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Monday, November 5, 2012

Frozen Alive

This joint British-German production was released in 1964. Frozen Alive (FA) is another iteration of the Frozen trope which reappears periodically. In this case, it is deliberate freezing ("for science!") and not the found-in-ice type. The German release was titled, Der Fall X701 ("Case X701"). Shot in black and white, FA is more of a crime melodrama with some sci-fi used in a secondary role. FA stars Mark Stevens as Dr. Frank Overton, and Marianne Koch as Dr. Helen Wieland. Director Bernard Knowles was more experienced in television work, but did go on to direct Spaceflight IC-1 a year later.

Quick Plot Synopsis
At the Low Temperature Research lab of the World Health Organization, Dr. Helen Weiland is nervous about presenting her work at a symposium. Lab partner, Dr. Frank Overton assures her she'll do fine. At the symposium, they describe their work in cryogenics, freezing chimps and reviving them alive. Suspended animation will be a boon to surgery. Applause. Meanwhile, Frank's wife Joan is dressed to impress and getting drunk. She is jealous. (Frank spends a lot of time at work with pretty young Helen). Joan attends the end of the symposium, but manages to embarrass more than impress. She seeks solace with her pre-marriage flame, Tony, who still wants her. Joan and Tony go to a bar and take in an african band with a fire dancer. She gets drunk. Tony gets a must-do assignment due at dawn. She gets even more drunk at Tony's apartment. While he tries to work on a magazine article, she finds a souvenir pistol of his. She puts it in her purse and staggers off to go frighten Helen. Again, she only manages to embarrass herself and Frank. Frank and Helen win some prestigious award for their work, which has a nice cash prize. Award or not, the director of the lab, Sir Keith, orders the project shifted before it starts any potentially embarrassing human trials (and failures). Frank is to be reassigned to some other project. Helen call Frank to tell him the bad news. While on the phone, she overhears Frank discover that Joan has the gun. (She was ashamed and trying to hide it) All Helen hears is: "Give me the gun." Bam! Scream. Frank comes back to the phone and says it was only a broken lightbulb popping. Actually, the gun just went off as they struggled and shot a pillow. The prize money offers hope of reconciliation for Frank and Joan. They'll get away, but first, Frank wants to help Helen with a human trial before their team is officially dissolved. He goes to the lab and volunteers to be the guinea pig. Meanwhile, Tony comes over to Joan's house wanting his missing gun. Joan is happy at turning over a sober new leaf and her rekindled marriage, but while gesturing with the pistol, shoots herself in the chest. She dies. Tony, scared, takes the gun and wipes down things with his prints on them. Frank is frozen. The maid finds dead Joan. Scream. The police show up at the lab. Frank is suspected of murdering Joan, since there was no gun found. Helen is shocked. While they thaw and revive Frank, Helen conspires to have him die of complications. His EKG goes flat line. Tony gets a conscience and tells the police what happened. Helen overhears the police report that it Joan died of a self-inflicted wound. She quickly saves Frank from his "complications." A year later, Frank and Helen are a happy couple in love. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a nostalgia appeal to FA. It feels as if it could have been a 40s or early 50s film. The actors do a reasonable job with their characters, keeping them from slipping into stereotypes. Although, the Sir Keith character tends to be the customary project director who fears bad publicity so shuts down the promising project.

Cultural Connection
Writers and audiences seemed fascinated with the idea of temporary death. It offers a sort of earthly parallel to resurrection, though less like Christ's and more like Lazarus. Those who get their second life (post-freeze) usually end up dead again anyhow. Cheating death appeals to the mortal imagination.

Serious Science -- To its credit, FA presents what it has for science fiction in the "hard" sense of credible possibility, not fantasy wonder. The screenplay offers up noticeably less techno-babble than usual to try to sell the notion to the audience. Cryogenics is portrayed almost as matter of fact. It is not crucial to the story, but does provide the pivotal recovery process which gave Helen her option to revive him, or let him die. For the story's sake, it could have been high pressure (as in deep sea diving) or some drug-induced coma, etc. as the "science" that provided the key scene.

Dual Triangles -- The more dominant melodrama involved two love triangles with Frank at the intersection of them. Tony likes Joan who loves Frank, and Helen who secretly likes Frank who is still loyal to Joan. In typical British fashion, the soap opera aspect is not over played. Most of the movie hangs on whether Joan or Frank will stay faithful to each other. Any sci-fi elements are secondary.

Good Girl, Bad Girl -- The character of Joan almost steals the show. The movie could just as appropriately have been titled "Poor Joan." She is actually rather well written and well acted by Delphi Lawrence. At first, she is the two dimensional bad girl: an alcoholic with a bad attitude and perhaps an affair on the side. Further in, she is the faithful wife, but tormented by feelings of inadequacy, yet desperately wanting to be worthy of the man she deeply loves. Hence the drinking. Near the end, when Frank shows his loyalty to her, she resolves to BE worthy, giving up the booze to be the good wife. Her accidental death made her a sort of anti-hero of the story. Her failure opened the door for Helen, (the almost always good girl) who loved Frank from afar, and Frank to have Helen, whom he admired for her mind. (It didn't hurt that she was shapely and cute too).

Did He Actually Do It? -- One might wonder if Frank actually did set things up to allow Joan to shoot herself. She said she wanted to. HE checked the gun's clip and declared the gun empty. If he knew enough to check the clip, he would have known to check the chamber. He didn't. An intentional oversight? Frank did not get to see the new-leaf Joan. What he got was the Joan that was not too keen on living a quiet life in the country as wife and mother. Frank did seem awfully happy to have Helen in the end.

Killing For Science -- At the climax of the movie (as mild as it is), Helen has it in her power to let Frank die at a crucial juncture in the recovery process. She clearly opts to let him die. Was she acting as judge, jury and executioner based on what she heard in the phone call? Was she sparing Frank a nastier death by capital punishment? Or, was she protecting the program from torrid publicity?

Pointless Fire Dance -- Far too much footage is devoted to the fire dancer act in the nightclub Joan and Tony visit. The scene goes well beyond the range of an establishing shot, or a flavor shot. It's almost a demo reel for the act, as if the producer had promised the band that he would put them into one of his movies to give them their big break. They do nothing for the story.

Bottom line? FA is primarily a low B-grade crime drama in a film-noir sort of way.The sci-fi component is minimal. The pace is somewhat slow at times and talky at others. Some consider FA a very dull movie. Viewers hankering for explosions and laser battles will likely be bored to tears. FA is a less sensational member of the Frozen sub-genre, but at least tries to maintain some dignity.

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