January 2, 2013

Alien Trumpets

THE 27th DAY (1957)
Directed by William Asher
Starring:
Gene Barry as Jonathan Clark
Valerie French as Eve Wingate
George Voskovec as Prof. Klaus Bechner
Friedrich Ledebur as Dr. Karl Neuhaus
Arnold Moss as The Alien
Azeneth Janti as Ivan Godofsky
Marie Tsien as Su Tan

"Blow ye the trumpets in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the LORD cometh, for it is nigh at hand;" (Joel: 2.1)

The 27th Day is one of the finest examples of Cold War paranoia in all of 1950s sci-fi. Released on the downhill side of the era (1957), 27th Day trumpets its anti-Communist sentiments like a clarion call from a mountain top. Only Invasion U.S.A. (Green, 1952) rings the commie gong any louder, and it was made at the very chilliest center of the ideological battle that simmered after World War II. The difference is that Invasion is blatant propaganda without grander ambition whereas 27th Day clearly struggles for higher artistic ground. The movie largely succeeds, exemplifying along the way a bedrock faith that when ultimately tested; intelligence and grace will triumph over primitive avarice and greed in the human soul. In 27th Day, the terms of this test of faith are as profound as the end-times; with an alien cleansing the world of all evil and ushering Mankind into the Kingdom of the stars.


The Alien (Arnold Moss) and the Five
(Azeneth Janti, Valerie French, George Voskovec, Gene Barry, and Marie Tsein)

The setup in Day is clever: five people from around the world are approached by an alien (Arnold Moss) and told, in a clear authoritative voice, to "come with me please." The Alien (he never tells us his name) appears off camera, his shadow looming over the five in turn. Judging by the reaction he is given by each (blank stares at least, sometimes outright cowering) the five understand fully that The Alien isn't exactly asking. Their attendance is more of a command performance than an invitation. This summons includes American, Jonathan Clark (Raymond Barry); Chinese peasant, Su Tan (Marie Tsien); German scientist, Klaus Bechner (George Voskovec); British woman, Eve Wingate (Valerie French); and Soviet soldier, Ivan Godofsky (Azenath Janti).

This international coalition of five find themselves on an alien spacecraft presided over by The Alien. Standing with legs posted wide and hands clasped behind his back, he explains to his guests that he comes from a doomed planet in an unnamed, nearby universe - doomed because in 35 days a super nova will destroy his home world. Consequently, The Alien is on a mission to find a suitable world for his planet to colonize and, well, planet Earth is just about what the doctor ordered.

The Alien tells the hapless five that he and his kind have become aware the citizens of Earth will destroy themselves in very short order. Not only will humans obliterate themselves, they will do so in such a catastrophic way that the planet will no longer be capable of sustaining life. The earth will be a dead, toxic rock floating in space.

"We have come to help you save your beautiful planet," explains The Alien in his calming baritone. "Your entire history has been one of self-destruction. You have now what you believe to be the ultimate weapon: The H-bomb. If you destroy yourselves, you also destroy the Earth, and that we cannot permit because (here The Alien's voice drops a register) it is needed."

Finally Clark the American gets down to brass tacks. "So you're going to invade us?"
"Oh no," says Alien patiently, as if amused by sweet but slow children, "our moral code does not allow us to invade or destroy any form of intelligent life."

Each of the five is presented with a weapon - a translucent container the size of an alarm clock, each holding three cylinders. After a rather dead spot in the script wherein The Alien painstakingly explains the use and purposes of the cylinders (the Russian soldier seems particularly confused at moments, staring blankly as The Alien drones on), we learn the essentials are these:
  • Each respective container can only be opened by the recipient. No power on earth can open the containers except the one to whom it was given.
  • When a spindle on each container is pulled and latitude and longitude recited, human life within a 3,000 mile radius of the spoken coordinates will be destroyed. Thus, with three cylinders, each of the five has the power of complete, global genocide.
  • The cylinders will only kill human life. All plant and animal life will be unharmed. After the scourging of Mankind, the world will be left pure as if man had never existed; that is, a Garden of Eden into which The Alien and his kind will inhabit like new tenants.
  • If the five are killed, their respective cylinders will become useless. The cylinders will also become inert and useless after 27 days.
With a preverbal pat on the ass and good luck tidings, The Alien sends the five back to the point and time of their invitation/abduction. The Englishwomen, Eve, returns to the seashore where she had been frolicking with a male companion and immediately does the sensible thing: She races to the top of a rock and pitches the goddamned, alien thing into the sea. The Chinese peasant, Su Tan, is transported back to her ravaged and burned village (1957 was the first year of Mao Zedong's savage "Great Leap Forward" which left 555,000 Chinese dead by 1958 (1) ). Amid the fire and smoke - and the corpse of her dead father - she places the cylinder case on a Buddhist shrine in her burned-out home, says a prayer, and kills herself. The cartridge and contents immediately turn to dust.


Su Tan (Marie Stein) makes her decision.

