Directed by Antonio Margheriti (Anthony Dawson)
Story & Screenplay by Vassily Petrov
Cinematography: Marcello Masciocchi
Edited by Mario Serandrei
Music by Mario Migliard
Cast: Claude Rains (Professor Benson), Bill Carter (Cmdr. Robert Cole), Maya Brent (Eve Barnett), Umberto Orsini (Dr. Fred Steele), Jacqueline Derval (Mrs. Collins)
Antonio Margheriti’s first film as director, Assignment: Outer Space (1960, AKA Space-Men) did well, so Titanus (there’s no producer credited on these films) gave him a bit more to work with for the next one, which ended up being Battle Of The Worlds (1961). The most obvious thing to come from that boost in budget was hiring Claude Rains, who does a lot more for the film than it does for him.
Rains plays Professor Benson, a cantankerous old genius who’s been watching another planet, which he calls “The Outsider,” approach the earth. Scientists from a space station near Mars consult with Rains, who predicts The Outsider will come close to the earth, but pass by without hitting it. They doubt him, but when it turns out he’s right, everybody’s relieved. Whew! Then it alters its course and settles into an orbit around the earth. That’s not a very planet-y thing to do.
Rains decides some sort of intelligence is controlling The Outsider and tells the scientists it needs to be destroyed right away. Again, the professor is ignored.
Spaceships are sent out to investigate — and they’re promptly destroyed by a fleet of flying saucers that come swarming out of The Outsider. Whatever this thing is, it’s got some vile ideas about the earth. Now, everybody’s more than willing to listen to Rains. And he knows exactly what needs to be done.
Like most Italian science fiction movies, Battle Of The Worlds is pretty odd. At times, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The budget limitations are painfully obvious. The acting is, for the most part, pretty bad (hard to tell with all the dubbing). And the pacing is weird. But like Margheriti’s previous picture, there’s something about it that I find really, really cool.
All of Margheriti’s sci-fi pictures of the 60s demonstrate his love of science fiction, which makes up for most of the film’s deficiencies. The special effects run hot and cold. Maybe that’s being generous, but I prefer them that way. Battle Of The Worlds is jam-packed with ideas and creativity, which are far more valuable than a several million bucks worth of CGI.
Claude Rains is a lot of fun in this thing. He’s pretty over-the-top, playing an eccentric scientist a lot like the one he played in the remake of The Lost World (1960, he was Professor Challenger in that one). Rains demanded that his scenes for Battle Of The Worlds be shot with sound, rather than the Italian way of dubbing everything in later. English-speaking actors were used frequently. All this makes a big difference in how the film plays.
Margheriti and cinematographer Marcello Masciocchi are very inventive with their camerawork. Odd angles and unusual lens choices give the picture a very distinct, other-wordly look — and help disguise the lack of funds.
In 1963, Topaz Film Corporation paired Battle Of The Worlds with another Italian picture, Atom Age Vampire (1960). They played drive-ins for years before winding up on television. That’s where I caught up with it, on a local station late one night in the mid-70s.
Now let’s get to the new Blu-Ray from The Film Detective. An original 35mm print from the American Topaz release was used. While the picture played Italy in Technicolor, it criss-crossed the US in Eastman Color — and that’s what we see here. The folks at The Film Detective have cleaned up the print quite a bit — it’s sharp as a tack, very steady and with minimal splices. The color has faded a bit toward that Eastman Color’s weird, sickly, pinkish brown, however. That’s a shame, but what we have here is far, far superior to what we’ve been suffering through for decades (see the above comparison, from The Film Detective YouTube channel). It’s not perfect, but I’m so happy to have it. (Having grown up watching lots of film prints, mostly 16mm, I have a soft spot for a few light lines, some grain and a bit of fading. It’s part of the film experience, and I like being reminded of it every now and then.) I’m so thankful that companies like The Film Detective are willing to do the sleuthing necessary to find the best available material for films like this, then taking on the costly clean-up work needed for a nice DVD/Blu-Ray release.
The supplements are quite nice. There’s a half-hour piece on Antonio Margheriti from Ballyhoo and Tim Lucas. It’s excellent. There’s also a commentary by Justin Humphreys, and a nice essay in the booklet.
I’ve been a fan of Battle Of The Worlds since I saw it on TV. For years, I’ve wanted it to make it to DVD or Blu-Ray in a version that reflected what it looked like back in 1961 (or ’63). This isn’t perfect, but I love it. I’ve been on a Margheriti sci-fi mini-binge of late, so the timing with this is perfect. A big thanks to folks at The Film Detective, and a big recommendation to all y’all out there.