One of the first “empty city” movies, this 1954 low-budget clunker starring SF legend Richard Denning has all the trappings of a taut, character-driven SF classic. Unfortunately the hackneyed script does away with much of its potential. 4/10
Target Earth. 1954, USA. Directed by Sherman A. Rose. Written by William Raynor, James H. Nicholson, Wyatt Ordung. Based on short story by Paul W. Fairman. Starring Richard Denning, Kathleen Crowley, Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves, Robert Roark, Arthur Space, Whit Bissell, Steve Calvert. Produced by Herman Cohen. IMDb: 5.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
1954 was a year in sci-fi that gave us some of the great classics, like Creature from the Black Lagoon (review) and Them! (review), but also movies infamous for their cheap camp, like Killers from Space (review) and Devil Girl from Mars (review). But then there are also the pictures that, justly or unjustly, are more or less forgotten today by most except aficionados, because they were neither good nor bad enough to become either classics nor cult films. One of those is Target Earth, an independently produced cheapo that one wishes would have had a little more time, a little more budget and a little better screenwriters. In a way it is a film that you would like to like a little more than you actually do, because there is an unfulfilled potential in the movie.
Target Earth follows four survivors who have, for one reason or the other, overslept the evacuation of Chicago. Depressed Nora (Kathleen Crowley) awakes from an unsuccessful suicide attempt through sleeping pills. Macho man Frank (Richard Denning) has been unconscious after being mugged and beaten. Big Jim (Richard Reeves) and his girlfriend Vicki (Virginia Grey) have been sound asleep after a night of partying. The film’s first ten minutes are its best — following Nora awakening from her botched suicide attempt, wondering around the deserted streets of the city. There’s an eerie, otherworldly quality to these shots. Her encounter with Denning’s gruff hero reveals the weakness in the writing almost as soon as the actors open their mouths, but the story is intriguing enough to keep the viewer glued as the the two search the stores for a short-wave radio and happen on Big Jim and Vicki enjoying as the only bar patrons left in Chicago, now going strong on their tenth champagne bottle of the morning.
The four decide to try and get out of the city, but find that not only are all utilities cut off, the cars are not working either. Before they get the chance to start walking, a fifth character is introduced, only to get killed off by the film’s menace: an army of alien robots with impenetrable armour and death rays shooting out of their faceplates. Our band of misfits hole up in a hotel room where the film promises a tight chamber drama in which the characters explore their demons, but this promise is broken by the insertion of a baddie with a gun, and the movie turns into a hostage drama instead.
The parts of the film involving our ragtag band of anti-heroes are still the film’s best, but unfortunately they only account for 2/3 of the movie. About one third in, the screenwriters insert the military, in typical low-budget fashion. Here, a group of military brass and scientists (Arthur Space, Whit Bissell, James Drake, Steve Pendleton, House Peters, Jr.) sit around cramped rooms with maps on the walls mundanely discussing what to do about the invasion of indestructible alien robots, intercut with military stock footage of planes and tanks.
The beginnings of the movie lie in a novelette written by Paul W. Fairman and first published under the pseudonym Ivar Jorgenson in If magazine in 1953. The story, called Deadly City, is more or less the same as in the movie, with a few notable exceptions. First and foremost, all the military stuff has been added by the screenwriters. The movie was released a year after The War of the Worlds (1953, review), which featured a similar setup with protagonists fleeing alien monsters in the streets, while scientists frantically work in labs and generals in situation rooms, trying to find a tactic to beat the invaders. But it doesn’t quite work in Target Earth, partly because the scenes with the military are so poorly written and directed, and partly because there is no nation-wide destruction or exciting action scenes for these slower, more analytical military scenes to interact with. The robot monster (one) turns up once about twenty minutes in, and after that it’s just four or five guys in a hotel room working out their personal problems. Sure they talk about the threat and destruction going on outside, but we see nothing of it. The scientists capture a robot and go on to talk about how indestructible it is and how much damage the invading army has cost. Relaying the action second-hand in a conversation instead of showing it can be an effective low-budget solution if the writing and acting is good enough and the film claustrophobic enough, but Target Earth fails spectacularly in building up any real tension.