The three men (German, Russian, and American) do what men have done in such a situation since time immemorial: They hold their booty close and try to figure the odds. I mean, sure, the human thing would be to throw the thing in the ocean or kill oneself, as the two women had done respectively, but the men can't quite manage it. The American, instinctively realizing the fan is about to be hit with shit, shaves his blackjack-dealer mustache off and scampers into hiding like a scalded rat. The Russian soldier tries to keep his mind blank during sentry duty; and the West German scientist, Bechner, is coincidentally hit by a truck and hospitalized.

Meanwhile, The Alien with such a lofty moral code squeals to the world the power of the five capsules and, just for good measure, he announces the names and locations of the 5 who possess them. Hey, thanks a bunch, spaceman. The 5 immediately are hounded and harassed by their respective Governments. Initially, the severity of this hounding and harassing corresponds directly with the various severities of the respective governments involved whom, naturally, are keenly interested in this pocket sized weapon by which they may rule the world. In America, an intense police manhunt begins for Jonathan Clark, complete with huge newspaper headlines and blaring radio bulletins. Clark is joined by Englishwoman, Eve, and the two skulk like sneak-thieves through airports and city streets. Eventually they find a hideout at the Hollywood Racetrack, which is empty during an off season. In a country perhaps West Germany (countries are never named specifically but are obvious by character names and cultural stereotypes) Professor Bechner is questioned extremely rigorously by a high government official while just outside the door muttering men in dark fedoras seem eager to use more stringent methods.

In a country obviously the Soviet Union, things move along at a brisker pace for Private Godofsky. Our stony-faced Russian is caught trying to defect and, after a summary questioning by a Soviet general, is simply taken to a small room with one hanging light and beaten to a pulp under its white glare. The tough soviet private refuses to crack (it is interesting that all five, regardless of origin, do not immediately turn over The Alien super weapon to their respective governments.).

Things eventually turn very brutish in both Democratic and Communist countries. In the West, Clark has gone in public opinion from a party of interest to a traitor. A poor soul that resembles Clark is seized by a crowd and beaten to death in broad daylight on a city street. In the USSR, Godofsky is tied to a bed, injected with sodium pentothal ("truth serum") and is shown, just for good measure, a mother's letter requesting that he not disgrace his father's name. Ivan - weeping, drugged, and exhausted, finally relents and opens the container of three cartridges.

With killer capsules in hand, the Soviet general (who, like The Alien, is never named) immediately goes power mad. After a brief discussion of world domination with other Soviet military men, the general announces via a news conference that all U.S.A. personnel must be recalled back to North America or face utter inhalation.

In a moment of Christ-like sacrifice, Dr. Neuhaus (Friedrich Von Ledebur), a fellow West German scientist who has been working with Professor Bechner, allows himself to be tested with a cartridge to make sure the Soviet threat is real (even more nobly, the German doctor has exposed himself to lethal amounts of radiation, thus relieving his colleagues of any guilt associated with his death should the Alien weapon work). The doctor is sent out on a lifeboat while Bechner and the others watch via a submarine periscope.

Standing wistfully in a lifeboat, occasionally waving to those watching from the sub's safety; the good doctor is seen to vanish in a puff of light once a cartridge is opened and coordinates are read. His now-vacant clothes drop to the boat's deck like rags. Near his empty clothes, a tethered goat remains unharmed. Yep, the Alien weapon works just as advertised: killing man without harming other life. Shit.

The Russian general, naturally (this is, after all, a depiction of a Soviet general in an American, Cold War era movie), has a cataclysmic double cross up his sleeve. Once all the Americans have retreated back to their home boarders - a nice tidy gathering of all the eggs back in one capitalistic basket, as it were - the general plans to use the cartridges to destroy all life on continental United States (and a large portion of the unfortunate citizens of neighboring Canada as well - didn't the Canadians always know their proximity to America would somehow one day screw them royal?).

Meanwhile, Professor Bechner, who has now teamed with Jonathan and Eve, works feverishly to crack some hidden secret he is convinced lies within etchings found on the cartridges. He studies one of the capsules and suddenly realizes (somehow) that the mathematical inscriptions on each capsule are actually a method by which every "enemy of freedom" over the planet can be targeted exclusively. Fearing that there is no time to explain, Bechner secures himself behind a locked door, opens the capsules, and begins reciting coordinates.

As Hollywood luck would have it, just as the professor unleashes his cartridges the Soviet general is standing on a balcony about to destroy America. Our brave Private Godofsky manages to rush forward and knock the cartridge out of his hand and down to the street below. Godofsky is shot for his trouble [a], and the General rushes down and outside the building to retrieve his doomsday weapon. Just as the General reaches the streets, he is immobilized by a terrible, high-pitched screeching. He covers his ears, desperately tries to pick up the capsule with scrabbling fingers, but finally slumps forward dead.


The Soviet General (Stefan Schnabel), an “enemy of freedom,” meets his fate.

The screeching is The Alien's weapon at work. Bechner explains to a frantic Clark (who simply assumes the German professor has gone mad and killed everyone on Earth) that he was able to decipher the mathematical jottings on the cartridges. The capsules, now deployed, have destroyed everyone on earth that was an enemy of freedom (yea!). The world is left a heaven after this ultimate - albeit alien - day of judgment.

