“The Flying Saucer” (1950) Review
Greetings popcorn nerds, Jetpack Jason here. This is a first installment of a series of Golden Age Sci-Fi Cinema Reviews. Today, I’m reviewing “The Flying Saucer”, released in 1950 and produced by Colonial Productions. For the time being, I’m going to be focusing on the venerable alien come to Earth genre. These films typically take place on Earth during the 1950s, usually feature a flying saucer, alien or robot, and a huge helping of Macarthy level paranoia! As you might guess, I’ll be skipping some classic Science fiction films from the time period because they don’t quite fit into the mold I just described. Have no fear. I’ll be covering other sci-fi genres in the future.
The Flying Saucer – 1950
“The Flying Saucer” is often called the first film to depict a flying saucer on screen. If that’s true, it’s a good first film to review. Sure, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers dealt with spaceships and beings from other worlds, but those were serials which took place in the future. For now, we’re sticking with alien invasion stories set in a nuclear capable America with a sticky red coating of cold war paranoia.
“The Flying Saucer” was written, directed and produced by Mikel Conrad who also starred. Spending the late 40s playing small characters in B-movies and having never written or directed before, Mikel somehow scraped together the cash to produce this film. With Roswell making major headlines a few years before, and a growing curiosity about UFOs in the US, it was high time for someone to exploit the subject matter.
The film opens with acknowledgement text reading, “We gratefully acknowledge cooperation of those in authority who made the release of the “The Flying Saucer” film possible at this time.” When I first read this, I assumed it was written in gratitude to the US military for granting access to film government buildings or something. That wasn’t uncommon in the 1950s. But the more I think about it, I feel like there was another intention here. The wording makes it seem like they’re referring to actual shots of a flying saucer in this movie. The implication is that certain people in authority allowed the use of actual flying saucer footage in this film. Okay movie, I like this little game we’re playing but we’ll come back to that idea later.
The credits are accompanied by a bombastic and suspenseful score by Darrell Calker. His film work had consisted primarily of Westerns and animated shorts for Walter Lantz up to this point, but he’d go on to score several more sci-fi movies in the 1950s.
After the credits, we find ourselves overlooking a dark tree lined valley with mountains in the distance. After a few moments, we hear a low pulsing sound before the titular flying saucer zooms by for a low level pass. It’s actually a decent special effect, given that nobody had ever put a saucer on screen before. There’s no dopy strings, no wobbling. The pulsing sound effect was held just long enough to build suspense before the ship passes the camera. I think this was nicely done.
This leads straight into that classic chestnut of 1950s sci-fi: The paranoia montage! Newspapers spiralling onto the screen. Extra Extra! Saucer seen over Miami! Nervous people looking and pointing up. More sightings! A woman screaming in terror! Perfect, we’re hitting all the right notes, so far!
We cut to the office of Hank Thorn, an officer for some clandestine US intelligence agency. It’s here that we meet our *cough* hero, Mike Trent, played by Mikel Conrad with all the subtlety of a Cadillac Salesman on President’s day weekend. Mike is some kind of agent for the aforementioned intelligence agency. Hungover, self-entitled and lazy, Mike is none to happy when Hank orders him back to his home state of Alaska to investigate the latest Flying Saucer sightings there. He’s skeptical and frankly doesn’t want to leave his posh lifestyle in New York. His outlook changes when he’s introduced to Vee Langley, the sexy female agent who’s going to be posing as his nurse. See, the cover story for Mike is that he needs to ‘dry out’ after living too rich in New York. You know, I want to work for a government agency where even the idea of living like a lout can be rewarded by sending me on paid vacation with a gorgeous nurse. Yeah, that’s not the slightest bit conspicuous. Vee was played by Pat Garrison, whose career went pretty much nowhere. She does a pretty decent job with what she has to work with here.
Before leaving, Hank suggests that there might be a team of Russian spies after the flying saucer too, so be on guard! Mike and Vee make their way to Alaska, and we start to see that poor Nurse Vee is going to have her hands full. Mike makes a break during a layover in Seattle, his drunken frame carried back to the ship by sailors. On the boat ride, we get a full five minutes of scenic Alaskan beauty. Get used to it folks. This movie spends a lot of time sight seeing.
