Saturday, February 25, 1978: Battle in Outer Space (1960) / Rendezvous at Midnight (1935)

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Synopsis: It is 1965, and Earth’s manned orbiting space station is attacked and destroyed in a surprise foray from a squadron of flying saucers. Soon after, a series of disasters befalls Earth: ships, trains and other modes of transit are sabotaged. In an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, it is revealed that some sort of anti-gravity beam was deployed at the site of each disaster, and it is theorized that an alien race is attacking from a hidden base on the Moon as a prelude to full-scale invasion.

At the UN conference, the Iranian delegate Dr. Ahmed is suffering from blinding headaches. He staggers back to his office at the UN complex, but soon vanishes.

Meanwhile, the U.N. delegates are taken to a field demonstration of a new energy weapon called the Heat Gun. The weapon is powerful enough to pierce the hardest alloy known to man, an alloy which is being developed for a newly designed interplanetary rocket, the SPIPs. The delegates are then taken to view a demonstration of the spacecraft’s powerful new engines, and they marvel at how quickly the newly-designed fleet is being assembled. This fleet will soon be dispatched to the Moon on a reconnaissance mission to the alien base believed to be located there.

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An Interpol agent arrives to ask for the location of Dr. Ahmed. Professor Adachi, the leader of the program, is puzzled at the delegate’s absence, but at that moment an alarm sounds: there is a disturbance in the room housing the heat gun. Rushing to the gun room, they find Dr. Ahmed fighting with Dr. Kotsumaya (Ryo Akebe) over a handgun Ahmed has smuggled into the complex. Ahmed breaks away and tells those assembled that they will quickly become slaves to the glorious planet Natal, and he runs away, and is swept up by an approaching flying saucer.

Later, Kotsumaya and girlfriend Ersuko (Kyoko Anzai) are enjoying a moonlit evening when they’re startled by the appearance of their friend Iwomura, who offers them a lift into town. Both Iwomura and Kosumaya have been chosen for the crews of the two SPIP’s that will make the reconnaissance trip to the Moon, and Iwomura wants to have a wild night on the town before they depart. Kotsumaya and Ersuko decline, and Iwomura heads into town alone. But as he drives he is stricken by a crippling headache, and an evil voice tells him that he is now a slave under the control of the invaders from planet Natal….

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Comments: It’s tempting to write off Battle in Outer Space as a bit of Toho juvenilia, with flying saucers zooming around, ray guns zapping stuff, famous landmarks blowing up, and a moon buggy — looking remarkably like the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile — wending its way through the lunar canyons. But as was typical of Japanese science fiction of this era, the filmmakers took it seriously enough that great care was taken in bringing it to the screen; as a result, Battle in Outer Space looks fantastic — in fact, with the possible exception of MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) this film sported the best outer-space effects until 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters a decade later.

In the U.S., Battle in Outer Space appeared on a double-bill with 12 to the Moon, and a comparison of the two is illuminating.  12 to the Moon was a typical example of an American science fiction movie of the era: cheaply made, visually unambitious, talky and derivative. By contrast, Battle in Outer Space does everything it can to not only deliver on what the title promises, but also to do so by showing, rather than telling. From the first breathtaking widescreen shot of the film — where we pan from the wheel-like space station in Earth orbit, across the depths of space to the approaching alien armada — the movie is clearly out to grab and hold the viewer’s attention.

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Toho’s kaijus often had a strong science fiction flavor, and similarly, the studio’s stand-alone SF efforts took on familiar kaiju tropes, perhaps because they were (like most American SF films of the time) aimed at juvenile audiences. Gorath (1962) imagined a massive rogue planet plowing through the solar system, headed for Earth; because Gorath is far too big to destroy, the scientist-heroes instead hit upon the zany idea of planting giant rocket motors in the Antarctic and moving Earth out of harm’s way. You might think this would provide enough action for a single movie, but Gorath decided to shoehorn in a giant monster — almost randomly — just to keep things interesting.  Similarly, X From Outer Space (1967), which is in all other categories an unassuming space opera, threw in a kaiju-like robot that metes out destruction in the first reel.

But such is the confidence of Battle In Outer Space that adding a giant monster is never deemed necessary. In the end it’s a thrillingly staged space opera, big and ambitious, with a large cast and an enormously busy running time. It’s as close to a blockbuster space epic as you will find from this era. It wasn’t often broadcast on TV, and because the existing color prints faded to pink too quickly, it was unavailable on home video until just a few years ago. If you get a chance to see it, jump at the chance; it’s a great alien invasion flick.

Rendezvous at Midnight

Synopsis: Beautiful socialite Sandra Rogers (Valerie Hobson) is dating the dashing commissioner of police Robert Edmonds (Ralph Bellamy). Sandra adores Robert, but she dislikes the many times he has broken dates with her due to his work.

