“How do you feel?”
“Medium rare ...”
Ahhh, those mad scientists, eh? Blinkered obsessives who can't see the wood for the trees. But where would we be without them, though? Entire genres have been created in the laboratories of their deranged, ill-conceived experiments. They've built monsters, enlarged spiders and gorillas, shrunk their kids and changed the future and the past. They've knocked the Earth off its axis and they've brought dinosaurs back to life. And they've created plagues to wipe us all out or just mutate us into flesh-eating zombies. But it's all been done with our best interests at heart. There's been a dearth of science-gone-mad, bad and dangerous lately, unless you count X-Men First Class, perhaps, or maybe The Human Centipede. So, in many ways, it is great to look back at this 1965 tale of loopy, single-minded professors with grand, life-changing, world-saving schemes to bandy about … until everything they've preached suddenly goes pear-shaped and that “Eureka!” moment turns into a great big “D'oh!” moment instead.
And here's our man. Dr. Stephen Sorensen.
Hell-bent on penetrating the Earth's crust with a thermonuclear warhead, Sorensen (Dana Andrews) firmly believes that he can tap into an unlimited fuel source that will not only provide millions of jobs and all the energy Mankind could ever wish for, but seemingly lead to world harmony and peace as well. His associate boffin, Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), is not so convinced, however. An elaborate little demonstration set up for the press and the world leaders who are vitally important in getting the go-ahead for the project reveals what each scientist believes will happen when the bomb goes off deep down the massive shaft that they have dug into the bowels of the earth. Rampion's notion is akin to a hammer hitting a pane of glass – a massive shattering and a multitude of fault lines and cracks rippling out. Our boy, with that monumental arrogance that a thousand such eggheads have ignored to their detriment before him, then proceeds to illustrate how he believes the detonation will go. With a heated rod he slides a smooth little hole right through another pane of glass like David Blain putting his hand through a jeweller's window. Hurrah for Dr. Sorensen! He gets the backing of the top brass from around the world and, quicker than you can crack an egg, he drops his bomb down the shaft and creates a shock-wave that threatens to cut the planet in two! Whoops!
But instead of simply shaking his head and saying “I told you so,” Rampion, a much younger man with more than his fair share of derring-do about him, joins forces with the face-slapping Sorensen and battles to contain the chain of disasters that are coursing around the world and avert a full-on global apocalypse by doing such foolhardy things as hanging off the side of yet another bomb and lowering himself down into a molten pit to try and blow a cap on top of an erupting fissure. Thus, we are in that quintessential race-against-time to save the world. Aye, that old chestnut again.
But the thing that sets director Andrew Marton's film apart from the usual entries in the big disaster category is the emotional and psychological seriousness with which it is told. Considerable time and effort is spent establishing the marital problems that exist between the egotistical Sorensen and his scientist wife, Maggie (played with a lot of nervous finger-biting by the luminous Janette Scott) and the Achilles Heel that business and love rival Rampion adds to the pot. Rampion, you see, is Maggie's ex, which naturally throws a spanner into the proceedings. As does the fact that Sorensen is secretly dying of cancer, his dosage of private radiotherapy doing little more than scarring his hands until he ends up looking like a low-rent Invisible Man, sporting a pair of dark sunglasses and with his arms swathed in bandages.
Of course, Andrews' coldly driven Sorenson should really have listened to both Scott and Moore, as the duo had already been through one apocalypse in 1962's goofy but fun interpretation of John Wyndham's Day Of The Triffids from Steve Sekely. They were the stars of the suspenseful, though clearly tacked-on, climax set in the lighthouse at the edge of the plant-devoured world that the great (and uncredited) Freddie Francis was hired to delivered to give the originally quite lame film some much needed excitement. Scott was even immortalised in the lyrics of The Rocky Picture Show for her Triffid-battling performance. So when these two have got some reservations about something, they know what they are talking about. Mind you, only a few months before filming this, Andrews had played a blighted general battling a nasty germ-warfare virus unleashed in another experiment gone awry in John Sturges' The Satan Bug … so he really should have known better than to meddle in the science-lab again.
Marton was an established and respected man-of-action. His penchant was for adventure films. With King Solomon's Mines, Demon Of The Himalayas, which he even remade a couple of decades later as Storm Over Tibet, and Around The World Under The Sea, he revealed a strong association with heroic and often altruistic endeavours that placed men at the extremes of experience. He was 2nd Unit Director on such things as Ben-Hur and The Fall Of The Roman Empire, as well as on Kelly's Heroes and The Day Of The Jackal, so he knew how to handle big vigorous set-piece sequences too. Even his TV shows Daktari and Flipper were outdoorsy yarns that were strenuous, action-packed and had a quirk for the exploratory. With Crack In The World he probably went as far as it was possible to go … without leaving the Earth behind. He wrings suspense during a frantic final act of death-plunges, explosions, lava-flows, collapsing bridges and tumbling model trains, buildings torn asunder and a perilous climb though burning debris towards a ravaged landscape of raging infernos.
