Thursday, 19 May 2011

Spaceways (1953)

Spaceways has one main claim to fame. It was one of the first forays into science fiction for both Hammer Films and for director Terence Fisher.

Fisher made a series of excellent film noir-influenced crime thrillers for Hammer in the early 50s and Spaceways is in fact a murder mystery presented against a science fiction backdrop, with some elements of espionage thrown in as well.

The British government has a top-secret research facility working on plans to put the first spaceship into orbit and ultimately to build the first space stations. The scientists involved, and their families, are housed in a kind of concentration camp totally cut off from the world. This neatly provides one of the prime requirements for a classical murder mystery - all the suspects are confined together in one place without being able to escape and we know that one of them must be the killer.

The key figure in the project is an American scientist, Dr Stephen Mitchell (Howard Duff). He’s very unhappily married. His wife Vanessa despises him for not getting a high-paid job in private industry and she’s carrying on an affair with the team’s chief biologist Dr Philip Crenshaw. Mitchell meanwhile is falling for Dr Lisa Frank (Eva Bartok). She’s the daughter of the head of the rocket project. When both Crenshaw and Mitchell’s wife disappear it is assumed they have been murdered since they could not have left the base. And Stephen Mitchell is the prime suspect.

An outside investigator from one of the Intelligence services is called in to solve the mystery. He comes up with a ingenious theory - that Mitchell murdered Crenshaw and Vanessa and stuffed their bodies into the AS1 rocket’s fuel tanks just before its first test flight.

The rocket is not yet ready for a manned flight but Dr Mitchell decides he can only prove his innocence by undertaking the first manned spaceflight in the second rocket, the AS2. He will rendezvous with the AS1 in orbit and prove that there are no bodies in the fuel tanks. Lisa is horrified - she can’t let the man she loves undertake such a mission alone but she knows that no-one will allow her to accompany him.

The mixture of science fiction and murder mystery elements is a little uneasy but despite the film’s generally poor reputation I think it works quite well. Like the other sci-fi movie Fisher directed for Hammer in the same year, Four Sided Triangle, it avoids the more obvious science fiction clichés of its era.

The budget was too limited to allow any extended spaceflight sequences but making the core of the story the murder mystery means that’s not a major problem. The special effects are ultra-cheap but the spaceship interior looks rather nifty with its classy walnut control panel.

Fisher was never less than very competent and he had a real flair for crime thrillers so he was a sound choice to direct.

Howard Duff is adequate if unexciting. Eva Bartok is by far the most impressive member of the cast.

The Image Entertainment DVD looks reasonably good. There are no extras apart from a trailer.

Not as good as the Quatermass films that brought Hammer its first big successes in the mid-50s but still worth a look if you’re a fan of 1950s sci-fi movies. Certainly nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests.


Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This is an intriguing, but somewhat tentative effort from Hammer. It has a generic tension because Hammer were not quite willing to break from the past and totally embrace science-fiction. It now exists, much like FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE, as a curious oddity. If you haven't seen it already Doom, may I recommend Fisher's 1950 effort SO LONG AT THE FAIR. Arguably his best film pre CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

dfordoom said...

Shaun, I've seen So Long at the Fair. A terrific litte movie. Another great early Terence Fisher movie is Stolen Face which is available in the Hammer Film Noir series on DVD. It features a wonderful performance by Lizabeth Scott.