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THE FLYING SAUCER (1950)
|“It appears it was designed for one purpose – to carry the atomic bomb! Now, the first country that learns the secret of the flying saucer will control the skies of the world....”|
Director: Mikel Conrad
Starring: Mikel Conrad, Pat Garrison, Hantz Von Teuffen, Lester Sharpe, Russell Hicks, Frank Darien, Roy Engel, Erl Lyon, Denver Pyle, Virginia Hewitt, George Baxter
Screenplay: Howard Irving Young, from a story by Mikel Conrad
Synopsis: Across the United States, people are stunned and terrified by sightings of what seems to be a flying saucer. Mike Trent (Mikel Conrad) is summoned to the Washington D.C. office of his father’s old friend, Hank Thorn (Russell Hicks), where he reacts with incredulity when told that the saucer is in fact real. Thorn further insists that the saucer’s propulsion system is beyond anything currently known to the government, and stresses the danger to the country should the technology fall into the wrong hands. When Mike suggests that the saucer may be Russian in origin, Thorn reveals that the Russians, too, are searching for it. He explains that one of the government’s operatives has discovered a Communist cell working out of Juneau – and that he has not been heard from since making his last report.... He then staggers Mike by suggesting that he take on the task of searching for the saucer. When Mike rejects the idea as absurd, Thorn argues that since he grew up in the area, his presence there would not attract attention, as would the presence of a stranger; and that Mike’s notorious reputation as a hard-drinking playboy would further shield him from suspicion. To Mike’s annoyance, Thorn then adds that the wheels are already turning: that a cover story of Mike suffering a nervous breakdown and coming home to recover has been concocted and spread; and that Mike’s industrialist father has promised to make his yacht and his hunting lodge near Juneau available for the mission. Left with little choice, Mike reluctantly agrees....becoming more reconciled to his situation when he meets his partner, government operative Vee Langley (Pat Garrison), who will pose as his nurse. Mike and Vee fly to Seattle – where Mike breaks free and goes on a bender – then travel to the hunting lodge by boat. Beginning to regret his acquiescence in Hank Thorn’s plans, Mike becomes still more irritated when Vee refuses to stop in Juneau to let him look up some old friends. Arriving at the hunting lodge, Mike and Vee are met by a new caretaker, Hans (Hantz Von Teuffen), who tells Mike that he does not know what became of his predecessor, Pierre. Days pass pleasantly enough, filled with searches of the surrounds disguised as walks and picnics, but Mike becomes increasingly frustrated by what he considers a wild goose chase. His temper is not improved by the fact that although he and Vee have begun to fall for each other, she insists that such matters must be put aside until after they have completed their mission. Mike scoffs at Vee’s declared believe in the existence of the flying saucer – but barely are the words out of his mouth than something tears across the night sky at an incredible speed....
Comments: The greatest decade in the history of the science fiction film got off to a distinctly inauspicious start with 1950’s The Flying Saucer, a tepid spy-drama that doubles as one of the oddest vanity projects ever to grace the silver screen. For the most part a minor bit player (although he did star in Untamed Women, if you consider that anything to brag about), Mikel Conrad put on his multi-tasker hat to co-write, produce, direct and star in this stultifyingly unimaginative piece of Cold War nonsense, in which the onscreen action is completely overshadowed by the events surrounding the production of the film.
Although it was not the first such report, the eyewitness account by pilot Kenneth Arnold in June of 1947 of strange objects in the skies over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State is generally credited as kicking off the era of the UFO. (Only a month later would come the events at Roswell, New Mexico, after which government cover-ups and conspiracy theories would be forever added to the mix.) In this context, Mikel Conrad at least deserves some sort of acknowledgement, if not exactly credit, for being amongst the first to exploit the prevailing mood of nervousness and uncertainty for his own financial gain. Los Angeles newspapers of the time carried stories about Conrad’s claim that he had filmed eight flying saucers landing and taking off some forty miles from Juneau, Alaska. The film, Conrad further insisted, had been seized by the Air Force, which later returned only a third of it to him. (The “good bits”, we infer, had been removed.) When The Flying Saucer reached cinemas in January of 1950, it carried a mysterious title card that thanked “those in authority” for allowing the film to be released. That the film contained genuine (if expurgated) footage of the Alaskan saucers was confirmed by the testimony of an FBI agent named McKnight, who identified himself as the government official responsible for clearing the vetted footage to be returned to Conrad.