In the most feel-good ending in all atomic age cinema, a new era of cosmic freedom begins. The Alien reappears and tells all that this was the plan all along, that all the bad people of Earth should die, leaving only the good people - er, those deemed friends of freedom (or something). That pesky moral code kept them from doing the dirty work themselves. The Alien and his kind are officially invited to live on Earth, and all Mankind is invited to join the "30,000 intelligent worlds" in a stellar nirvana.

Wow.

A bit tidy, yes? This movie has so much going for it, though; even the most cynical viewer shouldn't find it too hard to stifle a groan despite an ending obviously drenched in syrup. For starters, this film goes about its business in a very serious way, wanting to be art. This desire to be "important" is, at the least, endearing amid the rough clamber of atomic age b-movies wherein box office was most often the only carrot on the string.
Make no mistake, this movie was never intended to be drive-in fare for the kids. In 27th Day, there was no hustling promoter at the helm, ala Sam Katzman [b] ; chomping a cigar and rubbing hands together whilst imagining hordes of necking, ticket-buying teens. No, this is a film with much bigger designs, made by serious individuals not really much interested in alien monsters or special effects (there are none). This is a drama about moral education - a message film with something important on its mind. This is both good and bad.

Good because with the movie's dead serious intentions come with some dead serious talent. The writing, acting, camera-work, and general production value evident on 27th Day is of a much higher caliber than most 1950s sci-fi fare.

Bad because, well, did you notice how your heart sank a bit with you read "message film"? The eyes went a bit glassy, didn't they? 27th Day is like that. It will make you feel for lengthy moments like you're the slothful student in a civics class, resisting all the "lessons." Let us never forget, producers and directors primarily interested in turning a tidy profit - like Sam Katzman, Roger Corman, and so many others - made some terrific motion pictures, thank you kindly, without making the audience anxious for recess.

Amid the high ambitions, a few more problems:

27th Day is most easily compared to the earlier revered and oh-so beloved classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951). Both feature a placid yet authoritative alien who has come slumming to Earth, scolding Mankind for its violent nature; and both films have something urgently important to tell us. Both films also seem a bit embarrassed to be "sci fi" films at all. This is particularly true of 27th Day, which operates as though downright proud of its lack of monsters and effects (at least Stood Still has the awesome Gort, the bodyguard robot). Both films really want us to understand that theirs is an adult, intelligent film - not meant for the drive-in rabble - that just happens to be in the speculative science genre.


“We have come to help you save your beautiful planet.” The Alien (Arnold Moss)

In both films the alien visitor is a simple surrogate for the 1950s, atomic age intelligentsia (really, I kept waiting for Rod Sterling to saunter on camera, smoking his endless cigarette, and conclude the meanings for us). All "message films" must have a messenger; that character (or those characters) that will at some still moment in the story clear his throat and deliver a speech to suddenly attentive ears. Sometimes this is done subtly, most times not.

27th Day is a product of filmmakers and writers living in the most paranoid period in American history - not a time which lent itself well to subtlety. It wasn't called the Atomic Age for nothing, after all; and twined with Disney's vision of "Our Friend, The Atom" [c] came stark, black and white nightmares.

Visions of atomic mushroom clouds and the horribly-melted-yet-living carnage of Hiroshima put the whammy on the American psyche like the roots of a diseased vine spreading in dark, unknown ways. Suddenly communists were everywhere. They might be teaching your children, casting votes in congress, operating the factory where you worked, etc. They might be that neighbor you never really liked much anyway. This atmosphere of desperate suspicion and atomic angst led to a grinding kind of pessimism. Add to the mix a generation of men having fought and survived the engagements of Europe or Korea, and we have a brew that does not make for a subtle script. In short, The Alien in 27th Day, with his self-proclaimed moral authority, is an obvious writer's device - a simple mouthpiece giving voice to the bleak views of the time.

And the Alien isn't the only character that speaks for 1950s styled pessimism:

"Imagine what we must look like in their eyes," pleads Professor Bechner of Clark, the American (who is the only one of the five that bristles over The Alien's game). "Since the first men hit one another with clubs the human race has spent more time destroying itself that any other endeavor!" Hmmm. Really? More time than any other endeavor?

Also inherent in the philosophy of both films is the Judeo Christian concept of a savior - a Messiah - that will come and save the world. That is, Mankind cannot save itself. Our filthy, bloody slide into sin and destruction is too profound, to incarnate. We must be saved from ourselves. In the case of 27th Day, the savior of all Mankind is The Alien, who cleanses the world by apocalyptic destruction (all those bad people who "are enemies of freedom") leaving only angelic, freedom loving souls to enjoy a new Earthly heaven. A pleasant notion if one completely forfeits all concept of self-determination. The film revels in this surrender, so loving the concept of The Alien judgment day, we cheer when enemies (fellow humans) are slaughtered. Thank heaven that The Alien's vision of "freedom" and the enemies thereof are so closely aligned with our own (American) concepts of good and evil. Freedom is, after all, such a tricky yardstick. Doesn't the Communist want to be free of the shackles of Capitalism? Or in a much darker vein, doesn't the murderer want to be "free" to murder?

And what of this interplanetary savior and his haughty morals?

