Port Sinister

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Villains thwart a scientific expedition to a lost city rising out of the sea, and a damsel is distressed by lava quicksand and giant crab monsters. The valiant cast battles a thin, juvenile script, cramped sets and a low budget. 3/10

Port Sinister. 1953, USA. Directed by Harold Daniels. Written by Jack Pollexfen & Aubrey Wisberg. Starring: James Warren, Lynne Roberts, Paul Cavanagh, William Schallert, House Peters, Jr. Produced by Albert Zugsmith, Pollexfen & Wisberg. IMDb: 5.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Port Sinister is a juvenile adventure dime novel brought to screen in all its cheap, clunky glory. It was one of three pictures produced for RKO under the banner American Pictures Company (APC) by producers Albert Zugsmith, Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, having been preceded by Captive Women (1952, review) and Sword of Venus (1953). Pollexfen and Wisberg wrote the script and actor-director Harold Daniels stood behind the camera.

Stories don’t really get simpler than this. Brilliant scientist (and chauvinist) Tony Ferris (James Warren) opens the film at the institute of oceanography, where he seeks funds to explore the mythical, lost pirate island of Port Royal. After sinking below the waves in the late 17th century due to a volcanic eruption, it has popped up again briefly now and then thanks to the same geological forces. Ferris has calculated that it will appear again in two weeks, and wants to set out on a ship to investigate. This time, though, he wants to be careful, because the last time he took the same expedition, he was thwarted by his crew, which was more interested in the mythical treasure of the island than in scientific work. His idea of careful is apparently keeping his secret maps and documents on top of his drawer in his apparently unlocked hotel room, so that the the leader of last trip’s mutiny, John Kolvac (Paul Cavanagh) can stroll in and steal them, at the same time clonking Ferris unconscious.

Kolvac teams up with the shifty villain Collins (SF favourite William Schallert), who hijack the crew, ship and sceptical but pretty female geologist Dr. Joan Hunter (Lynne Roberts) while Ferris recuperates from clonk in the hospital, where he is tended by a pretty nurse (Anne Kimbell). Realising the ship has literally sailed without him, he is tipped of by a pretty female radio officer (Marjorie Stapp) about maverick pilot Jim Garry (House Peters, Jr.) who agrees to take him through a storm out to the mythical island in his seaplane.

James Warren as Dr. Ferris recovering from clonk.

Ferris and Garry run out of fuel and use a parachute to sail their plane the rest of the way (off-screen), meaning the villains reach the island first. Amid “lava quicksand”, treacherous rocks, volcanic mini-eruptions and giant monster crabs, Collins and Kolvac wait for the crew to drink themselves into a stupor, and then sneak out to collect the treasure chests for themselves. However, they are interrupted by Dr. Hunter, who gets herself tied up as dinner for one of the crabs. But now our heroes arrive,who must not only save their female colleague from death by crustacean, but also dodge bullets from the newly awakened crew members and the two major villains, and sneak out to the ship to find gas for the plane (also off-screen) before another eruption sends the island back into Davy Jones’ locker. Will they prevail, and will greed be the death of our villains in the end?

Port Sinister is sometimes referred to as a “pirate movie” and the IMDb blurb makes it sound like it’s set in the 17th century, so it’s understandable that this one frequently flies under the radar of SF aficionados. And if we’re being strict, it’s also on wobbly ground as a science fiction film, although it does give a scientific explanation for the sinking and rising of the mysterious island. What it really is, as alluded to in the opening line of this article, is a pre-1960 juvenile dime novel come to life on the screen. I have been reading an number of these short, often SF-themed novels lately, and they all follow a very similar pattern:

Lynne Roberts as Dr. Hunter rock climbing.

