The A-Men of a B-movie Trilogy
“When was the last atomic test in Vegas?”
That question is never a good sign for people in a horror/sci-fi film from the 1950s, but it is for the viewers who know that this is what they came to watch.
The atom bomb, radiation etc. have been the catalyst for favorite films of the era as they created the oversized ants of Them!, a Giant Gila Monster and the human monstrosities in The Day the World Ended and War of the Colossal Beast.
The Magnetic Monster (1953) is another film where the horror created by radiation grows to epic proportions. In a twist, we never see the title character, only its Earth-annihilating power and destruction which is enough.
Who can save the world from such a horror? The A-Men can.
The A-Men were the investigators in a film trilogy from producer Ivan Tors about the Office of Scientific Investigation. The Magnetic Monster was the first in ’53, followed in 1954 by Riders to the Stars and Gog, perhaps the most familiar title in the trio.
The movies were made under the A-Men Productions banner, a company Tors created with actor Richard Carlson who starred in the first two films and directed Riders to the Stars.
In other words, the real A-Men Productions company made three sci-fi movies where fictional A-Men saved the world. That’s kind of genius.
In The Magnetic Monster, Richard Carlson and the OSI explore strange radiation and magnetic anomalies. I was excited to see Carlson was also in the second film, Riders to the Stars. But wait – he’s not reprising his role as the happily married father-to-be and scientist Jeff Stewart from The Magnetic Monster. He’s Jerry Lockwood, a college professor blindly in love with a model who clearly has no interest in him other than using his car.
And though classic movie star Herbert Marshall is the lead scientist in Riders and Gog – you guessed it – they aren’t the same character either. It’s puzzling that they each returned for a second film but played different roles, especially since the films were released within a year of each other. Then again, I will watch anything with Carlson and Marshall.
Though the OSI films are not a trilogy in the traditional sense with a direct continuing storyline and returning characters, they have the common theme of space exploration. Here’s a quick look.
The Magnetic Monster
Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (played by Richard Carlson) is one of the A-Men – detectives with degrees in science – who work at the Office of Scientific Investigation. “A stands for atom. Atom stands for power – power man has unleashed but has not yet learned to control,” he tells us in his somber voiceover that opens the film to talk of new dangers threatening Earth as we look toward the sky.
He describes the A-Men as sounding like “the final word of a prayer” as in Earth’s last line of defense and that’s what they are about to be. His narration continues through the film, noting dates and times to show how quickly the world can be on the verge of destruction. Here, it will take only 5 days.
It’s July 18, just an ordinary day. Jeff arrives at the OSI where he’s asked about recent atomic testing by co-worker Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan) who has found unexplained anomalies. But they’re quickly called across town where things have gone haywire in an appliance store. Could they be related?
All the clocks at the store are stuck at 12:12 even though it was 9 a.m. when the store opened. Objects are flying across the room, dryer doors are opening and closing and in a slightly comical moment, an innocent-looking push lawnmower almost cuts down the employees.
“Someone is wrecking my store with magnetic power!” the high-strung proprietor shouts.
The A-Men discover there is an unusually strong magnetic pull in the building that leads them to a body and a high-source of radiation.
In record time, they track it to Dr. Denker who has boarded a flight with a briefcase but is now quite ill. How do we know? Our stewardess tells us. “We’ve got a sick man on board – his gums are bleeding!” she cries out.
The kindly Dr. Denker spills as much info as he can before the radiation poison takes over his body. And this is where our film goes beyond the usual sci-fi mumbo-jumbo to use facts from the expert advice of scientists, whose names were included in the credits.
Denker was experimenting on an artificial radioactive isotope called serranium that he blasted with alpha particles for 200 hours, leading it to become unstable with an insatiable appetite for energy. It implodes every 11 hours with a need to be fed and will double its size. At some point, it will destroy the planet.
“It’s monstrous,” Denker proclaims. “It’s hungry, it has to be fed constantly or it will reach out its magnetic arm to anything with its reach and kill it.”
One possible way to stop it could be to overfeed it with electricity until it bursts and is fissioned into two stable elements. That will take 900 million volts of energy but the closest they can get is the 600 million volts from the world’s most powerful Deltatron, located in a top-secret underwater facility in Nova Scotia.
