Noirish Science Fiction?
vt Blood Beast from Outer Space; vt Night Caller from Outer Space
UK / 84 minutes / bw (though there’s also a later colorized release) / New Art, Armitage, Butcher’s Dir: John Gilling Pr: Ronald Liles Scr: Jim O’Connolly Story: The Night Callers (1960) by Frank R. Crisp Cine: Stephen Dade Cast: John Saxon, Maurice Denham, Patricia Haines, Alfred Burke, Warren Mitchell, Stanley Meadows, Aubrey Morris, Ballard Berkeley, Marianne Stone, Geoffrey Lumsden, Barbara French, Anthony Wager, David Gregory, Romo Gorrara, Robert Crewdson, John Carson, Jack Watson.
Some while back I came across a reference to this as an intriguing example of a film noir/science fiction crossover. I discovered I’d bought a copy of the thing years ago but never watched it, so out I dug it. And now, finally, the watching’s been done.
Three scientists at Falsley Park Government Radio and Electronic Research Establishment—they’re just “scientists,” with no specialties itemized—are working away one night at whatever it is non-specialist scientists do that involves a lot of idle oscilloscopes when one of their number, Ann Barlow (Haines), spots something 100 miles above the ground that’s approaching the earth at high speed—over 10,000 miles per hour, in fact. Luckily it slows down, and they’re able to pinpoint where it must have landed.
The other two of the trio are the team leader, Dr. Morley (Denham), and Dr. Jack Costain (Saxon). Ann, being female, is not an out-and-out scientist like the other two. Instead she’s “our analysis expert.” And departmental typist.
Next morning the three go out onto the moors in search of the mystery object, which Ann’s oscilloscope told them must be about 20 feet tall. Instead they find a swarm of soldiers led by a Major (Carson) and Sergeant Hawkins (Watson), plus a little sphere about the size of a football. Amazingly it has landed without leaving so much as a mark on the ground.
Morley (Maurice Denham) on the moors in the hunt for the alien artifact.
Morley (Maurice Denham) explains things to Jack Costain (John Saxon) and the Major (John Carson) as Sergeant Hawkins (Jack Watson) looks on.
Escorted by lots of soldiers, the scientists bring the sphere back to Falsley Park and put it into a storage cupboard so that everyone can go home and have a good night’s sleep. Not that Jack’s too worried about the sleeping part:
Ann: “Mmm. I could use my bed.”
Jack: “So could I.”
Jack: “No harm in trying.”
Besides, Ann has some of that typing to catch up on.
She’s working away diligently when an unearthly glow starts to emanate from behind the stockroom door; the movie’s in black-and-white, but we know for sure the glow is green. So, we guess, is the gnarly hand that Ann—her face pouring with perspiration as she fights off a hellish unearthly-glow-inspired headache—encounters as she attempts to open the door.
Ann (Patricia Haines) starts to wilt under the influence of the alien mental emanations.
The alien claw that grapples with Ann.
The Major tries to dismiss her account—and the discovery of an alien footprint in the flowerbed outside the lab—as being merely of hijinks by his jolly soldiers, what cards, but soon it becomes apparent that the mysterious sphere really is of alien origin, and that it appears to be manufactured. There’s also a lot of concern among the politicians and the military that the sphere’s outer surface shows some trace radioactivity. Morley, the project’s head boffin, reassures the panickers by explaining that the radiation was “probably picked up by the sphere as it passed through the Van Allen strata on entering the earth’s atmosphere.”
The Van Allen strata?
Your correspondent stared at his screen in confusion. Luckily Morley repeated the explanation twice more to demonstrate that, no, I really hadn’t heard him wrong the first time.
Privates Higgins (Anthony Wager, left) and Jones (David Gregory) examine the sphere.
Reader, I have sat not once but twice through The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and have always regarded it as the science-fiction movie with the largest number of scientific howlers per square metre of celluloid, so to speak.
Well, I was wrong.
After a while I gave up trying to record every blunder in basic science that The Night Caller’s screenwriter committed, because I have only so many years left to me. To gain an idea of the kind of thing I mean, here’s about the first half of a scene where the Major, with Morley standing beside him to offer correction and validation where needed, is trying to explain over the phone to a government minister all about the science of the bizarre discovery. Bear in mind that the point of the scene is to have a good laff about how scientifically illiterate the minister is:
Major: “Ah, yes, sir. And they’ve carried out routine X-ray spectrometer and radiation tests, and find that the sphere is made of an undetermined silicon material. This forms a . . . um . . . It’s a bad line, sir. I’m afraid I can’t hear you. I beg your pardon? Oh. [Aside to Morley.] That was right, wasn’t it?”