In order to impress Edmonds, Sandra has ordered an expensive and unique outfit from the shop of designer Fernande (Catherine Doucet), which features a silver fox fur. Sandra wants to wear the outfit that night, but Fernande tells her it isn’t possible to get the alterations done on time. But Fernande’s seamstress Myra (Irene Ware) offers to do it. Sandra agrees as long as the outfit can be delivered by 6:00 that evening.

She gets a message from Myles Crawford (Arthur Vinton), saying he wants to see her at his hotel. Knowing from her previous dealings with him that Crawford is a grifter and blackmailer, she goes to see him with her friend Lillian Haskins (Vivian Oakland).

Crawford tells Sandra that he knows she’s dating the police commissioner, and he wants her to use her influence on Edmonds to get the charges dropped. Sandra says she has no influence on Edmonds – he wouldn’t even drop charges against her chauffeur, who’d gotten into a scrape with police.

Crawford shows her an expensive hotel bill that Sandra had racked up in Havana, one that Crawford himself had paid. Sandra points out that she’d lost all her money in Havana betting on horses and Crawford had offered to pay her bill until she got more money wired to her. She’d sent a check to compensate him. Crawford acknowledges this but tells her he tore the check up. If she doesn’t succeed in getting the charges dropped, he’ll drag her reputation through the mud and Edmonds will never marry her. Angry, Sandra threatens to kill him.

The promised dress doesn’t arrive by 6:00, and Sandra is unable to wear it to her date with Edmonds that evening. She waits for Edmonds at the concert hall but he is late; when he finally shows up he tells her he can’t stay, but must go to police headquarters immediately. She tells him she’ll lay in a late supper at her apartment and will wait for him, even if he arrives after midnight, but he tells her not to bother — he’ll be working on a case overnight.

Back at Sandra’s apartment, Myra (Irene Ware) shows up and Sandra’s maid Emmy (Helen Jerome Eddy) lets her in. Myra seems shaken up, and says she had been in a subway accident that had been reported on the news earlier that night. Myra carries a package from Fernande — the dress that Sandra had ordered.

When Sandra arrives home she is furious at the way she’d been treated by Edmonds, and in order to spite him decides to call and tell him she’s murdered Myles Crawford. Edmonds comes to her apartment immediately, his face grim. Myles Crawford really was murdered that night, and Sandra’s confession makes her the prime suspect….

Comments: Ralph Bellamy gets top billing in this Universal murder mystery, but he has surprisingly little screen time. Rendezvous at Midnight’s lead is actually a luminous Valerie Hobson, playing entitled but charming rich girl Sandra Rogers. Sandra’s carefree lifestyle was no doubt a bit of wish fulfillment dangled in front of Depression-era audiences (at one point she agrees to buy a $1,000 dress — equivalent to nearly $20,000 today — without batting an eye) but in spite of her zeal for the good life, she isn’t a snob. She instructs maid Emmy to give a courier a $10.00 tip (a wildly generous amount in 1935) and the object of her affection is not one of the Wall Street swells or wealthy playboys who undoubtedly vie for her affection. Instead, she is devoted to police commissioner Robert Edmonds. Edmonds comes across as a college-educated sort, but hardly a member of the upper crust.

Like most women who find themselves in a relationship with a cop, Sandra discovers that Robert is terribly unreliable about keeping a date; he can’t spend nearly as much time with her as she would like, as pesky things like murders keep taking precedence. When Robert first tells her to go over to the concert hall ahead of him as he’ll be late, and later lets her know he can’t spend the evening with her at all, it is the last straw: she decides to get his attention by confessing to a murder, one that — she discovers later — actually took place.

The fact that the murder victim is a) someone who has just tried to blackmail her, b) someone whom she just threatened to kill in front of a witness and c) someone she just falsely confessed to the police commissioner to have murdered all seems a bit contrived, but it works for the length of the movie.

The movie tries to convince us that Robert is incorruptible as a cop and would never pull strings to protect Sandra from scrutiny. This is telegraphed early when Sandra asks Robert to get charges for her chauffeur dropped (he’d gotten into a fistfight with a policeman) but Robert tells her there’s nothing he can do. But the movie hedges a bit on this, as he shields Sandra’s confession from the press long enough for him to pursue another suspect.

I like the cast in this one, mostly notably Valerie Hobson, who is delightfully carefree, never believing that any harm can come to her. Ralph Bellamy is good if slightly miscast; he and Hobson have a distinct lack of screen chemistry, and it hobbles the narrative somewhat. Helen Jerome Eddy is an absolute delight as the put-upon maid Emmy. Jerome Eddy was a star of the silent era who found a niche in the talkies era playing slightly flustered characters like this, and she steals every scene she’s in. Irene Ware, eye-catching in The Raven, is quite fetching here as Myra.

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