London: ground zero for the apocalypse! Movies viewed

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) was the third film adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s TV scientist Quatermass; happily where the first two films starred a very miscast Brian Donlevy as the tart-tongued, crotchety rocket expert, this cast Andrew Keir, a much better choice. Just as Quatermass is feuding with the Army officer (Julian Glover) appointed to militarize space research, they’re both distracted by a strange unexploded bomb found in the London Underground. Only it turns out to be a rocket, and the long-dead occupants weren’t human … and they wield a power that may not be dead yet. This is a first-rate film, though with a couple of flaws (yes, Quatermass is brilliant, but I can’t see how he figures out so much about Martian society); the cast includes James Donald as another scientist and Barbara Shelley as his assistant. Originally released in the US as Five Million Years to Earth. “So that’s your big theory — that we owe our human condition to the intervention of insects?”

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961) has burned-out, divorced reporter Edward Judd trying to get the government to explain why the weather has been so freaky lately. As the government becomes more and more cagey while the weather gets freakier and freakier, he begins to suspect something big’s going on, and starts returning to life — but surely science reporter Leo McKern can’t be right that twin nuclear blasts have disrupted the Earth’s rotation … can he? This is a first-rate newspaper movie (as I’ve mentioned before they manage to get the perfect balance of SF and real world elements) which might double-bill well with All the President’s Men for another pair of reporters cracking government secrets. However Judd’s pursuit of government office girl Janet Munro is really pushy by today’s standards. “What is the nutation of the Earth?”

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) is the new Coen Brothers film (direct to Netflix which says a lot about streaming’s clout), a Western anthology film in which a singing cowboy meets a rival, a hanged man learns he doesn’t get a do-over and stagecoach passengers debate ethics. Unfortunately this felt like A Serious Man in that the point is mostly “life is shit and then you die” (and without the absurd humor that infects the similarly pessimistic Burn After Reading) which isn’t that good a point. In the singing cowboy yarn, for instance, it shows him effortlessly defeating every foe (while singing) until he goes up against a gunfighter who kills him. That’s pretty feeble. “I challenge your credentials, madam, for assessing human worth.”

THE NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS (1935) is based on one of Thorne Smith’s novels (he’s best known now as the author of Topper) in which an eccentric scientist uses a stone-to-flesh (and vice versa) ray to animate statues of the Olympians and introduce them to modern life. This movie version stars Alan Mowbray as the inventor but devotes most of its screen time to his obnoxious screwball family rather than the Olympians running wild — and that’s just a hallucination (unusually the film telegraphs this in advance instead of revealing it later). Amusing enough though. “But I came here to be alone — that’s what being a fugitive means!”

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