Certainly, The Alien in 27th Day is not as relentlessly tedious as is Klaatu, (Michael Rennie) the smug, self-righteous alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still. We may all breathe easier for that, but still . . . While Arnold Moss' Alien in 27th Day manages to avoid the smirking sanctimony of Rennie's Klaatu (who urgently begs a swift kick to the nuts throughout the production); the character is inherently condescending. With hands clasped behind his back, he patiently explains to the Earthers the function of the weaponry he has given them, smiling with benevolence at the quaint questions, explaining his elevated "moral code." Aliens of the 1950s stripe tend to be either inhuman (gelatinous, hairy, scaly) or humanoid and gifted with a supreme inner peace. If humanoid, aliens are always so far more advanced than us dreary, warlike humans as to be godlike. Certainly, in 27th Day, The Alien certainly behaves not so much as a god as God Himself. By the end of the film, once his introduced weaponry has slaughtered millions of "bad" people, The Alien's ethical guidelines appear more like the moral code we humans live by when dealing with flies or gnats.

Enough carping. On to the good stuff:

The Good Stuff, Part I: "The Russian" and other American Characters
One of the most mind-engaging characteristics of 27th Day is the way this America film takes an atomic age snapshot of the way Americans saw the world around them in 1957. Most noticeable in this parade of international stereotypes is the character of Ivan Godofsky; the rugged, noble private of the Red Army; and the Soviet general, who is unnamed.

By 1957, America was awash in anti-communist propaganda. Despite the fact that the communist hunt of Joseph McCarthy had lost much of its lethal sting by 1957, the image of the voracious, power-slavering Soviet official was firmly in place. Also in place was The American popular image of the Soviet peasant and foot soldier - tough, rock hard, and imbued with a kind of primal power and nobility. This Soviet man was made of too many essential Earth minerals to be anything but simple and pure, his face made broad and stony by the elements of Mother Russia. Both these Western images of the Soviet populace were either created or enhanced by the events of World War II, and in the case of the noble, Russian - specifically by the nearly superhuman efforts of the Red Army during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Americans know that U.S. intervention was the crucial event that decided World War II; but Hitler, and the German foot soldier, knew the end was foregone after the battle of Stalingrad. "The God of War has gone over to the other side," said the Führer upon hearing of German surrender in February of 1943. The average German soldier, those who had not frozen or starved to death, knew that whatever God of War presided over the smoldering city of Stalingrad had forsaken them long ago.

Historians agree that the 191 day battle over the city on the Volga was a major turning point of the war. Simply put, Hitler had to have the region for its oil, location (a central pathway into Northern Russia), and its industrial might. Stalin, who insisted the city be renamed after him, couldn't lose it for the same reasons. Stalin also knew that Stalingrad was simply the heart of Soviet moral. To lose the city would eviscerate the Soviet soul.


Private Ivan Godofsky (Azemate Janti ) standing his ground under interrogation.

The battle began in the summer of 1942 and raged hotly into the forbidding Russian winter of the following year. At various times, the Germans controlled approximately 80 or 90% of the city, but the Red Army possessed a generation of soviets to feed into the red, frozen maw of battle. Newly arriving soviet soldiers could expect to live less than 24 hours - Officers around three days.(2) "Not one step back," declared Stalin's infamous order no. 227, and he meant it. "Blocking battalions" were set up with orders to shoot any Soviet soldier retreating, or even not advancing fast enough. Thousands were shot and killed during the battle for not showing the proper zeal. Backward movement meant execution. Soldiers of whatever rank committing any disciplinary offense (such as simple disrespect to a superior) were sent to penal battalions. These unfortunates were used to march across minefields or as bait enticing German battalions to use up precious artillery or ammunition.(3)

Final tallies are difficult because of the battle's massive scope[d], but most estimates have the total dead for the Red Army around a half-million men (500,000). Equally horrific, if not more so, is the possible civilian cost. Before the battle, Stalingrad boasted about 850,000 residents. After 1945, the population had been reduced to 1,500 souls. How many of the city were able to flee, and how many were buried in the rubble, will never be known. It is known that approximately 40,000 Stalingrad civilians were killed in a single week during the initial approach of the German Fourth Panzer and Sixth Army.(4)

Suffice to say that this sort of iron commitment and resolution impressed main street America[e] which, following the Second World War, was as full blown with self-importance and glory as it had ever been. Certainly, America viewed itself in titanic posture after the War, but even the most hardened anti-communist couldn't help but pause a moment in awe at the raw, brutal courage of the Red Soldier.

In 27th Day, lowly private, Ivan Godofsky, is clearly cut from the ragged, eternal cloth of Stalingrad. When fearfully tortured for the solution to the alien super weapon, Godofsky displays the kind of adamantine hardness that defended the smoldering ruins of Stalingrad - a primeval core of iron that transcends the physical and attains the spiritual nobility of ancient stone. We see the private tied to a chair and beaten to the point of death.


Red Army Private, Ivan Godofsky (Azeneth Janti)
"It has taken tremendous courage for him to go on like this," admits the Russian interrogator (Peter Norman), discussing things with the general between torture sessions. This "tremendous courage" is simply the way Americans viewed the Russian character after World War II. Certainly, the Communist government was viewed as barbaric and destructive, as can be seen by the caricatures of the Russian officials, but the citizens of Russia were made of indestructible material, both simple and incorruptible.

