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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Power

Producer George Pal and director Bryon Haskins brought out a different sort of sci-fi story in 1968. The Power strays from traditional concepts of science fiction, venturing more into the paranormal. Yet, it is still listed as a sci-fi. Haskins does tell a complex crime thriller with John Gay's screenplay. The big name cast includes Michael Rennie, George Hamilton, Suzanne Pleshette, Yvonne De Carlo, Arthur O'Connell, etc.. The plot has several twists and turns as members of a scientific committee are being killed off one by one by someone with vast mental powers. Which one of them is it?

Quick Plot Synopsis
Arthur Nordlund (Rennie) is the new federal liaison to a research lab. They're testing human limits to pain and mental stress so they can screen astronauts. The lab's directors are Jim, Norman, Henry, Scotty, Karl and Marge. Henry (Arthur O'Connell) is all agitated and interrupts the committee meeting. An advanced IQ test, taken by committee members as a dry-run, showed that one of them has mental powers "off the charts". After some vague talk of human advancement, Neitsche, and supermen, they do a simple telekinesis test. The piece of paper moves. One of them does have the power. Later that evening, Hallson visits his office but becomes trapped when doors and windows disappear. His wife calls Jim to report him not coming home. Jim and Marge stop smooching to investigate. They find Henry dead in the centrifuge. Jim finds a note in Henry's office with the name Adam Hart scrawled on it. Inspector Corlane confronts Jim, as a suspect. All of his credentials have become fake. Henry's wife doesn't recall phoning. Jim experiences several odd phenomena, like a pedestrian signal saying "Don't Run". Jim decides he must find this Adam Hart, a hometown friend of Henry's. In the small town, Flora at the diner said Adam was blonde and blue-eyed. Henry's father said he had mean black eyes. The gas station attendant says he can take Jim to see Hart, but dumps him out in an Air Force target range. Jim narrowly escapes a missile practice. Jim sneaks back into town to Marge's apartment. There, he is attacked by Karl. Turns out everyone on the committee is convinced that someone is out to kill them. Jim, Marge and Karl agree to hide out somewhere. They seek safety in numbers and mingle in a raucous convention crowd at a hotel. Karl fails to stay awake and dies of a heart attack. Jim and Marge flee. They watch Nordlund's apartment. Nordlund is tossed about by some power and trapped semi-conscious in an elevator. Jim rescues him. Now Jim, Marge and Nordlund wonder who it could be: Norman? Scotty? Jim has Marge stay with Nordlund while he checks out Norman. At Norman's home, his wife says he's not home, but Jim hears that he is. Norman talks with two mysterious other men about vaguely conspiratorial things. While hiding in the bushes, Jim is almost run down twice by Nordlund's big black Chrysler Imperial. Jim gets to his car, though convulsed by some external power. A chase scene ensues. Jim eventually drives off a bridge but escapes his sinking car. Police take him into custody. Inspector Corlane tells him Norman and his wife died in a massive fire that night. He has a note from Scotty, saying Jim should meet him in the lecture hall. Corlane accompanies Jim, but Jim tricks him into a locked storeroom. Jim confronts Scotty on stage. The police enter. Scotty pulls a gun. He points it at Jim for a moment, then, against his will, fires at the cops. They shoot him dead. Jim escapes and goes to the research lab. Marge is there, thinking Jim might come there. Nordlund is there too. It was Jim who moved the paper, who has the power. Nordlund, who also has the power was out to kill him. Nordlund uses his mind powers to torture Jim, but cannot kill him. Jim has stronger powers. He rises up, tosses Nordlund around and induces a heart attack. Jim and Marge emerge into the dawn. Jim wonders if absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The pacing is good, with only a few flat spots, keeping you engaged. The 'whodunnit' plot twists keep you guessing.

Cold War Angle
This is thin, but there is trope of an unseen oppressive power killing off potential rivals. Jim alludes to the problem of power corrupting. Nordlund represents the type who will kill anyone who might, possibly, be a rival. This is the classic Western view of communist dictators -- Stalin, et al.

Mind Games -- Throughout Power, there are visuals suggesting that Nordlund is manipulating objects on a large scale. Actually, what we see could only be tampering with his victim's perception. He may not, for instance, have actually replaced Henry's office door with a wall. He may have just tricked Henry into seeing it that way. Not too much actually happens to physical matter. Consider how Flora saw Adam Hart as blond and blue-eyed, yet Henry's dad saw him as dark skinned with cold black eyes. Nordlund/Hart controlled what they saw more than what he actually looked like.

Centrifugal Death -- NASA's astronaut training centrifuges must have had some frightening quality to them. Henry's death in it was not the first in film. Two expendable crewmen are killed in a centrifuge in Gog ('54). The idea still had legs. The villain would attempt to kill James Bond in one in Moonraker ('79).

Stock Footage Medley -- When Jim is out in the desert target range, a squadron of four F-104 Starfighters (with no wingtip missiles) peel out of echelon formation. An F-100 Supersaber fires a missile. A different F-104 fires a missile. Another F-100 fires more missiles, etc. Mix n' match. Once the pilots see Jim, a pair of yet other F-104s with wingtip missiles fly off. They start with no missiles. Fire a bunch, and go home with more than they started. Save those defense dollars!

For Car Nuts -- Featured as the bad guy car, is a big black 1966 Chrysler Imperial. Featured as the good-guy's car is a pastel yellow 1963 Plymouth Sport Fury. Various other mid 60s cars fill out the street scenes in L.A.

Of Mice and Supermen -- Underlaying the script, though not dwelt upon overtly, is the Nietschian notion of a "super"man. That is, if left to "evolve" for many generations, man would develop psycho-kenetic mind powers. This idea gets explored in several Golden Era sci-fi: Super-human vs. the rest of us. Nietsche's name is brought up a couple times in the script, if you have a quick ear. The subtext of Power is to play out his idea. Nietsche imagined the super men of the future evolving upwards into greater powers AND above the muddled pseudo-Christian middle class ethics of his day. Within that pipe dream, lurked a ruthless quality. Robinson focused on this in his 1956 novel. John Gay kept it in his screenplay. Nordlund, as the über-powerful "new" human, regarded unter-human lives as cheap and expendable, like livestock. All that mattered to Nordland was his own survival. Far from "advanced," his über-ethic turns out to be brutal, low, and primal. All that supposed genetic advancement brought little more than animal instinct with über-sharp teeth. This is progress?

Bottom line? Power is a very watchable film with good thriller pacing. For the most part, Haskins does a good job, except for a couple of weak spots. The acting is pretty good (if at times a bit wooden). The plot keeps you guessing right up to the end. It might not rank as stereotypic sci-fi, but it's a pretty good story, even for viewers who aren't "into" sci-fi.


Anonymous said...

Also really setting the mood of the movie is the pervasive eerie music. I love this movie. Rennie is always awesome.

thingmaker said...

The score, by Miklos Rozsa, is available, in complete form, as part of a multi-CD set of the composer's film music.
It's kinda amusing that when Frank M. Robinson released an "updated" version of the novel in 2000, the only change I noticed was the substitution of the word Vietnam for Korea in a single sentence. It is a very good novel.