Spaceways (1953)

An engaging if curious genre hybrid, this is a patchwork movie combining Cold War espionage, a murder mystery and two love triangles in a science fiction setting – and all on the tightest of budgets. Unpretentious and fun, this British B-movie features imported stars Howard Duff and Eva Bartok under the smooth direction of Terence Fisher, Hammer Films’ emerging resident auteur. Like so many of the company’s early films, it was based on a BBC radio play. Originally broadcast on 30 January 1952, Charles Eric Maine (aka David McIlwain) would later turn his play the into the novel of the same title. Although set slightly in the future, like much of the author’s work this is really just a thriller with an exotic setting.

This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the other selected titles.

“They’re up there in space, circling the Earth. They’ll stay there for decades if the calculations are correct. Your calculations, Mitchell. The perfect murder.”

Duff plays  Stephen Mitchell, and American engineer on long-term loan to the British to develop their outer space rocket programme. Right away what strikes you today, as with the 1967 Bond movie You Only Live Twice, is that there is something rather twee and charming about the idea that it’s the Brits leading the space race albeit with US help, as if the sun had not yet set on the Empire. Of course it was really just a ruse to make the film marketable for overseas sales, a standard company practice after Hammer made a deal with Hollywood producer Robert L. Lippert to supply US-friendly stars and scripts in return for UK distribution of his films and Stateside distribution of theirs.

Mitchell is leading a group of international scientists on a top secret project to develop an orbiting space station for the British Military. His team consists of mathematician Dr. Lisa Frank (second-billed Eva Bartok, later used to much better effect in Mario Bava’s classic giallo, Blood and Black Lace); biologist Dr. Philip Crenshaw (Andrew Osborn), a smoothie who is having his wicked way with Mitchell’s bored wife (Cecile Chevreau); and keen-as-mustard chemical engineer Dr. Toby Andrews (a charming performance by the young Michael Medwin, later a noted character actor and film producer), who is carrying a bit of torch for Lisa though unfortunately for him she only has eyes for Mitchell. Overseeing this maelstrom of emotion in a secluded secret base with a benevolent paternal eye is roly-poly Professor Koepler (Philip Leaver).

The scientific team, including Mitchell’s increasingly brittle and frustrated wife, is sequestered on to the premises of the Deanfield research facility – and it is easy to see why she is so desperate to leave as the surroundings are little better than army barracks with research likely to stretch ahead for several more years. As a civilian she has nothing to do while her every move is matched by the guards. Her affair with Crenshaw thus seems as much a rebellion against the claustrophobic confines of the facility as her husband. The basic premise predates Nigel Kneale’s first Quatermass serial, which Hammer would bring to stirring cinematic life a couple of years later, and like that film begins with a movie within a movie. After a shot of a rocket firing into space and the main titles we follow a truck with Mitchell and his team as it scours the countryside. After successfully recovering the film of the latest launch after it has landed back on earth, they return it back to the base (which to me incidentally looks a lot like the Rank Film Labs, later Deluxe, in Denham). This is then screened as a precursor to the next rocket launch, which is planned to impress the military. As yet only animals have been sent into space but a manned flight seems imminent. The relationship with the military is presented in a fairly cozy way as they insist that domination of space will only be for peaceful ends, unless of course the enemy makes a move … Not exactly reassuring, but this was the height of the Cold War, with the ‘police action’ in North Korea still ongoing and Stalin still alive.

That evening Mitchell sees Crenshaw and his wife in a clinch but doesn’t interrupt. Mitchell argues with her when they prepare for bed later that night but won’t get into specifics. In the meantime Crenshaw goes back to the labs and is spotted by Toby, who is the first to suspect that he is up to no good when he lies about the reason for being there. The next day the rocket launch encounters an unexpected problem and fails to reach its designated orbit, instead stopping short by a considerable distance. This unexplained problem coincides with a seeming impossibility – the disappearance of Mrs Mitchell and Henshaw from the base. Given the ultra-tight security, how could they have left without being spotted – if indeed they did … To solve the mystery comes Dr Smith, ostensibly a biologist to replace Henshaw, but really from Military Intelligence (that well-known oxymoron). As played with relish by Peter Cushing look-alike Alan Wheatley, who would have great success playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in the popular 50s version of Robin Hood opposite Richard Greene, the bespectacled, snuff-inhaling detective is probably the liveliest character in the film.

“Hunches may be unscientific but sometimes they pay off.”

Smith questions the various members of the team and quickly develops a particularly nasty theory, one that seems to fit all the facts however. Mitchell, knowing about his wife and Henshaw, killed them both then dumped their bodies in the rocket’s fuel tank having partially emptied it first to make room for them, explaining the unsuccessful launch that day. Mitchell is outraged and suggests that they allow him to fly up there in the next launch and bring back the stranded ship.