I mean just look at the film's original poster art, which has been lovingly reproduced on the packaging of the Blu-ray. It depicts in a very stylish swirl the idea of mass destruction, extreme jeopardy and thrilling adventure, just the sort of ingredients that someone like George Pal, the Spielberg or, more acutely, the Roland Emmerich of his day, would have served up. Movie posters are naturally notorious for false advertising and this was especially the case during the fifties and sixties. It's an understandable and, indeed, bankable deceit. The posters, themselves, were usually far, far better than the films they were tempting us to come and see. To wit, 1961's The Day The Earth Caught Fire from the normally ace director Val Guest, which was set predominantly in the London offices of The Daily Express. But after what may like an age of build-up, Marton kicks into high gear and lets rip with the special effects. Though not very convincing in some places, he wins hands-down with the practical stuff. The heroic twosome of Moore and Scott, once again, find themselves alone and at the brink of extinction as all hell breaks loose around them. Scrambling through a terrifying wasteland of scorched earth, dodging rivers of lava and crashing masonry, they become the iconic image of SF's witnesses to oblivion, the film finally reaching that epic grandeur that its poster promised.
And yet the painstaking build-up to all this is thoroughly entertaining too. Our three main protagonists aren't the most likeable bunch, it has to be said, but its fun trying to keep up with them.
It's unavoidable, I suppose, but Ted Rampion's excessive globe-trotting during the first act is a little exhausting. No sooner has he arrived at the Sorensen's Project Inner Earth site (supposedly in Africa, but actually filmed in Spain and there are a couple of locations that look very similar to where John Milius lensed Conan The Barbarian) than he whisks himself off to London in an attempt to politically derail the detonation from taking place. Then he's back just in time to learn that his own predictions were, in fact, correct … and, with barely a second to draw breath, he's swiftly dived beneath the waves to investigate the seismic disturbances that are rippling along the Masado fault line. Phew! Not even Superman could clock up the amount of air miles that this guy gains. And this is also seemingly achieved in one of those incredibly flimsy little two-man bubble-dome whirlybirds that were all the rage in these vintage escapades. I'd also like to point out how horrifically unsafe he is when it comes to getting out of one of these things – just look at how he completely forgets to duck under its rotors when we first get to meet him. They are about an inch above his head! I don't know how much it cost to insure Keiron Moore for the part, but Marton and his producers must have been having kittens when they saw this. For the record, the actor does adhere to the regulations whenever he nears the chopper later on. And, to go alongside this cavalier attitude, his character of the impulsive Rampion then insists on taking his investigative mini-sub down to dangerous depths, and right into the path of a volcanic eruption on the seabed. This man does not know the meaning of fear!
Real life sadly overtook the film’s wonderful ideas and betrayed its creator’s hop, skip and jump imagination. The discovery of tectonic plates and an ever-shifting crust deep down at the Earth’s core makes a mockery of this narrow, but diamond tough layer that conventional means cannot penetrate, and renders the resulting chaos, once it has been blasted open by Sorensen’s missile, all rather silly. Add this to the belief that, should the crack double-back on itself (which it does), and the fissures then join up (which they do), that the resulting chunk of terra-firma will blast off and become extra-terra-firma (I'll let you work out whether this happens or not), and you've quite a preposterous supposition. But this shouldn’t matter in what is, essentially, a fanciful drama about the might of Mother Nature when compared to the vainglorious efforts of Man to harness her power.
Dana Andrews is a gruff and abrupt actor but, as with his classic turn in Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon, in which his alleged “woodenness” works well with his depiction of a brusque and stubbornly over-confident sceptic when faced with the supernatural, this only aids his portrayal of a man who is struggling to bottle-up the fears of his own mortality and the shame of his marital inadequacies. By throwing himself into his work and driving this quest ever-onwards he is able to bury his paranoia, at least for a while. I like Andrews and believe that he gets some unfair criticism at times. His shell-shocked Stephen Sorensen is the man responsible for accidental genocide, and I think Andrews does well to convey the colossal sense of terror and guilt by not wringing his hands in despair, hitting the bottle and sobbing for forgiveness. He’s a scientist, first and foremost, and intensely pragmatic and practical as a result. He’s caused this problem and he knows that he cannot just hide away in shame. Even if he cannot make things right again, he can’t shy away from finding a means to combat the tectonic trouble he has unleashed. But the human drama of the love triangle is the thing that makes us sympathise with him the most. And it is the aching vulnerability of his relationship with Maggie that provides the emotional backbone of the crisis. As soapish as this dilemma may seem to be, given the circumstances that surround it, it is also painfully realistic. When Stephen clams-up and goes frigid in the caressing arms of his wife, the heartache of two trapped souls is all-too tangible. In his own fears, Stephen cannot respond to her yet cannot find the words to explain his feelings either. Maggie, in confusion and isolation, then turns to open the letter from her ex-lover, instigating a turn of events that she really doesn't want to happen. Neither is at fault here and both clearly love one another dearly, but the wedge is driven in … and these two become victims of another desperate fault-line. You come to this film because of the promise of mass destruction, but you don’t expect this sort of depth and intimate angst to be revealed as well.