Morley: “Yes. Word perfect.”
Major: “Says he doesn’t understand a bloody word I’m saying. [Back to the minister.] Yes, all right, sir, I’ll repeat it. According to the information that I’ve been given, this, ah, spectr . . . [To Morley.] What do you call it?”
Major: “Spectrometer, sir. No, sir, ‘spectrometer.’ S-P-E-C-T . . . Yes, I’m sure you can, sir. Does what, sir? Oh, no no no, that’s the salt. It’s a silicon. It’s an undetermined silicon . . . Yes, well, I was about to explain that sir. You see, it forms a sort of . . . ah . . . a protective shell, which has a vacuum. I beg your pardon?”
And so it goes on, and on. Later in the movie we discover that the sphere’s made of selenium, which is apparently just another word for silicon. Or did they mean silicone? In a way that’d make more sense because the stuff would last forever in space, micrometeoroids would simply bounce off it with a spung!, and . . . no, let’s not go further down that route.
Anyway, now that Ann’s account of events has been vindicated, Morley decides there’s nothing for it but to lock himself in the store room with the sphere and see if it’ll pull the same stunt again when there’s a man present.
He gets the same savage headache that Ann did, but even more so—enough so, in fact, that his brain fries, or some such. Whatever the actual cause of death (an overdose of selenium?), he’s a goner, and will play no further part in the movie—a shame, because I quite like Maurice Denham as an actor and had been hoping Morley would return, perhaps in a new, alien incarnation, like the Julie Christie character in the Fred Hoyle/John Elliot TV serial A for Andromeda (1961)—a work to which the first half of this movie owes some obvious debts.
Morley (Maurice Denham) gives his all for science.
I say “the first half” because The Night Caller falls neatly into two acts of almost exactly equal length. It’s the second act that does quite definitely show some noirish traits, in terms of situations and camerawork. The only character who links the two acts is Jack, although Ann turns up for a short while later.
The start of Act 2, and the miracle is that the newsvendor has spelled “development” right.
It’s a month later. The newspapers are full of the fact that, even after all this while, the mystery of what went on at Falsley Park that dreadful night has still not been solved. A prominent boffin dead, an alien object—likely an alien artifact—missing! Why are the cops being so idle?
Even more worrying is that young women are going missing—twenty of them to date. Detective Superintendent Hartley of the Yard (Burke) and his sidekick Sergeant Tom Grant (Meadows) are on the case, though they’re not making much headway. When Jack sells his story of the Falsley Park events to the press, Burke has the bright idea of calling him in as a sort of Extraterrestrial Hypothesis Consultant.
The disappearances each follow the same pattern. The young women in question, all of whom are without family, have responded to a job ad in the magazine Bikini Girl for modeling/screen work. They’ve gone for an interview and been photographed; a few nights later, a vast and lumbering masked figure with an oddly cultivated voice has dropped a copy of the photograph round to their home—only the photograph isn’t any ordinary photograph but preternaturally . . . er . . . preternaturally preternatural, I guess, because when we eventually see one of those alienly enhanced photos it looks like something you’d get from any portrait studio.
It does, however, sometimes glow in the dark. With a green glow, at a guess.
But I get ahead of myself.
The night after getting their photo delivered, the young women vanish—presumably having been abducted by whoever it was placed the Bikini Girl job ad.
Abductee #21 is Jean Lilburn, and she differs from the others in that she has a mum and dad. Accordingly Hartley and Jack go along to interview Madge (Stone) and Reg Lilburn (Mitchell). The interview scene is ridiculously long for its importance to the story, but one can see precisely why director Gilling allowed it to become so. Stone, who had smallish parts in quite a few movies that are now regarded as classics (including the first two Quatermass movies and Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita), and Mitchell, who became best known as the vilely bigoted loudmouth Alf Garnett in the long-running iconoclastic TV comedy Till Death Us Do Part (1965–75), work brilliantly together. I’ve no idea if their dialogue was scripted, ad-libbed or a combination of both, but it’s at once realistic and very funny. It’s brilliant onscreen chemistry.
Madge (Marianne Stone) and Reg Lilburn (Warren Mitchell) tell all they know.
The Lilburns don’t seem all that concerned about their darling daughter, who’s a good girl and has never pulled this sort of stunt before except maybe a few times, but they do their best to help the investigators anyway.
Madge Lilburn (Marianne Stone) recalls the night that . . .