Likewise, American perceptions are evident in the Asian character, Su Tan. China was an American ally during World War II and became firmly Communist after the end of the War. Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 crushing the Nationalists. Capturing the political landscape of 1957, 27th Day makes clear both its disapproval of China's Communist government and its bedrock perception of the Chinese "people" as springing from an ancient, mysterious[g], and deeply spiritual well. Again, like with the Russian character, Godofsky; a Government can be corrupt without affecting the nobility of a "people," whose roots go into a country's soil.

The first time we see Su Tan, she is praying over the body of her dead father amid the smoke and fire of her destroyed village. Zedong's Great Leap Forward, which was intended to make China an economic power rivaling America, led to many such scenes. By the end of 1958, 700 million peasants had been burned out of their villages and forced to work in agricultural communes. By the time the project was abandoned in 1962, an estimated 20 million Chinese were dead due to starvation and diseases directly caused by Zedong's policies.(5) Immediately, the viewer is struck with Tan's inner calm, her poise and grace, while all around her is grievous death and fire. When the Alien appears, unlike the other four, she exhibits no panic or surprise. This spiritual center of control is the essence of the American perception of the "Oriental."

While both Russian and Chinese characters achieve spiritual release through noble sacrifice, the characters are very different - as are the Western cultural stereotypes both represent: The large, bony Russian, Ivan, is primarily a physical being - of the earth - using physical means to transcend into the spiritual; whereas the slight Chinese peasant is the opposite: Su Tan is a spiritual being who barely requires the physical world for ascension. Indeed, Su Tan, her spirit gracefully housed in her slim body, seems only remotely part of the burned and violent reality of her physical world.

The character is played magnificently by Marie Tsien, a stunning beauty who did a fair amount of television work into the mid-1960s. As we watch her move through the ashes of her village, carrying the apocalypse capsules in her two hands like an offering, we forget her physical beauty. When she places the capsules at the foot of the family's Buddhist shrine and kneels, composing herself; the transformation is complete. As she puts a small blade deeply in her heart, her beauty has nothing to do with the physical world.


Chinese peasant, Su Tan (Marie Tsein)
Also a character out of the American picture book of cultures is Eve Wingate, the intelligent, properly beautiful woman we first meet enjoying a sunny beach day along the shore of Cornwall. She is swimming and walking the beach while her companion, Harry, paints an oil of the coastline, his hair windblown. Their banter is smart and sophisticated; everything is drenched in sun-lit, Sunday contentment. Judging by the modest peck on the cheek Eve allows him, Harry may be Eve's cousin, old college chum, or illicit lover (it's difficult to tell with the British).

The American, Jonathan Clark, is also a cultural snapshot of how Americans see themselves then and now: Quick to bristle when challenged, tough but honest; kind without being sloppy about it - all shoulders and jaw without the slightest need to be cosmopolitan or subtle. Clark is the only character in 27th Day to raise a voice in anger and he is the only one suspicious of the Alien and his Earthly intentions: "Morality," says Clark, nearly spitting the word out while arguing with the irritatingly hopeful Professor Bechner. "They're so full of morals and loving kindness, how come they just happen to have 15 nice, shiny human exterminators lying around?"

And then there is Professor Bechner, the ever-hopeful man of science. Certainly, he is part of the set piece as well.

After the defeat of Germany, roughly 500 German scientists were brought to America from the rubble of the Nazi regime via Operation Paperclip (codename under which the US intelligence and military services extricated scientists from Germany, during and after the final stages of World War II). Most notable were rocket scientists Werner Von Braun, Bernard Tessmann, and Arthur Rudolph. These men, and nearly all of the brains recruited, were former Nazi party members. Some, like Rudolph, had been investigated for war crimes.(6) These men became absolutely vital for the American space program. Once inside our borders, it was critically important that Americans understood that these were "good Germans" regardless of unfortunate elements from their past (which were urgently treated as geographic mistakes of birthplace). Americans in particular took the handsome, warm Von Braun to their collective breast (Von Braun had a very complicated, tenuous and clearly uncomfortable relationship with the Nazis; which made his past easier to forgive and forget).(7)

In 27th Day, both Prof. Klaus Bechner and his associate, Dr. Karl Neuhaus, are clear stand-ins for the ex-Nazi brains eagerly recruited, scrubbed clean, and re-issued as wide-eyed Americans by Operation Paperclip. In fact, these men are the most moral, rational, and idealistic characters in the cast. Bechner is never given to moments of paranoia (as is Clark, the American), cynicism (as is Clark, the American), or frustrated rage (as is Clark, the American). He always comes from a far-seeing place, working in faith the Alien has come, somehow, for the good of all mankind. His scientific partner, Dr. Neuhaus, even sacrifices himself, his lifeboat becoming a Holy Cross, as he dies in a test of the Alien weapon. A good German, indeed, preforming the ultimate act of contrition for his birth country's immediate past - thus becoming a great American by deed and sacrifice.

The Good Stuff, Part II: Jonathan and Eve
Gene Barry plays Jonathan Clark, and it is the kind of part Barry lived by. Not particularly suited for the imaginative spirit of "sci fi,"[h] Barry avoids the otherworldliness of the genre entirely, finding the Cold War drama that anchors 27th Day.