We finally arrive at the lodge, a wood cabin owned by Mike’s dad, just north of Juneau. We’re greeted by Hans, a beret wearing groundskeeper who could be French, German, Lithuanian, generically European, who knows. What we do know is that Hans doesn’t seem suspicious, AT ALL.
For a while, we’re treated to lovely outings in the wilderness as Mike and Vee traipse across the country side. Mike’s clearly smitten by Vee. After one glowing afternoon, they arrive back at the lodge, and following a playful game of catch the knapsack, Vee leans in, allowing the hungry Mike to steal a smooch. I hereby judge that she has terrible taste in men. Their kiss is interrupted when the leering Hans moves in to return Mike’s thermos. Your ruin everything Hans.
That evening, over a romantic game of solitaire, Mike makes another move and they kiss. AND… he totally makes a grab for Vee’s boob! She stopped him of course and there was no contact, but man, that was blatant for the time. I don’t know if it’s because this film was made semi-independently, away from the studio censors, but it was hard to get away with that kind of stuff back then. This is at the height of the Motion Picture Production Code, and while it’s relatively mild, I’d guess it would still be red stamped if Joseph Breen had gotten his eyes on it.
Anyway, Mike gets all pissy when Vee rejects his groping. “Oh, I get it. We’re not humans beings anymore. We’re just Hank Thorn’s stooges!” Mike’s emo whimper session is interrupted by the sound of the flying saucer outside. Finally, 25 minutes in, we’re going to get some hot saucer action! Nope. It ends as quickly as it started, but at least Mike now believes the saucer is real. He proposes going down to Juneau where he can look up some of his old drinking buddies to see if they have any intel. Vee, sees right through this and puts the kibosh on that idea. See, Vee’s kind of incharge. Very progressive, 1950!
That doesn’t stop him though. The next morning, while Vee’s out on a hike, Mike grabs the boat and heads to town! Shortly after, Hans shows his true colors by grabbing a gun and stalking Vee in the forest. What is this duplicitous beret wearing, German named, and likely Russian aligned creeper up to? It’s a pointless few minutes of suspense though, as Hans decides not to take the shot, assuming that a nearby bear will do his dirty work. Except the bear is stock footage and can’t do anything more that frighten Vee back to the lodge. Once she’s learned that Mike’s escaped to Juneau, Vee flags down a passing barge to follow him.
Mike arrives in Juneau and wastes no time getting his drink on. I should mention that for the next little while, this movie jumps genres over to screwball comedy. Mike lands at Ernie’s bar, where he asks for a scotch but the bartender recommends the rye. After quizzing the annoyed bartender on the location of his old chums and getting nowhere, Mike heads off for the next dive. We get a last shot of the bartender, sniffing the money. Pervert.
We get a happy go lucky montage as Mike wanders into and out of Cut Rate Liquor, Arctic Cocktail Bar, Alaskan Hotel Bar, Yukon Bar, the Fo’Cs’Le Bar, The Baranof Bar, Blackie’s Bar, and the Pack Train Inn. Rye, leave the bottle, it saves time.
Drunk as a skunk, Mike ends up at Dreamland Liquor. Dreamland Liquor? Appropriate for a Flying Saucer movie, don’t you think? Here, Mike makes a new friend, Nanette, who’s ever so willing to help. She knows everyone in Juneau and everyone knows her. She’s a friendly sort of girl, if you know what I mean, and Mike seems to have forgotten all about frigid Vee. Mikel Conrad does his best acting work when he’s playing inebriated. The slurring, the goofy grin, the three cigarettes betwixt each set of knuckles, and thinking he’s run out of smokes… perfection. I imagine his talent for this sort of pantomime comes from practice, but I could be wrong.
Vee shows up, accompanied by the barge pilot, who is into good deeds, I guess. It’s never explained why he’s now chasing around Juneau with her, but it gives a drunken Mike somebody to punch, which he does. Poor dumb Mike is jealous, even as he himself is working his way into the sack with the local doxy.
Vee, exasperated with Mike’s lack of discretion, escorts the sadsack barge pilot out of the bar. Mike almost has a moment of conscience and starts to follow, but lovely Nanette easily distracts him back to the table. That’s our Mike!
