1/4/07

623 The Amazing Transparent Man

(1960, SciFi-Mad Science, b&w), with:

The Days of Our Years
(1955, Educational-Industrial, color)

So the leading causes of accidents are joy, sex, and old age?

Rating: **

In a nutshell:

Short: To have or cause an industrial accident is a mortal sin.
Film: The adventures of an intermittently invisible bank robber.

Short Summary:

Magic toaster on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?The Days of Our Years is a eulogy for the broken dreams of permanently injured railroad workers. The local minister for a railroad town narrates the tales of three such unfortunates. “Average In Every Way” Joe is the first. He rolls a utility truck while distracted by thoughts of his ladylove. Next we see “Nearing Retirement” George, who squishes his best friend with a train while in the throes of a minor heart attack. Last we meet “Gentle Pressure” Lenny, who startles his coworkers while celebrating his son’s birth, losing his eyesight to the one with the burning torch welder. All three of our heroes spend the rest of their lives as broken men, crippled in body and spirit, never to know joy or happiness again.

Film Summary:

The Amazing Transparent Man leads off with a prison break, first on foot, then by convertible. The prison breakee is Joey Faust, safecracker and bank robber extraordinaire. The prison breaker is the lovely young Laura, who drives him out to an isolated Texas mansion to meet the Major. The Major is an effeminate little man who’s blackmailed a semi-elite cadre of ne’er-do-wells to help him carry out his mad scheme—to create an invisible army, and sell it to the highest bidder! [Insert crazed maniacal laughter here]. His cohorts include the treacherous Laura, the heavily mustached Julian, and the heavily accented Dr. Ulof.

To succeed in his dastardly designs, the Major needs turn Faust invisible. This will enable the newly free bank robber to steal the nuclear material known as X-13 from a nearby government base. Dr. Ulof demonstrates the invisibility process’ effectiveness by stroking an invisible guinea pig, and then turning it visible again. After some broken bottles, aborted double-crosses, and accented exposition revealing the existence of Ulof’s hostage daughter in the next room, Faust agrees.

Once invisible, Faust demands more money for the job, and then steals the X-13 without trouble. Ulof turns him visible again, but upon examining the stolen goods he warns the Major that it might be unstable. The Major uses it on Faust anyway, turning him invisible again for the next job.

At this point Faust decides to ditch the Major and go into business for himself. Laura helps him rob a bank, but he inconveniently becomes visible again right in the middle of the heist. He turns invisible again near the mansion, where he goes into consult with Ulof. Meanwhile, Ulof has picked the lock of his daughter’s prison only to be caught by the Major. The invisible Faust pushes the Major into the prison and locks him in, and asks Ulof why he can’t stay visible or invisible. Ulof leads him outside and explains that the X-13 is unstable, the Major is a madman and must be stopped, and they are both dying of radiation poisoning. Faust blusters a little, but finally finds his conscience and goes back to destroy the research. The Major shoots Laura to death while Faust rigs the invisibility machine to self-destruct. It explodes, taking half the county with it.

Later, government agents question Ulof. He tells them everything, but declines to repeat his invisibility experiments for the government. He surmises that, while it might be a great boon to U.S. intelligence, the secret might be stolen or recreated by the unscrupulous, leading to terrible consequences for the world in general. He then turns to the audience and asks, “What would you do?”

Introduction:

Auntie McFrank is quite solicitous.Tom shows off his science project, the insect Crowtus Robotus Horriblus. It is, of course, Crow, sealed in a jar of ether. Tom makes Crow cry by tapping the glass.

Host Segment One:

Tom has fished Crow out of the jar and pinned him to a board. Mike walks in and is amazed at some of the other specimens Tom has collected. Down in Deep 13, TV’s Frank has dressed like Aunt Jemima to start a bed and breakfast called Auntie McFrank’s Tangleberry Inn. Quoth their first customer, “I hear the Tangleberry breakfasts are to die for.” “You could say that,” Dr. Forrester replies. They lure in a couple (Kevin Murphy and Mary Jo Pehl), provide them with a bed (situated in the middle of the main room) and ply them with breakfast (cold chow mein). To provide local color, Tom dresses as a farmer and offers to let them pet Crow, dressed as a llama. Mike shows up to ask for matches. Tom frantically begs them not to give him any. The couple flees Deep 13 in terror.

Host Segment Two:

Mike and Crow discuss the short. Quoth Mike, “On the one hand, it had lots of important safety information. On the other hand, it made me want to kill myself.” They go over the importance of “gentle pressure” (the best way to get a welder’s attention without startling him), but Crow forgets almost immediately when he greets Tom. Tom burns him within an inch of his life with a torch welder.

Host Segment Three:

Frank has a day off for the first time in his Deep 13 career. He’s really excited to see Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, even going so far as to purchase a one thousand dollar ticket from a scalper. On his way out the door, Dr. Forrester tells him that Squanto opened and closed three weeks ago. “SQUANTOOOOOOOOOO!” Frank cries.

