Timeslip

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Reporters and police investigate a nuclear scientist living 7.5 seconds ahead of time in this British 1955 quota quickie. Ken Hughes directs solidly and the American stars turn in good performances, but the script fails to live up to its premise. 5/10

Timeslip (1955, UK). Directed by Ken Hughes. Written by Charles Eric Maine. Starring: Gene Nelson, Faith Domergue, Peter Arne, Joseph Tomelty, Donald Gray, Vic Perry. Produced by Alec C. Snowden. IMDb: 5.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

American science journalist Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) and his photographer girlfriend Jill Rabowski (Faith Domergue) investigate the case of a mysterious John Doe who is fished out of the Thames with bullet holes in his back. The mysterious man dies on the operating table, but miraculously recovers 7.5 seconds after receiving an adrenaline shot. What first draws the attention of Delaney is the fact that the pictures of the man turn out all blurry, as if some radiation would be messing with the film. The second thing he notices is that the man looks just like American nuclear scientist Stephen Rainer (Peter Arne).

The two reporters enter into some friendly competition/cooperation with police inspector Cleary (Joseph Tomelty). They find “the real” Dr. Rainer working on a secret experiment at a nuclear lab in London, although he has some strange scars on his face, that he says he acquired in a car accident. But at the same time, another “Dr. Rainer” lies on a hospital bed with bullet wounds in his back. So either Rainer has a doppelgänger, who just so happens to have been around a lot of radioactive material, or something very fishy is going on. Soon the audience is made privy to the situation, even if the police and reporters are kept in the dark: Rainer has been replaced with an outlaw scientist called Jarvis, who has undergone plastic surgery to make him look like Rainer, carried out by an ex-Nazi doctor (Paul Hardtmuth). They work in league with the shady, arrogant tungsten magnate and gangster Emmanuel Vasquo (Vic Perry), and plan to blow up Rainer’s lab before he goes through with a critical experiment intended to find a way to artificially produce tungsten by means of nuclear fission – thus ruining Vasquo. Thus it is the real Dr. Rainer who has now been shot.

Peter Arne as Dr. Rainer.

The investigation by the good guys is not helped by the fact that Dr. Rainer (the real one in the hospital bed) can’t seem to provide any clear answers as to what happened to him. When questioned, he seems lucid enough and speaks of roughly the same matters as his interrogators, but with a sense of growing frustration gives answers that don’t correspond to the questions he is given, even though he swears he is trying to answer as clearly as possible. So basically what we have here is a whodunnit, with a witness/victim speaking some sort of code, which the investigators must figure out how to decipher.

Now, the original British title is unfortunate inasmuch as it sort of gives the mystery away. This is one of those instances where the pulpier American title The Atomic Man is actually the better one. I usually don’t want to spoil the mystery for those viewers who don’t catch on, but in order to review this as an SF movie it’s difficult not to reveal the conclusion. But as the title suggests, we are dealing with a “timeslip” caused by the combined effects of a 7.5 second death and radiation, which makes Dr. Rainer’s answers seem like gibberish, when they are, in fact, just temporally displaced. Or in plain words: Rainer’s brain runs 7.5 seconds ahead of time, and thus answers questions before they are asked.

Gene Nelson and Faith Domergue.

It’s a clever setup, but screenwriter Charles Eric Maine fails in giving the phenomenon of the timeslip a satisfactory explanation. Instead of leaving just enough open to mystery that he can sell the idea wholesale to the audience, he commits the crime of trying to over-explain a logically flawed idea with absurd science. The idea here rests on the semi-fact that “the brain is usually the first body part to die” in the case of a flatlining patient. In this case, however, when Rainer’s body flatlined (“died”), the high level of radioactivity kept his brain alive. Doctors then explain that when his body died, time “stopped” for the body, but since the brain survived, it kept sped ahead 7.5 seconds, making it “out of sync” with his body’s biological clock. When he was revived, we are to surmise, his body sort of “snapped back” into our normal timeline, but his brain couldn’t “snap back”, because it had never been offline. Thus, his brain skipped ahead 7.5 seconds.