Other changes have been made to the characters. In the book, Nora is a prostitute, Big Jim is a criminal and Vicki — named Minna in the text — is a mousy cleaner that Jim has taken as a sort of sex slave. Suicidal Nora finds that she no longer has any desire to die, as she develops feelings for Frank, the womaniser who suddenly doesn’t want to get into the pants of a beautiful young woman, but rather protect her. Jim, the hedonist, wants to make the most of what time he has left, looting stores and restaurants, getting it on with Minna any chance he gets. What Minna wants doesn’t become clear until the end of the story. In this new situation they all contemplate their past deeds and lives, and the meaning and value of said life, and what to do with it now that the end seems to be nigh. This contemplation is disturbed by the entrance of a homicidal maniac with a gun, leading up to the climax of the story, where the team meets the alien invaders. It’s a taut, claustrophobic story built on the character developments and interpersonal relationships of the the four anti-heroes, but most of the interesting stuff has been scrubbed away for the screenplay — even if you can still find hints of it here and there in the film, and it is these moments that make the movie worth watching — and wish that the film had been just a little bit better written.
According to Mike Deckinger at efanzines.com, author Paul Fairman had no involvement in the film production, and usually stayed indifferent to the adaptations of his work: “He accepted the fact that once story rights were sold he, as the original author, was out of the picture. He therefore harbored no regrets about the lack of similarity between the printed and the filmed works. He understood the process, was properly compensated, and had no further involvement in what developed.”
In the book, the aliens don’t pose a physical threat to the protagonists. They don’t turn up, otherwise than as “wails and shadows”, before the very last pages, and the only description we get of them is that they are ”thin and fragile” and that they ”don’t look much like us”. Fairman also employs the classic H.G. Wells ending that has become a staple cop-out for sci-fi writers: the aliens die because of bacteria on Earth, or something similar. In the film, the military comes up with a solution to kill the robots by blasting out sound at a specific frequency, which was still a rather novel idea at this time in sci-fi history, and one that has been used frequently since. It wasn’t the first time sound was used as a weapon, though. Off the top of my head I can think of similar tropes in Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949, review) and Gog (1954, review), although not used quite in the same way.
The movie starts off really well, almost like an art film, with Nora awakening in her hotel room, and then follows her around the deserted streets of Chicago (although never identified as Chicago in the film). The film team actually shot the deserted streets of Los Angeles in the early mornings before traffic had started. They didn’t have permits to film in the streets, so it was all done guerrilla-style with a skeleton crew. But it is all so very well done, that you almost find it hard to believe that the director of the movie was actually Sherman A. Rose, an editor. Some of the credit should probably go to cinematographer Guy Roe, a prolific TV cinematographer who is perhaps best known for filming the American add-ons for Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956, review<).
This tight, eerie atmosphere is held in place for quite some time, although it slowly starts to disintegrate with the introduction of Jim and Vicki, who are a bit too caricatured to take seriously. It completely falls apart about half-way into the film, when we get our first look at the crappy robot and the low-budget filming of the military brass and scientists giving us exposition. It’s not that the film completely falls apart, but one does wonder what this film might have been like, had the people behind it not decided to make an exploitation film out of it, but instead would have held on to the premise of following the four main characters from start to finish, showing the action from their point of view, scrapped the robot and the military. It probably wouldn’t have made headlines at the time, but might very well have been considered a minor gem of the genre today.