This was the second of a pair of early science fiction films that Fisher made for the company at their Bray Studios in 1952 (the other was Four Sided Triangle) and as such they are the first indication really of his later prominence at Hammer handling more fantastical subject matter. Having said that, and contrary to the impression given in most of the contemporary advertising, the science fiction element is really quite minimal, the manned rocket launch saved to climax in the last 10 minutes of the movie. The rest is much closer to typical Hammer output of the time, a thriller involving stolen secrets very much in the (then) here and now with shootout, an explosion, lost of derring do and a car chase at the finale. But given the cramped and limitations of the small studio facilities at the time, it is a wonder that they even attempted this kind of film (which was intended in fact to cash-in on the success of their distribution of an earlier Lippert production, Rocketship X-M).

The film builds towards a fairly complex and extended finale as Smith rushes around outside the facility to find out who may have been stealing military secrets from the base and Mitchell prepares to shoot into space, ostensibly to clear his name but also to repair the rocket programme after the failure of the previous launch. This decision sparks Lisa into action who, in an involuntarily funny scene, turns Mitchell on by spouting miles of scientific computations in an effort to reassure him that the rocket failure was due to a computational error and not to fuel being deliberately siphoned off to dump the two bodies. She plays on Toby’s affections for her and gets him to insist that he fly with Mitchell and then swaps places with him. This certainly does suggest that security is a little lax – as the couple hurtle off into space there are about 10 minutes to find out what caused the previous launch to fail, what happened to Crenshaw and Mitchell’s wife, and maybe even provide a happy ending for our two scientists. That this all gets more or less sorted out satisfactorily and dramatically in such a brief time is certainly a testament to the exquisite concision of the B-movie approach to storytelling.

DVD Availability: This title was originally released in the UK by DD Home Entertainment, which after going into administration is now known as Simply Media. Copies are still available from them and provide the film in a decent print with a handsome booklet written by Hammer experts Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearn. The US edition from Image, without the notes, also still seems to be available.

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

Spaceways (1953)
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Michael Carreras
Screenplay: Paul Tabori and Richard H. Landau (from the play by Charles Eric Maine)
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Art Direction: J. Elder Wills
Music: Ivor Slaney
Cast:  Howard Duff, Eva Bartok, Alan Wheatley, Michael Medwin, Andrew Osborn, Philip Leaver, Cecile Chevreau

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Cold War, Espionage, Hammer Studios, Science Fiction, Spy movies, Terence Fisher, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Spaceways (1953)

  1. Sergio – Now that’s an interesting premise – a sci-fi movie with two love triangles! There’s always something about those B-grade movies isn’t there? And what would we do without the intrigue, the chases, the whole thing. Those movies can be really fun to watch even if one could hardly call them edifying.

    • ‘Edifying’ is absolutely not the word, though one could make a reasonable argument about the film’s belief in the scientific method as a positive thing while I do like its willingness to balance an evil power from overseas with an equally ‘foreign’ love interest. Eve Bartok of course had a particularly colourful personal history including a teen marriage to a Nazi officer during the second World War (she’d been through four divorces by the time she was thirty …)

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    I do LOVE the large horizontal poster… I’ve heard really awful things about this film. But your review, well, makes me sort of want to see it. I do love torturing myself with bad B films occasionally — although I rarely finish them.

    • Thanks Joachim – it is a very low budget mystery with an unusual twist. Beyond the space angle it certainly breaks no new ground but the actors are pretty solid, the director was well on his way to better things and so it makes for perfectly solid entertainmt – and at 75 minutes it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome! The poster is wonderful and a very fanciful or anyway ‘creative’ bit of advertising, it has to be said …

  3. Rod Croft says:

    There were occasions when the storylines of these “B” films were a lot more entertaining than the main feature; they were only hampered by the lack of finance.

    The Film Noir genre, in particular, provides a number of similar examples. PRC’s 1945 production of “Detour” was reportedly made in 6 days at a total outlay of USD 30,000, and while not being “commercially successful” at the time of its original release as a “B” picture, has now achieved “classic” status. In similar circumstances R.K.O’s 1940 production of “The Stranger On The Third Floor” attracted little support from audiences on release.

    I am not suggesting for a minute that “Spaceways” will ever achieve such acceptance as these two films and others of their type, but it is interesting to re-visit these so-called “B” films and re-evaluate their worth.

    Sergio, thank you for renewing interest in these “lost” films.

    • Thanks very much Rod. Detour is a great big cult classic by any standards and The Stranger On The Third Floor deserves to be better known too. When one comes to look at Spaceways, well, no one could make such claims for this little movie, but I really enjhoyed it all the same. From a hiostorical standpoint it is certainly significant in terms of the later development of Fisher and Hammer Films. But, even in its cramped surroundings, there is much to enjoyy, in particular the incisive performances by Alan Wheatley and a very ingratiating turn from Michael Medwin, in of his forst major roles (I always liked him the the 1980s TV series Shoestring), who is wonderfully agreeable in his role as the smart, slightly love-lorn chemist.