This is one of those instances where the idea is so far-fetched, that the more you try to explain it, the more absurd it becomes. In a case like this, all the explanation you need to give an audience is “during his death his brain skipped ahead 7.5 seconds”. That’s it. Don’t linger, let the audience take it in, accept it, and move on. As soon as you start to try and justify this zany idea, you are just going to dig yourself deeper into a hole, because now you have the audience actually starting to think about it. First of all, of course, you’ll have to justify the idea that time is something you can snap in and out of, or in this case, you have to sell the idea that one can operate on different “clocks”. This is Christopher Nolan-level quantum physics, and that’s not necessarily the place you want to go in a whodunnit quota quickie. Then you’ll have to explain how people can be regularly resuscitated after being clinically dead with their brains perfectly intact. Then the audience is going to notice that when Dr. Rainer is handed a glass of water, he grabs it without any problems. Shouldn’t he have tried to grab it 7.5 seconds before it was handed to him? And so on. The whole premise is based on the fact that the brain is the human organ that becomes irreversibly damaged the fastest when blood circulation stops. But for the idea to work, it would require the tissue of a human body to be somehow “attached” to some “wheel of time” that stops spinning at the onset of clinical death – or cardiac arrest. And even if Maine would be able to Nolan his way to explanation, Timeslip is not the kind of film to do it in.

US lobby card.

Timeslip is one of a handful of British SF movies made in the late forties and early fifties. The genre did not enjoy the same popularity with studios as it did in the US, and most British companies refrained from all-out SF. In most cases, films that rested on an SF premise were watered down and padded out with off-the-shelf crime stories or melodramas, as if producers were afraid that the SF element wasn’t enough to carry a film on its own. Unfortunately this led to a number of potentially intelligent and interesting science fiction movies, often with capable writers, directors and actors, being bogged down by superfluous material lacking in originality or plot relevance. However, studios, especially those specialised on so-called quota quickies, saw the marketing potential for science fiction in reaching a juvenile segment of the audience that would otherwise stick to Hollywood imports.

The quota quickie was a type of film that arose to meet the demand from the UK government that a certain quota of films shown in theatres had to be produced in Britain. Established movie studios didn’t have the capacity to make the amount of films required, and this gave rise to quota quickie companies, which mainly specialised in exploitation movies. Made cheap, they could be sold cheap, and the studios engaged in contracts with distributors to deliver X amount of films during a year.

Often the production companies would also sign contracts with American distributors for either theatrical or TV distribution. This in turn gave rise to the oddity that British quota quickie films often had American leads. American distributors didn’t trust that an unknown British cast would be able to catch the interest of American audiences, so they demanded that the films intended for US distribution have recognisable American names. Of course, quota quickie companies couldn’t afford Humphrey Bogart, so more often than not they had to find former minor stars who were now slumming, or that for one reason or the other wound up in Britain – actors who were happy to do leads for a small salary, sometimes with a shooting schedule not much more than a week. This is how Gene Nelson and Faith Domergue ended up playing the leads in Timeslip.

Gene Nelson, Joseph Tomelty and Martin Wyldeck.

The name of screenwriter Charles Eric Maine was one of the nome de plumes of David McIlwane. Maine was the name he predominantly used for writing science fiction, and we have encountered him before on this blog, as the screenwriter for Spaceways (1955, review), another film in which the science fiction element is underplayed to make room for more traditional noir elements. Timeslip had actually been made as a British TV movie in 1953, to cash in on the hype of the groundbreaking TV show The Quatermass Experiment, and the productions have a few similarities. Both concern men with strange ailments that doctors can’t explain. In the case of The Quatermass Experiment, an astronaut shows weird physical changes and is in a catatonic-like state. In Timeslip, a John Doe left for dead in the Thames, that looks just like a famous American nuclear scientist, seems to be perfectly lucid, but seemingly talks gibberish and turns out to be highly radioactive. In both plots, the key is to find out what has happened to the men.