The ”empty world” premise wasn’t new, but still waited to be explored in a big-budget Hollywood movie. The concept was toyed with in the Danish silent film The End of the World (1916, review) as well as in Dick Barton Strikes Back, and was deployed in earnest in Arch Oboler’s message-heavy no-budget film Five (1951, review), as well as Robot Monster. AIP took another stab at the subgenre in 1955 with Day the World Ended (review) and it was sort of premise in another low-budget fare in 1956, World Without End (review). But it wasn’t until 1959 that the theme was really explored seriously with two very different, but equally influential movies, On the Beach and The World, the Flesh and the Devil.
Unfortunately Target Earth doesn’t really sink its teeth into the empty world theme as well as it might have, and much of the characters’ ruminations on the subject fall flat and hollow, with lines more appropriate in a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler detective novel than in a post-apocalyptic film – this is true of Fairman’s original story as well, by the way. The first fifteen minutes of the movie promises a lot, but the rest of it fails to deliver on those first minutes. Even the photography is in a completely different class during the first minutes than the majority of the movie, which is for the most part shot rather static and flat.
If the film fails, it’s not through the fault of the actors, though. Leading the charge as Frank is Richard Denning, one of the best actors to be typecast in the fifties sci-fi mould. Denning brings some naturalism and credibility to the role as Frank, the playboy with a moral compass and a good portion of courage.
The robot certainly isn’t the worst we’ve seen in cinema. That prize might go to the hatted robots that turned up in The Phantom Empire (1935, review), but were actually first made for a musical number in the Joan Crawford film Dancing Lady in 1933, that was eventually cut from the finished movie – that is to say, they were designed to look like badly made stage costumes (see pic above). However, the robot of Target Earth must be one of the cheapest-looking robots to turn up in a Hollywood film in the fifties. It literally looks like something that some kid’s father slapped together in his garage. In fact it was slapped together by special effects man Dave Koehler – in his garage. In the movie we only ever see a single robot, and that’s because just one was ever made – to represent a huge army of invading robots. Herman Cohen joked in his interview with Weaver, that the filmmakers ”invaded Chicago with a single robot”.
I haven’t been able to find any contemporary reviews for Target Earth, that has a bit of a mixed legacy with modern critics. It’s 5.6/10 rating with IMDb users is not super-shabby, but it’s too obscure to warrant a Rotten Tomatoes consensus. AllMovie gives it 3/5 stars, with Hal Erickson writing: “Nothing spectacular, Target Earth works well within its modest limitations”. TV Guide has sadly removed its star ratings from all old movies, but the mag once gave it only 1/4 stars, writing: “The robots are just plain disappointing”. On the other hand, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide gives the film 2.5/4 stars, and film critic and historian Bill Warren is mildly positive. In his book Keep Watching the Skies!, Warren writes: “It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t have used more imagination in all departments, because the basic situation was unusual and worth developing. But Target Earth mostly rises above its limitations of imagination and budget.”
Online critics are likewise in disagreement over the film’s merits. While most agree that the low budget is a detriment and the film could do with some better scripting, the disagreement seems to stem from how well the character interaction is written. Derek Winnert gives Target Earth 2/5 stars, as does Richard Scheib at Moria. Scheib writes: “The film […] chooses [the] 30-minute point to cut away to a series of scenes with the military standing around plotting the counterattack. These scenes explain everything that is going on, whereupon all the mystery that has been built up to that point dissipates. […] Outside of the military scenes, the rest of the film is taken up with the survivors sitting around in a hotel room. […] There is a competent cast but the dramas involving them are dull – moreover, we learn almost nothing about any of them as characters throughout.” However, Christopher Stewardson at Our Culture gives the movie 3.5/5 stars, writing: “Target Earth deserves a renewed interest and evaluation. Its characters communicate fascinating ideas about humanity in times of crisis. And while the budget may have hindered its scope, the narrative is still one of poignancy.”
