arrived. An Earthly press conference sees an official informing reporters that the stranded party’s lone survivor, Carruthers (Marshall Thompson), has been placed under arrest for murder, for the skull of one of his dead companions shows a bullet hole, and his rescuers now believe he killed off his companions to preserve rations for himself.

On board ship returning to earth, Carruthers is not imprisoned or manacled, but is constantly watched. He explains his story to sympathetic crewmembers like Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), and ignores the jibes of her sort-of boyfriend, and his self-appointed jailer, Van Heusen (Kim Spalding). It soon becomes apparent that Carruthers’ account, involving the strange, deadly mutant life-forms that inhabit Mars and which decimated his crew, is all too true. One of the beasts has managed to board the rescue ship: intelligent but devolved, it seeks blood with relentless, rampaging hunger. The crew face a race against time to keep it contained, and work out how to destroy a creature which repels bullets and bashes through steel doors with little compunction.

It! was evidently shot on a low budget, but the imagery is a capsule of old sci-fi magazine covers with its cigar-shape rocket, crater-pitted vision of Mars’ surface, and lurking demon-faced, three-fingered beastie, which the director Edward L. Cahn wisely keeps in the shadows as much as possible, because the bagginess of the suit (filled out by former C-Western star Ray “Crash” Corrigan) is quite apparent in some scenes. The Alien similarities are particularly pointed in scenes where the crew hunts for the beast in the air ducts, where the creature’s exsanguinated victims loll in deathly dazes. It! is, however, merely an intermediary between that famous later hit film and The Thing From Another World (1951), merely swapping the pole for a space ship. Dated touches lurk: it’s funny, and a bit excruciating, how the ship’s two females, despite being savant professionals like the rest of the crew, are still the ones serving out breakfast with housewifely skill. Proceedings are fairly rudimentary in terms of characterisation, with actors who are by and large only serviceable.

But the script by Jerome Bixby is well-paced, the dialogue terse but smart, and the overall mood sober and focused. There’s no gratuitous religion or politicising, and even the romance of Ann and Carruthers is kept at a stoic minimum. An intriguing theme of survivor guilt/resentment, rarely portrayed in movies of the period and yet surely a vital aspect of the post WW2 psyche, bubbles away under the surface. This theme becomes particularly apparent when a dying Van Heusen berates Carruthers for his ability to always make it out when his fellows die, a point that causes Carruthers definite pain, even if he's only guilty of wisdom and dexterous speed. The gimmick of a murder mystery giving way to a monster siege makes for a tight narrative, which, once it kicks into gear, never drags. Cahn, a crafty filmmaker who had made literally dozens of small noir films and westerns since the '30s, turned out several horror and sci-fi films in this time, usually with goofy plots and yet handled with distinctive sobriety and restrained, low-rent atmosphere, ranging from the snappy, like The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), to the crappy, like Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). All things considered, he does a lot with a little here, successfully generating a sense of claustrophobia, which ratchets up when the astronauts space-walk along the hull of their ship: humanity exposed to the infinitude, because the interior of the ship, their lifeboat in the nothing, has become home to something inimical. This is a good ride if you’re in the right frame of mind.