Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: L is for The Lost Missile (1958)

With the opening declaration of the Earth will enter an all-out Hydrogen war in less than one minute, our feature begins in a Soviet command bunker as they track an unidentified missile that’s suddenly entered their sovereign airspace. Wasting no time, the order is given to knock it out of the sky and counter-rockets are launched to intercept this bogie while a full retaliatory strike is set in motion against whoever launched it. And though they score a direct hit, the target is not destroyed but merely knocked off its original course. Also of note, before launching their entire nuclear payload, the Soviet commander is informed the object did not come from over the North Pole as originally thought but from outer space and quickly aborts World War III -- at least for now.

Meanwhile, that massive rogue missile, whose outer space origin was confirmed during the opening credits, has now achieved a sustained orbit some five miles above the surface, is traveling at nearly 4,200 miles an hour, and is generating enough radioactive heat to leave a ten-mile wide swath of utter destruction in its wake as it crosses the Bering Strait and scorches a trail across the Alaskan frontier. Here, it is picked up by the outermost pickets of the DEW line, who alert CONAD (-- and if you don’t know what all that alphabet soup means, go read my earlier review of The Deadly Mantis and all will be made clear). A jet is scrambled to intercept, but the rockets it fires cannot penetrate through the massive heat blister surrounding the missile, which continues on, consuming the jet and passing over the radar station that first detected it, which is obliterated in a blinding flash of heat and light.

Meanwhile, meanwhile, at the Havenbook Atomic Laboratory just outside of New York City (-- which should not be interpreted as the actual Brookhaven Atomic Laboratory outside New York City, ‘natch), Dr. David Loring (Loggia) and his chief assistant, Joan Woods (Parker), who also just happens to be Loring’s fiance, are scrambling to leave the high security lab so they can finally get married later that day. Now, this is the third or fourth attempt these two lovebirds have made at tying the knot, but each previous attempt was subsequently jinxed or torpedoed by Loring’s devotion to his work developing a new Hydrogen warhead for the recently commissioned Jove rocket. But that’s finally all but done, and now all they have to do is pick out the wedding rings and it will finally be Mr. and Mrs. Loring.

But as they try to leave they bump into mutual friend, Dr. Joel Freed (Pine), who feels something big is cooking as the direct line to Washington has been ringing non-stop all morning, sending the department chiefs and military liaisons into a closed door conference call for the past few hours. And Freed is so paranoid, so dedicated to the cause, he’s decided to stick around the lab to find out what’s going on even though his wife, Ella, is due to deliver their first baby at any moment. Loring hesitates for a moment, too, then continues on with Joan, but proves so impatient while ring shopping, obviously itching to get back to Havenbrook, Joan loses her temper, calls the wedding off, quits her job, and suggests Loring buy the ring anyway and use it to marry his warhead since he’s more dedicated to it than to her.

When he limps back to the lab after this bitter tongue lashing, everyone is abuzz and everything is bustling as Loring, Freed, and all the other rocket scientists are called into an emergency meeting and shown reconnaissance photos of the errant missile, hoping they can detect its country of origin. But none of the gathered scientists can detect anything familiar. At the State Department, the Secretary receives word from around the globe that no one launched the deadly missile. And when he sees the report from Havenbook, which is corroborated by the Soviet findings, it’s confirmed the missile must be of extraterrestrial origin. But even though they now know where it came from (sort of), they still have no clue how to stop the deadly projectile as an entire squadron of Canadian fighter jets prove just as impotent a deterrent and are burned out of the sky. And if it cannot be shot down and stays on its current course, this lost missile will fly over and destroy Ottawa, Canada, in less than an hour, and will then reach New York City and Havenbrook ten minutes later and wipe out over 8 million people...

On September 26, 1983, in the Serpukhov-15 bunker outside Moscow, which was the command and nerve center of the Soviet Union’s early warning defense network, the computers suddenly indicated by satellite readings the United States had just launched five ICBMs. At the time the Cold War was still red hot and the standing Soviet policy in the event of a U.S. nuclear attack was to immediately launch an all out retaliatory strike “in accordance with the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction."