The film was novelised in 1957 as The Isotope Man, giving rise to the misconception that the film was based on a book. The novel became the first entry into Maine’s only book series, about reporter Mike Delaney. Escapement was turned into a film with the same name in 1958, and his last sci-fi novel The Mind of Mr. Soames (1961) got a film treatment with the same title in 1970. Other noteworthy sci-fi books were Timeliners (1955) High Vacuum (1956), World Without Men (1958) and Calculated Risk (1960).

Gene Nelson to the left.

Timeslip is typical of Maine’s writing, inasmuch as it leans heavily on the thriller plot and sort of tip-toes over the science. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes about Maine that his SF novels have a ”a disinclination to argue too closely scientific pinnings that are often shaky”. Damon Knight in his book In Search of Wonder agrees, pointing out that Maine seems to lack knowledge in the most basic scientific facts. He writes that ”Maine’s physics is bad, his chemistry worse /…/ The gross errors in [High Vacuum] are in the area of common knowledge (as if a Western hero should saddle up a pueblo and ride off down the cojone): any one of them could have been corrected by ten minutes with a dictionary or an encyclopedia.”

Radiation in this film is portrayed much in the way it was portrayed in many forties movies – as a magic formula able to do all sorts of impossible things, like keep a man’s brain alive without oxygen, or turn lead into tungsten, becoming the alchemist’s ”philosopher’s stone”. It was also a common trope in science fiction films that a high dose of radiation could kill you, but a slow build-up had no adverse effects, meaning people could walk around like glow-sticks without any ailments.

Gene Nelson and Faith Domergue.

The film moves along at a good pace and is infused with snappy dialogue and some very British humour, although director Ken Hughes is clearly emulating an American noir style. It is well shot and beautifully lit (or rather – not lit), and seems to be taking place almost exclusively at night. The script is cleverly written in the sense that it gives the viewer just enough information to stay slightly ahead of the game, but without revealing all the cards until late in the film. This way, the audience gets to work out the mystery alongside Delaney and Rabowksi, which makes it much more fun to watch than so many other movies of the same ilk, where one spends most of the film waiting for the protagonists to catch up.

Nelson and Domergue do a great job in the lead roles, and bring a good dose of Hollywood charisma and a good dose of humour to the plate. That they have good on-screen chemistry doesn’t hurt either. Nelson is instantly recognisable as an American, but Domergue does her best ”Mid-Atlantic” accent and for a non-English speaker it would probably take some time to pinpoint her as an American unless you knew who she was. Which, in all fairness, you probably did if you were a science fiction fan in 1955. Excellent is also Peter Arne in the dual role as Dr. Rainer and his sinister impostor. Another notable actor is Joseph Tomelty, who is brilliant as the police detective, and whom we’ve seen before in a less brilliant role in Devil Girl from Mars (1954, review). Vic Perry plays the bloated, evil mastermind Vasquo with great panache, stealing all his scenes. German immigrant Paul Hardtmuth does a decent but stereotypical washed-up Nazi doctor. 

Faith Domergue and Martin Wyldeck.

All in all, this is a rather contrived story, and Maine fails to do anything especially exciting with the science fiction element. Basically, the same effect could have been achieved if the timeslipped character spoke some rare foreign language and they had to figure out what he was saying. Once they work out the mystery, it’s really just a staple noir detective thriller. And once it is done, it is clear that it would have been quite an easy task to find out what Rainer was trying to say. For example, give him a pen and some paper and have him write down his story. Problem solved. However, the movie is well filmed and well acted, and has a really nice, dark atmosphere punctuated by good-natured humour that’s actually rather funny. British sci-fi films of the age were often made on pretty crappy scripts, but they all seem to have a solid craft to them, as opposed to many of their cheap American counterparts. Timeslip is an engaging, entertaining and enjoyable B movie, if you can get past the utterly bonkers science and the lack of logic in the film.

