Aug 21, 2008

Movie Review: Dimension 5 (1966)

Contradictory to the geographical implications of the word, there were actually a few "Eurospy" movies made in America during the Sixties. Sure, purists might argue that a true Eurospy flick should boast some sort of Italian or Spanish or German or, better yet, Franco-Italian-Spanish-German pedigree, but I prefer to categorize films generically rather than geographically. And Dimension 5, though produced with American dollars (albeit very, very few of them!), fits quite nicely into the Eurospy genre. James Bond ripoff plot? Check. Low budget stretched creatively? Check. Second-rate gadgetry? Check. Babes aplenty? Check. Loathsome, misogynist hero? Big check! Dubbed villain? You got it. And, for bonus points, former Bond baddie playing said dubbed villain? Another big check! The only crucial Eurospy element Dimension 5 is lacking is the fabulous European locations (cut-rate Los Angeles landmarks like Long Beach Harbor and Ontario Airport are poor substitutes), but it fulfills enough of the other prerequisites to let that one slide. Most importantly, it has that Eurospy sense of low budget fun going for it, which counts for a lot.

In true Eurospy tradition, we’re introduced to our hero, Justin Power (Star Trek’s original captain, Jeffrey Hunter), just as he’s showing off what a jerk he is. In his first scene, he kisses one of those aforementioned babes, then proceeds immediately to punch her out. True, she was fingering a gun in her purse while they were snogging, but it’s still a little crass. Besides punching women, the opening sequence features a speeding sports car, a helicopter, armed Chinese soldiers and lots of running, but all disparately. In fact, it's possible that none of those formulaic elements were ever even in the same shot! Still, they’re clearly meant to give the impression of excitement and budget, so we’ll award points for trying. Amidst all these familiar elements, however, we’re also introduced to the movie’s one major stroke of originality. Pursued by the soldiers (again, not actually in the same shot, I don’t think), Justin Power touches his belt and, momentarily sporting a glowing red outline, disappears. Like he was just beamed up by Scotty. The soldiers are understandably confused, and Power handily re-materializes somewhere behind them, gives them the slip, and gets away in the helicopter. (At least a shot of him running off is cut together with a shot of a helicopter, creating the implication.)




















What happened? What was that device? Did he teleport? No, in fact he time-traveled. Which is later explained as travel to another dimension, "the fifth dimension." Not explained: why they skipped the fourth dimension, or how dimensional travel equals time travel. Nor any of the science behind this fantastic device, but who cares? The screenplay is credited to Arthur C. Pierce, not Arthur C. Clarke. We’re not here for the latter’s style of "thinking man’s sci-fi"; we’re here for the former’s brand of inane spy adventure, and this one just happens to have a time travel device. The device is surprisingly ignored for long chunks of the film, but that’s okay. If someone gave me a time travel device, I’d probably be using it all the time, or at least constantly asking questions about how it worked. Luckily for us, not so Justin Power. He’s content to accept it at face value and use it only when it suits the mission, as he might any other spy gadget. Which is a good thing, because if he did ask those questions or use it all the time, the film would become a time travel movie with spying and not a spy movie with time travel, and it’s really the spy factor I’m in the theoretical theater for.

After the titles, we follow Power to the bargain basement U.N.C.L.E. where he works, a Los Angeles outfit cleverly called Espionage, Incorporated. Although its exterior is a shiny skyscraper, the wood-paneled rooms inside look suspiciously like someone’s basement. At least it’s populated by a bevy of gorgeous secretaries, taking another page from the U.N.C.L.E. playbook. Here, Power gets briefed by his boss, Mr. Kane. The briefing goes on forever, which sets a trend in this film: most scenes last about twice as long as they need to (especially the ones in the cheapest locations) in an attempt to pad the movie and stretch the budget. Kane says the bad guys are a group called the Dragon Agency, and mentions "gravitons" and "anti-gravitons" and how dangerous it might be if some Dragons got their hands on one or the other. All that turns out to be entirely beside the point though, as the Dragons’ real plan is to destroy Los Angeles "unless all allied forces are withdrawn from Southeast Asia." This plot is surprisingly topical for a Eurospy movie, as most escapist Sixties spy fare studiously avoided any hint of the war in Vietnam. The Dragons’ means of achieving their goal is also impressively forward-thinking (and much more practical than anything actually involving anti-gravitons); they’ll smuggle a hydrogen bomb into the city in pieces. Unlike, say, launching spaceship-eating spaceships from a phony volcano, this plot is essentially the very thing that Western intelligence agencies really do strive to protect against today. Perhaps Arthur C. Pierce had one of those time belts himself!

The only other important information to come out of the briefing is that Power will "have an associate on this assignment," and that Kane goes to great lengths not to use any gender pronouns in describing this associate. Later, when Power receives his associate’s time travel belt, he marvels at how small it is and seriously guesses that the mysterious associate might be either a "small boy" or a "dwarf" before any more logical conclusions occur to him. Even with this clue, he’s still astonished when she turns out to be [gasp!] a woman! A woman named Kitty, played by France Nuyen. By 1966, shouldn’t even the most sexist of secret agents have caught onto the sexual revolution that seemed (if movies are anything to go by) to be happening even faster in their profession than anywhere else at the time? Not Justin Power, who immediately upon discovering her gender instructs his new associate, "Lesson number one... when you work for Justin Power, you do as he says."

