Wednesday, June 1, 2016

“The Day the Earth Caught Fire”

I have a weakness for British science fiction films of the fifties and early sixties. They appear as a rule not to have had enormous budgets available for purposes of visual spectacle, and accordingly worked on smaller canvases. The results were generally more intelligent than those yielded by the more lavishly-funded American productions of the same era, not that this is a terribly difficult bar to clear. The 1960 Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, was a good example, delivering a ripping yarn, intelligently scripted, with a minimum of elaborate sets or special effects.

Recently some arbitrary chain of associations recalled a few seconds viewed in childhood, a scene caught on a television broadcast of a man, hideously blackened and burned, staggering down a stairway along the side of a large spherical storage tank. With no more than that vague memory, I was able to coax the title, which I probably never knew, from my default search engine. Indeed, there was a link on the first page of results, because I was apparently not the only tyke in whose memory that image had lodged. The film in this case was Quatermass II (released stateside as Enemy from Spacefor pity’s sake!), an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style thriller in which the hostile extraterrestrials mount their incursion from a supposed synthetic food plant, played in the film by an oil refinery. Watchable, despite the unfortunate casting of Brian Donlevy as Professor Quatermass, and it brought director Val Guest’s name to my attention, which in turn put me onto The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

The title is regrettable, although probably catchier than The Several Weeks Over the Course of Which the Weather Got All Fucked Up and Eventually Much Hotter, but the film is eminently satisfactory. The scientific premise is sheer codswallop, of course, but it’s not as though our current multiplex-bound franchise series are guiltless on that count: the story has it that the US and the USSR have each detonated weapons of unprecedented megatonnage simultaneously at each of the poles, and this has not merely knocked the earth off kilter by eleven degrees, but has also sent it spiraling toward the sun, an “inconvenient truth” that the sundry national authorities are reluctant to make public because they correctly anticipate that the masses will get all pissy about it.

Much of the action is set on the premises of a London newspaper (the Daily Express made its physical plant available), where former star reporter Peter Stenning is inexplicably still employed, notwithstanding his steady descent into alcoholism and the concomitant decline in the timeliness of his work product. Edward Judd’s portrayal is perhaps intended to convey raffish charm, although if so this eludes me. More entertaining is Leo McKern, then about forty, as the paper’s cynical science editor who looks out for Stenning and is one of the first to recognize the implications of the story that the semi-disgraced newsman has stumbled upon. Equally entertaining, and easier on the eye, is Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, who occasionally works the switchboard at the Meteorological Office and picks up some intelligence which she irresponsibly leaks, Snowden-style (not that London is going to see snow ever again) to our sottish and besotted hero. There are, surprisingly for the era and the genre, a few flashes of nudity, which must have seemed almost subliminal to theatre audiences of the time, but which yield themselves up to the magic of modern consumer video, and which did not in the event and at the time elude the trained and vigilant institutional eye of the British Board of Censors, which forbade the film’s exhibition to persons under the age of sixteen.

The portrayals of the broiling earth, including a set piece of a hot fog rising off the Thames to engulf the city, and later shots employing competent matte paintings to depict a parched London, are well done. The screenplay is mainly intelligent and the cast performs by and large ably, although I suspect that Stenning’s line of patter, to which Jeannie readily succumbs following some rather pro forma resistance, would not get him far with a twenty-seven year-old today (I do not claim to be privy to the courtship protocols currently obtaining among that demographic). The production rather presciently raises questions about how humankind would cope with changes to accustomed climate patterns, although needless to say it can no more than provide a gloss on these over the course of its ninety-eight minutes running time, and its producers were likelier more interested in exploring cold war anxieties than in atmospheric carbon content.

One considerable, and one lesser downside: first, the post-synching is atrocious, distractingly so. At times it’s like watching a badly-dubbed foreign film, an ordeal to which I’m ordinarily unwilling to subject myself. Second, late in the film (following an uncredited appearance by Judd’s chum Michael Caine as a traffic cop) we are subjected to a few minutes of rioting teenagers, portrayed as stereotypical anarcho-beatniks about as plausibly as Hollywood was to do “hippies” a few years later. This also involves Stenning in a brief bout of fisticuffs that appear to have been choreographed by the same guy who did the post-synching. There is as well a small concluding outrage in that the film’s deliberately ambiguous ending was compromised by the American distributors, who insisted on the addition of pealing church bells over the final seconds to suggest that the boffins’ desperate scheme to put the planet back into its proper orbit had succeeded after all. But as against these cavils the film nevertheless holds up very well after half a century and more, and is well worth a look. Indeed, the curious can (no longer) find it online here.

Above: As the planet heats up, actress Janet Munro cools off.