Saturday, February 10, 1973 (Midnight): 12 To the Moon (1960) / The Brighton Strangler (1945)

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Synopsis: The Secretary-General of the International Space Order (Francis X. Bushman) addresses a live worldwide television and radio audience just before the launch of the Lunar Eagle 1, an atomic-powered spaceship that will carry the first crew to the surface of the Moon. The mission has been funded by contributions from all nations, and the crew is meant to represent a cross-section of all nationalities. American John Anderson (Ken Clark)  commands the crew, which includes German engineer Erich Heinrich (Jon Wengraf), Polish-born Israeli engineer David Ruskin (Richard Weber) (an aeronautical engineer who also records an audio log of the voyage for posterity), Russian Feodor Orloff (Tom Conway) , who is the geologist / cartographer; Turkish doctor Selim Hamid (Muzaffer Tema); Brit Sir William Rochester (Philip Baird) ; Nigerian navigator Asmara Markonen (Cory Devlin); Brazilian pilot Luis Vargas (Tony Dexter); physician Sigrid Bomark (Anna-Lisa); clean-cut young genius Rod Murdock (Robert Montgomery, Jr) , Etienne Martel (Roger Til), French engineer and Hideko Murata (Michi Kobi), an “astrophotographer and pharmacist” who hails from Japan.

The purpose of the mission, we’re told, is for the crew to land on the Moon and claim it as international territory — thus preventing any future conflicts over its territory.

The launch goes off as scheduled, with the ship operating flawlessly. A meteor storm is encountered, but is successfully deflected by the ship’s electronic shield. Several members of the crew begin bickering about their own countries’ contributions to the flight, and there is some tension when Ruskin mentions his contempt for the German who killed his family, who, unknown to him, was Heinrich’s father.

When the ship lands on the Moon an exploratory party disembarks. They plant a flag and declare that the Moon belongs to all nations, and then begin to explore. Hamid and Bomark discover a cave that has oxygen inside it; removing their space helmets, they kiss passionately. Moving farther back into the cave (clearly preparing for some outer-space nookie), they do not notice that a wall of ice has mysteriously appeared behind them.

Still, they’re doing better than the rest of the crew. Rochester gets caught in some lunar quicksand and disappears; Orloff sticks his hands in some lunar slime and gets badly burned. But the real surprise comes when they receive a mysterious message from the lunar inhabitants that warn the Earth people to go back where they came from….

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Comments: As I noted in my previous post, this modest offering from Columbia occupied the bottom of a double bill with Battle In Outer Space, and like a lot of the post-Destination Moon space-travel films of the 1950s it somehow manages to be both wildly improbable and thuddingly unimaginative. The movie starts out on a note of utopian do-gooderism: the voyage to the Moon has been underwritten by all the nations of the Earth, its noble purpose to claim the Moon for all the people of the world. In order to ensure that there’s an equitable representation of the earth’s people, an international crew of 12 is chosen.

If you’re thinking that a dozen astronauts seems like a lot more than you’d need for a lunar voyage, you’re right; and in fact there are so many people with so many overlapping disciplines (engineer / pilot / designer / astrogator / astronomer / cartographer / astrophotographer / physician / pharmacist, etc) that for every scene that shows someone on the crew actually doing something, you have several other people just milling around in the background. There are so many people on the ship that it’s difficult to tell them apart most of the time, and they are all so thinly written we probably wouldn’t know much about them even if we had more time with each of them. I suppose I should give the movie credit for trying to depict an international and multiracial crew, not a trivial thing in 1960; but again, we don’t get an opportunity to connect with them in any way.

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Despite the large crew, the budget of the film is evidently quite meager. While the lunar landscape set appears fairly ambitious, the spaceship interiors are extremely bland and pedestrian and it’s clear that little thought went into their design. Military surplus electronics are stacked against the walls to try to evoke a high-tech look; and surplus air force high-altitude flight suits and helmets are used in lieu of spacesuits. A Norton bomb sight is pressed into service as a navigation console.  Instead of the “acceleration couches” that showed up in films of this era, the astronauts recline on what are clearly 1950s- era chaise lounges.