. . . she began to have extreme doubts about her daughter’s new boyfriend. Could the heavy-breathing alien who came to the door with a photo for Jean be the worst yet?
By now Jack has worked out what the sphere actually is: “Well, as far as I can tell it’s an energy valve of complex and fantastic ingenuity.” As an “energy valve” its function is to act as this end of a matter transmitter—i.e., as the receiving portal for information beamed from the skies about an object or creature, information that can be used to reassemble that object or creature. (Someone later refers to the process as the “transubstantiation of matter,” but that’s about par for The Night Caller’s course.)
I was quite relieved to get the matter-transmitter explanation, because I’d been worrying about how such a big alien could get into such a small sphere. Yoga? Now I knew better.
As the receiving end of a matter transmitter, the sphere has been creating interference in the BBC’s radio and TV broadcasts, because that is what matter transmitters do, didn’t you know? This has also revealed something of crucial importance to the investigation, the place of origin of the sphere—which is Jupiter’s moon Ganymede! Jack explains all to Commander Savage (Berkeley), Head of Special Branch:
Savage: “But why Ganymede?”
Jack: “We’ve been tracking intense radioactivity on our radio telescopes for a month now. We have cross-references enough. The master transmitter is on Ganymede. And we can produce fifty other scientists and astronomers to prove that as well.”
Good luck trying to track “intense radioactivity” with a radio telescope. The confusion of radio waves with radioactivity continues, though. Jack reckons the sphere’s radioactivity could be used to locate the object.
Savage: “What about radio-detector vans [to locate the sphere]?”
Jack: “No. They’re not on the same radio spectrum.”
Jack soon corrects himself. It’s not that the radio-detector vans—typically used in the UK to catch people who’d failed to pay their television licenses—are working in the wrong radio spectrum, it’s just that they’re . . . Okay, so I got lost here for a moment. The sphere’s radioactivity is in the right radio spectrum, only it’s no use trying radio-detector vans. The only way to locate the sphere will be to coordinate the activities of every radio telescope in the country, working from the Jodrell Bank array on down.
Q: In which direction do radio telescopes typically point?
A: Not so good for locating something at ground-level, you’re saying?
Peeling ourselves away with difficulty from the joys of cutting-edge science, we join the other strand of the investigation.
Detective Superintendent Hartley of the Yard and his crew have organized a TV announcement asking all young women who answered the Bikini Girl ad to get in touch with the cops pronto, and as a result one Joyce Malone (French) contacts them. She was called for interview with a Mr. Medra (Crewdson) in his office at Orion Enterprises, somewhere off Piccadilly Circus. When she got there, she couldn’t really see the interviewer, although she was impressed by his mellifluous tones. That’s about all she can remember, although we know that she was hypnotized by Medra using a sort of dancy lighty thingy. Then her photo was taken.
Joyce Malone (Barbara French) arrives at Orion Enterprises for an interview . . .
. . . becomes increasingly uneasy . . .
. . . but is then hypnotized into obliviousness . . .
Why was she hypnotized? Why couldn’t he just take the photo? (And, no, it wasn’t that kind of photo.)
Joyce Malone’s testimony is of value not just for the info about Orion Enterprises but also because she remembers where she sent her interview application—to an address that proves to be that of a seedy little Soho bookseller called Thorburns. As soon as you come across a seedy little bookseller you know you’re into noir territory. There’s The BIG SLEEP (1946), of course; closer to home, there’s the shop in PEEPING TOM (1960) where Mark Lewis does his trade in girlie pix. Just in case you’d missed the point, the soundtrack suddenly lurches into a piece of music strongly reminiscent of Anton Karas’s zither theme for The THIRD MAN (1949).
As you can see, there’s a definite noirish feel to some of the cinematography in this second act.
Thorburn (Morris) has been getting a chunk of change from Medra for the use of his shop as a post-restante address. Hartley, who knows Thorburn of old from having put him in the slammer a few times, conducts the interview himself. Again, as with the Lilburns, there’s an interview scene that’s disproportionately long, and again we can see why Gilling let it run on. Here, though, the chemistry isn’t as effective; my guess is that Thorburn’s patent homosexuality was a lot more hilarious in the mid-1960s than it is now that homosexuality is part of the mainstream. To be fair to Gilling, the sequence is far from homophobic; if anything, Thorburn gets the better of Hartley precisely through inviting a homophobic reaction that Hartley’s not prepared to give.
The naughty bookseller Thorburn (Aubrey Morris) has information that Inspector Hartley (Alfred Burke) wants . . .