They open with a discussion between the lead scientist and some other character about the adventure that is going to take place, laying out the exposition needed for the reader to follow the story, often while explaining the science behind the fiction. As the protagonist, which may or may not also be the lead scientist, gathers up his team of adventurers, the crew is joined by one or two shifty characters, whom the audience is immediately led to understand are villains. Then the journey is described in some detail, after which both heroes and villains arrive at their destination. Some exploration of the new environments takes place, the crew is confronted with a dangerous situation (monsters/cannibals/aliens/etc.), which they conquer over the course of one or two short chapters. The villains momentarily take control of the ship/spaceship/plane/etc., but the ingenuity and/or physical superiority of the protagonist saves the day, and they return safely home. The story may or may not include a damsel in distress, a young boy or a pet. Most often it is strictly a sausage-fest. The books are generally characterised by their cardboard cutout characters, easily recognisable heroes and villains and their simple and flimsy plots. There is generally one threat from without and one from within. The first is usually settled by brute force (killing the monsters) and the second with wits (outsmarting the villains).

The Port Royal of the story in Port Sinister was inspired by real-life Port Royal on the Southeast coast of Jamaica, on an isthmus encircling the bay of Kingston. Port Royal was the stronghold for Spanish privateers working for he Brits in the 17th century. By 1692, when it had become the largest town in Jamaica, it was destroyed by an earthquake and a tsunami. It never sank beneath the sea, though, and is still there to this day.

James Warren as Dr. Ferris and House Peters, Jr. as the maverick pilot.

Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg are primarily known among SF aficionados as the producers and writers behind the sleeper hit The Man from Planet X (review), which kickstarted the alien invasion genre in 1951, a few months before The Thing from Another World (review) hit theatres. That super-low-budget classic benefited greatly from Edgar Ulmer’s atmospheric and tight direction, and unfortunately the duo were never able to repeat neither the commercial nor artistic success of that movie. Captive Women, despite its many flaws, was an interesting picture, a post-apocalyptic dystopia set in a nuclear-scarred wasteland 1,000 years from now. But its clunky dialogue, confusing script and half-developed subplots detracted from the interesting ideas at the core of the film. Port Sinister, on the other hand, doesn’t have any lofty goals to start with. It’s a juvenile SF-pirate-monster-disaster adventure yarn packed with action and thrills, or at least attempts at thrills. Pollexfen himself said in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver that he wasn’t satisfied with his and Wisberg’s script. Weaver asks if the giant crabs were an afterthought meant to bring science fiction and monster movie fans to a pirate movie, but Pollexfen says that the SF angle and the giant crab were present from the beginning. But Pollexfen admits: “We never licked the story.”

The film clocks in a just under one hour, and by then it is already stretching the thin plot to its limits. What with the non-characters, their non-existent dramatic arcs and a lack of anything even resembling a subplot, a psychological angle, a philosophical question, a political statement, a moral conclusion or even a single meaningful exchange between any of the characters that is not designed to move the action forward or present exposition, the plot would have struggled to fill an half-hour TV episode, let alone a feature film.

Giant crab!

However, like most of Pollexfen and Wisberg’s films, Port Sinister doesn’t descend to the level of “so bad it’s good”. The duo were competent producers, and unlike a lot of other B-movie producers, they seem to have actually cared about the quality of their films, beyond how much of a profit they would make at the box office. Even when handed a low budget and a second-tier director, they usually managed to squeeze out an at least a functioning movie. This is the case with Port Sinister as well. Harold Daniels is hardly a name rings any bells, other than to the most devoted B-movie fanatic, and he doesn’t do much to elevate this movie above its weak script. This was his last of a handful of films for RKO, before he was consigned to making no-budget crime dramas and horror clunker for independent producers in the fifties and sixties, which he rounded out with the odd TV assignment. Still, Port Sinister is fairly competently made considering its under 100,000 dollar budget, and Daniels is able to conjure up at least some suspense and atmosphere, despite the rather flat filming and the cramped sets.