Before Nanette gets her claws deeper into him, Mike’s old buddy, Matt Mitchell finally shows up. If Foster Brooks and Otis from Mayberry had met in a bar, they could not have out-drunked Matt and Mike.
Against all odds, Matt actually has some helpful information for Mike. He’s got a fat wallet because some foreigners are renting his boat and paying mad cash. Mike agrees to meet Matt in the morning and heads out. Yeah, as if either of them is going to remember the conversation in the morning. To bad for Matt, a couple of the foreigners were eavesdropping in a nearby booth and escort him out. I’m going to stop calling them foreigners, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, they’re Soviet agents. I’m not sure why Matt thought they were foreigners though, since they talk like they’re from Detroit. Except for Hans, who delivers enough generic Europeanness for all of them.
They knock out Matt and toss in him a back room. Soon after, the Russians greet a man named Turner, played by old Briscoe Darling himself, Denver Pyle. Seems that Turner is the assistant to a certain Doctor Laughton. And it seems that Turner is looking to get rich off of selling something to these Commies for a cool million. A turncoat! But what could he be selling? You don’t suppose… not the saucer?!
It is at this point that the still conscious viewer will realize that this is not an alien-come-to-earth story at all. This whole time, the Flying Saucer has been nothing more than this Doctor Laughton’s prototype 2000 mile per hour, completely Earth-made aircraft. The whole conversation where this is revealed is so completely nonchalant that I had trouble believing that the plot twist was actually happening. What an O. Henry style switcharoo! I’d like to mention that there’s still about 35 minutes left in this hour fifteen minute movie. Mikel, here’s a note for you. If you’re going to have a twist ending, don’t reveal it half way through the film. Consider holding it til the end, so it actually has an impact.
Anyway, while this is going on, Matt’s woken up and has heard everything, including the location of the saucer. He stumbles his way out the window. They don’t show it, but I like to imagine him teetering on the window sill, legs sticking up and going “Whooooaaa” as he lands in some trash cans outside. Missed opportunity, Mikel.
Meanwhile, on his boat ride back to the lodge, Mike, in his quest to be completely irredeemable, crashes on a piece of floating ice, falls out of the boat and gets knocked out. Luckily, the now escaped Matt just so happens to roll by and rescue him. Seriously, without Vee and Matt to bail him out, I swear Mike would have been impaled by an icicle, run over by a herd of reindeer, stabbed by his own cork screw and fallen into a vat of sauerkraut.
Matt ferries Mike back to his place, but soon after, the Russians pull up in a boat. They shoot Matt which rouses Mike out of his drunken slumber long enough to attempt some William Shatner style attack moves. He’s immediately overpowered and knocked cold. Again. Then just as quickly as the commies arrived, they’re frightened off by the approach of another boat. By the time Mike can stagger back into the shack, he finds Matt nearing death. Before he flutters off to join the choir invisible, Matt divulges the pertinent details of the Flying Saucer, then he fades away to join the force. Like Yoda.
Meanwhile poor Vee tries desperately to find Mike, but that’s incredibly boring, so let’s skip it. She does manage to make a connection with Doctor Laughton during this time, so that’ll come in handy at some point.
In his desire to find out what his friend died for, Mike rents a plane and we’re treated to five full minutes of him flying over the Alaskan wilderness. I assume that he’s still mostly drunk during this part of the story.
Mike finds the spot, lands and investigates a log cabin. Through a hidden hatch on the floor and into the basement, he finds the saucer. He spends a hot thirty-five seconds investigating, and man, he’s outta there!
Back in the plane and back at the lodge to refuel, before returning to Juneau. At the lodge, Hans does his best to sabotage the plane, which Mike notices immediately. It’s then on to fisticuffs and Mike nearly does an impression of the bald Nazi mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The rest of our commie cowboys shows up and once again, Mike gets the stuffing beat out of him. Then Vee and Doctor Laughton, who you’ll remember is the inventor of the flying saucer, show up and are promptly captured by the Russians. Now the whole big family is together and so begins the march across the glacier to find that damn flying saucer!
