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The Lost Missile

The Lost Missile(1958)

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teaser The Lost Missile (1958)

The situation is a familiar one for frequent viewers of 1950s science fiction films; a producer goes into production with an ambitious premise, but has at his disposal only a small budget, a cast of unknown actors, and an overabundance of stock footage. The result is usually disastrous, as one can witness in such films as Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Phil Tucker's Robot Monster (1953) or any number of others. In the case of The Lost Missile (1958), however, the result of these limitations is an acceptable, and even an occasionally taut and suspenseful disaster picture, as opposed to disastrous picture.

The film opens in a Soviet Bloc country, as radar screens there pick up a mysterious rocket-shaped craft hurtling at over 4,000 miles an hour. The military launches a defensive missile toward the object (the Soviet missile is depicted using stock footage of a V-2 rocket launch). Contact is made with the alien missile, but it is not destroyed. A booming narration tells us that "the terrible object has been diverted into an orbit by the explosion. It streaks across the Northern curve of the Earth at an altitude of only five miles. A wild missile loose on the surface of the earth burning a track five miles wide below it." Using a bleaching-out process, we see the effect of the missile as it passes; scenes white out with light, replaced by paintings of melted, scorched landscape. The Missile is on a course that will bring it over Ottawa and New York City. Along its path, we see a lone Arctic dogsledder get obliterated. Meanwhile, at Havenbrook Atomic Laboratory near New York, Dr. David Loring (Robert Loggia) is nearing completion on his work with a solid fuel rocket codenamed "Jobe", intended to carry a mini-hydrogen bomb warhead. Loring is dedicated to his work, to the point that there is a continuing strain with his assistant Joan Woods (Ellen Parker) he has postponed his marriage to her several times. Loring's colleague Dr. Joe Freed (Phillip Pine) is in nearly the same boat; he is away from his wife, even though she is expected to give birth at any moment. When Canadian scout planes relay a photograph of the alien missile, the military establishments of both Canada and the United States realize the nature of the threat and take action. Dr. Loring decides that the only chance they have of defeating the menace is to launch his untested Jobe rocket.

The Lost Missile was a troubled production. Producer/ director William Berke had a long resume in low-budget movie making dating back to the early 1930s, and had writing credits going back a decade earlier in the silent era. B-Westerns make up the bulk of his sound-era work, although he also turned out a few Jungle Jim pictures for Sam Katzman's unit at Columbia Pictures. The screenplay for The Lost Missile was co-written by the established science fiction author Jerome Bixby (who that same year penned the screenplays for It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Curse of the Faceless Man). Bixby was interviewed in 1983 for the magazine Enterprise Incidents, and of The Lost Missile he said, "[Co-writer] John [McPartland] and I did no treatment, we simply decided on a story line, and he decided on which scenes he would be more comfortable writing and which scenes I would be more comfortable writing, mainly the technical stuff, and we did the whole thing in a week and a half... Unfortunately, on the first day of shooting, the producer, Bill Berke, had a coronary and died, so his son took over and directed and made an earnest effort, but the picture did not turn out well." The elder Berke's longtime associate producer Lee Gordon took over the producer reins and completed the movie.

The movie poster and ad art prepared for The Lost Missile was certainly sensational, hinting at both an epic scale and a personification of evil. The art depicts a throng of people fleeing from the missile, with a city in flames in the background. Above the missile, the ads depict a large clawed hand and a glowering eyeball, both seemingly directing the missile. The ad copy ("It burns cities... It melts mountains... It turns men and women into living, screaming torches!") is vague about the nature of "It", and matinee-attending kids seeing the ads probably felt gypped that there was no on-screen monster to be seen. The artwork depicts a controlling force behind the missile, but actually one of the highlights of the film is that the missile goes unexplained; there is no indication of where it came from, if it is a manned vehicle or an unmanned drone, or if the devastating effects are by accident or design.

There is a high ratio of stock footage in The Lost Missile, but it is very well integrated into the film. That's not to say that the stock shots don't create occasional continuity problems as fighter jets are scrambled to confront the missile, the exciting shots jump back and forth from an F-94 to an F-89 to an F-80, depending on which action the filmmakers needed to cut in. The different jets give the impression of a single fighter, however, so only the trained eye of a USAF wing-watcher would notice the differences. The many scenes of panic-in-the-streets were culled from some of the Civil Defense preparedness films made during the Cold War as well as newsreel footage of drills held in major cities.

In The Hollywood Reporter, reviewer Jack Moffitt liked the film, saying "as in every good suspense story, one feels the ticking of a clock through every minute of The Lost Missile... A large part of the film is stock shots, but these are so well-integrated with the dramatic footage by editor [Everett] Sutherland as to constitute a minor masterpiece of documentation. Location photography in Canada and New York's subways by Kenneth Peach expertly matches the prevailing newsreel style." The reviewer for Variety also had praise for the "results of research on stock footage", but felt that the script was a letdown, and "...not always too clear on sequence, overboard heavily for melodrama. Dialog tends to be oratorical, particularly in high-echelon scenes involving civilian and military officials."

In his exhaustive survey Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren has praise for the effectiveness of The Lost Missile: "The film is brisk and efficient; the sets are minimal, but not unimaginative, and the direction is well above average for a picture of this nature. It builds up quite a head of tension by the climax... The script wisely focuses on the actions of David and the sacrifice involved in his saving Manhattan; it couldn't show us screaming thousands going up in flames as the blazing missile sweeps by overhead, so the story centers around the tragedy of one brave man. This is intelligent use of your limitations."

The Lost Missile provided an early role for the busy character star Robert Loggia. Following work on Broadway and small roles in features like Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and The Garment Jungle (1957), Loggia signed with low-budget producer William Berke to play the lead in two films, Cop Hater (1958) and The Lost Missile. In the former, Loggia was Detective Steve Carelli in an adaptation of a series of police novels written by Evan Hunter under the name Ed McBain. For most of the 1960s and 1970s Loggia could be seen guest-starring on dozens of TV series, particularly crime shows and westerns, and he even starred in a one-season series of his own, T.H.E. Cat (1966-67), as a retired acrobatic cat burglar. Beginning in the 1980s, Loggia returned to the big screen in showy parts in big budget features like An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Scarface (1983), and Prizzi's Honor (1985), among many others. His film career is well over the 50-year mark at this writing, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Producer: Lee Gordon
Director: Lester Wm. Berke
Screenplay: Jerome Bixby, John McPartland; from a story by Lester Wm. Berke
Cinematography: Kenneth Peach
Production Design: William Ferrari
Music: Gerald Fried
Film Editing: Everett Sutherland
Cast: Robert Loggia (Dr. David Loring), Ellen Parker (Joan Woods), Phillip Pine (Dr. Joe Freed), Larry Kerr (General Barr), Marilee Earle (Ella Freed), Fred Engelberg (TV singer), Kitty Kelly (Mother Freed), Selmer Jackson (Secretary of State)

By John M. Miller

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