"The machine indicated the information was of the highest certainty," Stanislav Petrov would later recall of the incident. A lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Force at the time, Petrov was the officer in charge on that fateful day. "On the wall big red letters burnt the word: START. That meant the missile had definitely been fired." From there, Petrov had few precious minutes to decide whether the attack was genuine and inform the Kremlin the Americans had just launched and started World War III, or the brand new system was glitching and the newly installed computer and satellite uplinks were faulty. Erring on the side of caution, feeling if the Americans were making a first strike they would surely have launched more than five missiles, Petrov decided to wait for ground radar confirmation before taking action. And when those results came back negative, Petrov reported the system alarm was a malfunction to his superiors, stood down, and cancelled the alert.

After the incident, Petrov underwent an intense debriefing by his superiors about his judgement and handling of the situation. But he was later vindicated when an internal investigation concluded the satellites had mistaken sunlight reflected off of unusually high clouds over South Dakota for the heat signature of rocket engines. Thus, General Yury Votintsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Missile Defense, declared Petrov took the correct action but the incident was covered up for almost a decade as to not cause any embarrassment over the failures of the brand new equipment that was supposed to remove human error from the equation altogether.

And so, the rest of the world never really heard of this incident until Votintsev published his memoirs in the 1990s. For his actions, Petrov was neither punished nor promoted and eventually retired from the Soviet Air Force. And while it may sound innocuous in hindsight, one cannot stress enough how close we all came to nuclear Armageddon on that day back in 1983. And I think we all owe Petrov a huge round of thanks for his patience, clear thinking, and decisive actions. And when Petrov passed away in 2017, headlines rightfully declared with no exaggeration that this was a man who had saved the world.

Nearly 25 years prior, Lester Berke presciently predicted the Petrov incident as the opening act of his film, The Lost Missile (1958), which shows some eerie similarities as the Soviets first detect the alien invader and mistake it for an ICBM. It was Berke who initially came up with the concept for the film, which was later expanded into a screenplay by John McPartland and Jerome Bixby; two authors turned screenwriters, who excelled in different genres.

McPartland was known for his steamy pulp novels of sin and sex in the suburbs, which were later adapted into films like No Down Payment (1957). And while Bixby also wrote westerns, he was mostly known for his science fiction output. His short story, The Good Life, was adapted into a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, where the little kid wished people into the cornfield. Bixby also penned the teleplays for Requiem for Methuselah, By Any Other Name, Day of the Dove, and the Mirror, Mirror episodes of Star Trek, and wrote the screenplays for the double bill of IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), and then co-wrote the original concept for Fantastic Voyage (1966) with Otto Klement. So, yeah, you can see both writer’s influence as an extinction level alien threat runs head on into some high melodrama in this fairly effective thriller as Loring’s prenuptial woes are kind of put into perspective.

Joan realizes this, too, as she returns to the lab to apologize for her hateful accusations just as the word is given all the scientists and essential personnel are to be evacuated immediately by the military, which Joan, unfortunately, is not. So she, along with all the other citizens of Ottawa and New York will have to put their trust in the Civil Defense as sirens are sounded in both cities and panicked people head for shelter and prepare for the end, including Ella, who has just gone into labor in the Freed’s basement. Meantime, her husband is with Loring as they scramble to get all needed equipment loaded up onto trucks for the impending evac. Here, Freed isn’t so sure if they should destroy the missile, fearing it might be an alien envoy of some kind and what sort of retaliation might follow if they do blow it up. And on this point, he works himself up into a pretty good lather until Joan tries to distract him by asking if there’s any news on his baby. Now, this question both snaps Freed out of his mania but also sparks a "Eureka!" moment out of Loring.

This sparked idea of a “baby nuke” sends the scientist to track down General Barr (Kerr), and then lays out his plan to take his new fission trigger for the Jove warhead and mount it on a conventional rocket, which he’s sure will penetrate the missile’s intense heat barrier and destroy it. Barr agrees, and clears his access to retrieve the needed plutonium for the device and provide an escort to the nearby rocket base. And as the clock ticks down and they race the radioactive core to its destination, they lose their escort when a panicked driver trying to flee the area runs General Barr off the road, leaving it up to Loring and Joan. But they get ambushed by a pack of hoodlums also trying to vacate the area, who steal their jeep and leave them stranded.