Of course, as I am sure you will not be exactly astonished to hear, the “FBI agent” was an actor friend of Mikel Conrad’s, and the whole hoo-ha a stunt concocted in order to promote the film. Well, Conrad got some exposure out of it, all right, but not precisely the kind he had hoped. His publicists, who had not been let in on their client’s little joke, quit on him; while various newspaper columnists gave him a solid butt-kicking in print for duping the public (not to mention the columnists themselves).
In Conrad’s defence, if the American public actually was duped by The Flying Saucer, or for one second believed that its briefly seen “disc” was the real thing, then it deserved to be taken out on a collective snipe hunt. As for the film itself--- Alas, would that anything half so interesting happens in it as happened around it! The Flying Saucer runs only sixty-nine minutes, and at least half of that time is taken up with images of the Alaskan wilderness. Here, I must confess, I find myself in disagreement with various other reviewers of this film, who seem to have developed a kind of “snow madness” over the course of watching it. I, on the other hand, was perfectly content to sit and watch the glorious, unspoiled Alaskan landscapes drift by the camera. It was only when the characters starting showing up that the film began to annoy me (or, when the characters got in the way of the landscapes, to provoke a few loud, indignant cries of, “Hey, down in front!!”).
The real star of The Flying Saucer.
Although little that could rightly be called “action” or “drama” happens in the course of The Flying Saucer, what is interesting is its attitude to its titular vessel. Reflecting how early in the era of the UFO the film was produced, there is never the faintest hint that the flying saucer does or could originate anywhere but on earth. Far from being indicative of life in outer space, the saucer proves only that someone, somewhere, has developed a piece of technology that is valuable and dangerous in equal measure. “It appears it was designed for one purpose – to carry the atomic bomb!” announces Hank Thorn.
(To which we can only respond---oh, well, obviously. Although given that the saucer, when we finally see it, looks like something Aurora might have produced on a really bad day, the likelihood of it being able to carry anything as substantial as a retro nuke seems rather minimal.)
The Ruskies – playing hare to the US tortoise again – have already gotten wind of the saucer’s hiding place somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness....although having delivered this piece of information to his superiors, the undercover agent who managed to infiltrate the [*cough*] Communist cell operating out of Juneau seems to have met with an untimely fate.
While a surprising number of films do feature thoroughly unlikeable heroes, you’d be struggling to find one who more richly deserves the title of Individual You Would Least Like To Be Trapped In A Small Cabin In The Middle Of Nowhere With than Mike Trent. The mystery of The Flying Saucer is why, with such total control of the project, Mikel Conrad chose to depict himself onscreen as a thick-headed, loud-mouthed, irresponsible, petulant, drunken boor. No, I take that back. The real mystery is why, with all the resources of the US government at its disposal, the CIA would light upon a thick-headed, loud-mouthed, irresponsible, petulant, drunken boor as its agent of choice when trying to prevent cutting-edge technology from falling into the hands of the Russians.
"The Surgeon General warns that excessive smoking can cause thick-headed-loud-mouthed-irresponsible-petulant-drunken-boor-ism."
Well, looked at a certain way, I guess the answer isn’t too far to seek. In so many American movies there comes the inference – one that reaches both its apotheosis and its nadir in Armageddon – that in times of crisis, only an Average Joe can really be trusted to get the job done. Never mind that this Average Joe has a father who, it seems, owns most of territorial Alaska; or that he spends most of his life getting plastered in exclusive New York night clubs; or that he tries to excuse himself from heeding his government’s call on the grounds that “My polo team starts practice at Meadowbank tomorrow”. Never mind that he’s a chain-smoker and a raging alcoholic (seriously, you could make a drinking game out of the number of times Mike lights a cigarette....or at least, you could if Mike’s indulgence of his booze habit isn’t enough to put you off drinking for life); or that he talks loudly about his secret mission to whoever happens to be within earshot; or that given a critical job by his government, he responds by throwing temper tantrums and running away to get drunk at every opportunity. He is Mike Trent, and he is here to represent you and me, people. Deal with it.
