Phantom Lady – Nebbish Engineer

January 11, 2014


Another installment in my highlighting of engineers as characters in cinema:

Phantom Lady (1944), directed by  Robert Siodmak, doesn’t seem to be available anywhere but Youtube, so there I watched it, fortunately, on a large screen.  The image above shows the phantom lady with the male lead, Alan Curtis as Scott Henderson.  He’s just been dumped by his rich wife, who was also carrying on with his best friend.

His wife is found murdered, and Scott is fingered for the crime.  He is remarkably passive about it all, but he is saved by his chipper secretary, “Kansas”, played by Ella Raines.  (I read her voice was dubbed – couldn’t she do Kansas?)  The scene where he throws in the towel after losing his appeal is pure Expressionism.
As noted, Kansas is of stronger stuff, and she tracks down everyone associated with the events of the fatal night, eventually finding the killer in a scene that surely inspired the finale of Jagged Edge many years later.  Would you mess with Kansas?  She has a remarkable clean, strong look to her.
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The reliable Elisha Cook, Jr. came down from his Sierra hideaway to do his bit in the film as a hop-head drummer with the hots for Kansas, all tarted up to gain his confidence.  Her legs incite his drumming to an orgasmic crescendo, but she keeps her cool.
Scott Henderson is a civil engineer, with dreams of building cities, dreams that excite the love and admiration of Kansas.  (He’s too dull to notice her crush on him.)  He wants playgrounds and sunlight everywhere.  There we have the civil engineer as hero motif, still with some life in it in the 1940s.

Scott’s nemesis and friend, played by Franchot Tone, is an artist, an artist a bit too preoccupied with the power of his hands to create…and destroy.  In a moment of candor, he derides the ambitions of his friend as paltry concerns with sewers and pipes, and whatnot.

Engineer as nebbish:  a far cry from the protagonist of transatlantic tunnel.

Engineers in Space

April 19, 2012

Apollo 13 tells the story of the unfortunate NASA mission as a straightforward disaster tale, anchored by Tom hanks as Jim Lovell, the resolutely understated hero.  I consider this part of my examination of The Engineer as Hero in movies:  a lot of pilots and astronauts are engineering graduates, and Houston Mission Control is a hive of that species.  Hanks plays the hero in Steve McQueen mode, but more approachable.  His values are rooted in family, and he reveals a streak of spiritualism when he recounts his lucky escape as a fighter pilot, “lead home” by a trail of phosphorescent algae in the wake of his mother ship.

The film was entertaining, but for me, ultimately a bit dull and flat: I am not engaged by celebrations of folksy heroism, and the fascination of space was lost in the Hollywood adventure story of man-and-machine, despite the commendable restraint exercised by the film maker.  Although this is clearly a celebration of  an American Everyman’s triumph, he leaves the sentimental gushing for the musical score and Lovell’s mother, who, on cue, declares that if “they could make a washing machine fly, my Jimmy could land it.”

I grew up watching space launches, building models of the LEM, and hearing the roar of what we thought were engine tests at Rocketdyne, in the industrial section of the San Fernando Valley. The gadgets and the stories were neat, but for me, the essential terrifying strangeness of space was what fascinated me.  David Bowie captures it in his song, Ground Control to Major Tom:

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in my tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Just guys floating in the cosmic void, protected by a little tin can. Ron Howard has made a movie that could have been on an ocean liner, a mountain top, or an airplane coming in for a dangerous landing.  The archive footage of Walter Cronkite’s wonderment at the moonwalk conveys more of the magic of the enterprise than anything else in the film.  2001 is still the standard for man in space as far as I am concerned:  The shots of the space craft careening wildly through space seem hokey in comparison to the eerie progression of Kubrick’s machines.

Brave guys, those astronauts, and incredibly skilled and cool under pressure.  That’s how they picked ’em.  And the presentation of the work of the engineers on the ground was fascinating:  the technology they had to work with is left in the dust by what a kid carries in his pocket today.   And the need to have thought out every contingency in advance, to have provided the pilots with manuals and pre-printed algorithms for calculating things that today a pocket calculator could do in a flash, and the enormous technical bureaucracy that supports this was nicely shown.

But maybe I’m the prisoner of my profession here.  I’d heard of the sequence in which the engineers figure out how to improvise a replacement air filter to keep the pilots alive as a thrilling and brilliant passage, but it seemed to me that they figured out the problem exactly the way you’d expect a bunch of committed, smart engineers to do it.  Engineers love to jerry rig stuff just to get it working.  It’s called ingenuity.  Still, you do get the sense that it took guts to think they could carry this sort of thing off.  And for what?  To show the Russians, of course.

The film endorses the heroic view of NASA, and seems wistful that the public lost interest after Armstrong walked on the moon.  The reduction of the program by budget cuts is presented as a foolish tragedy of policy myopia.  Lovell justifies continuing the program after Armstrong by asking what would have happened if no one had followed up on Columbus’ voyage.  Well…ask a Native American that question… Lovell believes it though, and one of the more affecting moments of the film is when he realizes he will never walk on the moon, and we see his dreams of what it would have been like.