Gosh guys, I feel like I can sum up the rest of the film in a few sentences. Here goes! More Alaska scenery! Spelunking through caves! Mike finally figures out how to use the element of surprise and takes a Russian as a human shield. The other Russians fire on their own guy, miraculously not killing mike in the process. An avalanche! The cave collapses! Many Russians die! Turner the turncoat launches the saucer so he can fly it to Russia! The saucer explodes because smart guy Doctor Laughton planted a bomb! BOOM! Mike and Vee kiss! Young romance. They’ll be married in spring, and she’ll divorce him by Autumn.
Phew. Timing in at an hour and fifteen minutes, this is not a long movie. Not too unusual for a B-movie, but man, they padded the hell out of this thing. About a third of the flick is dedicated to glacier porn. Hiking, flying, boating, picnicking… This film may have been sponsored by the Alaskan travel board.
So the question is, can “The Flying Saucer” legitimately be called the original UFO slash flying saucer film? Well, yes and no. I think it can definitely be viewed as the first feature film to cash in on the UFO phenomena that was gaining attention in the late 40s, early 50s. But let’s be honest. It’s an espionage caper. That’s it. The flying saucer is nothing more than a macguffin for American and Soviet agents to fight over. There are no beings from outer space, no imminent danger to the planet, no death rays, no robots. The titular ‘flying saucer’ is just an experimental aircraft that has a combined total of about 45 seconds on screen. This is barely even science fiction.
Given these facts, I really wasn’t sure about reviewing “The Flying Saucer”. It doesn’t fit the parameters that I imposed on myself for these reviews. But I found enough things interesting about the movie and its production to give it a fresh watch and a review. While it’s not a true UFO sci-fi film, it must be given credit for introducing Americans to the image of flying saucers on screen. The opening minutes are the first time a UFO paranoia montage was shown. This film, whatever its flaws and self-misrepresentation, opens the door for what would come during the next decade and continue on to the present day. That makes it noteworthy to me. Even the anti-Soviet propaganda would continue in later true sci-fi alien pictures, only it would be the subtext, in which aliens represent the dangers of the Red Menace.
I should also point out that Mikel Conrad really pushed the UFO phenomenon while promoting his film. In an interview with the Los Angeles Examiner in September 1949, he claimed that he had seen a UFO and captured it on film while working on an earlier movie. Further digging revealed a tall tale about him being interviewed by the FBI about the footage, which ties back into the message displayed at the beginning of the movie. Some colorful stories even have him quitting Hollywood and going off the grid in order to research and expose the truth about UFOs. Check this odd Youtube video for more on that. The video footage there is obviously bad CGI, but if you click Read More, there’s an interesting story. I’m sure it’s nonsense, but it’s interesting. Mikel Conrad strikes me as a bit of a huckster, so I take most of this with a grain of salt. But it does create a neat little color-shift around the film, giving it more sparkle than it probably deserves.
Unfortunately, it’s all a bit of a let down when half way through the film, he sells the story out with a reveal that the flying saucer is just an experimental aircraft. Why make that kind of film? There were so many great spy films in the 1940s, and frankly, this little film was never going to be up to that level. Mikel Conrad is no Alfred Hitchcock. He couldn’t have been delusional enough to think he was making anything more than a B-movie. If everything you’re telling the public to promote the film is sensational, then make it sensational! Throw in a monster from space or a robot with an atomo-ray. That’s all me and five million matinee kids really want.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame Mikel Conrad for not completely inventing a genre. He invented some of the necessary mechanics. Other geniuses would come in soon after and build the rest of the machine. So I give him props for his contribution.
So, how do I rate Flying Saucer as a film? Not good. On a scale of zero to ten, I’ll give it a one. As a sci-fi thriller, it’s terrible. As an espionage caper, it’s still terrible. It did originate some things that I’ve come to love about sci-fi flying saucer movies, so it has enough historical significance to warrant a star. Moreover, I’m really fascinated by Mikel Conrad. I have drawn an incredibly intricate picture of who this man was, based solely on his behavior in this movie and the few things I’ve found to read about him. I have to believe that Mike Trent is Mikel Conrad. From the drunken whoring to the passing out on a chunk of ice, to the unwanted boob grab to the reluctant investigations into unknown realms. I want this guy’s life story, and I hope it’s every bit as colorful as I imagine. That said, it’s not enough for me to suggest that you waste an hour fifteen watching this movie, unless you’re a completest like me.
What did you think of “The Flying Saucer”? Give me your own thoughts in the comments below!