Monday, 24 February 2014

Target Earth (1954)

B-Grade sci-fi meets gangster movie meets pulp fiction

Directed by Sherman A. Rose
Produced by Herman Cohen
Written by Paul W. Fairman, James H. Nicholson, Wyott Ordung, William Raynor
Music by Paul Dunlap
Cinematography: Guy Roe
Editing by Sherman A. Rose
Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
Running time: 75 minutes
Budget: $100,000


Kathleen Crowley (Nora King)
Richard Denning (Frank Brooks)
Virginia Grey (Vicki Harris)
Richard Reeves (Jim Wilson)
Robert Roark (Davis, the Killer)
Whit Bissell (Tom, Chief research scientist)
Arthur Space (Lt. General Wood)
Steve Pendleton (Colonel)
Mort Marshall (Charles Otis)


A large city in the US is almost completely evacuated as an advanced force of robots, conjectured to be from the planet Venus, invade and attack. Nora King and Frank Brooks, are among the few who have been overlooked during the mass evacuation. Together with two others they meet, Vicki Harris and Jim Wilson, they face not only the danger from the Venusian robots, but also new dangers in the form of Davis, a psychopathic killer, as well as potential death from “friendly fire.”


Spoilers follow below:

The Story

During the opening credits of the film, Target Earth, we find ourselves gradually freefalling through the immensity of space toward the planet Earth. We then zero in on a single city and are finally drawn into a nondescript single room of a rooming house.


The camera focusses on a clock that reads 1.30 and it must be PM since even though the room appears to be in semi-darkness, it is daytime beyond the drawn window blind. The camera then pans to a mirror in which we see the reflection of a woman asleep in her underclothing. We are then given a close-up of a bottle of Dr Andrews sleeping tablets lying opened next to her.

By purely visual means, the audience is invited to mentally join the dots, ask questions and ponder the possible reasons behind this lady’s obvious suicide attempt.

The character, Nora King recovers consciousness and soon discovers that her building has no electricity or water upon which modern civilisation depends for its existence. She is greeted only by an unnerving silence and a view of a streetscape devoid of the human heart and soul that is the lifeblood of any urban setting.

Some people like Nora might wish to die alone, but to live and to be alone-that is something else! How unnerved she must have felt knocking on doors and calling out “Mrs Gordon!” and “Where is everybody?” only to be met by the silent response of total human absence.


As Nora descends to the street, the sense of tension and suspense is heightened by the accompanying percussive music score. Visually, Nora becomes a mere isolated, scurrying diminutive figure scuttling ant-like hither and thither along the deserted city streets with their looming and impassive architecture.

After walking for several blocks, Nora encounters no sign of life anywhere in the city. It is the sign of death that brings the stab of panic and fear to her (and the audience) as Nora stumbles upon a woman's dead body in a doorway whose lifeless death-stare causes her to suddenly and shockingly back into a stranger who seems to have materialized out of nowhere.

We soon learn that this stranger who so suddenly appeared behind Nora is Frank Brooks who tells her that, after he arrived in the city from Detroit the night before, he was robbed, “slugged and dumped in an alley.” He had managed to revive only a few minutes earlier.

As Frank and Nora walk to the city centre, they try to figure out what has happened to the city’s inhabitants. By a process of elimination, they determine that it was probably not the result of a nuclear bomb or germ warfare. As to their own presence in the city, Frank uses the analogy of a sack of sugar to explain it whereby some of the gains seem to always stick to the sack.


Almost unbelievably considering the circumstances, Frank and Nora hear music coming from inside a restaurant. Inside they find a woman, Vicki Harris, playing the piano as her male companion, Jim Wilson, mixes her a drink. Both are rather inebriated and have been “celebrating as though it’s New Year’s Eve.” How differently people react to being placed in similar circumstances!

And the choices they make! For this quartet, the choices boil down to getting out of town or staying and enjoy what’s on offer. They decide to keep on the move by supposedly visiting other night spots.


