Sunday, April 23, 2017

The 27th Day (Romson/Columbia, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 27th Day, which followed The Night the World Exploded on the Vintage Sci-Fi film program, turned out to be a much better movie! Also released by Columbia, it had different production auspices: the co-production company was named “Romson Productions,” the producer was Lewis J. Rachmil (who would go on to do some important films, including Hawai’i and Footloose) and the director was William Asher, who would go on to create the Columbia TV sitcom Bewitched and marry its star, Elizabeth Montgomery. The screenwriter was John Mantley, adapting his own novel — a good sign — and the story turned out to be an artful reworking of The Day the Earth Stood Still but with bits of Red Planet Mars and some quite unique variations that were clearly part of Mantley’s contribution. Five ordinary people in various parts of the world — Los Angeles reporter Jonathan Clark (Gene Barry, making at least his third appearance in a science-fiction thriller after The Atomic City and The War of the Worlds); British something-or-other Eve Wingate (Valerie French) — she’s first shown on a familiar-looking beach with her painter boyfriend (it’s familiar because it’s the same stretch of Malibu coastline where Burt Lancaster had romanced/roughhoused Deborah Kerr in yet another 1950’s Columbia movie, From Here to Eternity) and she tells us we’re in “Cornwall, England” (Cornwall is actually in Wales, not England) — German scientist Prof. Klaus Bechner (George Voskovec); Russian prison guard Pvt. Ivan Godofsky (Azemat Janti) and Chinese woman Su Tan (Marie Tsen), who disappears midway through the action and it’s not at all clear what happens to her — are all accosted by an alien from another planet (Arnold Moss — we never see him full-face or full-body, but just as a silhouetted image).

They’re beamed aboard his spaceship (represented by some long shots of a flying saucer that are either stock clips or outtakes from the 1956 film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which led to credit Ray Harryhausen with special effects on this film even though he had nothing to do with it) and each are given a clear round item containing three capsules. The alien explains that in 35 days his race’s home planet is going to self-destruct, and they’ve identified Earth as a planet they can relocate to — but it’s against their moral principles to stage a war of conquest and just take us over. So they’re giving five randomly selected Earthlings clear plastic containers, each about the size of a ladies’ compact. Each compact contains three objects that look like large pills, which the alien explains are actually a super-weapon developed by his planet’s scientists that has several hundred times the destructive power of the largest H-bomb either the U.S. or the Soviet Union had then developed. One gimmick is that only the people actually receiving each packet can open it — but once it is opened anyone can use the weapon just by speaking aloud the latitude and longitude where they want it to detonate — and the weapon capsule will go there and blow up itself and whatever else is there. Another gimmick is that the weapon is effective only against human life — it doesn’t harm either physical objects or other animals or plants — so effectively John Mantley thought up the neutron bomb at least a quarter-century before anyone took the idea at all seriously. The whole point of this is that if humankind starts a war within the next 27 days (hence the title), the alien super-weapon will destroy the entire human race and leave Earth depopulated of homo sapiens but with an otherwise intact biosphere and infrastructure so the aliens can migrate en masse to our planet and take it over. If the humans can hold off from using the weapons in the 27-day period, the alien race will spare us but itself die off. It’s an intriguing premise for a science-fiction story and Mantley and Asher make the most of it.