Host Segment Four:

Mike drags out an electric organ and plays a canned Latin beat with a simple, automatic chord progression until the ‘Bots get bored and leave. As soon as he’s alone, he dawns a cape and wig for a grand Rick Wakeman impression. The ‘Bots creep back in to see the commotion.

Host Segment Five:

Mike and the ‘Bots discuss Dr. Ulof’s question, “What would you do?” Crow replies, “If I were further than midfield, I’d go for it.” Mike specifies that the choice must be between an invisible army and blowing up a county in Texas. Quoth Tom, “Under any circumstances, blowing up a county in Texas is preferable.” Down in Deep 13, Frank has once again dressed as Auntie McFrank. He serves Dr. Forrester his hard, flavorless butter cookies. Dr. Forrester asks if he’s gotten over his disappointment. Frank overturns the table and cries, “SQUANTOOOOOOOOOO!”

Stinger:

Our heroes stroke the invisible guinea pig.

Thoughts:

The Amazing Transparent Man in an unguarded moment of opacity.My favorite part of the short comes from Joe’s fiancée, Helen. While working at a diner, she gazes deeply into her toaster’s shiny metal side and sees all her wildest dreams come true. The unintentional whimsy is so enormously inappropriate to the rest of the short’s dreary tone; it makes me laugh with relief every time I see it.

As a whole, The Days of Our Years isn’t whimsical at all. It takes its title from Psalms 90:10 and heavily implies that the lifespan specified by that verse (threescore and ten, i.e. seventy years) has been theologically mandated. Therefore, anyone who shortens or alters it through industrial accident is guilty of a mortal sin. None of the men depicted can ever rise above their injuries. Rather, they must wallow in misery and self-pity for the rest of their lives as atonement for their crimes. So watch where you step around a rail yard. Once you so much as stub your toe, you might as well kill yourself.

The Amazing Transparent Man disappointed me in two ways. First the Major tells Faust that whatever is behind the locked door in the laboratory is, “none of his concern.” Then Dr. Ulof reveals that it is a prison for his hostage daughter. He also reveals that he was forced to experiment on people in the concentration camps, including his own wife. At this point I ask myself, did his experiments affect his daughter? What manner of hideous being lurks behind that door? Finally, the door is opened and out jumps…a nondescript, well-behaved Eastern European girl. Go figure.

The other really disappointing aspect of the film comes right at then end, when Dr. Ulof breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience, “What would you do?” Since Mike and the ‘Bots have already covered the question’s asinine trappings—the ridiculous choice between invisible armies and laying waste to Texas—I’ll look past the immediate plot and acknowledge it’s a thinly veiled reference to nuclear warfare. In that context, the question is utterly meaningless. For one thing, John Q. Public (which includes me, my family, and everyone I’ve ever met) will never have the necessity or even the opportunity to invent a horrible new weapon and then have to choose between making it public or hiding the evidence. For another, even the infinitesimal segment of the population with the genius and expertise necessary to get into that kind of situation will still never face that choice. Once something’s been invented, it can’t be uninvented. Einstein probably didn’t have atom bombs in mind when he wrote e=mc2, but his discovery made them inevitable regardless. It’s bad enough that the filmmakers named one of their characters Faust and then had him make deals with a man of dubious morality, but directly asking the audience to think seriously about the message of their film pushes the whole thing over the edge from “only slightly worse than your average mad science flick” to “filled with delusions of its own grandeur.”

I went to a bed and breakfast once. I actually enjoyed it, which is to say, it was nothing like Kevin Murphy and Mary Jo Pehl’s experience at Auntie McFrank’s Tangleberry Inn. Still, when Mike screams for matches, while Tom screams for him not to get any matches, while Crow screams his inarticulate llama scream, it makes me laugh so hard it hurts. (As a general rule, any man who wears overalls without a shirt should never be given matches, regardless of how insistently he presses you for them.) Crow is very funny inside of Tom’s bottle as well. Crow’s welding accident and Frank’s fixation on the firmly average Squanto is decently amusing. Being unfamiliar with the works of YES, Mike’s Rick Wakeman impression meant nothing to me until I had a chance to look it up later. It was funny anyway.

The film segments are dragged down by their own dreariness. The short has a funny bit in the toaster fantasy. After the narrator has introduced Joe as “average in every way,” his fiancée Helen looks into the toaster at her idealized husband while Tom sighs, “My man is average!” When the popping toast interrupts her musings of family bliss, Tom reminds her to “diaper the toast and butter the baby.” The film segments have good commentary, but quotable quips are sparse. During the lengthy opening credits, Crow says, “Names have been changed to protect the visible.” When pieces of Faust start to fade in and out of visibility, Mike says, “He’s been downgraded to the partially visible man.” When Dr. Ulof deflates Faust’s hopes of being cured by telling him he’s dying, Mike says, “Thanks, Otto von Bringmedown.” The host segments in this episode are excellent. The film segments are about average. They come together for an episode that’s well worth watching at least once.