Claude Rains … in space!
‘Battle of the Worlds’
The Film Detective
$29.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)
84 minutes plus special features
By Mark Voger, author
‘Britmania: The British Invasion of the Sixties in Pop Culture’
Science fiction is all about predicting the future — that’s kind of its deal.
The talky Italian space opera “Battle of the Worlds” can be called prescient. It predicts Zoom meetings, climate change, and disinformation campaigns — all up-to-the-minute stuff.
But what really makes Antonio Margheriti‘s film a must-see for movie buffs can be summed up in two syllables: Claude Rains.
In his fourth-to-last movie — and the final one in which he stars — the veteran character actor gives his all as an imperious, borderline agoraphobic genius who delights in belittling anyone who dares enter his lair. Rains’ wickedly funny Professor Benson depends on his brain rather than newfangled data-gathering machines. The aging astrologist would rather tend to the many lush plants in his crowded, hammock-equipped greenhouse than interact with the “bigwigs” who wield clout but don’t respect science.
“Battle of the Worlds” (Italian title “Il Pianeta Debli Uomini Spenti”) is due out Aug. 9 on DVD and Blu-ray in a restoration of a 35mm print from The Film Detective.
In the Earth of the future, at a key observation base on a scenic rocky coast, young love has bloomed. Fit, handsome Fred Steele (Bill Carter) and his lovely fiance Eve (Maya Brent) both work under Benson; Eve is the older man’s devoted Girl Friday. (Only Eve and Benson’s dog, Gideon, are spared the professor’s ire. Everyone else calls him “the old man.”) Tomorrow is supposed to be Fred and Eve’s final day on the base, but bliss is postponed after an anomaly is detected that threatens Earth’s existence.
Fred handily summarizes the movie’s central conundrum: “Professor, a foreign body, a planet — ‘the Outsider,’ as you call it — has entered the solar system and is heading right for us. Because of its size and particular characteristics, it won’t burn up when it contacts the Earth’s atmosphere. If could be a catastrophe.”
Yep, that there is naked exposition, but Ennio DeConcia‘s script gives Raines wonderful material with which to work his still mellifluous, if now a tad growly, voice. A few choice Benson-isms:
“Young fella, you and the others have to see and hear before you can know. I have one advantage over all of you: calculus … In spite of the disdain in which I hold all your stupid and dull mechanical apparatuses, do you think that I don’t examine carefully the readings that you send me? … The difference is that you accept those readings as results, whereas for me, they are merely elements in a formula … I am not moved by humanitarian motives. I want to know the truth.”
And the most quotable of the lot: “There is only one opinion that interests me – my own.”
Raines delivers this delicious dialogue while gesticulating with an unlit, half-smoked cigar, which he sometimes stashes in his shirt pocket for later enjoyment. As he pontificates, Benson occasionally wields his plant-food spraying wand like a weapon. Another idiosyncrasy: Benson jots down his equations and formulas with chalk on flower pots — even on the floor in one scene. (It’s what actors call “business.”)
Unannounced, Benson materializes at the command center — wearing a suit, no less. This is obviously a rare occasion; Eve looks elated, and the staff all bow one at a time in his presence. (Of course, this toadying sort of behavior annoys Benson rather than pleases him.) When Benson plugs a cigar in his mouth and asks for a light, everyone in that room has a lighter at the ready.
Benson is there to observe a contest between the Outsider’s inhabitants — seen in the form of pretty cool flying saucers (if you can ignore the strings) — and Earth’s rocket fighters. Luddite that he is, Benson nods toward a screen and asks, “Is that where I look?” In a meta moment, he later remarks, “It looks like a kids’ show.” (A commentary on the FX?)
Speaking of which — I would call the special effects primitive but inventive. Don’t forget, “Battle of the Worlds” predates “Star Trek,” “2001” and “Star Wars.” Still, these FX are no worse than some of the forgettable low-budget “Star Wars” ripoffs that flooded movie screens in the late 1970s.
The aforementioned “Zoom meeting” has Benson, again wearing a suit for the occasion, addressing all of Earth’s leaders, seen on various video screens, simultaneously.
Climate change is represented by stock footage of fierce storms with a single shot inserted of drenched cast members in raincoats. (While warning of the Outsider’s wrath, Benson actually utters the phrase “changes in climate.”)
As for the disinformation campaign: There’s a scene in which military leader General Varreck (Carlo D’Angelo) calls Benson a “charlatan” due to his prediction that the errant planet will miss Earth by 95,000 miles. Even so, Varreck publicly endorses the professor’s theory in order to assuage a panicky public. Observes Benson: “It’s not difficult to tell the truth, but it’s impossible to be believed.”
It all sounds like something out of the Trump era, not to mention the COVID era. And yet, this movie came out six decades earlier.
Another cast standout is singer-composer Carol Danell as the stylish, enigmatic Mrs. Collins, who is generally regarded as the office psychic. (She refers to herself as “sensitive.”) Mrs. Collins also makes terrific coffee. But were she and Fred intimate at an earlier point? She appears to get, shall we say, familiar with him in a scene or two. It is Mrs. Collins who puts it in Fred’s head that Eve cares more about her boss than her fiance, causing a rift between the young lovers.
See also Bill Carter and Jacqueline Derval as Bob and Cathy Cole, who supply second-tier love interest as another “office couple.” (Bob was once Fred’s commander, which figures in the plot.)
Prolific Aussie actor John Stacy is perfectly cast as Benson’s preferred target for humiliation, the skittish and proper Dr. Cornfield.
For the climax, Rains actually dons a spacesuit, and goes where few septuagenarians ever have. Did this feel a bit ridiculous for a man of Rains’ stature? Me, I think he just saw it in the script, had a little laugh, and then went with it.
For Benson, we learn, it’s more important to know than to live. If the Outsider — with all of its tantalizing information just waiting to be discovered — had never entered the Earth’s orbit, Benson probably would have died peacefully in his hammock, with Gideon by his side.
Extras include a booklet with Don Stradley‘s essay “Margheriti’s World”; commentary by Justin Humphreys; and a short film in which Tim Lucas — onetime Video Watchdog editor and an expert on Italian genre cinema — outlines the genesis of “Battle of the Worlds.”
I first saw “Battle of the Worlds” when I was a grade-school kid one Sunday afternoon on, I think it was, Channel 29. Ever since, I’ve carried the hazy memory of Rains talking to that roomful of world leaders on the TV screens. I remember thinking he looked quite old and quite short. (Those gigundo Michael Caine specs didn’t help matters.)
Seeing the sequence again for the first time all these years later, it is better than I remember. I can’t resist sharing one more Benson-ism. The professor refers to this technology as “these stupid visual screens that permit us to talk to the bigwigs in politics.” Bam! Classic Benson.
In watching Rains take his last lap, you can’t help but flash back to Capt. Renault in “Casablanca,” to Prince John in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” to Mr. Skeffington, the Invisible Man, the Phantom of the Opera, Larry Talbot’s dad.
It’s the very same guy, going down swinging in an Italian sci-fi flick. Rains could have sat home. Instead, he hopped a plane and got into the sandbox with some young, beautiful people.
‘BATTLE OF THE WORLDS’
Claude Rains as Professor Benson; Umberto Orsini as Fred Steele; Maya Brent as Eve; Carol Danell as Mrs. Collins; and John Stacy as Dr. Cornfield
Written by Ennio De Concini | Music by Mario Migliardi
Cinematography by Marcello Masciocchi
Directed by Antonio Margheriti (billed as Anthony Dawson)
[Topaz Film Corporation]
This clip from The Film Detective demonstrates the restoration.