The production design by Wisberg and Pollexfen veteran Theobald Holsopple is, again, functioning but not impressive. No doubt the endless rock formations and the remnants of the sunken city contained a number of repurposed sets from Captive Women and Sword of Venus. Back are also the duo’s loyal special effects men, Roscoe Cline and SF legend Jack Rabin. They liven up the rather nondescript rocky landscape at Port Royal with smoke bellowing out of holes in the ground and flames shooting up both in the back- and foreground. An example of Cline’s ingenuity is the long scene where the crewmen chase the heroes across “lava crust with quicksand underneath”. In reality, it’s just an ordinary floor covered in a thick carpet of dry ice smoke, but the actors do such good pantomime that it turns into the film’s most suspenseful sequence. Of course, what most people seek out the movie for is the giant crab monster. They will be somewhat disappointed, as the crab only features in two very short, almost throw-away sequences. If the crab itself look like an actual crab, it is because that’s what it is. According to Pollexfen, they (probably meaning SFX director Rabin) used a dead spider crab, which was strung up like a marionette with nylon lines, filmed from below and blown up behind the actors with rear projection. The upside of this method is that you get a reasonably good-looking monster, but the downside is that there’s never anything for the actors to actually interact with, meaning it always remains a bit of a distant threat. Even giant crab aficionado Don Willis wrote in his book Horror and Science Fiction Films that Port Sinister is “one of the lesser giant crab films”. However, the projection, the matte work and other visual effects are fairly well executed considering the budget, as is usually the case with Rabin.

Lynne Roberts with the crab in the background.

As stated, the main pitfall of Port Sinister is the script. Not only does it stretch a thin plot with very little substance too long. Paradoxically it also seems that we are missing out on a number of scenes. There’s a constant confusion over who is on who’s side and what the characters are actually planning and doing. There’s a great scene where Ferris and Garry decide to sail their seaplane to Port Royal with a parachute as a sail, but then we never get to them actually do it. We see the plane only in a very wide shot, probably as a cutout or model, the size of a mite on the screen. There’s also a scene where Garry is sent off to he ship to get gas for the plane, but we never even see him leaving, and a few minutes later he is back where we last left him, only now he has gas canisters. It’s never made clear whether Dr. Hunter is aware that the ship has been hijacked or not. At one point it seems she is locked in the radio room while the storm is raging, as she pulls on the door without getting out. But in the next scene she is standing on the bridge with the crew as if nothing has happened.

Just like in Captive Women, there’s no sense of geography in the movie. People simply appear at different locations, and we get no sense of how far they are from each other. It feels like they are all just next door. This, of course, is partly due to the low budget. The sets are small and there’s very little location shooting in order to allow for the viewer to even get a feeling of what size Port Royal is. We don’t even get the obligatory shot of the ship at harbour before the crew boards it. The ship in Port Sinister is an anachronism, as it is clearly a sailing yacht, but the interior resembles a modern propeller-driven ship. Why a science crew would set out on a research trip with a sail ship is incomprehensible, but the real reason is, naturally, that the producers needed stock footage of a ship amidst a storm, and the only usable material they had was of a sail ship.

Walking on “lava quicksand”.

Another problem for the modern viewer is that it is difficult to care about the hero. Tony Ferris comes off as a bit of a chauvinist, even if he is no worse than a lot of B-movie heroes. In fact, a bigger problem is the way that Dr. Joan Hunter is written, more like a petulant teenager than a grown woman. But neither Ferris nor Hunter simply portray enough personality for us to feel anything for them, which is primarily the fault of the script. Minor western star James Warren has the leading man looks and the braggadocios of a B-movie gunslinger, but something more would have been needed to bring his character to life in Port Sinister. Veteran B-movie leading lady Lynne Roberts had been horse-riding and swooning on screen since her teens in the late thirties, but her role in Port Sinister gives her little to work with, other than stumbling around papier mache rocks in pumps and mini shorts. Because that’s what a geologist wears on a trip to a volcanic island, just as Ferris prefers a suit and tie when chasing pirates in a seaplane. Thankfully, William Schallert and Paul Cavanagh liven up the film with some quality acting as the villains, with Cavanagh in particular getting the chance to chew a bit of scenery. Also, there is House Peters, Jr., who plays the drunken maverick pilot, and injects some much-needed energy and character into the film. SF veteran Robert Bice is also on hand with typically solid support.

