Apologies for the lateness of my arrival here on GAMMA 1 ("orbiting thousands of miles above the earth, GAMMA 1, the farthest away of the space stations marks the invisible limits of man's expansion in the Universe") but my departure from the Demon Planet proved more difficult than I had planned.
Among the most felonious of my handful of guilty pleasures (others are serving time but are expected to be paroled soon), the European space film of the early sixties was a keystone in my childhood fascination with what I'll call "hard science fiction." It's easy to identify the genre with its emphasis on hardware (miraculous or faulty) and exposition loaded with lingo cribbed (sometimes seemingly at random) from popularized science reporting. Indeed, the first Italian space film of this era, Antonio Margheriti's Space Men (Assignment Outer Space) was promoted with tagline "1000 Headlines into the Future."
Preparing for this post (and there's a lot of 'dead time' on the Demon Planet as you can imagine) I rewatched Battle of the Worlds (Il Pianeta Degli Uomini Spenti), starring an 80-year old Claude Rains, and while not part of Antonio Margheriti's GAMMA 1 quadrology, easily one of his most inspired movies. By most standards these aren't great films but who the hell cares - they can be quite engaging and reward even the casual viewer with some stunning visual or thematic surprises. Battle of the Worlds really deserves a proper DVD release. The exotic setting and the estranged dialogue made me recall J.G. Ballard's Vermillion Sands*. Claude Rains has a standout performance as the brilliant Professor Bernard who is always several steps ahead of the authorities and is another example of the dislocating effect of a cast headed by a foreign lead. I'd love to know what Rains thought of the production as he really seems to enjoy himself. The film's music is credited to Mario Migliardi but I'm unable to locate sources for the score so I've selected a track that is close enough to the main title track and captures this exoticism of the first few minutes of the film.
[*Vermillion Sands ("this overlit desert resort and as an exotic suburb of my mind... celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid, and bizarre") is a collection of stories including Ballard's first published story Prima Belladona.]
Margheriti's Space Men (Assignment Outer Space, 1960) boasts an interesting cast that includes a black astronaut (the dubbing makes the spacefarers 'cosmonauts') as well as the beautiful Gabriella Farinon. The spaceships are mostly a gloss white with large stabilizing fins and flaming acetylene fueled engines. Special effects afficiandos will note that Margheriti tricks the skeptical viewer by concealing the inevitable supporting wires by filming his models upside down! As his son Edoardo*, who collaborate with Antonio on his effects, notes "a good special effect, constructed and shot 'live' sometimes has a hint of imperfection that makes it seem more real than those acetic digital images...We always felt more emotion when the special effect seemed real then in front of a screen crowded with hordes of battling cartoons - we just couldn't identify with it." Margherti was sought out to supervise the special effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but declined this as well as Dino DeLaurentis' offer for his remake of King Kong preferring instead to pursue his own passions for films that have been characterized as a "contamination of genres."
[*Edoardo Margheriti's very sweet biography of his father is contained in the deluxe full color liner notes for the GAMMA 1 Quadrilogy CD]
Scifi, 'hard' or otherwise is all about 'what if's' - and embedded in even the flimsiest plot and most impoverished production is always another, more earthbound, set of of 'what if's' - a set of missed opportunities and misplaced potentialites. This a way of introducing composer Angelo Francisco Lavagnino who scored the GAMMA 1 films. As Bruce Eder (All Movies Guide) notes Lavagnino has a "special gift for melody and a talent for orchestration that manifested themselves in the best of those scores, particularly Gorgo -whose folk-based soundtrack is often referred to as the prettiest score ever to grace a dinosaur movie..." The 'what if' in this case is that Lavagnino was in line for scoring Sergio Leone's first "spaghetti western" A Fistful of Dollars but narrowly missed out when a producer introduced Ennio Morricone to Leone and it was revealed that Morricone and Leone attended the same grammar school. I'll leave you to ponder this while enjoying the following selections which include 2 tracks from his Gorgo score as well as a "spaghetti western' main title of his own (for Sergio Corbucci's 1969 Gli Specialisti).
Financed by Mercury International for MGM, Margheriti's GAMMA 1 Quadrilogy consists of four made-for-television films produced simulatenously over 3 months in 1965 (two weeks to shoot each one) which were instead released theatrically over the following 3 years. Besides the official Margheriti site, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting with El Santo has excellent reviews of each (English title links, the Italian titles link to their respective IMDB entry). All of these films delight in wild pop fantasies in their production and costume design. For pedagogical purposes the following musical selections ignores the chronological order of the films and includes tracks from 2 other Lavagnino scores. Among Margheriti almost 60 films are the celebrated Castle of Blood (with Barbara Steele) and Cannibal Apocalpyse (John Saxon).
Wild, Wild Planet (I Criminali Dalla Galassia)
War of the Planets (I Diafandoidi Vendono Da Marte)
Planet on the Prowl aka War Between the Planets (Il Pianeta Errante)
Snow Devils (La Morte Viene Dal Pianeta Aytin)
In the US Turner Classic Movies (TCM) thru its MGM library owns prints of the English-dubbed versions of these films so DVD-R's should be floating around following their broadcasts. It would be wonderful to see these in a definitive DVD release. See TCM's own version of the IMDB for more inf including 2 publicity shots and the original English language ("...science has gone berserk... in the ungodly art of flesh-fusion... The First Space Horror Film... the fusion of male and female, living humans drained of imperfections and grafted together to form a new and terrifying race, the incredible bi-sapien race of the Wild, Wild Planet").
There's no doubt much more to be explored in the 'hard' scifi realm (especially TV's Men Into Space and some Outer Limits episodes). Expect another posting from this future someday soon.
La Morte Viene Dal Pianeta Aytin (Snow Devils) 1965
1 - I Diavoli Dello Spazio 2:39
2 - Come Un Western... 1:20
3 - Aytin 1:36
I Diafandoidi Vendono Da Marte (War of the Planets) 1965
4 - Diafanoidi 1:47
5 - Fluttuanda 4:06
6 - Scontro Finale 1:44
I Criminali Dalla Galassia (Wild Wild Planet) 1965
7 - Criminali Della Galassie 2:10
8 - Galaxy Galore 3:16
Il Pianeta Errante (War Between the Planets) 1965
9 - Ce Ancora Un Futuro 1:43
10 - Main Title 1:49
11 - On the Island/Inner Room 2:08
Inspired by Battle of the Worlds (1961) main title
Moon Gas - Dick Hyman & Mary Mayo (1963)
12 - Stella by Starlight 3:00
The Specialist (Sergio Corbucci's Gli Specialisti 1969)
13 - Main Title
UPDATE 10/21/2007: Here are the (previously expired) tracks from above for your listening pleasure.