Orson and the Count: The Man Cast as The Shadow as the Man Who Cast None

The afternoon couldn’t be any less gloomy. The sky is of a deep blue, the air is fresh, and—until the health hazard that is Tony Blair gets his death wish to turn the West of Britain into a nuclear powerhouse (as if the radioactive Irish Sea weren’t enough of a warning against atomic energy)—a plain and reliable sign that nature, or what remains of it, is still providing an atmosphere in which even those among the ostensibly superior animals may thrive who are least protective of its balance.

Long gone are the days when peril could be apprehended with the naked eye, the days before pesticides made our apples look appealing and generals fought wars with missiles to keep their hands clean. Those were the days when shields and fortresses were things of iron and stone, rather than metaphors for our lack of security. The Middle Ages, in short.

Yet even during those presumably darker days, the invisible was more terrifying than any clear sign of danger, which is how superstitions, sanctioned or otherwise, could capture and enthrall our imagination. The untraceable was always ominous, and clarity suspicious. After all, even if threats eventually manifest themselves, the absence of any such ocular proof of safety or danger is valid only for the moment of looking; it is no insurance against impending peril or against the human failings of sight and oversights.

Every technological means of capturing danger and thereby defusing it gives rise to invisible counterterrors, to elusive weaponry, to secrecy and stealth. No artistic medium was more suited to tapping into those fears of the unseen than radio, the mass medium that, back in 1938, was capable of causing widespread terror by virtue of sound alone.

The man largely responsible for this terror attack—known as “The War of the Worlds”—was an ambitious 23-year-old whose voice was familiar to millions of American as that belonging to Lamont Cranston and his alter ego, The Shadow (introduced here). On this day, 11 July, in 1938, the theatrical Wunderkind took on another, rather more grand and prestigious radio project by mounting his Mercury Theater on the air.

Lurking underneath the cloak of artistic pretensions was the melodramatic excess that had made The Shadow such a radio triumph—the ghastly and lurid that generated chills more pleasant than any news from Europe, darkening in the shadow of fascism. The opening attraction of the now legendary Mercury Theater on the Air was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which, during those days, was not yet the academically respectable narrative it today, despite Welles’s insistence that it could be found in “every representative library of classic English narratives.”

The Mercury‘s “Dracula” (recently podcast, with an excellent introduction by Jim Widner) is unabashed blood and thunder. And, despite its toning down of the novel’s overt sexuality and its counterbalancing installation of an intellectual woman like Mina Harker (played by Shadow sidekick Agnes Moorehead), this adaptation for radio is more in keeping with the original novel than any filmic adaptation. Tearing down the house with neo-Gothic hooey, Welles and fellow adaptor John Houseman retain some of the structure of Stoker’s novel, a story assembled from various manuscripts, gathered by those who join forces to make sure that Dracula is out for the count.

Like the novel, the radio adaptation emphasizes the use of modern technology (train and typewriter, telegram and phonograph) as weapons against an ancient curse, a past insisting on making its presence felt. It is a past so present that, ultimately, it can only be conquered by forces as old as itself: the solidarity of individuals rising against a despotic power and the reassuring solidity of a piece of wood driven through a heart of darkness.

The Mercury‘s “Dracula,” like its subsequent production of “The War of the Worlds” (discussed here), may be read as a comment on fascisms: the rallying of western democracy against the threat of a blood-sucking dictator to the east of them. It is a comforting romance, this triumph of unity—and of radio as a unifying force. Yet, as those under the influence of that instrument of are often unaware, the prominent figures casting shadows in our midst—more ingratiating and integrated than the lonesome Count—can be much more difficult to hold accountable, discount or counter.

On This Day in 1939: Pearl S. Buck Gets Into the “Patriot” Act

I had intended to spend much of today al fresco, our long-neglected garden being in serious need of attention. Dragging the old lawnmower out of hibernal retirement a while ago, I had managed to knock over a can of paint and, the spilled contents being blue, very nearly ended up looking like a Smurf in the process. No sooner had we unleashed the noisy monstrosity, engulfed in a cloud of smoke, than one of its wheels broke off, which immediately put a stop to my horticultural endeavors. It is to the latter mishap on this Not-So-Good Friday and the fact that I am all thumbs (none of which green) that you owe the questionable pleasure of this entry in the broadcastellan journal.

An afternoon’s dilly-dallying among the daffodils may be just as escapist an act as tuning in an old radio program. In either case, however, it is difficult to get very far away from the news of the day, headlines so maddening and haunting that there is little relief even in irreverence, in mocking those among our political leaders who turn a blind eye to the signs of the times or who succeed in nothing more than in making enemies and alienating their allies.

Are we to believe, are we to accept that a nuclear attack from Iran is to be expected and that a pre-emptive raid is therefore necessary? Is it impossible to win a war—on terror, no less—without waging one? Is it possible to win (in) any violent conflict? On this day, 14 April, in 1939, Nobel Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck (pictured above) appeared on the Campbell Playhouse to address this very question.

Orson Welles, the official producer of this weekly radio series featuring adaptations of stories, plays, and motion pictures, had chosen Buck’s latest novel, The Patriot, as the “best new book for April” and presented a dramatization of the narrative starring Anna May Wong. Shaking hands with Welles and Wong during the curtain call, Buck was invited to comment on the “situation in the east,” the Chinese-American war that may have seemed even more remote, incomprehensible, or irrelevant to Americans than the crises in Europe. Welles inquired whether it was possible to sympathize with China and Japan alike in this conflict. To this, Buck responded:

When one has had experience of many wars, one comes to see that the pattern is always the same. No matter who is the aggressor and who is attacked, both are victim and both lose in the end.