When they attempt to take a car, the owner’s dead body almost falls out the open door. This is a stark reminder that even in the face of human catastrophes and calamities, objects, artefacts and places were once owned and used by living people with flesh and blood histories and stories to tell.

Suddenly, the four are interrupted by a man, Charles Otis, who explains that he was “trying to get out town, like yourselves.” He had also been checking the cars and discovered that they have all been disabled by having the distributor caps removed.

Otis also says that the area he just came from appeared to have been heavily looted. His description of what has taken place allows the audience to use their imaginations to picture the scene of destruction: the “mess”, smashed windows and so on.

The audience is again invited to use their imagination when the group witness the giant shadow (“it doesn’t look human!”) of a monstrous figure being cast on the side of a tall building. How the human mind has the capacity to create phantoms and monsters from mere shadows as the brain struggles to make sense of the unknown and unfamiliar!

Hotel Lobby

After they decide to hide in a hotel across the street, Otis finds a newspaper with the headlines: "Invasion By Mystery Army. City To Be Evacuated." The accompanying report states that “hostile forces of an unknown origin” have landed fifty miles north of the city. Terrified, Otis tries to escape but is killed in the street by a disintegrating ray, directed at him from the head of a large robot.

Intriguingly, Frank mentions that he has a desk at the “Home Office” which suggests that he is employed by the government. I’m not sure if this is the equivalent of the State Department or like the UKs Home Office which these days is responsible for immigration, security, and law and order, including the police, UK Border Agency, and the Security Service (MI5). We also have further insight into Frank’s background when he suggests that the robot invasion force is “part of an advance patrol” as per his experience in the “last war.”

Seeking a more secure hiding place, the quartet move from the hotel lobby to a suite (402 – 404) on the fourth floor.

Army command post

The discussion between a general and his colleagues paints a fuller picture as to the nature of the enemy and what has been occurring off-screen so far: They are dealing with an “enemy, the likes of which defies description,” that “the invasion was not launched by a power on this earth” and that “the consensus is that they came from Venus.”

We learn that the invaders have already destroyed an airborne division as well as twenty-four planes from bomber command.


Back at the hotel, Nora’s observation that the invasion force “must have weapons we have never dreamed of” serves to confirm the scenario presented at the army command post. Frank’s suggestion that the enemy may be from Venus, the only planet capable of supporting life, also confirms what was suggested at the command post. (OK astronomy buffs, we know a lot more about conditions on Venus these days! So what? This is a journey into the “what if?” If you don’t like it, get off!)

As the film, Target Earth is more about character than scientific accuracy; Nora’s revelation to Frank about her suicide attempt is significant. She declares that she wouldn’t care if they dropped the H-Bomb and that she “never intended to wake up at all.” We learn that her husband was killed in a car crash and that she blamed herself for his death with the result that she felt that she didn’t have a reason to live. Now, with the current threat to humanity’s existence, everything has changed for Nora, except that it seems to be “too late to do anything about it.”

What of the other characters that have been thrown into this situation? Vicki and Jim, who have been seeing each other for ten years constantly bicker and squabble. Jim uncharacteristically offers to help Frank find food and Vicki observes that yesterday he wouldn’t have given her a seat on a bus. Jim retorts by stating, “Today the busses aren’t running anymore.” Later on Jim declares to Vicki that “if we ever get out of this dive, we’ll do all our fighting from the same corner.” It’s amazing what a crisis can do to put things into perspective and enable people to work out what really is important in life.

Army command post

The general wouldn’t be a military man if didn’t order atomic artillery and guided missiles to be readied and that’s exactly what he does. Just then he receives news that (as luck would have it) a deactivated robot has been found. This looks like a job for a team of scientists to attempt to discover what has caused the robot to become inoperative. 


The chief scientist determines that the robots are driven by electro-magnetic impulses, that they can duplicate human motion, are impervious to bullets and are “incapable of pain, fear or compassion.” Qualities expressed by later screen robotic descendants such as Cybermen, Terminators and so on.


