William Hopper

The Deadly Mantis (1957, Nathan Juran)

The best directed parts of The Deadly Mantis are when the film is propaganda for the military. Director Juran–and editor Chester W. Schaeffer–show more enthusiasm when putting together those brief expository segments than they do anywhere else in the film. Given it’s about a giant praying mantis thawed out from the Artic who eats people, one might think the enthusiasm belongs somewhere else. But, no. Air defense, Red Scare and maybe a little paleontological awe.

Juran certainly isn’t enthusiastic about his actors. Deadly Mantis’s stock footage gets better treatment than its actors. Lead Craig Stevens is pretty lame, so there’s nothing to be done with him. He spouts exposition or hears exposition or tells love interest Alix Talton to settle down and let the men handle things. It’s unfortunate, because Talton’s arc is then going from being self-sufficient and professionally respected to being an Air Force colonel’s squeeze. I suppose it’s affably handled. Steven’s isn’t offensively lame, he just can’t hack it.

William Hopper–as Talton’s friend and the super-cool scientist who figures things out but was also in the service so he’s not a nerd, you know (he doesn’t wear glasses)–is bored but he’s kind of great. Perpetually laid back. Like his paleontologist drinks some herbal tea and it chills him out. Or maybe it’s having spent his life named Nedrick. Regardless of Hopper’s acting motivation, Deadly Mantis is far more tolerable when he’s around. When it’s him and Talton bantering about science and government secrets? It’s probably at its best. Juran doesn’t direct the scenes well, but the museum set is one of the film’s more detailed.

The set design and the special effects are another problem. There’s no enthusiasm to the special effects. The sets at least have to match the stock footage and the set decorators Oliver Emert and Russell A. Gausman work at it. Deadly Mantis might be “stock footage theatre” but it’s well-integrated stock footage theatre. Except with the special effects. Mantis has lots of conceptual problems as a giant monster movie–like the giant monster doesn’t destroy anything and it attacks single people and there’s no eating people scenes. It’s a metaphor about trusting the military to protect us against the Russians first, giant monster movie second. It’s Juran’s fault. If he were doing better work, he’d pull up the rest of the production. None of its problems are insurmountable. Not even Berkeley’s script.

Solid black and white photography from Ellis W. Carter. It’s never breathtaking or even close to it, but it’s affable. It has more personality than the direction.

Really amusing supporting performances from Donald Randolph and Florenz Ames. And Pat Conway’s nice to have around, especially during Stevens’s expository scenes.

Maybe the nicest thing I can say–other than Talton and Hopper deserved a better film–is The Deadly Mantis never disappoints. It’s got a rocky, unpromising open and it never even implies it might significantly improve.



Directed by Nathan Juran; screenplay by Martin Berkeley, based on a story by William Alland; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Chester W. Schaeffer; produced by Alland; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Craig Stevens (Col. Joe Parkman), William Hopper (Dr. Nedrick Jackson), Alix Talton (Marge Blaine), Donald Randolph (Maj. Gen. Mark Ford), Pat Conway (Sgt. Pete Allen) and Florenz Ames (Prof. Anton Gunther).

Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

For a film with pioneering use of widescreen composition–the shot with the cars moving past Natalie Wood–and one of the better film performances (James Dean), Rebel Without a Cause is a curious failure. It’s loaded with content–there’s the stuff with Dean and his parents, the stuff with Wood and her father, the gang, Sal Mineo, the police, the stuff with Dean and Wood, Dean and Mineo, Mineo and his home life. It goes on and on until it finally gets to the ludicrous conclusion. The film’s entirely nuance-free. It’s probably the finest example of “Technicolor filmmaking.” Even if it was shot in Warner Color.

There are countless problems with the film’s details–like Corey Allen’s affable gang leader, Wood going from amoral sociopath (cheering on the bullies, something she never shows any regret for–her actions towards Dean, yes, but not the ones she supported). Then there’s the film’s almost unimaginable lack of subtext. There’s a frequent and rather misogynistic conflict between Dean’s parents, Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Dean’s constantly suggesting Backus needs to assert himself more and it leads to Backus sitting on the couch in a flowered apron trying to defend him. It’s like the film’s parodying itself (but it is not).