In fact, the only point I can come up with that counts in Mike’s favour is that he knows how thoroughly unfit he is for a sensitive government mission. Summoned to the Washington DC office of his father’s old pal, Hank Thorn (even as all Parisian hotel rooms have a view of the Eiffel Tower, all Washington offices look out on one monument or another; and Hank’s is right next to the Capitol), Mike reacts with complete and understandable incredulity to Hank’s proposal. Undiscouraged, Hank starts laying on the guilt: “How would you feel if, tomorrow, a flying saucer dropped an atomic bomb on every key city in the United States?” (Actually, given that at this point Mike has every intention of heading straight back to New York, I don’t imagine he’d be feeling very much of anything.) Mike reacts with hostility to this tactic, even demanding that Hank “stop waving the flag.” (There’s a part of me that would love to think that Sam Fuller was inspired to make Pick-Up On South Street by watching The Flying Saucer.) However, a reference to giving his country “five years of my life” has already clued the viewer in to the fact that despite his thick-headed-loud-mouthed-irresponsible-petulant-drunken-boor-ism, Mike really is made of The Right Stuff; and we are not surprised when he finally gives in to Thorn’s pressuring.
In the fifties, you never knew who could be concealing atomic missiles.
Mind you, Hank Thorn’s decision to send Mike Trent into Alaska to look for flying saucers and/or Communists does become a tad more explicable when we’ve seen the actual government agent who goes along as his cover. Vee Langley is described as “one of our best operatives”, which rather leaves us wondering why the Russians aren’t Cossack dancing in circles around the Washington monument even as he speaks. (We get an answer to this later in the film: mind-boggling as it is to consider, the Ruskies are even less competent than Mike and Vee.) Vee is a classic fifties cinema woman, a walking Informed Attribute©. For all Hank’s praise of her, for all we hear that she has “an automatic in my suitcase” (“I assure you, I know how to use it!”), Vee is a waste of space, the token blonde love interest. She makes no headway at all on the job she’s been sent to carry out, and is, moreover, wholly incapable of controlling Mike’s numerous outbreaks. In fact, her only significant contribution comes when (following Hank’s orders, not through he own actions) she rounds up the designer and builder of the flying saucer – and delivers him straight into a Russian trap.
With such company the alternative, do you wonder that I took so much pleasure in the Alaskan vistas?
Anyway....off we go with Mike (who “breaks free” in Seattle and manages to get stinking in less than an hour) and Vee to the hunting lodge at the foot of the Taku glacier owned by Mike’s Old Man, there to meet our third Idiot Provocateur, a chap I like to refer to as Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans. Imagine that you’re Mike and Vee (yeah, I know, I know....just go with it). You arrive on a mission knowing that dirty Commie spies are in the vicinity. You also find that the caretaker at your lodge has mysteriously disappeared, and that his place has been taken by an accented stranger whose preferred attire consists of hip-waders, a cinch-belt (with a knife tucked in the back), a beret and a cravat. Do you: (a) instantly jump him and hand him over to The Authorities; or (b) see nothing wrong, and proceed to discuss your secret mission in front of him?
(Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans is played by one “Hantz Von Teuffen”, which is too wonderful to be anything but real.)
No wonder Boeing wouldn't let their name be used....
By the way, that “discuss your secret mission” crack is no exaggeration. Mike has barely set foot in the cabin before he has wandered up to Hans and inquired, “Hey, Hans – seen any Russian spies around here lately?”
His follow-up question: “Seen any flying saucers?”
Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen!
