The Crystal Egg (1951)

Normally, I do not include films that are considerably less than 40 minutes in length, but I am going to make an exception for The Crystal Egg. Partly, I do this because it is the only screen adaptation I have seen of a very good story by H.G. Wells (Wikipedia says that it was also adapted for a 2001 TV series, but I suspect that one may be hard to find), but also because it is an example of what American sci-fi fans could watch on television in the early 1950s.

Thomas Mitchell and Edgar Stehli in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

Specifically, it is an episode from the first season (out of two) of the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow. Tales of Tomorrow was all science fiction, usually based on literary sources. Famous examples include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (not available at the Internet Archive) and Frankenstein. Like most early television, it was broadcast live.

The Crystal Egg is the story about an antique shop owner who asks his friend to help him examine a strange crystal egg. The egg turns out to produce strange images that can only come from the planet Mars. In the episode (but not in the original story) there is also a mysterious stranger who wants the egg for himself. The TV episode makes a number of changes to Wells’ story, but in my opinion these are tastefully executed in order to make the story suited for the short TV format.

Tales of Tomorrow is notorious because of the uneven quality of its actors. The Crystal Egg illustrates this well. Thomas Mitchell is good as Professor Vaneck (Mr. Wace in the original story), whereas Sally Gracie as his girlfriend can barely remember her few lines. Little problems like this shine through very clearly in a live broadcast, but today it must be considered part of the charm of old-time television.

Another problem is image quality. Old television shows with good images are practically non-existent. This is because video technology had not yet been invented, so episodes had to be filmed from a television screen, when they were preserved at all.

Wells’ story is good enough to be interesting in itself, but also because there is a neverending debate among fans and scholars as to whether Wells intended it as a “prequel” to his famous novel The War of the Worlds. We shall never know whether he did, but it is always fun to speculate.

This episode is best enjoyed as an introduction to Tales of Tomorrow. If you like it, a few dozen more episodes, including radio shows, are available. Many actors appear that either were famous already (e.g. Boris Karloff), or were to become famous (e.g. Paul Newman).

Saturn seen from Mars in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

The Crystal Egg
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Year: 1951
Running time: 24 min
Director: Charles S. Dubin
Stars: Thomas Mitchell
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (620×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (432 M)

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Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X (originally titled Death in the Air) is in many ways a unique and interesting movie. Unfortunately, it is also rather bad. But keep reading and I will tell you why it is worth watching anyway.

Biplanes dogfight in Pilot X aka Death in the Air (1936)

The story in Pilot X involves aircraft being shot down by an unknown pilot. So instead of asking around at nearby airports, trying to find a pattern matching the shootings, the investigators decide to invite a number of potential suspects to a few days at a mansion. (Checking for alibis? Nah, why bother?) Of course, there is also a girl present. Otherwise, who would be the hero’s romantic interest? Eh? Anyway, things do not go exactly as planned, and instead the guests start to be shot out of the sky, one by one.

The mansion setting technically puts this film as a part of the mansion mystery subgenre. A few months ago, I wrote a bit about that genre’s origins in my post about The Bat (1960). It is a genre with a good deal of potential. The closed space and limited number of characters result in a heightened sense of suspense, increased by the knowledge that someone has committed a terrible crime and may do so again.

As mansion mysteries go, however, Pilot X is not very spectacular. In fact, the plot is quite silly (though the ending is nice) and the actors are far from stellar. But the presence of aircraft provide a nice twist. Normally, the killer would be someone with a knife, a gun or a bottle of poison (or all three, as in And Then There Were None (1945)), not as in this case a World War I biplane with machine guns. That, as far as I know, makes the film absolutely unique. I cannot think of another one quite like it.

Director Elmer Clifton was a B film director with small budgets and less talent. (His best effort, Captain America (1944), was co-directed with experienced serial director John English.) Pilot X is fairly typical of Clifton’s efforts, unfortunately. Had it been handled with just a touch more class and professionalism, it might have been a very neat movie.