In my opinion, Dana Andrews steals the show, even if he has seen better days and he ends up sitting most of the drama out down in his bunker.
Scott, as adorable as she is – like a cross between Judy Geeson and Nanette Newman – and as effective as she is in these more personal and emotional scenes is unfortunately allowed to simply fall apart and become a stock cliché of screaming damsel-in-distress by the end of the film. Though I've got to say that she makes for a marvellous sight as she struggles against the roiling environment in a ripped skirt that reveals thighs that even Raquel Welch would be envious of. But I truly think this secondary plot of the tragic love affair is actually quite interesting. Whilst the dialogue may be arch, the way that the situation develops between the three members of the tryst provides the film with some friction in-between the incendiary set-pieces. For his part, Moore is a steady and dependable presence. He barks his lines and snaps into action with gusto, looking a bit like Michael Rennie but possessing far more physical gumption. Very weirdly, he got to play the Indian Chief Dull Knife who wipes out Robert Shaw and the 7th Cavalry in the highly unusual Custer Of The West a couple of years after trying to seal up the Crack. But he is at his most typical here, as the stalwart man-of-the-moment who is a whiz at geology, can drive a jeep at breakneck speed to race a train and can hoist his heroine to safety with one arm.
The set design is amazing. Mixing that warped delight that filmmakers had in the sixties for vast, fantastical underground complexes along with the paranoid “bunker mentality” that was so prevalent in the era, the Sorensen’s subterranean base is a heavy-duty beauty. There are elements of Dr. No’s chemical HQ about it, as well as Blofeld’s control centre from You Only Live Twice. And there is the undeniably stylish and expressionistic vogue of Doctor Strangelove too. Art Direction and Design was by Eugene Lourie, who used terrific hanging foreground miniatures to create the illusion of size and depth. I am still surprised that I didn’t see Ken Adams’ name popping up with regards to this impressive construction, since he was the man responsible for creating those other illustrious examples of imaginative cave-carved lairs. I like the way that the characters’ quarters have elements that are both realistically utilitarian – grey filing cabinets, lockers and steel supports lending them that harsh, no escape from the grindstone aesthetic of a submarine or a warship – and yet delightfully personalised with ornate bookshelves, paintings and furnishings. Coincidentally, this even applies to the genuine research sub that the scientists use which, although cramped, does not look at all uncomfortable. But it is Lourie's hellish, fire and brimstone sets of apocalyptic devastation during the pell-mell climax that really seal the deal with a memorably visual flourish. You can imagine Hellboy just lying back and feeling totally at home amid the mass conflagration and the ruins.
Only the score from John Douglas lets the side down. By being totally obvious in his spotting of the action and dramatic cues his music comes across as a right Carry On. There are a good few moments when his dum-dum-dummm!!! motifs for the trombone miss the tonal mark completely and you expect the monstrous Oddbod from Carry On Screaming to come blundering in. Douglas was also the man who provided the majority of the music for Day Of The Triffids, although Ron Goodwin received the credit. This, again, connects that film with this like some celluloid umbilical cord.
In some ways, Crack In The World makes for a good companion piece with Byron Haskin's classic SF adventure Robinson Crusoe On Mars (BD reviewed separately) in that both films take their scenarios very seriously and play them out with an absolute commitment to realism. Both were cutting edge and at the forefront of scientific knowledge at the time when they were made and sought to show the dangers of pushing the boundaries as well as the powerful determination and supreme courage and resilience of Man. And both were proved fundamen tally wrong in their assertions very soon after they were released, though - and this is the vital thing, folks – not the detriment of their stories and the drama they evoked.
I would certainly shy away from calling Crack In The World a minor classic, but it remains a terrific little planet-boiler that effortlessly entertains. The set-pieces are fun and quite exciting, even if it is sometimes a bit strange not to have an immediately identifiable bogeyman to fear and dread. Even the likes of Dante's Peak and Earthquake had natural aggressors that gained a degree of hated personality, as did When Worlds Collide, Meteor and the original Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, in which the Van Allen belt in the upper atmosphere catches fire. Well, okay, Voyage also had a giant octopus in it, but you get the picture. Crack In The Earth has a faceless, vast and unpredictable fault-line as its dark nemesis and, to some, this could be nothing more than a meandering threat that just makes the film an episodic series of natural calamities.
But you've got Dana Andrews making a rather large hash of things and then getting all sulky because he knows he's in trouble. You've got Keiron Moore as a boffin-cum-Tarzan out to save the world. And you've got the delectable Janette Scott flashing her thighs as she dangles over the fiery abyss.
Aye, it's not only the Crack In The World that warms things up in this movie!
Andrew Marton's film is great fun. Forget the science and you should have a flamin' ball with it.
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