There’s hardly any relationship between the moonshots and 1492, however, other than the skill and courage of the men involved. Columbus sought land, gold, and slaves.  Lovell sought personal and patriotic fulfillment.  The justification for NASA after beating the Russians was only science, and robots do more of it better, and far more cheaply, without heroics or tragedy.  We have enough of that on Earth anyway.

Engineer Hero addendum

March 15, 2012

In my post regarding engineers as heroes in popular entertainment, I neglected one movie that might not come up on everyone’s list.  I missed it!

Steve McQueen plays a chemical engineer in The Great Escape.  The sequences of him on his motorcycle, especially at the end, jumping the border wire into Switzerland, contain many iconic images, to use a much abused and overused word.  The fact that he is an engineer is not important to the plot as in the other films – it’s only mentioned in passing, but it is a piece of his characterization, emphasizing his no-nonsense, individualist, American practicality, in contrast to the smooth, worldly Brits who want to run the escape operation.  He just keeps trying to bust out on his own, until he finally joins the group effort.  A classic meme from Westerns; the loner and the community.

The moment when the camera zooms in on him, gunning the engine at the crest of a hill, as he says…”Switzerland!” is, well, iconic of heroic male individualism.  Best part of a movie that has its share of schmaltz.

Engineer Stars!

March 13, 2012

Engineers grouse a lot about how they “don’t get no respect.”  They aren’t paid as highly as lawyers and doctors, and no one makes them the heroes of TV shows and movies.  T’was not always so!

While studying civil engineering, I did some research on the role of the engineer in American literature, and found that we of this profession were indeed seen as heroic in a bygone day.  At the turn of the century, stories often featured engineers, the effect of nearly a century of ‘heroic’ achievement that markedly improved the quality of life:  I speak of the lengthened life span of inhabitants of great cities due to improved sanitation and water supply.  Thus, I was lured to my present slot in the International Work Machine.  I’m not complaining.

Looking at some web forums that addressed the question, “What TV shows or movies show engineers as heroes?”, probably emanating from some undergraduate technical school, I found that most respondents noted only a smattering of recent sci-fi films.  It seems to me, however, that older films, particularly British ones, have a different history.

The Dam Busters (1955) is an excellent example of the British engineer-as-hero doing his part for the war effort.  Michael Redgrave plays Wallace, a man with a good idea about how to destroy the dams that supply electric power to the Nazi industrial region of the Ruhr Valley.  Breaking the dams would cripple their production effort and sow chaos in the regions – good stuff!  Problem is that the bombs must fall just up against the dam and must burst at the proper depth under water.  They cannot be delivered as air-launched torpedoes because the dams have floating protections against such missiles.

Wallace gets the idea for a bomb that will bounce across the water’s surface (from reading Admiral Nelson’s account of the Battle of the Nile), hit the dam face, sink, and then explode.  It requires a specially engineered bomb carried by a squadron of highly trained airmen who can fly very low over water with great precision.  The animated GIF below shows how the bomb was delivered.

The movie is very good at building suspense and excitement, although the enemy is never seen, and the actual combat sortie happens at the end.  The airmen are coolly professional in the face of  death, but the terrible losses attendant on the effort are not glossed over.  Of course, they all act with that chipper can-do attitude we associate with the Brits and WWII movies, but Wallace expresses regret:  If I’d known it would cost fifty men…

The relationships between the various groups involved are interesting:  the officers and the men: the officer and his dog, the death of which evinces more outward emotion than the inevitable deaths of his comrades; the bureaucrats and the engineer; the officer and the engineer.  Redgrave plays a bit of an odd duck,  the commanding officer comes to deeply respect the man with the idea that is sending him on this dangerous mission.  Even Bomber Harris, who rarely saw a bombing plan he didn’t like, tells Wallace after the successful run, “At first I didn’t believe you, but now you could sell me a pink elephant!”

I love those planes!

Celebrating after a successful prototype test – the aftermath of the real thing.

According to Wikipedia, the operation, known as Operation Clandestine, was not as strategically significant as Wallace had hoped.  The Germans were able to repair the dam and resume power generation quickly because the Brits did not follow up with conventional bombing raids.

In the film, one of the military refers to the “Back Room Boys,” meaning the engineers who come up with new weapons or related technology.  These people are the focus of a fine dark tale I learned of at Film Noir of the Week, The Small Back Room.  It’s about one engineer who comes up with ways to defuse German anti-personnel bombs dropped on the UK.  Here too, the technical guys are the heroes, and they are presented as complex human beings, with the lead being a struggling alcoholic with an artificial foot that humiliates him, and a pretty girlfriend who tries to help him come to terms with his situation.  The suspense generated by his attempts to defuse the German booby-trap bomb is strong, and he is clearly a hero to the uniformed servicemen.

Another Brit movie, this time pre-war, that has an engineer-as-hero is Transatlantic Tunnel, about which I have posted earlier.  This film casts the engineer as a hero in the classic mode.  He is capitalist, technical master, and mover of men’s souls all in one.  Almost Ayn Randian.

No Highway in the Sky  pairs Jimmy Stuart, who flew those bombers in WWII, with Marlene Dietrich as passengers on a plane designed by Stuart.  He’s convinced it’s going to crash because of a design flaw, but he can’t get them to stop the flight.  Marlene takes to him because he’s attractive and has real character, but he’s a tortured hero, beset by doubts.