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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Flying Saucer

Mikel Conrad was a second tier actor who wrote, produced and starred in The Flying Saucer (TFS). Like many independent one-man-band productions,, the quality suffers from a lack of supervision. TFS is a typical low-budget B-film. There are large quantities of stock footage, though in TFS's case, it is of Alaskan landscape instead of the more typical army and air force footage or V2 launches. Actually, TFS is more of a B-grade enemy-spies-after-secrets film than it is a sci-fi B-film. They could have been after anything -- a maltese falcon, microfilm, whatever -- but this time it happens to be a super secret flying "disk" aircraft.

Quick Plot Synopsis
People all over the country report seeing flying saucers, most recently in Alaska. Could they be "not of this world?" Could they be Russian? The CIA sends its "top man", Mike Trent,  undercover to find the saucer. His cover story is that he's an agent that suffered a nervous breakdown, so needs some vacation time in Alaska. To help his cover story, he needs a "nurse" who is actually the CIA's top female agent. Naturally, she is a young attractive blonde. To no one's surprise, the two develop a love interest together. They search here and there on the pretense of sightseeing and picnicking. They fly over mountains and glaciers and bask in the rugged scenery of Alaska, for no apparent reason. They spend time in ramshackle Juneau bars. They encounter some flaccid Soviet agents. The saucer turns out to be a disk-shaped twin-engine jet aircraft, the invention of a human scientist. Soviet operatives are trying to find it, so they can buy (or steal) it. There are no aliens. In the end, the saucer's test pilot decides to steal the saucer for himself in order to sell it to the Soviets, but a self-destruct bomb onboard destroys it shortly after he flies off. All is safe. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TFS is a very cheesy spy drama, of the so-bad-it's-good type. It would have been too easy a target for the MST3K crowd. It's the historical significance as an early "flying saucer" film has some value.

Cold War Angle
TFS is a stock spy film, updated for the day. The bad guys are after a secret weapon. A plot line as old as the Napoleonic wars. Here, the ruthless Soviet spies are obvious as the bad guys. They skulk around and kill people. Pretty typical. The scientist's flying saucer invention is important because it's seen as a prime vehicle for delivering "A bombs". Whoever has saucers, rules the world!

You Call Yourself A Professional? -- An amusing subtext is Conrad's vision of life as a "top CIA agent." Apparently, being a chain smoking, womanizing, clueless alcoholic are essential spy skills. A laugh-out-loud example is this scene: CIA-man "Mike Trent" and his "nurse" arrive at his family's remote cabin in Alaska. Instead of being met by the familiar old caretaker, Louis, a gaunt man wearing black tall boots, a black beret, and a long knife on his belt, and speaking with a vaguely european accent meets them at the dock. "Where's Louis?" Trent asks. "He took zome time off," says the dark stranger named Hans. "Oh, okay," says Trent, "Help us with these bags." Amazing situational-awareness. This is the CIA's top man? Seriously? Later on, Hans proves himself to be as capable an enemy assassin-agent as Trent was as a CIA man. (not so much)

Promotion Via Fake News -- Marginal as an actor, Conrad did have a flair for promotion. "Flying Saucers" were hot news in the public mind. Arnold had made his sensational sighting just three years prior. Flying saucers were fascinating and frightening. (this is the early Cold War era, too). Conrad could have just made a spy movie (which TFS essentially was), but choosing a "flying saucer" as his MacGuffin, was shrewd. Near his movie's release date, Conrad hinted that his movie contained actual footage of real flying saucers. He then hired a fellow actor to pretend to be an FBI agent, and "confiscate" the film (with much ballyhoo) because it contained "classified" information. TFS was conveniently "declassified" just in time for opening. All this gave Conrad some fine publicity -- more than his film would ever have gotten on its own merits. The press was miffed at having been duped with the fake FBI agent gambit.

Early Sighting -- TFS is historically significant as a film, in that it was the first feature film to star a flying saucer. (The Captain Video TV series -- c.1949-1951 -- is said to feature a "flying disk") Republic released a serial the same year as TFS, named Flying Disc Man From Mars, which showed a "flying disc" only very briefly in the first chapter. From then on, there were no flying saucers. So, TFS may well have the honor of being the first feature film with a flying saucer -- even if of earthly origins.

Young Duke -- Even though almost everyone in TFS was a B-level actor, the part of the turncoat test pilot was played by Denver Pyle,. He would later became famous as Uncle Jesse Duke in the Dukes of Hazard TV series. In 1950, he was a scrawny, unimpressive string bean.

Good or Bad? -- What makes TFS worth the watch is the mood of ambiguity about flying saucers. A few years further into the 50s, everyone "knew" flying saucers were from outer space. But in 1950, just three years after the famous UFO sightings that gave us the term "flying saucer", people were fascinated, yet apprehensive. They suspected that flying saucers were man-made super weapons, not alien invaders. Those "innocent" days didn't last long, so it's kinda neat to see a movie which captures that brief mood.

Bottom line? TFS is weak on entertainment value. It is primarily a vanity piece by Conrad, who had more vanity than talent. Yet, as an artifact in cinema, sci-fi history, it has value.

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