I have a long nostalgic history with The Mole People, which I won’t get into, but there will be tangents. Because The Mole People’s one of the reasons I got into classic film. It’s one of the reasons I prefer watching black and white films for concise intellectual pleasure, usually in run time but sometimes in scope. Mole People is fifties Universal sci-fi, phase two of the Universal Genre Universe. Only Universal didn’t win this era like they did the first one. I’m not saying critically (which they wouldn’t have with the sci-fi output either), I mean in popular memory. It has all the elements to be a perfect relic of that era.
And it isn’t. Instead, it’s two very different but very interesting films. They’re joined by John Agar and Hugh Beaumont. Agar’s the obnoxious young archeologist, Beaumont is the wise, slightly older one. It’s actually very, very close to Star Wars in terms of their relationship–Agar’s a mix of Han and Luke, Beaumont’s a mix of Han and Ben. Some of the joy of Mole People is just watching Beaumont act opposite Agar. Beaumont just steps back, lets Agar perform, gets back to work. It’s an amazing way to handle ego.
Nestor Paiva is another archeologist. He’s great. While Beaumont sort of relaxes in the background, Paiva tries to consume it. László Görög’s script is talky (usually from Agar) and Vogel’s not a fan of close-ups (the backdrops don’t look as good), so there’s a lot for everyone to do. It’s cool.
Then Mole People becomes this subterranean thriller, expertly edited by Irving Birnbaum, expertly photographed by Ellis W. Carter. In a dark theater, in a dark room, there’s nothing but the three archeologists climbing down into the world of The Mole People. It goes on forever. It’s awesome.
At that point, it’s unclear where Mole People is going because there haven’t been any mole people yet. And it could go various ways. There are a lot of gorgeous backdrops and projections and mattes in The Mole People, especially once the underground world is discovered. But then it’s like the budget goes and the film entirely changes.
Agar and Beaumont are pretending to be surface gods to fool a really unfortunately cast Alan Napier. His Cardinal Richelieu stand-in ought to be one of those things to elevate Mole People to a higher plan. Instead, Napier’s neither strong nor weak enough to make an impression. The king, who may or may not have been played by Robin Hughes, makes more of an impression because of his make-up. He looks like a silent film star and then it’s like Mole People all of a sudden becomes a black and white movie where the audience is given permission not to imagine. You don’t have to imagine color, there isn’t any. If it were a full homage to thirties sci-fi in its second half, Mole People would really be something.
Only it doesn’t. And so it isn’t really something, again. Over and over, the film has the chance to go further and it doesn’t. It even opens with some English professor introducing the movie. Not a scientist, no, but an English professor. And he’s bad at it. And he has lots of dialogue. But it still doesn’t make an impact.
There’s a definite charm to The Mole People. Often great music (awesome opening titles). When Paiva’s around Agar, Agar is tolerable. Once Napier shows up, Görög’s script opens up a bit and Agar doesn’t have as much opportunity to annoy. Or maybe it’s just Beaumont getting more stuff to do. Cynthia Patrick is fine as Agar’s love interest. It’s a crappy role, but Patrick’s enthusiastic and she appears comfortable in the very weird setting.
I do wish it were better. But Görög’s script confuses enthusiasm with ability. Patrick can get away with it–so can Agar–but the script can’t. Some very nice technical work; Vogel remains stoic amid a questionably produced production.
Wait a second, I forgot about the crazy dance sequence. There’s this crazy dance sequence before the human sacrifice. It should be amazing, but it somehow isn’t. It’s an interesting crazy, not an amazing one. Vogel just some great ideas he just didn’t know what to do with them.
Directed by Virgil W. Vogel; written by László Görög; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Irving Birnbaum; produced by William Alland; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring John Agar (Dr. Roger Bentley), Hugh Beaumont (Dr. Jud Bellamin), Nestor Paiva (Prof. Etienne Lafarge), Phil Chambers (Dr. Paul Stuart), Alan Napier (Elinu, the High Priest), Cynthia Patrick (Adad), Robin Hughes (First Officer) and Rodd Redwing (Nazar).