But the couple chases them on foot and soon come upon the wrecked jeep. Seems those punks were curious to see what was in the lead-lined container in the back and gave themselves a lethal dose of radiation. Thus, knowing full well he’s committing suicide, Loring warns Joan to stay back and rushes in to close the protective case and presses on to the launch site. But it’s already too late for Ottawa, which is charred and melted off the map during this delay. Meantime, Loring manages to reach the platform and gets the plutonium loaded into the warhead before dying from the exposure. The counter-rocket is launched and intercepts the alien missile over Lake Champlain, where it detonates and ends the threat once and for all, but not without great cost.

I mentioned my review of The Deadly Mantis (1958) earlier, where I took it to task for its massive stock footage abuse, feeling no other movie could compare, percentage wise, to new vs. old material. And then I watched The Lost Missile, which breaks down thusly: 40% stock military footage, 30% stock Civil Defense training film, 20% over-reaching melodrama, 5% Why we fight propaganda, and 5% SCIENCE! as the runaway radioactive rocket circles the Earth. But coming in at a brief 70 minutes, despite all of that filler, the film still feels like it's even shorter than that thanks to a ticking clock element and the impending sense of doom that greases the narrative along.

What the film really reminded me of was Curt Siodmak's The Magnetic Monster (1953), which also featured a sobering tale of hard-working men of science facing a plausible threat with extinction-level global ramifications if they fail to rein in a rampaging isotope. The films do share the same FX team, led by Jack Glass, which are fairly effective -- though slightly repetitive as the same process shot of the missile’s approach is used over and over again. And if nothing else, the film had the balls to show how utterly useless ducking and covering would be under an atomic attack -- just ask the good citizens of Ottawa about that. Oh, wait. That’s right. We can’t. 

And the only plot thread left dangling is where did the missile come from? Is this the opening salvo of some alien invasion? A doomsday weapon sent to destroy the Earth outright? Was this an alien envoy as Freed suggests? Were the alien pilots killed in the initial strike by the Russians? And the now pilotless craft is a helpless runaway? If so, were their intentions hostile or benevolent? And are there more missiles coming? That’s me shrugging right now.

One of the last films to be produced by William Berke, who had been working in the B-Pictures since the 1930s -- according to legend, Berke died two days into filming with his son, Lester, stepping into the director's chair to finish. Despite these patchwork origins,The Lost Missile still works due to the over-achieving efforts of the players, led by Robert Loggia as the lead scientist, who's ably supported by love-interest, Ellen Parker, and B-Movie vets like Robert Shayne and John MacNamara, who all help this heaping helping of paranoid schlock go down a lot easier.

As it struggles to stay on target, The Lost Missile does rely way too much on stock-footage and a dour narrator to link it all together -- and several sudsy subplots could’ve easily been left on the editing room floor. However, there are some fairly effective scenes of the missile's approach and what's left after it has passed. Mention should also be made of a staggering montage of the eventual end of the world as the narrator tics off which orbit will lay waste to certain cities around the globe until there is nothing left but ash. And even though most of Canada is lost, the city of New York is saved *whew* when the massacring missile is finally destroyed by good old American (destructive) ingenuity, which direly re-emphasizes the old Cold War screed of everyone pitching in and sacrificing, and paying the ultimate price if need be, to keep the world safe for Democracy -- at least until the alien armada shows up, wondering where the ambassadors went.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 12 reviews down with 14 to go! Up Next: Something rather abominable, courtesy of Jerry Warren.

The Lost Missile (1958) William Berke Productions Inc. :: United Artists / P: William Berke / P: Lee Gordon / D: Lester Wm. Berke / W: John McPartland, Jerome Bixby / C: Kenneth Peach / E: Everett Sutherland / M: George Brand, Gerald Fried / S: Robert Loggia, Ellen Parker, Phillip Pine, Larry Kerr, Robert Shayne, John McNamara

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