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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Donlevy’

There was a time when, if you were talking about the most important and influential pieces of British SF film and TV, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series would be in the top five without any debate whatsoever. Is this still the case? Frankly, I’m not sure – the name still has a certain degree of recognition, but does anyone really care any more? Does anyone remember the details? Haven’t other, more recent programmes crowded it into the background somewhat? (Frankly, since I found out an American network had embarked on a direct remake of The Tomorrow PeopleThe Tomorrow People, I ask you! – I haven’t known quite what to think.)

Quatermass isn’t quite Year Zero when it comes to Nigel Kneale’s career as a genre writer: a recording of his adaptation of 1984 managed to avoid being wiped by the BBC, which is more than can be said for the majority of the first Quatermass TV serial. Kneale himself, whom one gathers was never a man to couch a criticism in soft words, was very dismissive of the 1955 film adaptation of the original Quatermass Experiment, which has dated rather badly in many ways. And yet, in a peculiar way, the film – retitled The Quatermass Xperiment to emphasise the now-baffling X-certificate the film received – remains a landmark in the history of British cinema.

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Directed by Val Guest, the film opens with a young couple walking home through the countryside one night, laughing inanely at each other. They proceed to begin to roll in the hay (literally), but any expectations of that X-certificate coming into play are premature (whether anything else is premature is thankfully not explored). They are disturbed by something crashing out of the sky, virtually on top of them. It turns out to be a rocket, which has come to rest (in a credulity-straining moment) embedded nose-cone first in the ground. The emergency services are soon on the scene, accompanied by boffins from the British Rocket Group, most significantly their chief, Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy in this instance).

Signs of life are detected within the rocket, which was apparently launched without official backing and went out-of-contact for over two days in deep space. The vessel is cracked open and a lone astronaut, Caroon (Richard Wordsworth) stumbles out, clearly traumatised but unable to speak. Of the other two men in the crew, there appears to be no sign – but the ship has not been penetrated nor the hatch opened while it was in space. They have seemingly vanished into thin air…

Caroon is hospitalised and his condition gives the doctors cause for concern – there are signs of a physical metamorphosis being underway. Meanwhile, Quatermass and the police (inspector Jack Warner of Dixon of Dock Green fame is handling the case) are trying to work out where the missing astronauts have gone. They come to a startling conclusion: out in space, the rocket encountered a totally alien form of life which somehow assimilated the missing men and has infected Caroon, mutating his body and possessing the power to absorb the life essence of any creature it encounters. Unfortunately this comes just as Caroon’s wife, believing her husband to be being poorly treated by his employers, springs him from the hospital. Soon the remains of Caroon are on the loose in London, rapidly mutating and threatening to reproduce on a massive scale…

The original TV broadcasts of The Quatermass Experiment ran for over three hours, so I suppose it says something about the leisurely pace of small-screen drama in those days that virtually the entire story is reproduced in a film running rather less than ninety minutes. This is a pacy little thriller, the main loss being the climax – in the TV version, Quatermass confronts the gribbly monster that Caroon has become and essentially talks him to death. Here, rather more prosaically, it’s just a question of the main characters switching on a plug in order to save the day. I can’t help thinking we’ve lost some of the poetry of the drama there; Nigel Kneale thought so, being particularly unimpressed with Donlevy as Quatermass.

Having said that, Professor Q doesn’t get a great deal to do in this movie beyond snap at people and listen to other boffins exposit at him. There are lots of things that date this movie – the very idea of a British space programme is one of them, along with the charmingly antique fire engines, and so on – but one of the main ones is the fact that it’s a horror-SF movie populated almost entirely by middle-aged men in hats and ties. The only female character of note is Mrs Caroon, who’s arguably one of the direct sources of the trouble everyone else faces. (The fact that Caroon himself is kept in a public hospital, barely guarded and hardly monitored, is one of those things that makes you roll your eyes and just treat this as a penny-dreadful melodrama.)

Of course, you could also argue that the indirect source of the trouble is Quatermass himself, for launching his rocket precipitately in the first place. The prof does not come across as a noble, heroic science-visionary like some of his successors: instead, he is a bullying main-chancer who refuses to show remorse or take the blame for any of the events he has unwittingly caused to happen. The film concludes with the current menace dealt with, just about, at which point Quatermass strides off, his only comment being the instruction to a subordinate that they’re going to start again. The film closes with a second rocket blasting off, and the effect is undeniably ominous: Quatermass (and, by extension, science itself) presents a real danger if left unchecked.

So in a sense this is a lurid and melodramatic atom-scare B-movie, and a bargain-basement one compared to some of the similar films being made contemporaneously in the States. However, the extensive use of location filming does allow it to retain a tenuous sort of grip on reality, and the contrast between the almost-Ealingesque depiction of postwar Britain and the disturbing body horror of Kneale’s story is nicely done. It’s worth noting how far ahead of the curve Nigel Kneale was in this respect: you can look at this story and see how its central concept has echoed down the years in countless other movies, comics and TV shows – it’s curious how many stories derived partly from The Quatermass Experiment also draw heavily on The Thing From Another World, when the two don’t have much in common beyond the not-exactly-unusual idea of an alien incursion of some kind. I’ve never found any evidence of Kneale acknowledging any version of The Thing as an influence, and suspect it’s the kind of film he would have dismissed out of hand (John Carpenter, on the other hand, is on record as a Kneale fan).

The simplistic way of summarising Nigel Kneale’s screenwriting career is to say that his work is all about trying to build a bridge between genuine SF and real horror – or, to put it another way, to find a way of conjuring up a real sense of primal dread without recourse to the supernatural. We will be looking at some more of Kneale’s work over the next few days, and I think we will see that this doesn’t do the breadth of his career justice. But the horror aspect does has some truth to it, particularly in connection with The Quatermass Xperiment. Appearing in the closing credits is the declaration ‘A Hammer Film’, the first time the company had tried its hand at a horror movie. But they did it well, and it did well for them. Hammer decided to make some more – and they are still making them today. As I said, a landmark film in cinema history.

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