Back at the hotel, another character has been thrown into the mix in the form of a psychotic killer named Davis, who escaped from custody during the evacuation. He has broken into the suite and holds the group at gunpoint. He states that he “wouldn’t stand a chance alone and without a gun.” He informs Nora that he knows a way out of the city by means of a sewer and intends for her to accompany him. He also intends to use the others as decoys.


Science to the rescue! Hurrah! A means seems to have been discovered to destroy the lethal, beam-generating, cathode ray tube located in the robots' heads.

Hotel Lobby

As Davis is about to escape, Vicki bravely chooses to confront him, which results in him choosing to act in the only way he knows how: by shooting and killing her. Jim then attacks Davis and violently chokes him to death, which is an understandable instinctive and emotional reaction rather than a choice. Most of us would do anything to protect, defend and even avenge those who are most precious and dear to us.

Hotel Roof

The heightened tension is maintained by the sudden appearance of a robot smashing through the hotel lobby's window and its mechanical nosferatu-like pursuit of Frank, Nora and Jim up the stairs leading to the hotel's roof. With the elevation of the characters to the highest level of the hotel building as death in mechanized form looms ever closer, comes an elevation of the best of human qualities and heroic choices of the characters with Jim’s attempts to divert the robot away from Nora and Frank and his being killed by the robot's beam.

Just as the robot is about to disintegrate Frank and Nora with its beam, Army vehicles arrive on the scene. They are equipped with loudspeakers that emit a high frequency tone that can shatter the robots' cathode ray tubes and render them inoperative. By this means the roof-top robot is disabled and the good planet Earth can now rest a bit easier……until next time when the Venusians finally discover the joys of digital, LCD & LED technology! Is that a giant shadow I see on the wall across the road?

Points Of Interest

The movie, Target Earth was based on the 1953 short story, "Deadly City" by Paul W. Fairman.

Target Earth was sneakily filmed on the deserted streets of Los Angeles early one Sunday morning, without the necessary permits. The film's story, however, is based in Chicago.

I know there are those critics out there who salivate at the prospect of pointing out the film’s low budget, lack of sophisticated special effects and so on. For me the main feature of the film is its basic premise: An assorted group of people finding themselves in an abandoned city, being forced to contend with an alien menace and having to make choices that have significant personal and collective consequences.

As is well-known, only one robot was constructed and it was used for all scenes in the film, Target Earth. The robot army and alien invasion is conveyed to us as being more like an impending threat instead of an immediate in-your-face-here-come-the-explosions-and-one-damn-thing-after-another presence. With the alien robots being off screen most of the time, the threat they pose seems to work more on a psychological level which seems to mirror the nature of the fears experienced by many people at that time. Who exactly is the enemy and what kind of threat do they pose to us?

Sure, there’s a single robot that looks a bit like a lumbering washing machine with legs. Get over it! The film was made in a time long before the advent of computer generated special effects, and technology like the internet, laptops, tablets and mobile phones! Try to appreciate the film in the context of what it tried to achieve with its limited budget and that it was the 1950s, a time of fear concerning the Russians and the widespread sightings of UFO's. Add to this the fact that the film’s focus is more on character studies than on special effects which might be a priority for many of today’s audiences and critics who are used to being fed on a diet of films laden with computer generated effects, puerile non-stop action, video-game oriented presentations, threadbare story lines and hollow one-dimensional characters.

What makes this film work quite well is the sense of unease and tension that is maintained throughout most of the first half of the movie followed by the character revelations in the second half. Add to this not only the imminent threat posed to the humans by the alien invaders, but also the potential threat being posed by General Wood and the military. The group in the hotel are unaware that the city could be destroyed by tactical nuclear weapons at any moment-a fact that the audience is quite well aware of.

Descriptions of what takes place off-screen / stage; the various choices that characters make when confronted by circumstances; tension heightened by what the audience knows and the characters don’t know…….the very tools of trade used by none other than a certain Mr Shakespeare! I wonder if he would have enjoyed Target Earth?

©Chris Christopoulos 2014

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