Port Sinister opened to poor reviews. Variety called it “a mediocre melodrama”, and added that it was “nothing to be recommended as entertainment, other than the doubtful angle of its thrills cue laughs instead of its intended chills”. Box Office wrote: “Unbelievably amateurish in its conception and execution is this independently made opus, which purports to be action drama that fails utterly on all counts.” However, The Motion Picture Herald noted that “some science fiction devotees might find this product interesting”.

Jack Cavanagh as villan number one.

Port Sinister has a 5.1/10 rating on IMDb, based on only around 60 ratings, which speaks to the film’s obscurity. AllMovie gives it 1/5 stars, and TV Guide cites the film’s “ridiculous plot”, and notes that “despite some good special effects and a worthy characterization or two, this story should remain submerged”. However, Leonard Maltin in his Classic Movie Guide gives Port Sinister 2/4 stars. In his book Keep Watching the Skies!, film historian Bill Warren writes: “The cast struggles gamely with typical prolix, clotted Wisberg-Pollexfen dialogue. […] The special effects of the island rising and sinking are competent for the budget level, but the big crabs [are] laughable rather than menacing”.

Today’s internet critics are somewhat forgiving, perhaps with the exception of Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings who writes: “I found myself a lot more interested in what was sitting in my refrigerator than what was taking place on the screen, and needless to say that after five minutes of foraging in the former, I didn’t feel obliged to rewind and catch the five minutes I missed.” Mark David Welsh echoes Sindelar’s disinterest, but with a more positive note: “This is a very minor little programmer with events playing out in a way that can easily be predicted in the first five minutes or so. If you’re prepared to leave your critical faculties at the door, it’s a (fairly) painless experience I suppose but not one you’ll remember too much about.” Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster writes: “It isn’t a great movie, but it is entertaining in a modest, B-movie sort of way, the sort of movie to catch when you aren’t feeling picky and are hoping for some breezy dumb fun.” Steve Kopian at Unseen Films notes that Port Sinister “isn’t all that good. The enjoyment of it comes from the odd mix of genres and images. […] As the film goes on you can’t help but wonder where in the world the film is going to go next. Its a tall tale well sold.” Kopian adds: “This is exactly the sort of film that I used to get up in the middle of the night to see. Give me anything with monsters and I’m happy.”

William Schallert as villain number two.

Port Sinister does not seem to be available for online streaming, even on less legal platforms. You can find bootleg DVD’s in a few specialist shops, but unfortunately the image is very dark, so much so that it is sometimes hard to see what is going on in the film — but it probably makes the special effects look better. According to Mark Cole, MGM sits on the rights to the picture, and hasn’t released it for home viewing. Like Cole, I suspect that whatever print or negative the studio has, it is so degraded that it would cost too much to do a proper restoration, this being the obscure movie that it is. Thus, we have to be content with the low-quality bootlegs that are out there. In 1956, the film was re-released under the title Beast of Paradise Isle.

Born in Buffalo, NY, in 1903, Port Sinister’s director Harold Daniels entered the movie business relatively late as an actor in the mid-thirties, scoring his biggest role as a shifty playboy in Sam Newfield’s low-budget exploitation movie Secrets of a Model (1940), but mostly played bit-parts and small supporting roles. He graduated to directing short films for MGM in the early forties, and made a couple of little-remembered independent features at the end of the decade. He got some recognition in 1951, when he was picked up by RKO to direct Roadblock, one of Charles McGraw’s first movies as a leading man, which may be how he got on the APC radar. After his work with Pollexfen and Wisberg his career stumbled unsteadily along with the occasional movie and scattered TV work until the early sixties, when Daniels was nearing retirement age anyway. Outside of his work at RKO, Daniels is perhaps best remembered, if at all, for the films Bayou (1957) and The House of Black Death (1965). The first was a standard melodrama set in New Orleans, starring Peter Graves. Like most of Daniels’ output, it would have remained in obscurity, had it not been picked up in 1962 by a drive-in distributor, who added murky nude scenes to it and renamed it Poor White Trash. It became a cult favourite and played the Southern drive-in circuits for most of the sixties. The House of Black Death, on the other hand, is remembered, if at all, as one of the final (and worst) films in Lon Chaney, Jr’s chequered career, and as one of a string of movies where he co-starred with John Carradine. In fact, after directing half of the movie, Daniels was fired by the producers, and exploitation legend Jerry Warren was brought in to finish the film, uncredited.