Barry was (he passed away in 2009) really at full stride as a television actor, his rough, authoritative style always a perfect fit for the small box. His best roles on television were Bat Masterson, in which he played a well-dressed, well-educated frontier marshal[i]; and Burke's Law, in which he played a wealthy, well-educated homicide detective who solves crimes while chauffeured about in a Rolls-Royce. Both parts were tailored to fit Barry's aggressive, man-in-charge persona. Barry was always the best dressed male - a competent alpha in a sharp suit, smiling often but never laughing.

In 27th Day, Barry's Jonathan Clark is clearly the man in charge as well, his character blustery and dominating. Yet it is the scenes with Valerie French (playing Eve) wherein the charged atmosphere that surrounds the actor finds a much needed release of pressure. Toss in some fine scriptwriting, and we have the finest moments 27th Day has to offer.


Eve and Jonathan settle in (Valerie French and Gene Barry).
When the two are forced together, hiding out at the off-season racetrack, a romance is obviously in the immediate cards. The classic Hollywood recipe for hothouse romance is in place: A cock-sure, belligerent male and a refined, brainy woman find mutual attraction when forced together by circumstance. It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934) is the most obvious template, but the formula of seeming opposites making sparks goes back, at least, to Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. What makes the combustion between the American and Brit in 27th Day so successful is the subtle, mature pace of the thing. There are no hands-posted-on-hips standoffs - no angry sulking by windows. From the moment Jonathan and Eve take it on the lam together, the weight of their situation squashes sexual posturing.

Things take shape early, as Jonathan catches Eve staring at him as the two are riding in a cab to the off-season racetrack.

"What's the matter?" he asks.

She considers him a moment longer. "You look different," she says.

Obviously pleased that she has noticed, and remembers his appearance in such detail, Jonathan runs a finger along his upper lip, grinning. "I'm in disguise."

"Ah," says Eve, smiling suddenly, "you've shaved off your mustache!"

It's a small moment of intimacy, quick and warm; and the two are gently connected without fuss. Once at the track, they break into vacant stable hands' quarters; compete with bunk beds and hotplates. This is to be their home for 25 days and (ahem) nights. Eve suggests a rearrangement of furniture. Without smirking or cocking his eyebrow, ala Gable in It Happened One Night, Jonathan says "One duplex coming up," with just enough stoic acceptance to suggest disappointment (yet there is enough stuffy gentleman in Barry's acting style to suggest he may simply dislikes being given orders).

There is absolutely nothing flirty about Barry. It is this quality in the actor; shaken and stirred with the prim sweetness of actress Valerie French - who plays Eve as an intelligent dreamer with a little girl voice - which makes the scene work so well. Like a man given a work assignment, Barry sets to task; separated the beds with a chest-high barrier of cabinets and shelving.

Settling in for their first night, Eve begins to undress. She looks over the token barrier between their beds and looks at Jonathan, who is drinking from a teacup in his bunk.

"Why don't you take your drink and go look at the moonlight?" suggests Eve.

Without looking at her, Jonathan grumbles mildly and gets up. At the door, Eve says, "Jonathan?"

Jonathan looks back at her, his hand on the door latch. He smiles. "Why don't you just call me John?" he says without the slightest wink in his voice (again, it's useful to contrast this play with the gridiron contest of It Happened One Night; which was, despite all the sparking sophistication, simply about domination [Gable's] and submission [Colbert's]).

Tossing it off gently, Eve says, "All right, 'John.' I trust you are a sound sleeper?"

With a bit of gentle indignation, Clark says, "I don't walk in my sleep, if that's what you mean."

Eve nearly beams, grateful for the correct degree of gentlemanly huffiness. "That's exactly what I mean," she says. As the days fall away, the two argue occasionally and loudly, Eve sick of the fugitive's life - Jonathan frustrated about having to hide at all (it's his nature to confront and win). Yet with each argument they begin to lean toward each other, the space between them growing smaller. At some point, Jonathan begins to touch her - placing his hand on her arm, rubbing her shoulders for comfort or in apology for his gruffness. She visibly relaxes at his touch.

Finally, they settle the matter:

"We've been here 10 days and we've managed to disagree on every one of them," says Eve, seated at their poor table and looking up at him.

"It's normal," says Jonathan. The camera shifts to watch him staring at her as he speaks. "Take two strangers, put them in close quarters - have them clean, cook . . . talk. Actually we've had all the disadvantages of a marriage with none of the advantages." Clark is nothing if not forthright in his logic. Suddenly we realize there are violins playing on the soundtrack.

Eve stands up in righteous surprise, but she can't keep the grin from her face. "Jonathan Clark," she says, giving him a scolding tone that encourages (She has never, despite Clark's request, called him anything but "Jonathan").

"It's true," he says, aware now he's on the right track. She demurs properly, looking down at her bathrobe. She unconsciously tightens the sash at her waist. "It's time I went to bed," she says. She stands at her bedside and the two share a long, clear-eyed look wherein the sexual attraction and understanding is cast in cement.


”Take two strangers, put them in close quarters . . .”
Jonathan (Gene Barry) makes his case.

