Quatermass and the Pit

Once upon a time it was quite common to see movies either inspiring TV shows or leading to direct spin-offs. This still happens of course but it doesn’t seem to take place with the same frequency. On the other hand, we’ve now grown accustomed to seeing TV shows being adapted or reimagined as big screen vehicles, with variable success. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking the latter is a purely modern phenomenon. But it’s not really, it had been going on long ago and one of the studios that became aware early on of the potential for commercial exploitation was Hammer in the UK. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were big hits for the BBC and Hammer seized the opportunity to turn them into cinema features, significantly boosting their fortunes and profile in the process. That was in the 50s, and Hammer would return to this winning formula again in the following decade when Quatermass and the Pit (1967) stylishly revived the series in color.

The ominous-sounding pit of the title is an excavation taking place at a London underground station, Hobbs End, aimed at extending the line. This is our point of entry, following the workmen as they shovel out the clay.  In the midst of this routine labor something irregular is spotted trundling along the conveyor belt – the remains of a skull. Almost immediately, another section of earth is pulled away to reveal an almost complete skeleton. So one excavation gives way to another, the structural yielding to the archaeological, this one under the supervision of Dr Roney (James Donald). However, the relatively standard prehistoric material being retrieved isn’t all that’s been buried at this site, the unexpected discovery of an unfamiliar casing suggests there might be an explosive device keeping the ancient residents company. And it’s here that Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), professor of physics and head of the government’s rocket research, comes into the picture. Furthermore, this is also the stage at which the film shifts from the realm of the mundane towards that of the fantastic, and potentially horrific. Quatermass, Roney, and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), find themselves gradually drawn to the conclusion that the contents of Hobbs End station may not be from this planet at all. If their theories are correct, they may have stumbled upon that long sought after “missing link” in the evolutionary chain, something which promises to be not only startling in its audacity but also terrifying in potency and destructiveness.

I’ve never seen the original TV serial that formed the basis for this adaptation but I’ve heard that it was a triumph, a high point for the medium. I’ve also seen claims that the film, while very good, didn’t quite measure up to its origins. I do intend to fill in this gap in my viewing knowledge at some point but for now all I can do is comment on the movie as I see it. I think I first saw this at some time back in the 1980s and it made an instant impression. Anyone familiar with Hammer films will know what I mean when I say that they had a “feel” to them which was unmistakable. This was partly due to the casting but, as with films like Quatermass and the Pit, it was still apparent even if many of the faces weren’t as familiar. It was as much the contribution of the team behind the cameras that created that unique Hammer vibe as anything. Just seeing credits which promised production by Anthony Nelson Keys, photography by Arthur Grant, art direction by Bernard Robinson etc meant you were in for a cinematic experience that had Hammer stamped all over it.

Roy Ward Baker had enjoyed success in Hollywood, UK cinema and then worked quite extensively in British TV before coming to Hammer. As such, his was a sure hand directing and he obviously slotted neatly into the team as he went on to take charge of a number of features for the studio.  Possibly as a result of being a serial in the first place the script, having presumably been compressed to some extent, moves along at a reasonable pace, taking its time only where necessary, and there’s no shortage of incident to hold the attention. Sci-Fi generally depends on intelligent writing and, perhaps more so in recent times, visual effects to be considered successful. While I don’t believe effects are the be all and end all in any production, it’s clear that they do play a part in the enjoyment of many – in Quatermass and the Pit this aspect ought to be considered perfectly satisfactory although obviously not of the kind audiences today would be used to. Of greater importance is the quality of the writing and again, without wishing to go into too much detail and thus spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I believe Kneale’s script fulfills the basic requirement of any good piece of science fiction: it asks as many questions as it answers and encourages the viewer to think.

Kneale never made any secret of the fact he disapproved (to say the least) of the decision to cast US actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two adaptations of his work, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, something I’ve seen fans complain about too. Frankly, I never had any problem with Donlevy and quite liked the energy and assertiveness he brought to his interpretation, although I can understand too how a writer might feel displeased with a characterization he found too far removed from his own vision. Anyway, Andrew Keir tackles the role of Quatermass in a different way, emphasizing the more thoughtful sides of the man but retaining something of an edge at the same time. That tougher, more stubborn streak emerges most noticeably when he’s confronting the supercilious and dismissive Colonel Breen whose military inflexibility is captured neatly by Julian Glover. James Donald has a certain reserve and remoteness as Roney, lacking some of the warmth and companionable charm of Keir, but that’s something which serves his character well, bearing in mind how he’s seen to develop in the latter stages of the film in particular. Barbara Shelley feels like one of the constants of British TV and cinema. She appeared in a huge number of notable productions, and something like a half dozen or so Hammer films among them. The roles offered to women in Sci-Fi weren’t always the most interesting yet Shelley’s part in Quatermass and the Pit is actually quite pivotal and she comes across as playing an important part in the central team.