Murata and Bomark avail themselves of the ship’s “sonic shower” and marvel at how clean it gets them, but this is really just an excuse for the hirsute and ill-mannered Anderson to barge in with his shirt off. “Don’t you ever knock?” one of the women asks, to which Anderson snaps, “This isn’t the Waldorf!” Maybe the captain of a ship with a dozen people on it could post a shower schedule or something?

These little exchanges are clearly meant to establish points of conflict between characters, thus building dramatic tension in a story.  But 12 To the Moon hardly bothers, and the interpersonal relations between the members of the crew never go anywhere.

This includes the romance between Hamid and Bomark, whose abrupt decision to get it on while exploring a lunar cavern comes out of nowhere and seems a little bizarre. Apparently it’s supposed to make the aliens curious about human behavior (love, as we’ve come to expect from movies like this, is unknown and deeply mysterious to them).

Predictably, the aliens are supposed to be all intellect, baffled by the emotions we take for granted. And yet the aliens don’t act in anything approaching a rational way. They communicate with the humans through a string of symbols running through one of Lunar Eagle 1’s instruments, even though it doesn’t look like any human language (Murata is able to decipher the symbols even though she isn’t a linguist, apparently because she’s Japanese and the writing looks vaguely “oriental” ).

The inexplicably belligerent aliens warn the humans away, insist on keeping Hamid and Bomark so that they can study “love”, and then, oddly, demand that the humans leave behind the two cats that were brought along for the journey. Maybe there’s a rodent problem on the Moon?

After acquiescing to these demands and leaving the Moon, the humans discover that the aliens are icing over the Earth, and that all of the planet’s cities are frozen solid. Makes you wonder what the aliens would have done if there humans hadn’t done as they were asked. How could an alien species freeze an entire planet? Why would it want to? But it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not it makes sense; a big crisis for the finale was needed, and this is it.

In storytelling terms these are huge, desperate haymakers, thrown because the screenwriters couldn’t think up anything better. It’s the same reason that Cat Women On the Moon got made.  The truth is, once you get your characters to the Moon there aren’t a lot of dramatic possibilities available. It was clear long before 1960 that the Moon had no atmosphere, no life, and little potential for big surprises. Even Destination Moon, which strove to be scientifically accurate, had to fall back on a let’s-draw-lots-because-one-man-has-to-be-left-behind melodrama in its third act.

That’s why our crew is forced to wander around with an “oxygen detector” (it looks like a Geiger counter with a little balloon fixed to it; it inflates a little bit when there’s oxygen around, or something) and they gamely scout around for signs of life, which they inevitably find. Along the way they stumble into various pitfalls (Sir William Rochester is so grimly determined to bravely sink into quicksand he practically has to fight off the crewmates who are attempting to save him).

One shot everyone remembers from the film is our first look at the lunar landscape. Not because it’s particularly impressive, but because we clearly see someone walking around on the set — presumably a member of the production crew who didn’t know he was being filmed.

The cast of bread-and-butter actors is undistinguished (though Tom Conway has appeared on Horror Incorporated a couple of times and is best remembered for taking over from brother George Sanders as the debonair Falcon in that series of films from the 1940s).  The most prominent billing is reserved for Francis X. Bushman, and it seems clear we’re supposed to be impressed with his name showing up in the credits. Largely forgotten today, Bushman was a big star during Hollywood’s silent era, perhaps best-known for having played Messala in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur.

Ironically,  by 1960 anyone old enough to know who Francis X. Bushman was wouldn’t be likely to buy a ticket to 12 To the Moon anyway.

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The Brighton Strangler

 

Synopsis: Celebrated actor Reginald Parker (John Loder) has just completed a successful run on the London stage with the hit play The Brighton Strangler.  The theater manager ruefully notes that he could easily run the show for another year, and he’s sorry that Parker has decided to hang up the role.  So arresting is Parker’s performance that there’s no thought of bringing in another actor to play author-turned-murderer Edward Grey.  For audiences Parker is the Strangler.

