Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘William Cameron Menzies’

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come (1936)

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from Things to Come.

I’ve blogged on director William Cameron Menzies before, especially on his 1953 film Invaders from Mars, and his long and often tortured career as a pioneer set designer — most notably for the 1939 production of Gone With the Wind. But I’ve never really singled out his most ambitious film as a director, from H.G. Wells’ screenplay based on his 1933 novel, Things to Come. The large — and I do mean large — cast includes Raymond Massey, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. To give you some idea of the size and scope of the project, just take a look at the image above.

After Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), it’s arguably the most ambitious science fiction film ever made, and also one of the most prophetic, envisioning everything from giant flat screen televisions to the eventuality of another World War just a few years later. Bogged down by Wells’ insistence that both the actors and directors follow his verbose screenplay to the letter, Things to Come is nevertheless a visual tour de force, and a remarkable achievement both as a film, and as a vision of the future.

Easily available on DVD, including a 2007 version colorized by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen — I can’t believe I’m recommending this, but it’s that good — Things to Come is essential viewing for anyone interested in science fiction, set design, world history, or the history of film. Also in 2007, Network DVD in the UK released a digitally-restored version, which to date is the longest version available anywhere in the world. The two-disc set also contains a “Virtual Extended Version” with most of the missing and unfilmed parts represented by production photographs and script extracts.

In short, if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out immediately; this is where modern sci-fi begins.

The Whip Hand (1951)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Here’s an essay I published last week — November 28, 2011 — on one of the most deliriously paranoid noirs of the early 1950s, William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand, which was produced by the reclusive financier Howard Hughes after he took over RKO Radio Pictures. The film was originally designed as a neo-Nazi espionage thriller, but at the last moment, Hughes scrapped large portions of the film to retool it as an anti-Communist effort. As I note in the web journal Noir of the Week, ably edited by Steve Eifert,

“Ultimately, The Whip Hand is a work as curious and resonant as the reclusive lifestyle led by its true auteur, Howard Hughes; while Menzies designed and executed the film, paying as little attention as possible to the actors but lavishing enormous attention on the sets and mise en scene of the film, it was Hughes own obsessions and paranoid delusions that really inform the bulk of the film’s convoluted narrative [. . .] Hughes typically reshot films after they were finished, and in his own mind, the Communist threat was not only more timely than the Nazi angle; it was also more real. What Menzies did was to give solidity to Hughes’ paranoid fantasies, and it is this, more than anything else, that makes The Whip Hand simultaneously preposterous, and yet all too real; this was the way Howard Hughes saw the world in the 1950s, and Menzies brought his vision to life.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking on the image above, or here.

Invaders From Mars (1953)

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film, uncut.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

Click on the image above to see the trailer for Invaders From Mars.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “The furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film here.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/