According to film historian Bill Warren, reviews at the time of the American release were lukewarm. However, The Monthly Film Bulletin called The Atomic Man “quite a credible addition to the British school of ‘scientific’ thrillers”. Today the film has a 5.6/10 audience rating on IMDb, albeit based only on around 400 clicks, and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. AllMovie gives 2/5 stars, with Craig Butler writing: “An absolutely fascinating premise is put to a very unimaginative use in The Atomic Man“. TV Guide likewise calls it a “dumb movie with an interesting premise”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings continues in the same vein: “This is basically an industrial espionage story, very ordinary at best, though there’s some nice acting to liven up the proceedings, but the science fiction aspects are poorly used, and the scientific explanation for his condition is one of the least convincing explanations I’ve heard since the single-cell heart theory in The Amazing Colossal Man“. Derek Winnert gives the movie 2/5 stars, but conversely: “Pedestrian acting and the plodding pace spoil an original, rather exciting idea, which is just intriguing enough and decently developed for a quick look. Unusually, the writing remains the best thing in the movie.” The film is not without it fans. Kris Davies at Quota Quickie writes: “A highly enjoyable film, more a crime drama with a little touch of science fiction added on. The crime drama is good. Well structured and coherent, Vasquo making for a good sinister villain.”

Director Ken Hughes, Gene Nelson and Faith Domergue.

Director Ken Hughes had made his film debut in 1952 with a crime drama, and then went on to make another crime drama and yet another crime drama, and then some more crime dramas, both writing and directing, so it is no surprise that his only sci-fi film also comes in the form of a crime drama. He had some early success with Joe MacBeth (1955), a film noir retelling of Shakespeare’s play, and the TV movie Sammy (1958), which he both wrote and directed – a film that has since be remade on the big screen, on TV and on stage all over Europe (including my home country Finland in 1962, for the TV show Teatteritoukio).

Hughes’ first real hit film was a historical drama, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), and he cemented his reputation with the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a critical flop but a commercial success. Hughes himself had no love for the movie. His masterpiece was another historical epic, Cromwell (1970), starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness. However, after that his star faded, although he kept working until 1981, when he retired.

1955 was the year that Faith Domergue ruled genre cinema, with appearances not only in Timeslip, but also in the horror film Cult of the Cobra, the sci-fi classic This Island Earth (review) and the cult movie It Came from Beneath the Sea (review). For a more insight into her life and career, please see the reviews of either one of those films. Suffice to say that Faith Domergue had an interesting but troubled career. She was briefly Howard Hughes’ girlfriend in her teens in the forties, only 17 at the time, and he had her slated as a future star. However, when two hyped films with her in the lead flopped in 1950, her career plummeted.

Faith Domergue.

Domergue still kept busy in B movies, mostly westerns and sci-fi, until she switched to TV in the late fifties. She lived for decades in Europe – she lived for a short while in Britain when Timeslip came her way, and in the late fifties she switched to TV, with the occasional European film in between. In 1965 she appeared in the American re-shoots that that were added to the Soviet sci-fi film Planeta Bur (1962), that ultimately became the Roger Corman movie Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. She prolonged her genre legacy in the first half of the seventies with two horror films opposite John Carradine. After that she retired and moved permanently to Spain with her Spanish husband.

While it’s a bit unfair to say Domergue was ”slumming”, her co-star Gene Nelson probably must have wondered what happened to his career when he found himself in a British B sci-fi movie. Nelson was a dancer and musical actor, who had starred opposite Doris Day in two pictures in the early fifties, but in the mid-fifties increasingly found himself in non-dancing parts in B films. It’s popularly believed that a fractured pelvis due to a riding accident in 1957 was what ended his dancing career, but Nelson’s denied this himself. His dancing days declined before the accident, partly because musical films were falling out of fashion. ”There just aren’t enough musicals to keep dancers busy these days. You have to learn to do something else,” he is quoted in an AP obit in 1996. 1955 also brought on his last musical film role, and ironically the one he’s best remembered from: as cowboy Will Parker in Oklahoma.

Gene Nelson in his heyday.