For every second he’s on screen–which is thankfully most of them–James Dean commands the film in a perfect performance. He’s in the first shot and from there on in, I don’t think there’s a single scene where Dean doesn’t do something amazing with his performance. The script occasionally gives him great material–the early scene with Edward Platt, some of the scenes with parents Backus and Doran (Backus’s browbeaten husband gets to be a bit much very quickly), and most of the scenes with him and Wood. Wood’s got a story arc all her own–the film drops it after a while, which is a bad move; the fast forward romance between her and Dean is well-acted by both, but it comes off false. The film opens with Dean, Wood and Mineo at the police station, all three with some definite problems–as the story progresses, it forgets about Dean and Wood’s problems and concentrates solely on Mineo’s, given their Cinemascope potential. The conclusion for Dean and Wood comes off goofy, but Rebel‘s been goofy for almost an hour and a half so it’s not exactly a surprise, but it is a disappointment….

The film has two conceptual failings–first, it’s a teen gang movie where we’re supposed to believe Allen’s a scary tough guy (not to mention gang fights happen at scenic spots, cheered on by a dozen middle class kids); second, it’s a continual present action. The film takes place over a day and a half. There’s the whirlwind friendship between Dean and Mineo, the whirlwind romance between Dean and Wood–both of those can get a pass (it’s a movie, after all), but the film forgets these people have been up for thirty hours. Stern’s script, so strong in the first act, kills off a kid in front of twenty other kids, none of whom freak out–no crying, not even from the kid’s girlfriend. It’s an abject oversight–Rebel Without a Cause would have been a much better film if it’d taken responsibility for that plot development and dealt with it, instead of ignoring it for the Mineo emphasis.

The story problems do bring down the film, but they can’t really vandalize Dean’s performance (or Wood’s to some degree). Like I said before, Dean’s enthralling. But Ray doesn’t keep him on screen enough, talking enough, to camouflage the plot deficiencies (the frequent, poor scenes with the teen gang on the loose jar). But Ray does a great job directing Rebel Without a Cause and that achievement–significant as it may be–doesn’t overcome the writing. Maybe because the film came from Ray’s story, so he’s embracing all the shortcomings.



Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Stewart Stern, based on an adaptation by Irving Shulman of a story by Ray; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William H. Ziegler; music by Leonard Rosenman; production designer, Malcolm C. Bert; produced by David Weisbart; released by Warner Bros.

Starring James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Frank Stark), Ann Doran (Mrs. Carol Stark), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), William Hopper (Judy’s Father), Rochelle Hudson (Judy’s Mother), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Edward Platt (Ray Fremick), Steffi Sidney (Mil), Marietta Canty (Crawford family maid) and Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Stark, Jim’s grandmother).

Conquest of Space (1955, Byron Haskin)

I rented Conquest of Space because–according to IMDb, Kubrick credited it as a 2001 influence. There are a handful of visual elements I noticed, one as obvious as the rotating space station, one I might be making up (repairing of the antenna tower). Besides looking for these visuals, there’s not much else to engage with. Conquest of Space is ludicrously bad for most of the film. Until William Hopper showed up, there was no one in the cast I recognized. While director Byron Haskin has done good work, he doesn’t have a good way of placing people amid Conquest’s technological surroundings. The sets seem confining, but the shots are wide open. There a number of terrible, distracting edits in the film, all to and from close-up, and I don’t know if it’s Haskin’s fault for not shooting right or the editor’s fault for not being any good.

The writing, however, eventually makes Conquest mildly interesting, at least as a historical document, which is what my greatest hopes were for it once the terrible narration began after the Paramount logo. It’s pre-Space Age, so there’s the space station before there’s a moon landing. There’s not even a moon landing, because they go straight to Mars. The film actually has some sophisticated ideas working–it doesn’t do much with them of any interest. For example, if God makes a tree and Mars is treeless, God stops at Earth while man continues on. I’ve actually never heard it laid out as such and it gives the feeling Conquest wasn’t a completely doomed idea. When the astronauts are stranded on Mars, played right, it could have been good.

The special effects, which must have been cutting edge back in 1955, aren’t good. There’s one good shot of the spaceship approaching Mars, otherwise, the model work is too two dimensional and the matte work, marrying the actors to the models, is too. No perspective in these moments. Some of the miniature work is nice though, but I was expecting more from the special effects. They just added to the film’s rushed feeling… but if it weren’t for the writing, directing, and acting, Conquest of Space might be all right.



Directed by Byron Haskin; screenplay by James O’Hanlon, based on a book by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley, adaptation by Philip Yordan, Barre Lyndon and George Worthington Yates; director of photography, Lionel London; edited by Everett Douglas; music by Van Cleave; produced by George Pal; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Walter Brooke (Samuel Merritt), Eric Fleming (Barney Merritt), Mickey Shaughnessy (Mahoney), Phil Foster (Siegle), Benson Fong (Imoto) and William Hopper (Fenton).

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