Saturday, April 5, 1975 (Noon): Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night (1946) / 12 to the Moon (1960)

Synopsis: The fabled Star of Rhodesia diamond is owned by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), and her son Roland (Geoffrey Steele) has reason to believe an attempt will soon by the sinister master criminal Col. Sebastian Moran to steal it. He engages the services of famed detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), who concludes that the most likely time for the theft to occur is when Lady Margaret is on a London to Edinburgh passenger train. Holmes and Watson book passage on the train, and meet Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) who is also taking the London-to-Scotland trip to protect the diamond.

Holmes fully expects Col. Moran’s operatives to be on the train, and perhaps even Moran himself, but since no one knows what the arch criminal looks like, identifying him is certain to be a challenge. The Star of Rhodesia is stolen, but it is soon revealed to have been a fake, swapped out by Holmes himself shortly after the train trip began. Roland Carstairs is murdered by Moran’s henchman Sands (Skelton Knaggs), who employs an airgun that fires poison darts in order to commit his murders quietly.

Meanwhile, Holmes must determine which of the train passengers is working in league with Col. Moran. He has plenty of suspects to choose from, including the ill-tempered Professor Kilbane (Frederic Warlock), Watson’s old army buddy Major Duncan – Bleek (Alan Mowbay), and the beautiful but sinister Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey)…

Comments: The Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce cycle of Sherlock Holmes films are often derided by fans of the stories for straying too far from the source material. This is valid criticism; but it is also true that even when taken on their own terms, most of these films just aren’t very good. The mysteries tend to be perfunctory and lack real suspense, the attempts at comic relief are overly broad and despite attempts to attach world-shattering import to the goings-on, the stakes often seem contrived and unconvincing.

But Terror by Night isn’t like the others. It’s a crackerjack drawing-room mystery set on a passenger train, paced quickly and offering lots of red herrings, the occasional murder and a pleasing conclusion. Even Watson’s blustering comic relief is used sparingly here. Holmes’ powers of deduction are hardly on display; he just magically knows what Col. Moran’s next move will be, and we just go along with it. The story really owes more to Agatha Christie than to Conan Doyle, and while the McGuffin in question (the priceless Star of Rhodesia!) is a rather shopworn and dreary device, the movie as a whole works well and has a cozy old-time feel about it. It’s the perfect sort of movie for when you’re stuck at home on a rainy afternoon and have nothing particular in mind to watch.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are old hands at their roles and are splendid company, as is Dennis Hoey’s dim-witted Lestrade who has (for some reason that’s never adequately explained) joined the train bound for Edinburgh. Alan Mowbray is splendid as Maj. Duncan-Bleek, Watson’s old army chum. Skelton Knaggs — whom we’ve seen in a number of Val Lewton films — delivers his usual unsettling performance as the assassin Sands, and the lovely Renee Godfrey is a perfect femme fatale as Vivian Vedder.

12 to the Moon

12tothemoon1sheet

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….

12tothemoon2

Comments: This modest offering from Columbia occupied the bottom of a double bill with Ishiro Honda’s 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.

12 to the moon1

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” ).

First the aliens warn the humans away, and 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. 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 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).

The cast of bread-and-butter actors is undistinguished. 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.

ben-hur

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.