Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1961)

Richard Donner has a film career that spans five decades. In addition to 21 theatrically released films, he has directed at least 144 episodes of TV. Eventually, Donner would become a successful action director, making blockbusters like "Superman: The Movie" and the "Lethal Weapon" series. However, his career would expand beyond that genre, covering everything from comedy, to drama, to horror. While Donner could hardly be called a world renowned auteur, he's made several movies I love. Which means I've been looking forward to doing this report card for quite some time.

By the way, I was able to find a couple of all of Donner's feature length films... Except for "A Shadow in the Streets," a TV movie and pilot he directed in 1975 starring Tony Lo Bianco. As far as I can tell, that one has never been released on home video. I doubt anyone is broken up by that but I've decided to throw in a few bonus reviews anyway. Let's start.

1. X-15

Before becoming a blockbuster filmmaker, Richard Donner was a workaday director in television. His first credit was directing an episode of “Zane Grey Theater” in 1960. He quickly wracked up sixteen television credits, mostly directing episodic westerns like “Wanted: Dead or Alive” or “Wagon Train,” before making a theatrically released film the next year. When “X-15” came along, Donner’s skills were still developing. This is apparent in the film’s opening titles, as the director is credited as “Richard D. Donner.” Upon release, “X-15” received decent reviews and box office. Afterwards, it was forgotten for years. Let’s see if we can find out why.

In 1959, the space race was red hot. Yet scientist didn’t even know if man could survive a trip into outer space. The X-15 project was meant to prove that he could. The aircraft was essentially a rocket attached to an airplane cockpit and would break records for both speed and altitude. The film, “X-15,” follows pilots Matt Powell and Lee Brandon, the men who flew the plane, their struggles and successes.

When “X-15” hit theater screens in 1961, the movie was covering events that were relatively recent in the public’s mind. The actual X-15 test flights occurred in 1959, only two years prior, during a time when news moved much more slowly. When the film was new, many of its reviews praised “X-15” for its commitment to realism. Donner’s movie seems so committed to replicating events as they actually happened that it drains most of the dramatic tension from the story. “X-15” is about as droll as historical fiction can get. Despite its sound barrier shattering subject, the film moves extremely slowly. It’s a snore.

“X-15” doesn’t just strive to recreate events with strict fidelity. It’s almost a documentary. The film begins with archive footage of the various aeronautical achievements leading up to the X-15 project. Undoubtedly the biggest star in the movie, then and today, only appears with his voice. Jimmy Stewart narrates these early scenes. (Stewart's inclusion might seem kind of random but remember, he was both a veteran and a celebrated pilot.) Stewart's voice crops up a couple of times, illustrating various historical events while montages play out on-screen. It’s not impossible to make the case that “X-15” probably would have been more interesting as a straight documentary, instead of a half-breed docu-drama.

Richard Donner has never been terribly well known for his visual panache. However, he would certainly become capable of composing a memorable image at least once a film. Notice I said “would,” as in the future tense. “X-15” does not rise above Donner’s television roots. The film’s shots are frequently stationary. Far too much of the movie is devoted to serious looking men, sitting around in rooms, discussing serious things. Donner does not do a great job of conveying the speed and motion of the powerful aircrafts. Too often, the airplane sequences are devoted to the pilots in the cockpit, the camera shooting up from between their knees. It says a lot that the most visually interesting image in the film is a still shot of a painting of outer space.

Contributing to “X-15’s” overall dullness is a bland leading man. David McLean plays Matt Powell, the civilian pilot who ultimately flies the X-15 into the upper atmosphere. McLean was a TV actor of minor renown and probably best known as one of the many Marlboro Men to die of lung cancer. As Powell, McLean shows an occasional flash of humor or earthy humanity. These are rare though. For most of “X-15’s” run time, he appears as a strained face of authority, flying fast planes for no discernible reason other then it being his job.