This film is best enjoyed if you are attracted by the bi-plane dogfights and the original mix of aviation and mansion mystery. The flight sequences are not bad for a B movie, and occasionally showcase some really neat action.

John Carroll, Leon Ames, Henry Hall, Hans Joby, Gaston Glass, Pat Somerset, Wheeler Oakman and Reed Howes in Death in the Air aka Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Director: Elmer Clifton
Stars: Lona Andre, John Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.2 G)

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960)

When the Nazis wanted director Fritz Lang at the head of German film production in 1932, and simultaneously warning him that some of his latest social commentary was not to their liking, he quickly decided to leave the country.

With classics like Metropolis (1927) and two Dr. Mabuse films (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler parts one and two (1922) are at the Internet Archive, although of uneven technical quality), Lang had revolutionized the visual style of German cinema, creating for himself not only a name as one of the leading German Expressionists, but also a place in cinematic history. After leaving Germany, however, he spent over two decades in Hollywood making films that, while usually well crafted, were unspectacular compared with his earlier masterpieces.

Gert Fröbe and Werner Peters in Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960)

So when I found at the Internet Archive Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, Lang’s final return to both his successful Dr. Mabuse character and to his home town Berlin, I was naturally filled with anticipation.

In fact, this was not only Lang’s last Mabuse film, but his last film of any kind. Lang was by this time almost 70 years old, utterly disillusioned and nearly blind. Yet his final effort is a good one. Not at all on the same level as his best silents, but at least on par with his best Hollywood productions.

The film is not only interesting because of Fritz Lang’s involvement. Far from it. The actors are good, Gert Fröbe in particular, and the scenography is nice. Camerawork is uneven, but lighting is very good. Most of all, however, the film fascinates because of its Big Brother theme. Most of the film is set in a hotel where spy cameras and one-way mirrors abound.

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse was a success upon its release and was followed by five more Mabuse films in quick succession. Thus, the film marks not only an end, but also a beginning. Lang, however, was retired and apparently had no hand in any of the sequels. All of them can be found at the Internet Archive, so I may return to the series in the future.

This film is best enjoyed if you are good at German. There are no subtitles available at the Internet Archive, and I have found none elsewhere.

Wolfgang Preiss as the blind medium Peter Cornelius in Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960)

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse
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Year: 1960
Language: German (no subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Directors: Fritz Lang
Stars: Gert Fröbe, Dawn Addams, Wolfgang Preiss
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (640×360)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

As I started preparing this week’s post, I noticed that I was not the only one who made the connection between Edward Snowden and Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. News editorials and political blogs are filled with Orwellian metaphors, and Amazon sales of the book apparently rose several thousand per cent in a single day after Snowden’s revelations were made public.

One of the very best filmed versions of the book was made thirty years before the year in the title. Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Quatermass and the Pit (which I wrote about last week), is a live science fiction drama produced by the BBC. The two productions even had the same writer and director, and some actors also appear in both.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Winston Smith is played by none other than Peter Cushing. A brilliant Cushing, at that. And if possible, Donald Pleasence as his “friend” Syme is even better. In fact, the whole production is brilliant. A few slip-ups (such as the shadow of an overhead microphone visible on screen) must be accepted in a live production such as this. The dictatorial government’s total control and repression reaches for you through the screen, and you can feel the anguish, then a vague hope, and then … But I should stop here, in case you are not previously familiar with the story.

One year earlier, American CBS had made another live TV production of the same story. I have not seen that version, but it too is said to be very good, although shorter. Orwell fans may want to check it out.

We have to acknowledge that the US is not Oceania, Edward Snowden is not Winston Smith, and Barack Obama is certainly not Big Brother. But that was never the point. The point, I think, is that the book and the film Nineteen Eighty-Four still have something to offer. Real-world events can only serve to reinforce what was already there.

This film is best enjoyed as an allegory and a warning that is just as relevant today, almost sixty years after the film, sixty-four years after the book.

'Big Brother is watching YOU!' Peter Cushing in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four
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Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 47 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×544)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)