Some aficionados call Target Earth a minor classic, but I would agree with Winnert who writes that “if Target Earth has reached cult classic status, it is a very small cult”. More than anything, it is a frustrating film, because it has all the ingredients of an intelligent SF movie, which would, if better written, have been something really special among Hollywood’s hackneyed and juvenile SF output in the mid-fifties, something akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (review), released two years later. The original novella was filmable almost as such. But instead of taking advantage of the book’s paranoia and claustrophobia, and the strong, unsettling character stories therein, the filmmakers have filed away all the edges, ripped out most of what was interesting in the original text, and thrown in clichés from previous successful movies in order to please what they imagines as the fan base. The indestructible robots with their heat vision are clearly designed to evoke the image of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and the military scenes are Herman Cohen’s attempt at making his own The War of the Worlds or Them! (1954, review). The hack writers haven’t been able to replace the “offensive” material they have cut out with anything of interest. One can be forgiven for seemingly detecting “poignancy” in the dialogue, because it has all the outer trappings of such, but it’s all just platitudes and empty words. The movie isn’t terrible, in fact the first half hour is quite good, and the first ten minutes are some of the eeriest ten minutes of any SF movie of the fifties. But step by step, Target Earth descends into low-budget obscurity. The promise of a taut, character-driven SF mystery evaporates halfway through, first with the introduction of the clunky robot, then the wooden and lifeless military exposition scenes, and finally when you realise that despite a delicious setup, the characters remain cardboard cutouts. The last 20 minutes of the film are taken up by the pointless hostage situation. While it is part of the book, it loses its point in the film due to the way the characters and the story are handled. Target Earth is one of the more interesting low-budget SF’s made during the decade, but it’s mainly frustrating to watch, as your mind’s eye imagines what it could have been.
Producer Herman Cohen was a young man who had worked himself up through menial tasks in the movie industry to become something of a small-time player behind the scenes, working as assistant to producer Jack Broder, including for Bride of the Gorilla (1951), directed by Curt Siodmak. He then began to work as associate producer on more Z movies, like Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952, review). In 1954 he stumbled across Fairman’s story Deadly City, and thought it might make a decent science fiction film. After working on a dozen films for Broder, Cohen thought it was time to try his own wings as a producer. He managed to sell the distribution rights to Allied Artists, and scrape together the rest of the money for the 100 000 dollar budget from here and there, and suddenly he had his own production company (The picture came in under budget, at 85 000 dollars, which just makes it even more frustrating). His old pal at Broder Productions, James Nicholson, took Fairman’s story and turned it into a first draft. At some point Wyatt Ordung seems to have been involved the writing process, but the final script was done by William Raynor.
I want to pause for a moment here just to point out the level of genius we are working with here. First of all, James Nicholson would one year later go on to become one of the founders of American International Pictures (AIP), best known for producing cheap teensploitation films, horror movies, drag racing films and science fiction flicks. Its principle producers were people like Alex Gordon and Roger Corman, and the output followed suit. Herman Cohen became one of the main producers of the studio’s teensploitation genre with movies like I Was a Teenage Werefolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). For AIP and other companies he also made Blood of Dracula (1957), How to Make a Monster (1958), Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and Konga (1961), among many others. AIP also became an importer of British low-budget fare, Italian giallo, sword and sandal movies and macaroni war films, as well as major importer of Japanese science fiction, including Toho’s Godzilla films. AIP stayed clear of spaghetti westerns, but Cohen did produce a small cult movie called Django il bastardo (1969), and brought the film to the States. In later years he also produced Trog (1970), bizarrely picked up by Warner.
Then we have Wyatt Ordung, who is associated with two of the most legendary bad monster movies of the fifties: he co-wrote Robot Monster (1953, review) and directed and acted in Roger Corman’s first film Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954, review). He also wrote the story for First Man Into Space (1959) and was assistant director on The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966). And then there was William Raynor, who was a seasoned screenwriter, but is known to sci-fi fans for co-writing the scripts for W. Lee Wilder’s truly awful sci-fi films Phantom from Space (1953, review) and Killers from Space (review). He later became a very successful TV writer.