House Peters, Jr., Lynne Roberts and James Warren.

As stated, Port Sinister was the last of three films produced by low-budget specialist Albert Zugsmith, along with writer-producers Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, the other being Captive Women (1952) and Sword of Venus (1952), all with budgets under 100,000 dollars. Aubrey Wisberg was born in the UK in 1909 and emigrated to Georgia with his family in 1921, attended Columbia University in New York, and during his long career worked not only in the movies, but also as a journalist, author, and radio and TV dramatist. He rattled around Hollywood as a popular low-budget screenwriter from 1943, and in 1949 teamed up with Californian journalist and playwright Jack Pollexfen who made his bones in the movie business by writing training films for the US Airforce during WWII. Their first hit (well, for a low-budget potboiler, anyway) was Treasure of Monte Christo, a modern reinvention of Alexandre Dumas’ famous story. This would become something of a trade mark for the pair, and Pollexfen in particular, who made a dozen movies reinterpreting either historical figures or historical novels. The writer-producer pair had their real breakthrough with The Man From Planet X in 1951, a super-cheap surprise hit rushed into theatres to take advantage of the buzz around the upcoming big-budget production The Day the Earth Stood Still (review). It cost only 41,000 dollars to make and made over a million at the box office.

In 1951 Pollexfen on his own collaborated on The Son of Dr. Jekyll (review). Wisberg and Pollexfen went on to co-write and produce such SF movies as Captive Women, Port Sinister and The Neanderthal Man (1953). Wisberg co-wrote cult director Antonio Margheriti’s first Gamma One Quadrilogy film The Snow Devils (La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin, 1967) as well as Mission Mars (1968). He is probably best known for writing and producing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s debut movie, Hercules in New York (1969). Pollexfen didn’t make much better films, though, as he co-directed the abysmal Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle Indestructible Man in 1953 and the even worse Monstrosity in 1963 (to his credit, though, the studio went bankrupt in the middle of filming). Editor Frank R. Feitshans Jr. edited most of the duo’s sci-fi films, as well as The Green Hornet TV series (1966-1967) and the bizarre film Frogs (1972). Wisberg passed away in 1990 and Pollexfen in 2003.

James Warren carrying House Peters, Jr. to two of the crew members.

For SF fans, Albert Zugsmith is a character that cannot be ignored. Apart from his work with APC (which apparently ended because Wisberg and Pollexfen didn’t get along with Zugsmith) he also produced the awful propaganda film Invasion, U.S.A. (review) for APC/Columbia. He had his greatest success between 1955 and 1958 at Universal, where he made such bona fide classics as Female on the Beach (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and most notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1957). And during his stint at Universal he also produced the film that has made his name in SF circles, namely Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In 1963 Zugsmith produced and directed The Great Space Adventure in the Philippines, which was never finished, and he had a cameo in The Thing with Two Heads (1972). In 1958 Zugsmith moved briefly to MGM, where he made a string of movies with bombshell Mamie Van Doren, which all lost money. He continued producing comedies with suggestive titles (Sex Kittens Go to College) at Allied Artists, some of them starring Van Doren, made a brief return to Universal, again teaming up with Van Doren for College Confidential (1960), produced and/or directed a couple of films in Berlin and in the Philippines with George Nader, and made a dozen films for his own company or collaborating with other independent producers on movies with titles like The Incredible Sex Revolution, Psychedelic Sexualis, Sappho Darling, The Very Friendly Neighbours and Violated!.

