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Herbert L. Strock’s Gog (1954)

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the original trailer for Gog.

Shot in fifteen days for a bit less than $250,000 in widescreen, color, and 3-D, Gog centers on a series of brutal murders at a scientific outpost somewhere in the American desert — but who, or what, is behind the killings? Reeking of Cold War paranoia, and directed and edited with the cold detachment that Herbert L. Strock displayed in all his work, Gog is really, for all its pseudo-scientific trappings, more or less a killing machine, in which characters are introduced and then summarily executed, presumably because their research will lead to the conquest of space.

Strock was the original director and visual designer of Jack Webb’s famously downbeat detective series Dragnet, though Webb pushed Strock out of the way after Strock had directed the first episode, and took over the helm himself. But Strock left an indelible imprint on the series; as a director and editor, it was Strock who devised the tight close-ups and robotic cutting and dialogue delivery, as well as creating the trademark flat visual style that made Dragnet emblematic of 1950s television drama.

Both Dragnet and Gog are resolutely dystopian visions of 1950s America. Every scene in Gog is shot through with a sense of menace and fatalism; time and again, the characters comment of some new scientific advance that in the “wrong hands, it would be a terrible weapon of mass destruction,” and indeed, this turns out to be the case.

While the equipment used in the film is now woefully outdated, Gog nevertheless accurately predicts a future in which computers will run everything, and nobody really knows who’s running the computers. In Gog, technology has outstripped humanity, and at the film’s conclusion, it seems that only the creation and implementation of still more instrumentalities will allow mankind to stay one step ahead of the machines, which seem destined to take over whether we like it or not. They’re just smarter than we are, they can think faster, they’re not troubled by emotions — it’s all much too close to reality.

As a film, Gog has been missing in action for more than half a century, so to speak, surviving only in cheap bootlegs; MGM has now finally released the film in a serviceable color transfer  — not in the correct aspect ratio, but close enough, and without the benefit of 3-D, but that doesn’t really bother me, either. In any event, the MGM DVD is a revelation; the first time I’d seen the film in color, with a sharp, clear picture and excellent sound.

The MGM transfer is not a Criterion edition, of course, nor does Gog deserve one; it’s a Cold War artifact more than anything else. But for all its faults, which are considerable — the cast walks through the film with cardboard conviction, and only Lubitsch alumnus Herbert Marshall brings any real human dimension to his role — Gog remains valuable in its depiction of a society ruled by technology, which in turn is answerable only to itself. Or so it seems –

There are numerous bootlegs of Gog circulating, but they really don’t do the film justice. Just watch the first ten minutes — a coldly calculated, utterly impersonal double “murder by machine” in a deep freeze chamber, and you’ll be both hooked and somewhat shocked; this isn’t the 50s we’re supposed to remember, the Dick Clark version of post-war America. There’s naked fear on display here, and distrust of what the future might bring. Strock’s film is an authentic talisman of the way things really were in the Red Scare era, not the way we wish to remember them, and for that, Gog’s value is real, and tangible.

There’s no doubt about it; Gog is one creepy movie.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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