Some Hammer films have been difficult to come by and really only became readily available in recent years. However, that was never the situation with Quatermass and the Pit, it being one of those titles that never seemed to be out of print for any length of time. I had the DVD for years and then picked up the UK Blu-ray last year as I reckoned it was the kind of movie that might benefit from the upgrade, and it does. The old DVD  was perfectly acceptable to my eyes but the Hi-Def version brings out the details and colors even more and gives the whole thing an attractive punch. The film remains an absorbing one no matter how it’s viewed of course – it’s up there among the very best Hammer productions and it’s also one of the finest British Sci-Fi movies.

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Inferno

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A little suffering is good for the soul – that would appear to be the message of Inferno (1953). It’s a classic tale of man against nature with a liberal sprinkling of deceit, infidelity and murder thrown in for good measure. The movie is generally regarded as a film noir and I suppose that’s fair enough given its themes, although the visuals (technicolor and wide open spaces) suggest it should be the antithesis of that style.

The opening pitches you right into the middle of the plot with no time wasted on backstory or build-up. Within a few minutes the viewer knows exactly what’s going on and what led up to it. A man has broken his leg out in the desert and his wife and her lover have decided to abandon him and let nature take its course. The unfortunate victim is one Don Carson (Robert Ryan), a hard drinking businessman with plenty of money but few friends. Carson has gone out to a remote part of the desert in the company of his faithless wife Gerry (Rhonda Fleming) and a mining engineer, Duncan (William Lundigan), to scout for manganese deposits. When an accident presents Gerry and Duncan with a heaven sent opportunity to rid themselves of Carson they grab it with both hands. All they need do is manipulate the evidence and cook up a story about Carson going off on an alcoholic bender to be home free. However, the scheming  lovers underestimate their victim and his resourcefulness – Carson may have led a pampered life of privilege but he has a powerful will to live and an instinct for survival. The film twists and turns its way to the conclusion and, as it does so, the character of Carson moves smoothly from being initially an unsympathetic boor to a man the viewer can both admire and root for. The best scenes in the movie have Carson battling against the merciless desert, with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. There’s also some clever cutting to point up the contrasting fortunes of the protagonists: while the hero grows desperate for water there’s a sudden jump to a shot of Duncan diving into a crystal clear pool; and when Carson finds himself on the verge of starvation the next scene has his wife delicately carving a roast back at the LA mansion.

Robert Ryan near the end of his tether in Inferno.

Inferno saw Robert Ryan near the top of his game in a career that had more than its fair share of highs. He spends the bulk of his screen time alone in the vast wilderness, crawling and dragging his broken body over the unforgiving terrain. There’s no one else present to play off and that fact makes it even more remarkable that he managed to develop his character into a fully rounded human being that we actually care about. He starts out as a spoiled, sullen drunk petulantly taking pot shots at a discarded whisky bottle, but by the end of the picture his trials and torments have transformed him into a man of character and humility. Rhonda Fleming was well cast as the devious Gerry, brimming with a kind of loathsome sexiness. She is the typically heartless femme fatale with a perverse sense of morality, who doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of leaving a man to a slow, aching death but baulks at the idea of shooting him. William Lundigan was a fairly bland actor but a capable enough one for all that. Although Inferno would be one of his last major roles before moving into television he does a reasonable job with a basically one dimensional character. Director Roy Ward Baker made a handful of movies in Hollywood in the early 50s before moving back to Britain. Inferno was the last of them and it wasn’t a bad one to finish on. He makes wonderful use of the desert locations to emphasise the harshness of the environment and the lonely struggle of the hero. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a cameraman of the calibre of Lucien Ballard on hand, and the two of them managed to turn out a film that’s tense, uplifting and visually arresting. This movie was originally shot in 3D, a process that sometimes led to gimmicky effects shots, but it never really intrudes too much here – though a lantern is fired directly at the camera during the climax.

A while back, when Fox was still in the business of issuing DVDs, it was rumoured that Inferno was due a release in the US, possibly as part of the noir line but nothing ever came of it. However, it has been given a release in R2 in Spain by a company called Impulso. They have licensed a number of titles and market them as Fox Cinema Classics. The transfer for Inferno is a generally pleasing one. Viewed on a 37 inch screen I thought it looked fine for the most part – the image is mostly smooth and sharp but there are instances of heavy grain (especially during the titles). The colour is quite strong but it can take on a slight pinkish hue at times. The disc itself is pretty basic with the only extra of note being a gallery. All told, I was satisfied with this one and it is the only way to get your hands on this title at the time of writing. Inferno is a tight, pacy little movie that clocks in at 80 minutes and rarely stops to take a breath. I’d rate it highly as a noirish thriller in an unusual setting, boasting classy performances and excellent visuals.