Directed by Antonio Margheriti (Anthony Dawson)
Screenplay by Antonio Margheriti & Ennio De Concini
Cinematography: Marcello Masciocchi
Music by Lelio Luttazzi
Cast: Rik Van Nutter (Ray Peterson, IZ41), Gabriella Farinon (Lucy, Y13), David Montresor (George the Commander), Archie Savage (Al, X15), Alain Dijon (Archie, Y16), Franco Fantasia (Sullivan)
Antonio Margheriti worked on documentaries, did special effects work and wrote screenplays before directing his first feature, Assignment: Outer Space (1960). This kicked off a career that went from whacked-out Italian science fiction and spaghetti westerns to peplum and horror movies to spy movies and action films.
When you crank out more than 50 fad-chasing genre pictures, it’s understood that quite a few of them will be less than great. But Margheriti had a real knack for no-budget special effects — and he loved science fiction. He certainly knew how to get a movie done quickly and efficiently — using multiple cameras to get everything from master shots to closeups at the same time. With the Gamma One series, for instance, he shot four films simultaneously, using the same actors, props and sets — shooting scenes from four color-coded screenplays each day. Margheriti’s ingenuity and love of cinema is baked into most of his films, especially the ones from the 60s, and it helps put a lot of them over.
Space-Men — or Assignment: Outer Space, as it’s known in the States — is a picture with more ideas and scope than its budget could bankroll, but Margheriti manages to make it work.
Antonio Margheriti (from a 1970 interview): “Back then, Titanus was a big production company and one day they asked me if I wanted to make this film. I said yes, obviously… I made the film in 14 days and I spent 41,000,000 lire, which is very little money.”
The story is pretty basic — a broken-down spaceship is on a collision course with Earth, and the team on a single space station are mankind’s only hope. The special effects are passable, nothing more. And its pacing is pretty leisurely for a story with so much natural suspense.
But these liabilities become assets in Margheriti’s hands. The story serves as a framework for some imaginative sequences that may, or may not, advance the story. Margheriti devotes lots of screen time to showing us the (speculative) ins and outs of space travel, in a way that plays a bit like a precursor to Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey (1968) — with a waking-up-from-suspended-animation scene that was clearly an influence on Alien (1979). The special effects are quaint, cool, surreal and charming — especially for those of use who consider CGI a nail in cinema’s coffin. (Larger models would’ve made a big difference, no pun intended.) It’s a very visual experience throughout, which makes it a real shame that it looks so consistently, and internationally, lousy on video.
They say that while Margheriti was shooting Assignment: Outer Space, Mario Bava was hard at work on Black Sunday (1960) on the soundstage next door at Scalera Film studios. One thing I found brilliant was the use of letters and numbers on the characters’ uniforms and space suits, so we know who’s who in longer shots — much like numbers on a baseball jersey. And one more thing: Rik Van Nutter would go on to play Felix Leiter in Thunderball (1965) — and was married to Anita Ekberg.
Antonio Margheriti would follow this with Battle Of The Worlds (1961), which is on its way to Blu-Ray from The Film Detective, and a few years later would come the Gamma One pictures (available from Warner Archive). In between, some spaghetti westerns and gothic horror — all of it worth your time. And though his work from the 70s and 80s doesn’t have the same ingenuity and creativity, it’s a real shame that Margheriti isn’t better known, and appreciated.