After 1955 Nelson made a gradual transition into TV, not only as an actor, but as a director. Trekkies may know him as the director of the classic Star Trek episode The Gamesters of Triskelion (1968), where Kirk, Chekhov and Uhura are enslaved as gladiators. He also directed the low-budget sci-fi monster movie Hand of Death (1962) for API. As a director he is probably best known for two Elvis Presley pictures: Kissin’ Cousins (1964) and Harum Scarum (1965). He was a rather busy journeyman director up until his retirement in 1980, and said he enjoyed directing more than acting. However, he felt that both his careers ended with unfulfilled ambition, illustrated by his very sad quote, in several ways: ”I didn’t become the star I wanted to be”. He did, however, receive accolades upon his return to Broadway in the seventies, as he was nominated for a Tony Award for his appearance in Follies in 1972 – the second time he was nominated for that musical. In 1990 he won a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This was during a short time when Peter Arne had a number of villainous roles in British B films, perhaps best remembered from The Pirates of Blood River (1962) with Christopher Lee. He made himself known as a capable character actor with a wide range, acting in both dramas and comedies, and soon started getting cast in supporting roles in A-list pictures, often US-UK collaborations filmed in Europe. Among these were Khartoum (1966) with Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Charlton Heston’s Antony and Cleopatra (1972). Arne became a favourite of Blake Edwards’, who cast him in no less than three of his Pink Panther films – the best remembered of these performances is perhaps the one as Colonel Sharki in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975); “Good Sharki, Colonel God!”. In 1967 he appeared in his only other science fiction film Battle Beneath the Earth. His last film was Tangiers (1985). Arne was brutally murdered in his flat in 1983 by a homeless school teacher to whom he had been giving food. The killer drowned himself before he was caught and the motive for the murder has never been established.

Peter Arne and Gene Nelson.

Donald Gray appeared in three other minor British science fiction films, The Diamond (1954), Supersonic Saucer (1956) and Satellite in the Sky (1956) as well as in the movie remake The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). He is perhaps best known for providing the voices for Colonel White, Captain Black and the Mysterons in the puppet animation series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968). Donald Gray is also the reason as to why another actor called Donald Gray chose to adopt the artist name Charles Gray and go on to immortality in roles such as Ernst Stavro Blofelt in two Bond movies, and the Criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Vic Perry only appeared in five films, but made his whole life one grand performance. He was best known as ”The Greatest Pick-Pocket in the World”, but also worked as a mentalist and escape artist. A larger than life person, few people ever knew if anything he said held any truth, and according to this forum, Perry claimed to have been … krhm: doctor of hypnosis, ex-international playboy, a WWII spy, master chef, master florist, European heavyweight wrestling champion, ex-witch doctor, ordained minister, as well as the first white man to traverse the Colorado River lashed to a wooden raft as the Indians did. A poster on the forum writes: ”Someone once described Vic Perry as a man riding pell-mell through life on the back of his own personal demon. And, he went on to note, at times it was difficult to determine who actually was riding whom, Perry or the demon.” Perry was also an alcoholic who twice attempted suicide. He passed away in 1974, only 54 years old.

Victor Perry (left) manhandling Faith Domergue.

Paul Hardtmuth showed up in a number of Hammer horrors, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). He also had a role in the sci-fi film The Gamma People (1956). In a very small role one can catch the big nose of Percy Herbert, who would go on to great success in films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Mutiny on the Bounty (1964) and Becket (1964). He also appeared in Quatermass 2 (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Doomwatch (1972).

Janne Wass

Timeslip. 1955, UK. Directed by Ken Hughes. Written by Charles Eric Maine. Starring: Gene Nelson, Faith Domergue, Peter Arne, Joseph Tomelty, Donald Gray, Vic Perry, Paul Hardtmuth, Martin Wyldek, Percy Herbert. Cinematography: A.T. Dinsdale. Editing: Geoffrey Muller. Art direction: George Haslam. Makeup artist: Jack Craig. Hair stylist: June Robinson. Sound supervisor: Richard A. Smith. Sound editor: Jim Groom. Wardrobe: June Kirby. Produced by Alec C. Snowden for Merton Park Studios.

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