“See cities reduced to ashes! See oceans turned to steam! See mountains turned to molten lava! See interceptor jets and anti-missiles melted in mid-air before your eyes!” These are all taglines from the original poster for The Lost Missile (1958), a relatively obscure sci-fi thriller from the fifties which features Robert Loggia in a rare early starring role.
Although the theatrical poster seems to infer that The Lost Missile is a creature feature with the promotional line of “The Thing That Came From Outer Hell…To Burn The World Alive!,” it’s actually a low-budget vision of the apocalypse. No monsters but lots of dandy destruction with indiscriminate incinerations of Inuit villages, sled dogs, and especially Canadians of all ages. Think of it as a more leisurely paced Craig Baldwin sci-fi mashup like Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) where almost fifty percent of the movie is obscure and well-chosen stock footage integrated with second unit scenes with extras and non-professionals. Cross that with the histrionics of a Douglas Sirk film like Magnificent Obsession and you have one highly entertaining and, at times surprisingly effective, end-of-the-world thriller in spite of the minimalistic, almost abstract quality of the special effects (crude animation of flying projectiles, star bursts of light, explosions and smoke screens).
It is also one of the few times that Robert Loggia was cast in a leading role (He also had the lead in Cop Killer, made the same year). Here, he plays the self-sacrificing hero, Dr. David Loring, a brilliant scientist and maybe the only person on earth who can devise a plan to stop a hydrogen missile – origin unknown – that is headed toward earth and traveling at 4,000 miles per hour.
The Soviet Union suspect the missile has been launched by the U.S. but their attempt to destroy it only deflects the missile, sending it into an orbit around our planet. Those damn Russkies! In its new trajectory, which is only five miles above the Earth’s surface, the missile’s massive heat shield burns and destroys anything in its path. Unless Dr. Loring’s still-untested, secret weapon known as “Jobe” can be successfully used against this interplanetary threat, Ottawa and New York City will be reduced to cinders within a few hours.
On top of this race-against-time scenario (devised during the Cold War years), screenwriters Jerome Bixby and John McPartland toss in two subplots that provide a contrasting female viewpoint to the overriding macho behavior on display. For one, it turns out that this cataclysmic event is happening on the day of Loring’s wedding to laboratory assistant Joan (Ellen Parker in her final film appearance).
Loring ruins the happy day for his wife-to-be when he complains impatiently at the jewelry store as she tries on wedding rings at lunchtime: “Honey, for Pete’s sake, just get one that fits. It isn’t very important.” “Isn’t very important?” she snaps, “What’s so important at the lab that we can’t take a few extra minutes to go to another store and find a ring that fits?” The argument rapidly accelerates from there and Joan angrily calls off the wedding, blurting out, “All you can think about is a hydrogen warhead and I’m sick of it!”
Joan thinks she has problems until she confesses her breakup with Loring to his fellow colleague, Joe Freed (Phillip Pine), who rationalizes the situation by saying, “It’s the job. Gets all of us. We have no other life. Maybe we want no other life. Look at me. My wife is having a baby. It’s due today. I should be at her side. I think they can’t do without me here for a day – well, can’t they? It’s crazy. I don’t know anymore if I should be with my wife or my job.”
Here is where the second subplot kicks in and you know before the movie is over that Joe’s wife will give birth under the worst possible circumstances amid a full-scale evacuation over the approaching missile. It also becomes apparent that in a case of a national emergency, the government expects men like David and Joe to put their jobs before their wives and family.
In spite of the doomsday mood, unintentional comic relief is provided by Pine (best known as the evil Colonel Green on TV’s Star Trek) as the high-strung and excitable Joe. He’s like a slightly more buttoned down version of Stephen Stucker’s Johnny character in Airplane! (1980), the nutcase who famously responded to the question, “What do you make of this?” Even one of Joan’s first remarks to Loring in the movie is “I don’t like the way Joe looks. Doesn’t he ever sleep?”