Port Sinister’s lead actor James Warren has one of those incredible Hollywood stories. Warren, born in 1913, as James Pringle Wittig, was a successful artist and commercial illustrator in New York, whose work appeared in a number of classy magazines. One day he was approached by an MGM talent scout, who told the tall, handsome man that he resembled Gary Cooper, and asked if he was interested in a career in the movies. After a tryout, he was awarded a contract with MGM and moved to Hollywood with his wife and kids in 1942.

James Warren.

Stuck in bit-parts at MGM, Warren’s 3-year contract was not renewed, and in 1944 he was instead picked up by RKO, who made him their new western star, when Robert Mitchum jumped ship to another studio. Mitchum himself was a replacement for Tim Holt, who was serving in WWII. Suddenly, Warren was a movie star, appearing in a handful of B-westerns, most of which were based on the books by Zane Grey. However, when Holt returned from service, Warren was once again obscured. Of his latter work, he is perhaps best known for starring opposite Gloria Swanson in the minor comedy Three for Bedroom C in 1952. Port Sinister was his last feature film. He did a few TV appearances before leaving the acting business in order to focus on his art.

Warren kept up his art career while in Hollywood, and found a patron in collector and horror icon Vincent Price. He held numerous exhibitions around the US, and at one of these, Katherine Hepburn purchased seven of his watercolors for her private collection. In 1968 Warren got a commission by the Ford Motor Company, which took him to Hawaii, where he chose to remain with his family, and became a respected and by all accounts much beloved member of the art community.

Lynne Roberts with Lloyd Bridges in Secret Service Investigator (1948).

Lynne Roberts (sometimes credited as Mary Hart) may be remembered by SF aficionados as the leading lady of the mad scientist move Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942, review). Born Theda May Roberts in 1922, she made her debut in 1936 for Republic Pictures, and had a career that spanned over two decades. She made a name for herself in the late thirties, as the leading lady in a few popular westerns serials, and went on to work on over 60 movies in all genres, but most often westerns or mysteries. To still be playing the ingenue in 1953, after over 15 years in the business, is no doubt something of an achievement on its own. Often coupled with westerns stars Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and Tim Holt, she moved from Republic to 20th Century Fox, back to Republic and finally to RKO in the forties. As was the case with Warren, Port Sinister was the last of Roberts’ feature films, not counting an uncredited cameo in 1958, and she spent the rest of the fifties doing TV guest spots. She passed away in 1978 after an falling accident in her home, which left her in a coma for four months.

House Peters, Jr. once said that if he had to chance to live his life again, the one thing he would do differently would be to change his name. Son of venerated Hollywood actor House Peters, Junior began a modest acting career in the mid-thirties. One of his first credited role was as a Shark Man in the Flash Gordon serial in 1936 (review). Before his death in 2008 he was the last surviving member of the original Flash Gordon cast. While he certainly had the physique, the charisma and the looks for leading man roles — as well as the talent, I would add — there was something dark and almost sinister about his features that typecast him as villains and henchmen. After a dry career spell in the late thirties and early forties, Peters went on a five-year service in WWII as a small boat operator, and returned to acting in 1947. He became a staple heavy in westerns, and was awarded with a Golden Boot in 2008 for his contribution to the genre as “the backbone of the Bs”. To Americans, Peters is probably best remembered as the face of the detergent Mr. Clean in a string of popular commercials in the late fifties and early sixties. Peters was the original Mr. Clean, and to date the only live actor to do the over 60-year old character on TV, which later became animated.

House Peters, Jr. To the right as Mr. Clean in the fifties.

In the fifties, Peters found himself spending more time on TV sets than in film, and appeared in many western TV shows. Early in his career, he set himself the goal to become a major star by the time he turned 50, or leave acting behind. And in 1967 he kept his promise, and walked away from the recurring role as Sheriff Billings in the Lassie TV show. He then turned to the real estate business, and took the time to drive around the US many times over in his van with his wife since 1946, Lucy Peters, with whom he remained married until his death. House Peters, Jr. had a recurring role as a henchman in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin and co-starred (fourth-billed) in another serial, King of the Rocket Men (1949). He also had bit-parts in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), Red Planet Mars (1952, review) and Target Earth (1954).

