This was a fun choice today because of the odd film and the manner in which it was selected to go on the project. There are already posts on most of Strother’s major films from the 70s, and the 60s’s films are also mostly complete. There will still be entries in the future covering those films and the small role he played in them (The Villain and Nightwing are a couple of examples), but if I am ever to get to all of the credited roles he played, I have to cast the net a bit further and this one came up in today’s catch.
To find and select this film, I simply went to Amazon Prime and entered Strother Martin in the search box. Plenty of films came up, many of them need to be purchased or rented to view, or perhaps you could start a free trial of a streaming service. I simply scrolled down to one that was available on Prime itself, which I already subscribe to, and picked a film I had never heard of before.
“The Magnetic Monster” is a 1950s Science Fiction film, that postulates the dangers of radioactive research without creating a monster which is a guy in a suit. A new element has been created by bouncing radioactive gamma rays at an existing rare element, and the resulting product is a dangerously voracious consumer of electricity that is changing magnetic polarity and may eventually cause the Earth to spin out of orbit from the Sun and kill us all. First however, it has to be a threat to smaller numbers of humans so that we have a story.
This film was done on the cheap, using existing footage of scientific experiments with magnetism and some sets that look like they used up most of the budget, but then budget was small to begin with. This was directed by Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of numerous sci/fi and horror films, most noably the original “The Wolf Man”. It was only his second credited feature as director (The First was “Bride of the Gorilla”).
Strother’s role is that of the co-pilot on a commercial plane, which happens to be carrying the dangerous element and is at risk of complete electrical shutdown at any moment. It is surprising that as the second in command he gets most of the lines spoken in the cockpit, but that results from the fact that he is the radio operator as well and is in contact with the scientists on the ground, taking their direction and passing them on to the pilot.
The set is a few steps up from the rickety “Plan 9 from Outer Space” cockpit, but the interior shots of the plane are almost as bad. This is only one sequence in the middle of the film and Jay is in the shots for a very few minutes. He has to share the screen with his pilot, played with very little energy by a low key Douglas Evans. Evans would go on to an extensive career playing forgettable characters on numerous TV shows. Not to put him down, but when you watch these scenes it was easy to see that Strother was a more compelling actor and that he had an interesting career in front of him.
Strother did get some close ups in his scenes and once again, the facial reactions are were the gold is in his performance. He did have one funny line, when informed that the plane might shut down at any moment, he says “It’s a good thing we aren’t flying over the Rockies”. A little understatement to layer on top of a cheesy situation to begin with.
Like I said, most of his characters connection to another person is through the radio on the plane, so the reaction shots are just a natural opportunity for him to give this slightly interesting, low budget, silly dialogue script, something to enjoy.
I was a little concerned as the film came to an end that he would not get an on screen credit. The main cast was listed in a scroll, some of whom had far less to do in the movie than Strother, but finally there was a credit frame in the end titles that magnanimously identified him as “Co-Pilot”.
Not an essential Strother Martin performance but it is widely available and worth a look. The dialogue and character development make it cheesy, but it is an interesting take on the “science gone wrong” genre of atomic fifties films.