To accent his jittery nature, director Lester Wm. Berke has cinematographer Kenneth Peach film Joe from the back in one scene where he enters the frame running down a hallway like an unhinged nutcase. Yelling “Dave, Dave” hysterically, it’s like he just fled the set of a Jerry Lewis movie. But his most hilarious moment occurs when he announces his discovery that the renegade missile is an alien creation and possibly has intelligent life aboard. In his overwrought state, he tries to stop Loring from using “Jobe” on the missile, pleading with him to try to make contact with the aliens instead. Luckily, Joe is slapped into sensibility.
The Lost Missile has its share of outrageous plot twists (four hoodlums steal Loring’s jeep containing the secret weapon just minutes before New York City is about to be obliterated) and unexpected moments of anarchy which are quite plausible under the circumstances. A riot situation at a subway platform in which the last train is leaving NYC is well staged, with people spilling over onto the track, running along the rail ties, and in one case, electrocuted.
There is also a memorable scene in which an agitated school bus driver looking a bit like Randy Quaid speeds toward a shelter for his cargo of oblivious children as he completely loses his cool: “I’m getting 30 children to safety and I don’t even know what’s happening to mine….I don’t even know what is happening except New York has had it!” Another favorite moment occurs when a folk singer is interrupted by a messenger during his lame musical number on live television to read an “important announcement” that cuts to the governor of New York at his desk (a tacky, no-budget office set).
It’s obvious that Berke used many nonprofessional actors and amateurs for The Lost Missile. How can I tell? Well, there is the scene where an Air Force official observes the dire fate of some pilots on his vectorscope, saying “They’re gone! It’s burned them out of the sky!” to which his assistant responds with a big ear to ear grin, possibly suppressing the urge to laugh uncontrollably. You can also clearly see one of the women passengers in the subway car riot sequence laughing as she rushes toward a window. If you look closely you can also see other actors looking at the camera occasionally or smiling in crowd scenes where mankind is supposed to be hanging in the balance. All of which only makes The Lost Missile more endearing. And it also deserves kudos for daring to be grim and avoid a sugarcoated ending.
Fans of Robert Loggia, in particular, will enjoy seeing the actor at such an early stage in his career when he was starting to be typecast as passionately idealistic characters, heroic yet doomed in his causes. He had just appeared the previous year in The Garment Jungle (1957) playing a Union organizer who runs afoul of gangster Richard Boone’s hired goons. He also gets to play the martyr in the final seconds of The Lost Missile, his face and skin blistered from the radiation exposure caused by the plutonium warhead he is installing.
Loggia made his feature film debut in 1956 in an uncredited bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Still, his first breakthrough role was in the television series T.H.E. Cat (1966-1967), where he played Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, a retired acrobat turned bodyguard and cat burglar. After 29 years of work in the film and TV industry, Loggia finally received some long overdue recognition in 1985 when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor opposite Glenn Close in Jagged Edge.
That changed everything for Loggia and he has gone on to become one of the coolest and most in-demand character actors of our time, appearing in such cult favorites as Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985), David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), as well as big commercial hits like Big (1988) and Independence Day (1998). He died in December 2015 at age 85 leaving behind more than 200 film and TV credits.
The Lost Missile would prove to be the final film for William Berke, who died just as production began on the film. His son Lester Wm. Berke completed the movie and would later become a television producer working on such well-known series as B.J. and the Bear (1979), Quincy M.E. (1980-1983) and Airwolf (1984-1985).
Here’s a final bit of trivia on The Lost Missile. Look for writer Joe Hyams as a reporter in the film. He was the syndicated Hollywood columnist for the New York Herald Tribune from 1951 to 1964. One of his non-fiction books was made into the film Brubaker by Robert Redford in 1980 though he is probably more famous for his Cary Grant interview which revealed the actor’s LSD experiments and resulted in a law suit. Hyams was married to German actress Elke Sommer from 1964-1993 and, at one time, the couple lived in a Los Angeles home that was rumored to have poltergeist activity.
The Lost Missile is currently available for streaming from Prime and on DVD from various sellers but I doubt we’ll see a Blu-ray 4k restoration of it anytime soon.
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