William Schallert does another rare villainous part in Port Sinister, just as he did in Captive Women. He is perhaps best known in the industry as a well-liked president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as a hugely prolific bit-part and supporting actor with credits for nearly 390 films or series. Hs career lasted almost all the way up to his death at 93 years old in 2016. For baby boomers he may be best known as family father Martin Lane in the Patty Duke Show in the sixties.

William Schallert (left) with William Shatner in the legendary Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles (1967).

For sci-fi fans, on the other hand, Schallert is something of a cult actor because of his numerous bit-parts in science fiction from 1949 all the way to 2010, including many by Wisberg & Pollexfen. He began his journey in the pseudo-sci-fi movie Mighty Joe Young, and appeared in an episode of the TV show Space Control in 1951 before The Man from Planet X was released, in which he played the villain. He appeared, sometimes in more substantial supporting roles, sometimes in bit-parts and sometimes as no more than an uncredited extra, in The Man from Planet X ), Invasion, U.S.A., Port Sinister, the film serial Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953), Tobor the Great (1954), Gog (1954), as an uncredited ambulance attendant in the classic giant ant film Them! (1954), as the weatherman in the surprisingly good invasion film The Monolith Monsters (1957), as the Earl of Warwick in Irwin Allen’s highly pretentious The Story of Mankind (1957), as one of the doctors in another timeless classic, Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). He had a substantial role as the head of CIA in the underrated A.I. movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, and appeared as Martin Short’s doctor in the hilarious sci-fi comedy Innerspace (1987), as a nod to his appearance in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

On TV, Schallert is probably best known for playing the Federation representative Nilz Baris in the Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles (1967), as well as appearing in both the original The Twilight Zone (as a policeman in episode Mr. Bevis, 1960) the remake of the episode A Good Life, directed by Joe Dante (as the father) in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), as well as Father Grant in the remake of the episode Shadow Play (1987) in the TV series reboot of The Twilight Zone in the eighties. He also guested a host of other sci-fi series, including Men Into Space (1960), The Wild Wild West (1967-1969), Land of the Giants (1969), The Six Million Dollar Man (1974), The Bionic Woman (1976), Quantum Leap (1989), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993), Lois and Clarke: The New Adventures of Superman (1994) and Medium (2010). Vampire fans may recognise him as Mayor Norris in True Blood (2008-2011).

Paul Cavanagh (right) with Vincent Price and Charles Bronson in House of Wax (1953).

Paul Cavanagh, playing the other villain in Port Sinister, was a prolific character actor in Hollywood’s Golden Age and beyond, entering the business at the cusp of talking pictures, when there was suddenly a huge demand of debonair Englishmen with some sort of theatrical background. Cavanagh, though, was more an actor by accident than by choice, having gone into acting in the mid-twenties because of financial trouble in 1926. By trade he was a Cambridge-educated lawyer, who had practiced several years in both England and Canada, before losing his savings on roulette. By that time he had already served as a Canadian Mountie and dabbled in stage acting. A friend of his secured him a role in a stage play in London in order to help him out of his financial fix, and apparently Cavanagh never looked back. After appearing in a few British silent films, he relocated to Hollywood, where he was picked up by Paramount in 1929, on the cusp of talking pictures, where his debonair English manners and stage background were suddenly in high demand. His aristocratically handsome features turned him into a minor matinée idol in the early thirties, stacking up a respectful number of leading man roles, such as opposite Mae West in the musical comedy Goin’ to Town in 1935, but more often he appeared as the somewhat shifty romantic rival. He also did his share of villains, such as in Tarzan and His Mate (1934). He appeared in a number of horror movies, mostly in medium-size supporting roles — he is perhaps best remembered for his outing opposite Vincent Price and Charles Bronson in the n:th remake of House of Wax (1953). He also played supporting roles in the SF movies The Son of Dr. Jekyll (1951, review), The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957) and She Devil (1957). He never quite made a breakthrough in the A pictures, nor did he secure meaty enough roles in genre fare to become a cult favourite. Mostly, he is one of those faces that turn up in films that is instantly recognisable, but you just can’t quite place.

