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Flashback: on 1959’s First Man Into Space & The Atomic Submarine

Sometimes cheese is good. And if the Criterion Collection gets a hold of certain molds—it can tend to be very, very good. So, I present two earnest, low-budget gems from the Eisenhower administration: “First Man Into Space” from director Robert Day and Spencer Gordon Bennet’s “The Atomic Submarine”. Neither one a classic—and I guess the argument can be made that they aren’t all that much of anything. In fact, both are about 3 minutes either side of an hour and fifteen minutes long. But like a warm pair of slippers and a hot cocoa on a cold, wintry night—it sure is comforting to know that they are there. This is fun stuff.

Have I talked about Criterion on the blog before? I honestly don’t remember(I’ve recently passed the three hundred mark on published reviews and features), but here’s a brief explanation. For almost 30 years, The Criterion Collection has become a favorite amongst film aficionados worldwide. Criterion has been credited with standardizing the letterbox format for home video releases, and their painstaking and elaborate presentations include an impressive array of bonus features. Plus, they have become a leader and champion of film-cleaning and restoration. So, if you have Criterion discs in your collection—you’ve landed the best.

“First Man Into Space” is the story of a hotshot test pilot(Bill Edwards), who may or may not have “the right stuff” to rocket his Y-13 aircraft into the ionosphere. When he climbs well beyond his expected trajectory—against orders—he is thought killed after a forced ejection, and the plummeting of his plane onto a New Mexico farm. But when a bizarre, wheezing creature is shown robbing a blood bank and then apparently slaughtering a number of cows in the area, certain evidence points to the crashed plane. Then when human beings are attacked by the monster, Commander Chuck Prescott(Marshall Thompson)begins to suspect that the pilot—who is also his brother—may not be dead after all!

“The Atomic Submarine” concerns the mission of the Tigershark, which is being sent to the North Pole to determine why a number of other underwater vessels have been destroyed there. We see in the opening scene that the boats are being obliterated by what appears to be some sort of electronic eye emitting a strange underwater light. Upon arriving near “the top of the world”, the Tigershark manages to avoid destruction, as the crew discovers that the luminescence is emanating from an “underwater flying saucer”. So, now it’s up to Commander “Reef” Holloway(Arthur Franz)and young Dr. Carl Neilson (Brett Halsey)to try to stop the spacecraft(dubbed the “Cyclops”)from completing its intended mission. It is soon revealed that that mission involves an eventual takeover of the planet Earth!

So, why would Criterion, the preservers of classic works from Kurosawa, Welles and Truffaut, add these late 1950’s sci-fi/horror flicks to their roster? Especially considering that the films utilize ample stock footage, obvious miniatures, and low-grade special effects? I’ll tell you why—because they are a blast and they are worth it. Criterion is not as stuffy as many would think. Along with their undisputed masterworks from international giants as well as American auteurs, they’ve also distributed special editions of 1958’s “The Blob”(the film debut of actor Steve McQueen)and 1970’s “Equinox”(the zero-budget marvel from eventual multiple Oscar-winning visual effects maestro Dennis Muren). “First Man Into Space” and “The Atomic Submarine” have a purity of purpose and a bubbling vitality that are undeniable. The rat-a-tat dialogue is rich, and the plot lines are played arrow straight and hopelessly square. It proves that even “bad” films are worth attention—but neither of these are truly bad. Besides, a little bit of cheese can’t hurt you! So, put your feet up, and sit back, while Criterion transports you to a simpler time. You just might enjoy the ride.     Grades for both:  B-

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