But before we even meet Kitty, though, the film takes a detour to Manilla, where two American Espionage, Incorporated agents are guarding a Dragon prisoner while transporting him back to Los Angeles for interrogation. The Dragon agent complains how his fellow Dragons will kill him rather than risk his talking, and the Americans laugh that he’s better protected than the U.S. president. Then one of them gets up to go to the bathroom, leaving only his friend protecting the prisoner. Better protected than the U.S. president, really? Naturally, that’s when the dragons move in. Perhaps this was intended as a commentary on U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia at the time? (Probably not.)

Somehow (well, with some unexpected outside help), the agents manage to fend off the first attempt and get the guy to California. But there’s another assassin (improbably wearing a cowboy outfit as ridiculous as it is conspicuous) waiting at the airport to finish the job. It’s true that Power should be able to identify this suspicious character on sight, but instead he uses his time belt in a pretty cool way. Our hero sits back and allows the assassination to take place, then travels back a few minutes earlier and, with full knowledge of all the players, successfully prevents the inevitable.

Espionage, Incorporated manages to interrogate the prisoner and learns that a Dragon operative named "Big Buddha" is masterminding the operation. Power and Kitty set off to discover Big Buddha’s true identity, but not before having a leisurely dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a waiter who speaks in Charlie Chan epigrams. The dinner conversation takes a full ten minutes of screen time, but reveals nothing. Charlie Chan gives Power a gift, which Kitty (who’s quicker than Power to catch onto things) tries to warn her partner is really a bomb. Power shuts her up by telling her to "forget that fortune cookie stuff!" even though she’s making perfectly logical sense. (I’m not sure if he’s judging her because she’s Asian or a woman, but he clearly doesn’t put much stock in either.) Then he gets lucky when a stop for cigarettes (a carton, not a pack) conveniently saves him from the ensuing explosion. One hopes the experience enlightens him somewhat.

Power teaches Kitty how to time travel with the belt, and lays out some interesting rules: only use tranquilizer guns in the past, because killing anyone then could cause chain reactions affecting the present; make sure you do your time traveling in areas that will still be there in the future, like beaches. Since shorelines change fairly drastically over time, I’m not sure the latter rule is really the best piece of advice, but the reasoning behind it is sound, and the first rule certainly makes sense! After all that buildup, the time travel device (both in a physical and narrative sense) isn’t really used all that well in the climax. It enables the heroes (and, mercifully–surprisingly–us) to skip three weeks of waiting for a ship to come in, and gets them out of a few tight situations. But it does beg the question: if the good guys have a time travel device, then what’s the point of any of Power’s investigation? Couldn’t he just jump forward, see how Big Buddha’s plan pans out (like he did with the assassination), and then go back and use that knowledge to keep it from happening? Oh well, best not to worry about that sort of thing.

Big Buddha turns out to be none other than Oddjob himself, Harold Sakata. For some reason he’s wheelchair bound, making him somewhat less of a physical threat than he was to 007, but he does sit around shirtless in his wheelchair, showing off his glistening, muscled torso. I guess that’s sort of imposing. At least he gets some great dialogue (dubbed by Marvin Miller) like, "I desire to know more about you and your Espionage Organization, Mr. Power!" The finale gets a little heavy for Eurospy fare when Kitty reveals that she wants revenge on Big Buddha because he "tortured her, used her, and then left her to die" as a child after forcing her to watch him execute her parents and sister.

Besides that (and the casual misogyny, of course–par for the genre), the overall tone of Dimension 5 is one of fun. Luckily, unlike some Eurospy leading men, Hunter actually has enough charisma to help us overlook the character's less endearing traits. The rest of the acting is pretty decent too, and everyone’s game for the B spy movie shenanigans. Furthermore, the time travel aspect, while oddly handled, is an interesting enough twist on the genre to elevate this film above some of its low-budget brethren. I really like that such an outlandish device is treated as just another spy gadget, and it doesn’t stretch credulity much further than James Bond’s invisible car. But the movie’s pacing is rather unforgivable. There isn’t much action at all (I made that note several times while watching), and every single scene lasts longer than it ought to, desperately stretching the budget... and the audience’s patience. Your enjoyment of Dimension 5 will ultimately depend on your tolerance for this. There’s enough there, though, to make it a worthwhile watch for Eurospy or Grindhouse aficionados.

4 comments:

Delmo said...

I have this on tape and found it watchable. Power's boss Mr.Kane was played by Donald Woods, one of the 3 actors who played Perry Mason in a series of film's in the '30s. Is this available on dvd now?

Tanner said...

No, it's sadly not on DVD. I watched a gray market copy. It could certainly do with an official release though. I wonder who controls the rights?

Interestingly, in Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul's "Film Fatales: Women In Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973," the authors state that a sequel was planned, but France Nuyen refused to sign on. So I guess it must have done well for someone upon its initial distribution...

Delmo said...

She turned it down? What pressing engagement did she have that would preclude her turning down work?

Tanner said...

I can't imagine! Sadly, Lisanti and Paul don't share that information. I also can't imagine that the entire production hinged on her participation; there must have been other reasons the sequel fell through...