Paul Fairman was a rather interesting character for the whole science fiction genre. Between 1947 and 1972 he wrote numerous novels and short stories, in a whole range of genres, including horror and science fiction (and erotica). He was also co-founder and first editor of the magazine If (or Worlds of If) in 1952, worked as the editor for Fantastic Stories and Amazing Stories between 1954 and 1956, and became editor for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1958. Apart from Deadly City, his story The Cosmic Frame (Amazing Stories, 1955) was also adapted into film; first as Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), and later, uncredited, as The Eye Creatures (1965). One of his stories was also adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone.
At the time, lead actor Richard Denning was a star name thanks to his recent turn in Creature From the Black Lagoon. Denning had dabbled with sci-fi in the past, in Television Spy (1939) and the Lost World-ripoff Unknown Island (1948, review). He continued with the genre in the Curt Siodmak-scripted Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), Day the World Ended (1955), the Willis O’Brien-animated The Black Scorpion (1957) and Twice Told Tales (1963), starring Vincent Price. In Tom Weaver’s book It Came From Horrorwood, co-star Kathleen Crowley calls Denning ”a gentlemen, a very nice man”, which is what you will read about him anywhere you look.
Kathleen Crowley was a young actress, but one with quite some experience. As Weaver writes, she may not have appeared in many sci-fi films, but is without doubt one of the best and most merited actresses to have leads in multiple science fiction films in the fifties. Crowley was 25 at the time, and had a background in theatre in New York, and was fresh out from studying under the legendary Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. She had started her moving pictures career with leads in prestigious live-action TV shows in New York and worked for a year for MGM in Hollywood before starting to freelance in 1954.
She tells Tom Weaver that at the time she walked around with a rather inflated opinion about her craft, and resented the idea of acting in B movies; ”I didn’t want to become a B queen”. But nonetheless, when the script for Target Earth came her way, she was thrilled to be in it. Not only did she think that the script was really good, she was also very happy to be working with a team of very good actors. Beside Denning the other leads were played by Virginia Grey and Richard Reeves, two very respected and experienced character actors.
Crowley has nothing but praise for producer Herman Cohen, who she calls a hard-working, honest and decent man: ”He was so young, and he must have done that film with two dimes rubbed together – I’m more impressed with him now than I must have been then!” She goes on to say that she now regrets that she didn’t do more science fiction movies, because some of the scripts were very good: ”I think the people who write these movies were more intelligent than some people would like to admit. They have great imaginations, and there really is a place for those movies – you have to respect them.”
Crowley appeared in another sci-fi film, The Flame Barrier (1956), and did a few jungle and horror films, including the cult vampire western Curse of the Undead (1959). But she early segued back into TV, where she refused to take recurring parts in TV series, since she wanted to maintain her freedom, and often thought that the female parts in TV shows just weren’t good enough. Instead she made a good living out of appearing in TV movies and as a guest star on numerous TV series, with the odd cinematic movie thrown in here and there. When she gave birth to her first son, as late as 1970, she retired from the industry and never looked back. Weaver tells her straight up that he thought she was a very good actor and that her career could have gone further, and she tells him that back in the day, she wouldn’t do publicity, and that’s something she does regret; ”I thought it was what happened at eight o-clock the morning when the director said ‘action’ [that mattered], not who you was with at a nightclub the night before”.
One of the reasons Crowley chose to appear in the film was Virginia Grey, playing the loud-mouthed alcoholic Vicki. Grey was one of the most hard-working character actresses in Hollywood, always one step behind stardom. Daughter of a director father and a film cutting mother, she made her movie debut at 10 years old in 1927, and disregarding a few years’ break to study nursing, she continued to do so until 1976. She appeared in over 100 films and about 50 TV shows. She was cast in leads in B movies, but always supporting roles in big studio projects. Despite having the looks and the talent, for some reason her career never got that final push. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM once said: ”Virginia has everything, except luck”.
