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Sep 8, 2007

The Power (1968)

Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pal
Starring George Hamilton, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Rennie, Earl Holliman, Richard Carlson, Yvonne De Carlo and Nehemiah Persoff

Written by Frank M. Robinson (novel) and John Gay.

This movie starts out with an atmosphere of unease and weirdness. Graphics of a human circulatory system appear followed by a pair of hands playing a hammer dulcimer. The dulcimer is part of the pounding, insistent Miklos Rozsa score that grabs the attention. The title appears twice, as if to emphasise that The Power is something important and unavoidable.

The first image of the film itself is of a car entering some kind of research facility and the title comes up with “Tomorrow” to establish the near-future setting. Arthur Nordlund Michael Rennie) gets out of the car and walks into the facility and into a lab where Professor Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) is performing an experiment on a volunteer to induce nerve pain by shining a bright light on his forehead. The facility tests the limits of human endurance for the space programme. Nordlund is there to evaluate the facility. One of the scientists Professor Hallson (Arthur O’Connell) believes that one of the scientists in the lab is of superhuman intelligence and has the ability to manipulate other human beings with psionic abilities. All of the scientists have taken an advanced IQ test and one of the results is way off the scale. Professor Carl Melnicker (Nehemiah Persoff) improvises a simple test for psychokinesis using a piece of paper skewered on a pencil. The paper begins to spin, proving that one of the people in the room is telekinetic.

Later that day Hallson walks into his lab to get some paperwork and when he turns back, the door of the room has been replaced by a blank wall. Something unseen grabs him by the throat. Gasping for breath, Hallson manages to write a name on a piece of paper - Adam Hart. Later he is found dead in a centrifuge. One by one, the scientists begin to die and it becomes clear that Adam Hart, whoever he is, is killing them off to keep the secret of his existence.

Tanner’s academic history disappears and he is fired from the facility. Weird, reality warping things begin to occur: toys in a shop window react to his presence, a don’t walk sign on a street corner changes to don’t run and a carnival carousel becomes a deadly analogue for the centrifuge that killed Professor Hallson. The personalities of people are altered, personal histories are rewritten and the people who knew Adam Hart in the past give widely divergent physical descriptions of him.

The Power was an MGM studio film but not a typical or simple one. It was announced as a project in 1964 and took four years to be released. Genre works weren’t well understood by studio heads. But the 60s saw a few shifting currents in the cultural perceptions of science fiction. Some interesting smaller budget British films were beginning to get attention, TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were becoming popular and the Space Race had everyone looking upward some of the time. The Power was never financially successful and it took Pal seven years from the release of The Power to realise his next project, Doc Savage - Man of Bronze. But it is films like this that inspired the generation of film-makers that make the ├╝ber-successful science fiction and fantasy movies of today. This movie respects science fiction as a genre and, within the technological limitations of the time, tries to bring the audience paranoid vision of an insane superhuman being.

Byron Haskin started out as a photographer and sound engineer in the early days of sound cinema. With Pal he directed four genre movies War of the Worlds, The Conquest of Space, The Naked Jungle, and The Power.

For my money, The Power is the best of the Haskin-Pal collaborations. The source material (Robinson’s novel) is solid and the imagination brought to the production drags it out of the mundane into the memorable. There are some great set-pieces here. The silent death of a scientists during a party at a business convention, Tanner being dumped in the desert by a garage mechanic played by Aldo Ray only to find that one small oasis on the salt-flat actually an Air Force bombing range and the climactic psionic battle between Tanner and Adam Hart, which served as inspiration for David Cronenberg’s Scanners. This is particularly obvious the use of heart beat sounds to convey increases of tension – which may be a legacy of Haskin’s history in sound design. It isn't out on DVD yet, but I did manage to score a widescreen version to watch. Cropped for TV, it loses a lot and hopefully there'll be a release on disc soon.

The supporting cast is pretty good too. Earl Holliman as a scientist who - if it's read between the lines - is gay, Yvonne De Carlo, Nememiah Persoff, Suzanne Pleshette in the thankless love interest role and Richard Carlson (Creature From The Black Lagoon). George Hamilton in the main role of Tanner is good without being outstanding. He did appear in some fine films in the 60s before becoming the tanned playboy caricature he is now. Apart from The Power, he did good work in Vincente Minnelli’s Two Week In Another Town playing a troubled bisexual actor.

While Hollywood is going mad to do remakes, this is a film which might benefit from one. Given the right visionary director, it could become a tour-de-force of mind-blowing cinema. Watching this film you can see where the effects people were doing what they could with the technologies at hand but in CG days, the battle between Tanner and Hart could become something impressive.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

Lord knows if TCM has the same schedule in Australia as it does in the US, but here on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at 10pm (EST), they're showing George Pal's The Power, and usually that channel is pretty good about showing films letterboxed (although when they showed Skidoo, it was pan-&-scan.
I hope The Power's on down under; good luck.
Great site! Keep up the good work,