Monday, September 26, 2011

MASTER OF THE WORLD

In the Fifties and early Sixties, French fantasist Jules Verne was big at the box-office. Disney's underwater epic, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA had been a major hit in '54, and a few years later, 20th Century Fox had great success with their big-screen adaptation of the author's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. In 1961, the B-movie specialists at American-International decided to grab for a piece of that action, and the result was MASTER OF THE WORLD, starring Vincent Price and a young Charles Bronson.

In the late 19th Century, a small, mountainside town in rural Pennsylvania is rocked by unexplained tremors and shocked by a booming, disembodied voice quoting scripture. An American agent named John Strock (Bronson) recruits an industrialist balloon enthusiast named Prudent (Henry Hull, WEREWOLF OF LONDON) to fly him over the mountain so he can investigate the strange happenings. They are accompanied by Prudent's daughter, Dorothy (Mary Webster) and her dickish fiance, Phillip (David Frankham, RETURN OF THE FLY). As they rise above the mountain's summit, they are shot down by a missile and crash on the peak. They awake to find themselves aboard an incredible airship, The Albatross, prisoners of a war-hating scientist named Robur (Vincent Price, WITCHFINDER GENERAL). As Robur and his crew pilot the airship around the world, dropping bombs on the armies and navies of all nations, Strock and his companions plot to escape and bring an end to Robur's violent anti-war crusade...

Loosely based on the novels Robur The Conqueror and Master Of The World, and adapted by acclaimed author & screenwriter Richard Matheson, AIP's entry in the Jules Verne cinema sweepstakes is an entertaining but clearly cut-rate adventure, with cramped, unconvincing sets, copious - and mismatched - stock footage, and rather poor, even by the standards of the time, special effects. The under-detailed model of The Albatross is mostly filmed in front of rear-projected  stock footage, virtually none of which matches up with the angle or lighting of the model. Some of the stock footage is actually in black & white (tinted blue) and other shots are clearly from the wrong time period! What really surprised me is that the effects are credited to Gene Warren & Wah Chang, and the production designer was the talented Daniel Haller - veteran technicians who did much better work elsewhere! Obviously, the producers simply didn't give their team enough resources and money to do their best work.

While the movie is technically underwhelming, the performances are generally pretty good. The elderly Hull overacts somewhat, but his performance is balanced nicely by Bronson's quiet underplaying. A lot of people think Bronson is miscast in the film (and, rumor has it, he didn't like making it), but I thought he was great, playing his heroic role with dignity, strength, and a quiet charisma. Mary Webster is pretty and appealing, and Frankham makes a convincing upper-class ass. Not unexpectedly, top acting honors go to Price, who imbues his Robur with pride and pathos, and never hams it up, delivering his dialogue with passion and conviction.

The MGM Limited Edition Collection MOD disc, sports a handsome, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is nearly pristine, with almost no speckling or scratches (except during the extended stock footage sequences). Colors are bright and blacks are deep and stable. It looks terrific for a fifty year-old, low-budget movie. MGM has also included the original theatrical trailer as an extra.

Fans of Vincent Price should enjoy MASTER OF THE WORLD. It's a fine vehicle for his thespic talents, and he's a pleasure to watch. As directed by action veteran, William Whitney, it moves along at a brisk pace and is never dull, making for a decent, all-ages matinee adventure. But it's a decidedly cheapjack production, and, unfortunately, looks it.

BUYMod-Master of the World