  4. Colin says:

    You know, this one sounds quite cool. I avoided buying this for years simply because I always had the impression (maybe due to the marketing materials) that it was essentially a low rent sci-fi vehicle. The fact that the mystery elements seem to dominate makes it all the more intriguing for me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
    BTW, I know Howard Duff could come over as a little bland but I always quite liked him

    • Cheers Colin – I do sometimes let my enthusasm get the better of me and wouldn’t want to overstate its virtues but it is a fascinating movie in that it is a perfect example of a transitional film, dipping one toe in new waters whole remaining firmly anchored in the thriller genre Hammer new best. It is also a question of affordability – famously, Michael Carreras later said it was insanity for the studio to have attemted this given its meagre resources and that they could only allocate the smae budget that would have doen for a standard domestic melodrama. It is cheap but there are also some nice effects shots by Les Bowie and Duff is actually very understated and effective in the role. He makes for a great contrast with the more obviously flamboyant Wheatley, who does walk away with the film though.

      • Colin says:

        Oh, don’t worry about overselling it. I’ll try pretty much anything from Hammer – with their early efforts, you know what you’re going to get anyway in terms of budgets. Like I said, the fact I had the idea it would be all sci-fi, and no monsters to enliven things, is what tended to put me off it most.

        • Ah, well, in that case … It’s a good laugh and easy to get on DVD too. The DD edition is very handsomely packaged (those were the days …). I’m lookign forward to getting the forthcoming hammer Blu-ray of Curse of Frankenstein (recent company SNAFUs aside) for the extra in the shape of Four Sided Triangle starring Barbara Payton, which in some ways is more science fiction than Spaceways really.

  5. neer says:

    This seems pretty interesting. Sometimes movie not from the so-called top bracket are much better than those from it.

    • Thanks Neer – I certainly seem to review a lot more B-movies than A titles, but then it is fun to look at something that maybe not too many people have written about before (if at all possible) – wonlt stop me blabbering on about the latest bond movie though (watch this space …).

  6. neer says:

    Incidentally, Crenshaw or Henshaw?

  7. Todd Mason says:

    Maine was one of more famously goofy of ’50s Brit sf writers.

    • Tell me more Todd – from reading some of his stuff a very long time ago I just remmber it feeling like a lot of early (well, pre New Wave) British Sf, which was all a bit parochial and often felt like mystery books tarted up as SF (or sci-fi shall we say?).
      Spaceways

  8. Yvette says:

    Thanks again for another mind-bending, eye-opening post, Sergio. A mystery/sci-fi with two love triangles AND Howard Duff. Sounds good to me. I remember Duff primarily from early television. He was on some detective series in which a husband and wife team up to solve murders. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. North.

    This sounds like a film I’d enjoy. I’m adding it to my list.

    • Cheers Yvette – I believe you are thinking of the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve, in which Duff played opposite his then real-life wife, the wonderful Ida Lupino, a show that lasted a couple of years and was created by Collier Young, who had been Lupino’s previous husband (!)

  9. I love the vertical poster too. On my DVD copy from Image the cover art is very similar to the poster but not exact. Two other old sci-fi’s with British connections that I ‘like’ are Devil Girl From Mars and Stranger from Venus. Devil Girl seems a bit more entertaining because of it’s dark setting and mood. It (Devil Girl from Mars) reminds me of Old Dark House (Charles Laughton) in the sense a group of hapless people being isolated from outside help. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks Kevin – I’m afraid you’ve got me with the other two films though, which are much more fantastical than Spaceways by the sound of it. I’ve seen clips of the Patricia Neal one I think (aka Immediate Disaster) but have only read about Devil Girl From Mars. I’ll keep an eye out, cheers.

  10. Fascinating choice and a good review, Sergio. I enjoy watching B-movies too. I often find them more entertaining than many of your regular A-films, mainly because on one hand I have no expectations from such fare or of the lesser-known cast (to me at least) and on the other there’s something quite charming about these films, if you know what I mean. And they’re definitely more appealing in black and white. Fantasy and horror, sf, crime and, sundry thrillers seem to make the B-movie grade rather effortlessly, perhaps because they give filmmakers a certain element of freedom to exploit their talent, creativity, and imagination. The growing number of early B-movies achieving cult status today is testimony to their cinematic excellence, such as the low-budget remarkably made INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS directed by Don Siegel that I watched again recently. I don’t think I have seen any of its clones.

    By the way, that is, indeed, a terrific poster as is the book cover and I’m going to look out for both. I might find the book earlier. Thanks, Sergio.

    • Cheers Prashant – the original version Bodysnatchers is a real Cold War classic (and preferable to any of the various remakes). There’s isn’t much more relaxing that watching a good genre movie in black and white, except maybe for watching it with kids who remind you why you loved these films in the first place!

  11. Rod Croft says:

    I believe we, the audience, have lost a lot of enjoyment because of the demise of the “B” movie, although, on occasions, many of the recent movies, released as “A” grade films are no better, and less entertaining than the old “B” ones , but with pretentions.

    • Absolutel – I do think that the fun of B movies has largely transferred to TV though weirdly it feels like movies are getting more and move TV-like with extended ‘franchises’ feeling more like serialised episodes these days.

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