. . . although Hartley (Alfred Burke) seems mainly to want just to put Thorburn into the slammer.
The one useful bit of information that comes out of the interview—aside from the fact that the prime piece of dangerously subversive smut stocked by pornographic Soho bookstores of the day was, er, Playboy—is that Medra is going to be there that very night to pick up his mail.
Natch, this is the perfect opportunity for Hartley to lay a trap. But then Ann Barlow—remember her? the analysis expert with the degree in secretarial skills?—reappears in the plot. She wants to be there when Medra arrives, so that she can try to work out his purpose in being here on earth, perhaps talk him out of abducting all those girls. Beggaring belief, Jack and the cops eventually agree to this.
So Ann arrives at Thorburns, unknowingly walks past a grotesquely strangled Thorburn, and, pretending to be yet another wannabe model, has a chat with the alien:
Ann: “Haven’t you learned the futility of violence?”
Medra: “We have suffered from violence just as you have. We’ve tried to be gentle.”
Ann: “I want to know . . .”
Ann: “What happened on your planet?”
Medra: “We interfered with the laws of the universe, just as you are attempting to do now. We found it impossible to suppress the emotions of love and hate, so we slipped back into the dark abyss. The problem of life is that there is always an enemy who will kill or be killed. There is always someone to fear.”
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), anyone? Much of the second half of The Night Caller, in fact, reads like a sort of cackhanded response to the earlier classic.
Ann (Patricia Haines) tries to have a civilized conversation with the alien . . .
. . . but it all goes horribly wrong.
The rest of Ann’s interview with Medra does not go well, to euphemize. (“No, Mom, I didn’t get the job. And he strangled me.”) Just as bad, Medra is able to abduct Joyce Malone after her photograph, strategically placed by her bedside, has done its hypnotic glowing act.
Now at last we see why the new photo of Joyce Malone (Barbara French) is so special — it glows in the dark!
The nation’s three most powerful radio telescopes have been able to triangulate the position of the sphere. Jack and several busloads of cops arrive there just in time to find Medra, holding Joyce Malone’s unconscious form and seemingly preparing himself to step into a garden bonfire. Bullets just ping off him, of course (hm, did I say silicone?), as he delivers a speech about how the Ganymedans, their civilization a full thousand years more advanced than earth’s, disobeyed various unspecified laws of nature so egregiously that eventually their genetic stock deteriorated to the point that they became degenerate monsters, so hideous they durst not look in the mirror. It’ll take perhaps a thousand years more before they can reproduce their way back to normality—which is where all those abducted women come in. They’ll provide good genetic stock for the recuperation of the Ganymedan species.
Q: What are the chances of earthling genetic stock being of use to the Ganymedans?
A: Carl Sagan once remarked that you’d have a better chance of breeding with a petunia than you would with an alien.
Medra (Robert Crewdson) makes ready for departure, but first he must (of course) explain himself.
Just to show the hideous extent to which those wicked Ganymedans have devolved, Medra strips off his mask.
We wait for monstrosity to emerge, wondering breathlessly if we were wise to eat all that popcorn.
Revealed starkly against the night sky is . . . a handsome male human face!
Medra turns and . . .
The hideous, hideous alien visage of Medra (Robert Crewdson).
The other side isn’t nearly so handsome—in fact, it looks a bit, well, goofy!
Our popcorn’s safe!
More importantly, so is the guy in the seat in front!
This final reveal is perhaps the most ridiculous in the entirety of The Night Caller, which is saying something. What conceivable reason could there be for the Ganymedans to look remotely like us? Even if, defying astronomical odds, they bore some resemblance to us, what are the chances that their standards of physical beauty would match ours?
I haven’t read the Frank R. Crisp novel from which this movie is derived, so I don’t know how much of the movie’s imbecility comes from the book, how much should be laid at the door of scripter O’Connolly. I learned from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that Crisp was a onetime Merchant Navy sailor who wrote a series of sea adventures featuring a hero called Dirk Rogers. He also wrote two SF novels, the other being The Ape of London (1959). Both are, says the SFE, “routine adventures deploying thriller and horror elements.”
Talking of sf movies, today marks the final day of the fab Science Fiction Countdown that’s been going on at the website Wonders in the Dark over the past 3+ months — 100 essays about 100 movies in 100 days. Go here to find out which sf movie the assembled WitD critics voted to be the best of all time and to read Dean Treadway’s astonishing account of it!
It isn’t The Night Caller (1965).