Anyway, Mike and Vee settle into their mission, which consists primarily of spoiling some very beautiful location photography, having picnics, and indulging in outdoor sports such as rucksack football and tongue hockey. But this – even the last – wears thin for Mike, who finds what they’re doing pointless (and for once, it’s hard to argue), and suggests going off to Juneau to look up some old friends and ask a few pertinent questions. Vee disagrees, insisting that they wait for further orders from Hank Thorn. And as you’d expect, these two professionals take all due precautions while discussing the pros and cons of their situation.
“SEEN ANY FLYING SAUCERS YET??” Mike bellows at Vee.
“LOOK, MR TRENT, WE’VE GOT TO BE VERY CAREFUL WHAT WE SAY AND DO FROM NOW ON!!” shrieks back Vee.
“OH, SURE, THERE’S A RUSSIAN SPY BEHIND EVERY BUSH AND ROCK!!” bawls Mike.
Well, no; but there is one listening at the door. Not that he needs to listen at the door. The way that these two carry on, he could have heard them back in Moscow.
Anyway, this discreet debate is rudely interrupted when something roars through the night sky. (Hilariously, we cut from the saucer back to Vee asking Mike if he heard anything. He’s deaf as well as dumb.) This saucer is indeed a remarkable piece of engineering. Not only (as we later learn) can it do 2,000 mph (!!!!), but it is also capable of executing ninety-degree changes of direction without losing speed – or killing the pilot. Convinced at last, Mike again proposes a pub-crawl--- I mean, a fact-finding mission in Juneau, which Vee again vetoes. Vee-toes? Despite Mike’s evident frustration, One Of Our Best Operatives sees no reason to keep an eye on him. On the contrary, she takes the first opportunity for a solitary stroll in the woods – during which she is briefly menaced by a stock footage bear – and then has the gall to look flabbergasted when she finds that Mike has taken a powder.
What follows is the unquestioned highlight of The Flying Saucer, as under the guise of seeking out some old friends (all of whom prove understandably hard to find), Mike goes from bar to bar to bar to bar to bar to bar to bar to bar to bar to....
(Mike is described early on as “a two-fisted drinker”. Watching this sequence, we can only be thankful he has no more than two fists.)
This film proudly brought to you by the Juneau Tourist Board.
Vee eventually locates Mike in one of his watering-holes, but soon stalks off in disgust and leaves him there. (Also understandable, if not exactly professional.) Shortly afterwards, Mike is tracked down by the oldest of his old friends, Old Matt Mitchell, who turns out to be – oh, surprise, surprise! – the town drunk. (Actually, given what we’re shown of Juneau, that’s probably a pretty prestigious – and strongly contested – position.) Conveniently enough, Matt’s boat has been hired by our friendly neighbourhood Commie spies. Inconveniently enough, two of them are at the next table and hear him shooting his mouth off. At last! - someone’s going to be punished for that!
Sure enough, after Mike staggers off – to “find Vee” – Old Matt is hijacked to Commie HQ and knocked on the head, but recovers in time to overhear the head of the spies, one Colonel Marikoff (two f-s: he must be Russian!), negotiating for possession of the saucer with a dirty rotten stinking American turncoat of the name of Turner, who is played by – gasp! choke! – Denver Pyle!!
(Actually, while we have little to no interest in Mikel Conrad or Pat Garrison, The Flying Saucer does boast some interesting people in supporting roles: not just Uncle Jesse, but Russell Hicks as Hank Thorn, Frankie Darien as Matt Mitchell, and Roy Engel as the creator of the saucer. The most interesting person to show up, however, is listed in the opening credits as “....and introducing ERL LYON”, and here plays the spy who overhears Old Matt. Also known as Earle and Earle R., Mr Lyon would later go into film production, and be involved in such genre fare as Cyborg 2087, Castle Of Evil and Destination Inner Space.)
Old Matt escapes, but not without giving away that he’s heard too much. Meanwhile, Mike is wending a winding course back to the lodge, but wrecks his boat, and ends up spending the night passed out on an ice floe (lucky he’s full of anti-freeze). There he is found – conveniently or inconveniently, depending on your point of view – by Old Matt, who takes him back to his cabin just in time for the Ruskies to track them down, shoot Old Matt, and beat up Mike. (Why don’t they shoot him too? Believe me, I’ve been asking myself that for the past forty-eight hours [*sob*].)