The name on “X-15’s” marquee most likely to attract modern viewers’ attention is Charles Bronson. Bronson plays Lt. Col. Lee Brandon, another one of the X-15’s test pilots. The part is fairly thinly written. Like every character in “X-15,” Brandon does not have many notable or interesting characteristic. Bronson, however, had a soft-spoken, gritty personality to him that shined through even weak material. This was years before Bronson was defined as the creep killin’ vigilante of the “Death Wish” series. He’s playing a totally normal person, a working man who has recently married and acquired a step-son. Considering Bronson’s paternal composure has always been a great strength of him, it’s no surprise that his scenes are some of the film's better ones.

For all its flying and explosions, a smaller moment emerges as the best in “X-15.” Bronson is awoken early in the morning by his step-son, who boast about his synchronized watches. Bronson retreats to the bathroom to shave his morning stubble. What follows is a brief discussion about Brandon’s job as a pilot, what’s on TV, and the value of a man. It’s a small, charming moment. Despite this being such a memorable sequence, “X-15” still stumbles the emotional heart of the story. After – spoiler alert for a 56 year old movie – Brandon dies in a plane crash, the boy attempts to toss a meaningful object into the trash, while crying. The image of a small kid bopping a covered trash can on the lid with a plastic tube is more humorous then poignant.

As a further attempt to get inside the personal lives of the pilots, “X-15” devotes lengthy portions of its run time to the romantic lives. Patricia Owens, probably best known as the wife in “The Fly,” plays Bronson’s wife. An early, mildly touching moment has Owens casually revealing to her closest friend that she’s pregnant. After Bronson’s death, Owens gets a scene to herself about refusing to cry, a scene that could’ve been more effective in a better film. Also appearing in “X-15” is Mary Tyler Moore, in her first theatrical credit. Moore plays McLean’s love interest but isn’t given many opportunities to show off her abilities.

“X-15’s” supporting cast is filled out with stately character actors playing stuff authority figures. Brad Dexter, yet another cowboy actor and Bronson’s “The Magnificent Seven” co-star, plays another one of the pilots. Kenneth Tobey is another actor in the film who appeared in several notable monster movies, like “The Thing from Another World” and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” In “X-15,” he plays the colonel in charge of the program, mostly standing around and barking orders. James Gregory, whose voice you might recognize as General Ursus from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” gives one of the more memorable performances in the film. He plays the businessman style professional leading the program. “X-15” has an impressive collection of character actor talent but, because of the limp script, few of them are memorable.

In “X-15,” you can see the thinnest wisp of Richard Donner’s future career as a director of thrillers. Because it’s a movie about experimental aircrafts, inevitably a plane is going to crash or explode. One sequence builds up some mild tension when the engine in the back of a grounded jet burst into flames, endangering the pilot’s life. However, that tension is immediately sank when the pilot is completely unharmed. Later in the film, the X-15 threatens to crash land. The titular aircraft gets out okay but the jet flown by Bronson crashes. It’s the only moment in “X-15” that truly excites the audience, the movie coming alive for a brief few minutes. The crash, flames, and loss of life make it seems like the stakes are high for the first time.

So what’s the reason someone would want to see “X-15?” I suspect the people who will get the most out of the film are air-space history aficionados. “X-15” features genuine stock footage of the real X-15’s flights. These moments are obvious, due to the different film grains. However, there’s still something impressive about the sight. A camera strapped to a rocket hurling through the sky, at the edge of space, at 4,520 miles per hour is bound to produce some exciting footage. When “X-15” recreates the aircraft’s flights, it’s less effective. The scene of the plane gently re-enterting the earth’s atmosphere are pulled off with unconvincing miniatures and optical effects. The difference between the real deal and the awkward special effects are highly noticeable.

After its initial theatrical release, “X-15” was never re-distributed. The film rarely appeared on television. The picture was only released on VHS once, back in 1983. Finally, a 2004 DVD release made the film widely available for the first time in decades. Why “X-15” quickly faded from the public view isn’t hard to guess. The film was meant to document a recent historical event. Once that story stopped being breaking news, “X-15’s” purpose was lost. The movie essentially being an extended newsreel helps explain why it’s so droll. Richard Donner would return to television afterwards, further honing his craft. [Grade: C-]

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