Of course, 600 volts isn’t enough. Of course, Jeff will push it past its limit. And yes, the overprotective inventor of the Deltatron will scream lines like “This is preposterous. … This is impossible. … She’ll break up!”
The Magnetic Monster is filled with these wonderfully fun and melodramatic lines written by Tors and director Curt Siodmak. Other favorites: “We had sapped the strength of the city to keep a monster alive.” And “It’s growing – Jeff that’s a living thing!”
It all leads to the exciting climax where man fights man and an unseen creature at the Deltatron, an impressive “set” that will remind you of Metropolis for good reason. The Deltatron footage is from the 1934 German film Gold with the set designed by Otto Hunte, who also did Metropolis. The two films meld rather seamlessly thanks to some rear projection and extra set building.
Riders to the Sky
This second film in the trilogy also starts with narration, this time by Herbert Marshall as Dr. Donald L. Stanton who explains how man has met every challenge except the voyage to outer space.
What’s keeping us down? The fact that rockets – and therefore humans – are destroyed in space. The thought that meteors can fly through space without being destroyed (until they get into the Earth’s atmosphere) sparks a crazy idea that will lead to a lot of cloak and dagger activity to find men for a mission so dangerous they all have to be single.
An “electronic computer” sifts through 150 million names, boiling them down to 12 men who only know the government needs their help. They can’t even discuss their area of expertise when they first meet to undergo physical and mental testing by scientists including the smart and lovely Jane Flynn (played by Martha Hyer).
“I hope you’ll forgive us for testing your patience,” she tells them, and she means it. The men have been together for two hours in a room to test their patience. When one of them cracks under the pressure – “I’m a scientist, not a guinea pig,” he yells – he’s out.
Before he leaves, he calls it a suicide mission and he’s not far off. The “winners” of this contest will travel to space, try to grab a meteor and put it in a safety vessel inside their ship to keep its outer shell intact for testing on Earth.
How do you grab a meteor, you ask? With a meteor scoop. And yes, it is a silly invention even for a B-movie.
Finally, three men make the cut: Jerry, Dr. Stanton’s son Richard (William Lundigan) and poor Walter Gordon (Robert Karnes) who seems to be around just to have a third expendable guy.
Meanwhile Jane and Richard have bonded over the stars and each other if only to answer the question: Why is there an overwrought love song about the stars playing over the film’s opening credits?
The climax here is the trio of men in space, each in their own rocket, trying to scoop up a piece of a meteor. If you’ve made it this far in the film, just go with it.
Herbert Marshall returns, this time as Dr. Van Ness, who calls OSI after his top-secret underground facility in the New Mexico desert is sabotaged and people are dying. Two scientists testing the idea of freezing people (using monkeys, of course) to survive space travel, are frozen to death.
OSI sends David Sheppard (played by Richard Egan) to investigate, joining Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling) who is there working undercover. The two must hide their work – and personal – relationship.
To lend an authenticity to the film, everyone wears nifty jumpsuits or lab coats with color-coded armbands that allow them access to different floors.
Though they quickly track the sabotage to the N.O.V.A.C. (Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer) which controls everything in the facility, they don’t know who is doing it or how. What role, if any, does the creator of N.O.V.A.C. play, the arrogant Dr. Zeitman (John Wengraf) who also has made the robots Gog and Magog. The robots are certainly clumsy by today’s standards and look harmless, but they are “always frightening” to Joanna and I’m sure to audiences at the time.
As they frantically work to figure out this deadly mystery, bodies continue to pile up in unusual and, dare I say, clever ways such as death by high-frequency sound.
With help from Dr. Van Ness, the A-Men (and an A-Woman this time) solve their case again.
After Tors finished this final film in the trilogy, he created the sci-fi anthology syndicated series Science Fiction Theatre which aired 78 episodes from 1955 to ’57. A hoped-for A-Men TV show never came to fruition leaving Gog as their final investigation.
Ivan Tors later made such family-friendly animal films as Flipper, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and the television shows Sea Hunt and The Aquanaut.
Constance Dowling’s final film performance was in Riders to the Stars. She was married to Ivan Tors from 1955 until 1969 when she died at age 49 from a heart attack.
Richard Carlson is known for his appearances in horror and sci-fi B-movies. The Magnetic Monster was his first in the genre.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.