"Sleep well," she says, slipping off her robe. She hasn't asked, but he goes to his quarters on the other side of the shelving. His back is to her as he sits on his cot. Eve undresses with careful resolve - perhaps disappointment? She tucks herself under the covers, stretches out languidly, stares at the ceiling. Clark leans back against the shelving that is their fragile demarcation. We see his hand with cigarette and the back of his head. The smoke hangs in the air, drifting slightly.

"Jonathan?"

"Yes?"

She is still staring at the ceiling. "Were you in the last war?"

"Uh-huh."

"Were you a determined soldier?" she asks softly.

He hasn't caught on. "What do you mean?" he asks.

"I mean, if you had an objective to take, were you always successful?"

He pauses. "Uh-huh."

She smiles to herself, turns in her bed and snuggles into the covers. She takes a deep, pleasant breath. "That's nice," she says quietly.

He stands, suddenly at full attention. He looks over the shelving/barrier at her, tilting his head like a hunting dog. "What did you say?" he asks.

"I said good night."

He looks at her in the half-darkness, frowning. He comes around, stands over her for just a moment. She keeps her eyes closed as if sleeping. He reaches up and gently turns off the overhead bare light bulb. Although he returns to his bunk (like a good soldier), the deal has been signed and sealed - if not yet delivered.

When next we see them, the world situation has become critical. "Foreign agents" have attempted to kill Professor Bechner for the Alien super weapon; and an innocent citizen has been killed by a rabid mob in America simply because he was mistaken for Jonathan Clark. The pair realizes that they will have to turn themselves in and face things directly to halt the gathering tide of carnage and hysteria.

As the fugitives discuss things, alone in the vast grandstands of the racetrack, Jonathan declares his love for Eve, and the two embrace. The relationship has been so well handled by the direction, acting, and writing in the film; the moment unfolds at just the right pace. The preliminary groundwork has been set so competently, the embrace feels absolutely believable. Within the confines of atomic age sci fi, no film handles mature love any better with the possible exception of Howard Hawks' 1951, Thing From Another World[j].

The Good Stuff, Part III: The Way We Were (Really)

There is a way a period in history is remembered in the rosy afterglow of time and media highlights - and then there is the way things were. This often harsh reality can be seen in flashes from movies and writings of the time. One must read or listen between the lines - see the background in pictures.

It is easy to picture, because of popular imagination and modern media imagery, the 1950s as a time of happy ease and wonderful nuclear families - a time of jukeboxes, drive-ins, and profound, blue-eyed security. There are some moments in 27th Day, however, that suggest otherwise.

There is much in the movie that belies the popular image we have of now of the 1950s - of manicured, suburban safety and dad's pipe smoke - most notably the unnamed soul that is beaten to death on an American street in daylight because he resembles the traitor, Jonathan Clark. My favorite tidbit in the 27th Day, however, is a toss off line expressing distaste for a then-current cultural blip.

Jonathan and Eve are riding in a cab, listening to a transistor radio for news of the Alien. Some extremely gentle music comes on the radio with only a hint of backbeat. Eve wrinkles her nose as though a foul smell had drifted into the car.

"What in Heaven's name is that?" she asks.

"Rock & roll," replies Jonathan, pronouncing each word heavily.

"Rock & roll?" asks Eve as though mouthing foreign words phonetically.

Jonathan's face is hardened by underlying contempt. "Music. Almost," he says flatly.

For those born since the atomic age, it is easy to believe that only religious fanatics or backward peckerwoods hated the advent of rock & roll. They see images of the record burning on church lawns; the rural crew cuts in t-shirts calling rock & roll "nigger music" on newsreels. Surely cool people everywhere loved rock & roll, or at least empathized and understood its cultural importance?

No. In fact, rock and roll was a silly, crude fad to most intelligent, cultured people; as is exemplified in Jonathan's curt dismissal in 27th Day. Certainly, the film sets up both Jonathan Clark and Eve Wingate as "cool people." They are the heroes of the story, sophisticated in their thought, educated and modern in their tastes. "Music. Almost," says Jonathan simply, already giving the issue more attention that it deserves.

"Rock & roll" was an overwhelmingly grass-roots, working class - and youthful - phenomenon. College graduates and intellectuals mostly held the crude rhythms and lullaby-simple lyrics in contempt with only a few eggheads treating it as a quaintly aboriginal musical style; worthy of study as were the headhunters in New Guinea.

I am reminded of a time when I was in my late twenties, and I was telling my mother one Christmas about my love for the music of Elvis Presley. My mother was pretty hip, I thought. She'd been a collegiate actress, always loved movies and books - surely she would tell me of worshiping Elvis when she was a young woman.

No such luck.

"I don't know," she said, remembering back. "I just thought he was a greasy hood."

Bang.

So, finally . . . .

27th Day, unlike so many of its atomic age brethren, wants to be about something more than it wants to sell tickets. As with many "important" films, 27th Day can be extremely chatty - long on dialogue (read "speeches"), short on action (read "entertainment"). Yet, unlike many consciously earnest movies, 27th Day has the saving grace of a subtle human drama, well defined characters that actually play like living people; and several fascinating concepts well thought out. For this it deserves a better place in film memory than it has.


”People of Earth. I am an Alien.” The Alien (Arnold Moss) on the small box.