At first the people who received the super-weapons have the idea of throwing them away — and Eve actually does that with hers on the same stretch of beach at “Cornwall, England” [sic] — really Malibu, California — at which she had her date with her disposable artist boyfriend in the opening scene. Then the alien, like Michael Rennie’s character in The Day the Earth Stood Still, takes over all Earth radio and TV and delivers a 10-minute spiel in which, among other things, he announces the names and whereabouts of all the recipients of the super-weapons. That immediately makes them the most wanted people in the world, and in the meantime the British authorities and population freak out, thinking that the weapon is an undersea mine and Eve wasn’t throwing it away but planting it. Another gimmick, which the alien uses his hack of earth broadcasting to explain, is that if any of the recipients is killed, this will automatically neutralize the weapon (which we see in action when the Chinese woman is killed in her country’s civil war — a bit dated a plot point in 1957 or, for that matter, in 1955, when Mantley first published his book — and the insides of the capsules crumble into dust). Eve flies to the U.S. and meets up with Clark, who’s disguised himself by the simple expedient of shaving off the moustache he was wearing in the early part of the film, and the two hide out at the Santa Anita racetrack, which is being patrolled by a security guard who drives through every hour in a Jeep but is otherwise deserted because the racing season isn’t going on. In an earlier scene, in which Clark and Eve are riding in a cab discussing the situation but Clark doesn’t want the cab driver to be able to hear what they’re talking about (yeah, right), Clark plays a portable radio very loud and the music we hear is a typical 1950’s hybrid, a big-band instrumental with a drum backbeat to make it sound a bit more rock-ish — but Clark identifies it as “rock ’n’ roll — music, almost.”

Eventually Clark and Eve realize that they’re going to have to turn themselves in, and while they ultimately hook up with Prof. Bechner and the American authorities, the bad ol’ Russians are torturing poor Private Ivan Godofsky to get him to open the container and release the weapons, so they can attack the United States and North America in general and thereby eliminate their only superpower competition. Unfortunately for them but fortunately for the good guys, they torture him within an inch of his life, then give him pentothal, which gets him to release the capsules — and the Russians issue an ultimatum to the U.S.: withdraw all American troops and investments from Europe and Asia and pull back to the borders of the continental U.S. (when this film was made Alaska and Hawai’i hadn’t yet been admitted as U.S. states), or else the Russians will set off their super-weapon (which of course, being 1950’s movie Commies, they’re going to do anyway). It’s up to Prof. Bechner to figure out a way to stop them, which he does: first he decides he wants to test the weapon, for which he needs a human sample since it only affects human life. He gets his test subject when his colleague Dr. Karl Neuhaus (Frederick Ledebur) announces that he’s deliberately exposed himself to gamma rays, so it will actually be more humane to send him out in the middle of the ocean and have him taken out by the alien super-weapon than leave him alone to die a painful death from radiation sickness. Neuhaus is shown standing up in a raft — and when the weapon goes off he simply disappears from his clothes like the titular characters in the contemporaneous Columbia “B” horror film Zombies of Mora-Tau. Now Bechner knows the weapon works as advertised, but looking at the two capsules he has left he also sees markings etched to the side of them, which he figures out is a mathematical formula and if he can decipher it, he can reprogram the weapons. Only he’s already used one of his capsules, so he has to get Clark to open his container so he can complete the set.

The ending is as compelling and thought-provoking as the rest of the movie: Neuhaus takes down the formula and uses it to reprogram the weapons so they take out everyone in the world who harbors evil intentions against their fellow humans, while leaving everyone else alone — and there’s a final sequence in the United Nations General Assembly in which the U.S. representative extends an invitation to the 30,000 aliens from the planet that’s about to blow up in eight days to come to Earth and live in peaceful coexistence with humans. (This would have set up some intriguing possibilities for a sequel, especially if Mantley or whoever wrote it posited that some Earthlings and/or aliens with evil intentions had escaped and the nice Earth people and the nice aliens found themselves having to come together to defeat their nasty brethren armed with the aliens’ super-technology.) Though its derivations from The Day the Earth Stood Still and (less significantly) Red Planet Mars are obvious, The 27th Day is a quite impressive movie, well directed (like Frank R. Strayer, who went from some quite interesting and quirky horror films and thrillers in the early 1930’s to making the Blondie series at Columbia in the late 1930’s, Asher gave up a potentially interesting career as director of films like this to take up a commercially successful but artistically uninteresting sitcom series like Bewitched) and decently acted (even though Gene Barry’s butch act gets a bit wearing after a while), and making its points through a compelling dramatic idea, effectively realized. And Asher wasn’t the only creative talent involved with this film who went onto a less compelling career on TV: John Mantley ended up the producer of the Western series Gunsmoke in its later years.