It is December 23rd, and after wishing the cast and crew a happy Christmas, Parker prepares to leave the theater and rejoin his fiancee, who is also the author of the play.  But German bombers are making a nighttime raid on London.  Numerous bombs hit the neighborhood and the theater is destroyed.  Parker staggers away from the ruined building.  He’s gotten a nasty knock on the head and he is in a daze.  Has he forgotten who he is?  Not exactly; he remembers that he’s Edward Grey, and he heads to Victoria Station and buys a ticket to Brighton.



At the station he meets beautiful young April Manby (June Duprez), a WAAF heading home for Christmas.  Seeing that Parker — or rather, Grey — is injured, she helps daub a bit of blood off his forehead.  On the trip to Brighton she confides in him that she has secretly married her sweetheart, an American soldier named Bob Carson (Michael St. Angel).  Upon arriving, April is met by her parents, respected physician Dr. Manby (Gilbert Emery) and his wife (Lydia Bilbrook). They invite Grey to come over and celebrate Christmas Eve at their house the following evening.

The next night, Grey leaves his hotel room and walks to the Manby house.  Along the way he encounters the mayor of Brighton, Herman Brand (Ian Wolfe).  Grey accuses the kindly mayor of being the barrister who had betrayed him — a charge which puzzles Brand but which we know is taken from the play The Brighton Strangler.  Reaching into his pocket, Grey produces a silk cord, which he’d kept in his pocket after the show closed. He uses the silk cord to strangle Brand, and then proceeds to the Christmas party as though nothing has happened.

Late that evening, Chief Inspector Allison (Miles Mander) arrives at the Manby house.  Everyone is shocked to hear of the murder of the mayor. The following day, the police interview all new arrivals in town, including Grey.  Like the character in the play, Grey is outwardly pleasant and charming.  He says that he is staying in town to write a book, and that he is a friend of the Manby family.  Soon he is crossed off the list of suspects.

April is surprised to learn that Bob is able to join her in Brighton for a few days.  But because of the mayor’s funeral, she isn’t able to meet him at the station, and she asks Grey to meet him for her.  Grey meets Bob, and takes him over to the hotel.  But as Bob checks into his room, Grey goes to his own room and falls asleep.    He dreams that he is confronting Inspector Allison, who is now another of his persecutors from the play. 

As Bob goes over to his new friends’s room to knock, he overhears Grey talking angrily in his sleep — vowing revenge, and threatening to kill an unseen someone…. 

Comments:  As improbable as The Brighton Strangler is, it’s still entertaining stuff, and at 67 minutes the plot points are rushed by you so quickly you don’t have much time to think about it. It’s constructed in such a way that we’re able to sympathize with Reginald Parker, seeing him as a victim of tragic circumstance rather than a crackpot actor who was maybe on the edge of losing his marbles even before the roof of the theater caved in on his head.

In fact, because Parker’s head injury is caused by a bombing raid, the Germans are as much to blame for the murders as anyone — which probably would have been satisfying for wartime audiences.

John Loder is a familiar face to Horror Incorporated viewers, as both this film and Mysterious Doctor have popped up numerous time on the schedule. Unfortunately, this movie will be our only opportunity to see the lovely June Duprez, who plays April; she had a relatively small number of film credits, and this seems to have been the only genre picture she appeared in.

Michael St. Angel is the American added to the cast, and he functions essentially as comic relief here. Most of his career was spent as a second lead; while a good-looking guy with a rakish demeanor it’s hard to say if he had much potential as a lead actor, as he doesn’t really seem to have been given an opportunity to try anything very challenging. He appears to have worked fairly steadily in film but moved to TV later in his career, and seems to have stopped working in the early 1970s.

Miles Mander, who played Inspector Allyson, was very much in demand in the 1930s and 40s, appearing in every type of picture there was. He played Sir Frederick in Return of the Vampire a couple of years before this one. He worked steadily up until his death in 1946.

 

 

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One comment

  1. 12 TO THE MOON has aired only one time on Turner Classic Movies, while THE BRIGHTON STRANGLER shows up from time to time.

    Like

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