Anne Kimbell and Lane Bradford in The Golden Idol (1954).

Anne Kimbell, who plays the small role of the pretty nurse, didn’t have a stellar movie career, but led an otherwise quite interesting life. She began doing voice acting on the radio as a kid and studied drama under Lee Strasberg. She received a Bachelor’s in theatre art and a Master’s is women’s studies. She had a successful stage career, with co-starring roles on Broadway and London. In the late fifties she married a US Foreign Service officer and gave up her acting career in order to be able to follow him around the world on his postings — the couple lived in Switzerland, Germany, Chad and Tunisia before returning to the US, where they divided their time between California and Colorado. In Colorado Kimbell rescued and old theatre which was about to be turned into a laundromat, and revived the theatre tradition in the village of Westcliffe. In this village with a population of around 300 people, she founded the Westcliffe Center of the Performing Arts and the Shakespeare in the Park festival. Kimbell also wrote a few books about her life as a diplomat life, and in later years a spy novel. In Tunisia she developed women’s cultural programs and opened a school for women in Chad. In Hollywood, she appeared in around 20 feature films and as many TV series. She is probably best known for playing the lead in Roger Corman’s super-low-budget monster movie Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), where she tries to convince a block-headed scientist that there actually is a monster killing people in a small Mexican village. Kimbell passed away in 2017.

Marjorie Stapp with The Monster that Challenged the World (1957).

Marjorie Stapp, playing the pretty radio technician tipping Ferris off about the maverick pilot, was a prolific bit-part player between the mid-forties and late sixties, and appeared in close to 50 movies and over 30 TV shows — often westerns. It was also the westerns that offered her single leading lady role, opposite Charles Starrett in The Blazing Trail (1949). Another notable outing was her performance as Queen Guinevere in the 1949 serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad, starring future Superman George Reeves. But her 1949 momentum didn’t last, and she spent most of the rest of her career in small supporting or bit parts. Stapp can be seen briefly in the SF movies Indestructible Man (1956), The Werewolf (1956), Kronos (1957) and The Monster that Challenged the World (1957).

Robert Bice in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958).

Prolific character actor, stocky Robert Bice, does one of his many substantial, if not always memorable, supporting parts. Bice was a western staple who had better luck on TV than on the big screen. He is also of some SF interest. He had a small role as an Eskimo chief in Red Snow, and a larger one in Invasion, U.S.A., where he played one of the five main characters hypnotised by “Mr Ohman” into believing swarthy hordes of Asian communists have invaded the US. Bice also had a big supporting part in Captive Women. He had smaller roles in The Snow Creature (1954) and Space Master X-7 (1958), and yet a substantial role in the cult classic It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), as Major John Purdue aboard a space ship invaded by an alien. Bice plays the character who crawls down an airduct in one of the film’s most memorable scenes — one which would come to inspire Alien (1979) and a number of other movies.

Janne Wass

Port Sinister. 1953, USA. Directed by Harold Daniels. Written by Jack Pollexfen & Aubrey Wisberg. Starring: James Warren, Lynne Roberts, Paul Cavanagh, William Schallert, House Peters, Jr., Robert Bice, Marjorie Stapp, Anne Kimbell, Eric Colmar, Norman Budd, Merritt Stone, Ken Terell, Charles Victor, Edward Hearn, Dayton Lummis. Music: Albert Glasser. Cinematography: William Bradford. Editing: Fred Feitshans, Jr. Production design: Theobald Holsopple. Sound: Roy Meadows. Special effects: Jack Rabin, Roscoe Cline. Wardrobe: Einar Bourman. Produced by Albert Zugsmith, Jack Pollexfen & Aubrey Wisberg for American Pictures Corporation & RKO.

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