Director – Curt Siodmak, Screenplay – Curt Siodmak & Ivan Tors, Producer – Ivan Tors, Photography (b&w) – Charles Van Enger, Music – Blaine Sanford, Special Photographic Effects – Jack Glass, Special Effects Director – Harry Redmond, Jr., Production Design – George Van Marter. Production Company – “A-Men” Productions.
Richard Carlson (Dr Jeffrey Stewart), King Donovan (Dr Dan Forbes), Jean Byron (Connie Stewart), Harry Ellerbe (Dr Allard), Leo Britt (Dr Benton), Leonard Mudie (Professor Howard Denker), Byron Foulger (Simon), Michael Fox (Dr Serny), Kathleen Freeman (Nelly)
Doctors Jeffrey Stewart and Dan Forbes work for the government agency Office of Scientific Investigation whose members are informally known as the A-Men. They are called in to investigate after an appliance store owner reports that all of the metal items in his store have become magnetised. It is determined that there is a radiation source coming from the laboratory on the floor above. The laboratory appears to have been hastily abandoned and they discover a dead body among the debris. Investigation determines that the radiation source is from a previously unknown element. An all-points alert is set up around the city for unusual radiation readings and the element is traced aboard a flight to a briefcase held by Professor Howard Denker. The plane is brought down and before he dies Denker explains that he created a new element in the laboratory by bombarding two existing elements with alpha particles. It is highly radioactive and unstable, constantly consuming energy and growing. Stewart realises that unless they find a means of stopping it, the isotope will keep growing until it endangers all life on the planet.
Hungarian expatriate Ivan Tors is best known as a producer of nature-based tv dramas, including the likes of Sea Hunt (1958-61), Flipper (1964-7), Daktari (1966-9) and Gentle Ben (1967-9), all of which were extremely popular during their day. Tors even created his own Florida nature reserve studio. His expertise with filming underwater had him hired to shoot sequences for films, mostly notably the extended climactic scuba sequences for the James Bond film Thunderball (1965). Less well-known is Tors’ ventures as a science-fiction producer. The Magnetic Monster was the first in a trilogy of films and was followed by Riders to the Stars (1954) and Gog (1954). Tors also made other science-fiction works such as the anthology tv series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-7), the quasi-science-fictional tv series The Man and the Challenge (1959-60), and films like Around the World Under the Sea (1966), Birds Do It (1966) and Hello Down There (1969).
The Magnetic Monsters, Riders to the Stars and Gog were all set around the fictional Office of Scientific Investigation – the same organisation that Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8) apparently worked for – a government agency clearly modelled along the lines of the FBI but tasked with investigating scientific matters. The OSI appeared in all three films and, although Richard Carlson appeared in the first two films and directed the second, there are no continuing characters.
With The Magnetic Monster, Ivan Tors conceived and wrote the film along with Curt Siodmak, who wrote a number of science-fiction films and novels in his native Germany before fleeing the Nazis and relocating in the US. In Hollywood, Siodmak made a career as a science-fiction and horror writer, most notably with the novel Donovan’s Brain (1942), which was filmed three times (see below). Siodmak found his calling as a screenwriter in the 1940s and turned out a host of B movies, including several among Universal’s Frankenstein, Invisible Man and Dracula sequels. His most famous work however was the screenplay for The Wolf Man (1941), which created the essential mythology that the werewolf film draws itself from. Come the 1950s and Siodmak made his debut as a director – The Magnetic Monster was his second film and he went on to make a handful of other mostly cheap films. (See below for a full list of Curt Siodmak’s other genre films).
What impresses you most about The Magnetic Monster is that it is alone among almost any science-fiction film of the 1950s in trying to root itself in scientific methodology. There is a fascination to the early scenes where Richard Carlson and King Donovan turn up to the appliance store to check the anomaly and we see them tossing iron filings on a surface to demonstrate the existence of the field, throwing bolts at the ceiling that stay stuck there in order to find the source and then putting a geiger counter on the end of a broom handle. It gives the film a fascination that triumphs over Siodmak’s otherwise dull visuals. Much of the film has been put together using documentary footage of technology in operation. We are introduced to a mass spectrometer and M.A.N.I.A.C., an early computer, for analysing the results (which one is surprised to find actually operates like a real computer did in the 1950s and doesn’t have aspirations to take over the world).
The film is directed with a documentary-like urgency, all accompanied by Richard Carlson’s lead agent giving timestamp voiceovers as to what is happening. There is a fascinating drive to the scenes tracking the radiation source to the airport, finding the flight number from the radioactive particles left behind, where the pilot is radioed and urged to slide the briefcase containing the isotope away, which he does using a blind man’s cane, the plane is then landed and the passengers evacuated, before the isotope is removed to safety in a lead-lined van. The only scenes that do not work are the interludes with Richard Carlson and his wife (Jean Byron), which seem bizarrely out of place amid the documentary-like tone of the rest of the film – in particular, his constant obsession with her being pregnant and not ‘looking fat enough’.
The most exciting scenes are those that take place in the Deltatron accelerator where the A-Men go in order to overload and destroy the isotope – most of this is stock footage taken from the German science-fiction film Gold (1934). There is something wonderfully exciting to the images of men running between the huge arcing generators with lightning bolts crashing across the reactor floor and the race to shut the massive blast doors as the system goes into overload. With the exception of the journey into the bowels of the Krell plant in Forbidden Planet (1956), this is some of the most awe-inspiringly scaled science-fiction of the 1950s.
The ready exposure to hot radiation by some of the scientists handling the isotope kind of makes you wince today. Although admittedly this is not so much a case of scientific error – back in the 1950s not that many in the Atomic Energy Commission had a clue either where, among other things, US servicemen were left in appalling close proximity to atomic test sites in the Pacific. The Magnetic Monster was released four months before the influential The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which created the 1950s genre of the atomic monster movie. The two films make for fascinating contrast – Beast created an allegory for the A-bomb and radioactive fallout with its revived dinosaur; The Magnetic Monster went the other direction and created the most unique atomic monster movie of all – one where radiation was a literal monster. Moreover, it was a film that showed that the mad scientist era of the 1930s and 40s where scientists would be punished for unleashing chaos was well and truly dead, that the new hero was the bold scientist of the Atomic Age and impending Space Age armed with the clipboard and slide rule, the engineer who had won the War and created the computer who would confront the menaces of the age with logic and reason alone.
Curt Siodmak’s other genre scripts include:- F.P.1 Does Not Answer (1932), Trans-Atlantic Tunnel (1935), The Ape (1940), Black Friday (1940), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), Invisible Agent (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), The Climax (1944), House of Frankenstein (1944), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), Riders to the Stars (1954), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956). Siodmak also directed/wrote several films with Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957). Siodmak also wrote the classic novel Donovan’s Brain (1942) about a millionaire’s disembodied brain that ends up mentally controlling the scientist that removed it, which has been thrice filmed as The Lady and the Monster (1944), Donovan’s Brain (1953) and Vengeance/The Brain (1962). Siodmak’s lesser known follow-up Hauser’s Memory (1968) about transplanted memories was also filmed as the tv movie Hauser’s Memory (1970).