"So! Make fun of my hip-waders, will you!?"
Mike instantly sobers up, and pumps Old Matt for what information he can give about the location of the saucer before he croaks. Learning that it is “near Twin Lakes” on “the other side of the ice-cap”, Mike rents a plane, and we spend a full six minutes watching him fly it....a sequence highlighted by a couple of pathetic attempts to build suspense by suggesting that Mike is having engine trouble. (Engine splutters. Cut to Mike, looking bored. Engine recovers.) Rather miraculously, Mike manages “to spot a solitary cabin”, which proves to have a trapdoor in the floor. And below---- Behold! The wonder that is....the flying saucer!!!!
My advice? Let the Ruskies have it.
(At any rate, what we see on the ground bears no resemblance whatsoever to what we see in the air.)
Mike flies back to the lodge, announcing to Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans that, “I’VE GOT TO SEND A MESSAGE TO WASHINGTON RIGHT AWAY.” Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans responds by sabotaging Mike’s plane, but so unsubtly that even a thicko like Mike can spot it. A fight ensues, during which Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans makes a welcome if sadly unavailing attempt to shove Mike’s head into his own propeller. However, no sooner has he overcome the threat of Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans than Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans’ Commie buddies show up, and Mike is taken prisoner.
Also meanwhile, unable to find the then-ice-bound Mike, Vee accepts her own limitations and wires Hank about her predicament. Also also meanwhile, Hank has had a phone-call from an aviator friend in Seattle (standing in for the real Mr Boeing, we assume), who has rung him up to have a laugh about the crackpot who just contacted him wanting funding for the development of his flying saucer. Hank breaks it to his friend that he may, so to speak, have committed a slight error in judgement, and wires back to Vee to head off the saucer’s designer, Dr Carl Lawton, at Juneau, where he has returned in a huff. Vee indeed finds Dr Lawton at the airport, and convinces him of his danger and that his best course of action would be to entrust himself to her care.
And then she walks him straight into a nest of Commies.
"The Russians will never find you in h--- Oh."
The whole gang then heads back to Twin Lakes, this time taking a convenient “passage near the ice”. This allows Mike, sent on ahead with Vee and Lawton, to jump one of the Ruskies, grab his knife, and hold him as a shield. A stand-off ensues that makes the one in House Of 1,000 Corpses look like the result of rapid-cut editing. It ends when the Ruskie unwisely begs his Colonel not to shoot. This of course prompts his Colonel to cut loose with his machine-gun, and we learn that the propaganda was true! – Ruskies aren’t human – or so we infer from the failure of a single bullet to penetrate the unfortunate human shield’s body, or indeed the body of the person behind him. (This was funny when Leslie Nielsen did it; it is hilarious when Mikel Conrad does it.) The gunfire does, however, start an avalanche. Proving that Alaska had every right to become a state, the fiercely patriotic ice manages to take out every single surviving Commie, without touching one of the Americans....not even Turner. Turner breaks away, gets to the saucer first, and takes off – only to have the saucer explode shortly afterwards.
As Mike and Vee look on in horror, Dr Lawton gives a satisfied chuckle. “It was only a small bomb,” he comments nonchalantly, “but Turner didn’t know it was there!”
And with that, and with an obligatory clinch from Mike and Vee, the first flying saucer film concludes.
The wonder is, it wasn’t also the last flying saucer film. Fortunately, some other film-makers seemed to take Mikel Conrad’s incompetent effort as a personal challenge. The following year would see the release of both The Thing (From Another World) and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Both are – I think I would be justified in saying – just....sssslightly better....
"I think I'll call it....the Corsair!"
The Flying Saucer’s final Mike Trent tally:
Number of cigarettes: 12
Number of drinks: 7
Number of times the bartender leaves the bottle: 3
Number of benders: 2
Number of times Our Hero flicks a cigarette butt into the pristine Alaskan waters: 2
Number of times during sixty-nine minutes I wanted to kill Mike Trent: 10,758