Off-screen, Grey kept private and rarely gave interviews, even in after her retirement. However, during the forties and fifties she was often in the tabloids because of her relationship with MGM star Robert Taylor, and most notably her long-running on/off relationship with Clark Gable. After he suddenly left her, she never married, and friends say Gable was always the love of her life. She said about her craft: ”I consider myself a professional who acts, not to express my soul or elevate the cinema, but to entertain and get paid for it.” Grey is splendid as the no-nonsense Vicki, and has great chemistry with Richard Reeves.
Despite his relatively short acting career, that spanned from 1947 to 1967, Richard Reeves appeared in over 220 films and TV shows. Not the world’s most talented actor, Reeves nevertheless had a memorable face and was a big man, making him perfect for playing thugs and henchmen. His role in Target Earth is one of the few where he truly gets to show off his acting chops, which aren’t too bad at all. At fourth billing, it is probably the highest billing he got in his career.
Robert Roark, playing the homicidal maniac Davis, got the part because his dad was one of the film’s backers. He also had a bit-part in Killers from Space. The top military man in the film is played by an actor by the wonderful name of Arthur Space. Character actor Space appeared in close to 300 films or TV shows between 1941 and 1981, including Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Whit Bissell plays the lead military scientist, and is a cult actor, who’s appeared in a multitude of science fiction films and series, but the cream of the crop are Creature from the Black Lagoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Time Machine (1960), The Time Tunnel (series, 1966-1967), Star Trek (1967) and Soylent Green (1973).
The music of the film is suitably dramatic, and used to great effect for cues and punctuations, more than mood-building. It was written by B movie specialist Paul Dunlap, who scored a number of cheap science fiction movies: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Frankenstein 1970 (1958), How to Make a Monster, Invisible Invaders (1959), The Angry Red Planet (1959), Castle of Evil (1966), Destination Inner Space (1966), Cyborg 2087 (1966), Dimension 5 (1966), The Destructors (1968) and Panic in the City (1968).
Art director James W. Sullivan was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Around the World in 80 Days (1956). He also worked on Invasion, U.S.A. (1952, review) and The Unkown Terror (1957). Sound effects editor Kay Rose was married to director Sherman Rose, and rose in the business to become one of Hollywood’s best regarded sound editors. She won an Oscar for her work on The River (1984), and was nominated for two BAFTAs. She also worked on I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, The Flame Barrier and Robocop 2 (1990). One of her last films was Keanu Reeves’ breakthrough as an action hero, Speed (1996).
The man playing the robot was Steve Calvert, who worked as a bartender in Hollywood and made a buck on the side as an extra and stuntman on movies. He played Robert Lowery’s stand-in in a number of films, and Lowery got him into the Screen Actors Guild. Calvert is one of those rare people that can call themselves Hollywood gorilla actors. Unlike the true masters of the trade, Calvert didn’t build his own gorilla suit, instead he bought ageing stuntman, actor and gorilla actor Ray ”Crash” Corrigan’s suit when Corrigan had retired from the business for 1 800 dollars. Calvert mostly lent his talents to real low-budget fare, and almost never asked for screen credit. He also made appearances on numerous TV shows and live events.
Target Earth. 1954, USA. Directed by Sherman A. Rose. Written by William Raynor, James H. Nicholson, Wyatt Ordung. Based on the story Deadly City by Paul W. Fairman. Starring Richard Denning, Kathleen Crowley, Virginia Grey, Richard Reeves, Robert Roark, Mort Marshall, Arthur Space, Whit Bissell, James Drake, Steve Pendleton, House Peters Jr., Steve Calvert. Music: Paul Dunlap. Cinematography: Guy Roe. Art direction: James W. Sullivan. Set decoration: Morris Hoffman. Makeup artist: Stanley Orr. Sound effects editor: Kay Rose. Special effects: Dave Koehler. Wardrobe: Robert Olivas. Editorial supervisor: Sherman A. Rose. Produced by Sherman Cohen for Abtcon Pictures and Herman Cohen Productions.