Its finest achievement, however, is an accomplishment completely unintended by the film makers and one only appreciated generations after is premier: It is a near-perfect time capsule of the mid 1950s, capturing both the paranoia and promise of the era in accurate measure.
***
Want it printable? Download the all-text .pdf of this post for portable reading.
Footnotes:
[a] Godofsky, like so many Soviet soldiers at Stalingrad, is doomed from the opening credits for noble sacrifice.
[b] Creature With the Atom Brain, 1955; Werewolf, 1956; and many others.
[c] "Our Friend the Atom" is a 1957 episode of the television series Disneyland wherein the benefits of atomic power is heralded.
[d] The "Battle" of Stalingrad is more rightly termed a campaign as the months of war in the city consisting of several battles and sieges.
[e] So impressed were most Americans that Joseph Stalin acquired a stern yet nearly benevolent aura – "Uncle Joe." In the years after the fall of Communism and collapse of the Soviet Union, documents were released which, to say the least, contradict this avuncular image.
[f] During the final stages of Ivan's torture, the private is read a letter from his mother; who begs him not to disgrace his country and the memory of his father who, "gave his life in defense of his country," - a clear reference to Stalingrad.
[g] Su Tan never speaks a word throughout the film, her facial expression revealing nothing of her internal turmoil. Her soul is revealed only by her actions. This is the essence of mystery.
[h] Despite appearing in War of the Worlds (Pal, 1953); Barry made clear in an interview with Tom Weaver (Earth Vs. The Sci-Fi filmmakers) that he wanted to be thought of as a "dramatic actor" and that sci-fi had little appeal for him.
[i] The role was a highly (very highly) romanticized telling of the exploits of real life Western marshal, Bat Masterson.
[j] In which Hawks' handling of the relationship between Captain Hendry and Nikki essentially charted out a roadmap for adult love in my young mind.
Works Cited:
1. China's Great Leap Forward. Harris, William. 13, 1996, The University of Chicago Chronicle, Vol. 15.
2. Beevor, Anthony. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943. New York : Viking, 1998.
3. Not One Step Back. History Learning Site. [Online] [Cited: December 15, 2012.] http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/not_one_step_back.htm.
4. Yoder, Mike. Annihilation and Aftermath. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com. [Online] [Cited: December 13, 2012.] http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/World War II/stalingrad/annihilation.aspx.
5. The Great Leap Forward. History Learning Site. [Online] [Cited: December 22, 2012.] http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/great_leap_forward.htm.
6. OperationPaperclip.com. [Online] [Cited: December 23, 2012.] http://www.operationpaperclip.info/index.php.
7. Werner Von Braun. OperationPaperclip. [Online] [Cited: December 23, 2012.

6 comments:

  1. Two posts in such short order! Love it!

    I recorded this one night off TCM when they had something like four really good sci-fi flicks I hadn't heard of before, and I don't remember the others that night, but I still remember The 27th Day. The Alien reminded me a lot of the pissy alien in Plan 9, and I think Wood was always good at picking up on certain elements in films, though not very good at mimicking them. So the P9 alien has a snit fit or two while this 27th Day alien is just condescending; The Day the Earth Stood Still alien handily wins the condescension contest though, you are absolutely correct.

    I never knew really what to make of the "rock and roll" comment. It seemed like a clumsy joke to me, some heavy-handed stab at skewering stupid American fads. It didn't seem to fit, but whether that was several decades of hindsight or not, I don't know.

    This is a really terrific piece, Mykal.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Stacia: I am giving my best shot at posting more. Next up, Mario Bava's The Planet of the Vampires which features not one single vampire but tons of Bava saturated color.

    Thanks for the kind words, Stacia.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad to hear you'll be making efforts to post more.

    Gosh, this one reads like a remake should be waiting in the wings.

    By gosh I am very intrigued by this particular film thanks to your, as usual, thoughtful and extensive analysis.

    All the best Mykal,
    sff

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sci Fi Fan: Thanks for dropping by, my friend. Yes, this one is worth watching. Also, next up is probably Creature with the Atom Brain (Cahn, 1955) (not Planet of the Vampires, as I promised Stacia above - Sorry).

    ReplyDelete
  5. As usual your excellent review makes me want to dig out my copy and give it another look. I've had this one on VHS for a very very long time. When I bought it, I'd only ever read about it, and was taken aback a bit by the sheer quality of the storytelling. As your review suggests, this is storytelling with some ambition beyond the bulk of movie sci-fi, becoming true blue "science fiction" with all the somewhat ponderous significance of that phrase.

    I'm glad you pay special attention to the death of Su Tan as that is the scene which leaps to mind first when I think of this movie. Her scenes are the best, because they show the best in us, a selflessness. Sadly her willingness to die I think is somewhat criticized in the movie because of the tragedy she's endured, but her solution was the most sensible really given the circumstances. It's a short movie though.

    As always a great review. Thanks.

    Rip Off

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Rip. Yeah, the Su Tan scenes really got me, too. I agree as well that this film was hoping to do more than sell tickets and popcorn (which was the sole ambition of some pretty cool covies, though, I must say). I also liked a great deal the way Gene Barry was used well and stretched to his limits at the same time. Thanks a lot of for commenting.

    ReplyDelete