To be sure, such a remark would not have been welcomed some two and a half years later, when the US felt compelled to enter the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet patriotism might find expression other than jingoist speech and the complexities of war called for responses other than simple slogans. Realizing the significance of radio as a means of connecting (with) the world and addressing far-reaching political and humanitarian crises, Buck decided to become a radio dramatist herself.

As Erik Barnouw relates in his Media Marathon, Buck enrolled incognito in his class (Radio Writing U2) at Columbia University to prepare for a proposed series of plays titled America Speaks to China. During the Second World War, she went on to write a number of propaganda plays about Asian-Americans and the relationship between East and West.

Today, perhaps, more people are beginning to discern the pattern Buck pointed out. And, once again, the definition, the concept of the patriot is changing: the action hero, the go-getter of few words now seems infinitely less desirable and rare than the thinker who not only knows how to use each word effectively but can be trusted to keep it.

On This Day in 1938: Thousands Panic When Nelson Eddy Begins to Sing

Last night, I watched The Red Dragon (1945), another one in the long-running series of Charlie Chan movies. To my surprise, there was a familiar voice in the cast: Barton Yarborough, one of the three comrades of the I Love a Mystery radio serial I’m going to review, starting tomorrow. On the radio, Yarborough’s Texan drawl was taking center stage, and, “honest to grandma,” I’ll sure enjoy hearing it again in the weeks to come. Before I get started, however, I need to acknowledge the anniversary of what is unquestionably the most famous of American radio plays, the Mercury Theatre production of “The War of the Worlds.”

Airing on this day, 30 October, in 1938, it had a profound effect on millions of Americans—the hundreds who panicked while tuning in and the considerably greater number of radio listeners who would suffer the consequences of this prank: FCC regulations, censorial squeamishness, and a whole lot of spiritless broadcast drama. Could Nelson Eddy be to blame for it all?

As “The War of the Worlds” got underway, Eddy was just about to burst into song on The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Now, CBS’s sustaining (that is, commercial-free) Mercury Theatre broadcasts were no match for NBC’s Sunday night feature, the ratings behemoth sponsored by the makers of Chase and Sanborn Coffee; about ten times more listeners tuned in to the latter than could be convinced to hear young Orson Welles and his celebrated players.

And yet, to most Americans, the main attraction of The Chase and Sanborn Hour was not Nelson, lord of the operetta, but ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy (pictured above, sort of, by yours truly). So, once Charlie (or Edgar Bergen, the man who gave him life) stepped away from microphone to let Mr. Eddy sing, quite a few listeners might have felt compelled to twist the dial, tuning in “The War of the Worlds” just as the arrival of the Martians was being announced in a series of fictive bulletins. Having missed Welles’s introduction, which alerted listeners to the fictional nature of the program, those turned off by operetta and not crazy about highbrow theatricals would have been more likely to fall for news about “The War.”

Back in the late 1990s, when Robert J. Brown examined “The War of the Worlds” in Manipulating the Ether, this particular episode of the The Chase and Sanborn Hour was not yet widely known to radio scholars; now that recordings of this broadcast are readily available, we should really give it a listen to get the larger picture. As I discovered anew a few weeks ago, it is a mistake to dismiss the response to the Mercury Theatre‘s Halloween hoax as a symbol of an ostensibly innocent past.

On This Day in 1942: Orson Welles Lures Fred Allen into the Sewers

Last night, watching BBC 4, I was in for a cinematic treat: Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947). Cinematographically stunning and compellingly told, it is not unlike Reed’s best-known film, The Third Man, particularly in its investigation of that most dangerous game, the manhunt. Both films are 20th-century updates of novels like Caleb Williams or Les Miserables, stories of pursuit that challenge readers to distinguish between what is right and what is just, between law and ethics. The backdrops are often dark and seedy—the slums, dumps, the sewers. Contrasted with the dwellings of the elite, they serve as reminders that the dregs of society are not commoners but discarded ideals.

Welles found himself trapped in the sewers in both Les Miserables and The Third Man; and both stories were adapted for radio, starring Welles. On this day, 18 October, in 1942. Welles made another descent into the muck of humanity, this time to have his revenge on Fred Allen, the radio wit who had mocked him once too often.

The confrontation between Hugo’s Javert and Jean Valjean, that clash between ethics and law, was reduced to a mismatch of lowbrow and highbrow art as played out by two quintessential middlebrow artists, radio comedian Fred Allen and Shadow graduate-turned-thespian Wunderkind Orson Welles. Could radio and literature be reconciled? Could the airwaves be a fount of high culture?

Presumably, Welles had come to the realization that he was “getting along in years” and that he could “no longer carry on alone.” In search of a co-star “with a flair for the buskin,” he turned to Allen and offered him the role of Javert in Les Miserables.

As it turns out, however, Welles was not prepared to share the stage. He had to remain in charge of every aspect of the production and could not bring himself to letting Allen utter even a single line. Flattery soon turned into humiliation, and Allen began to protest:

ALLEN. Now look, Orson, I don’t want to hog the whole thing.  But in two acts all I’ve done so far is knock on a door and blow a whistle.  Now, after all, I’m an actor, not a soundman.  When do I get to read some lines?

WELLES. The next scene is all yours, Fred. Your speech is the climax of the entire play.

ALLEN. Well now we’re getting some place. What’s next?

WELLES. In this final scene you trail me through the sewers of Paris.

ALLEN. Oh, the sewers.

WELLES. You finally corner me single-handed.  There we stand, face to face.  I have just a few words and then you speak.

ALLEN. I speak.  Well, that sounds good.  Let’s go.

(Music: heavy, then fades.)

WELLES. Mon Doo! Alone in this sewer! Trapped like a rat who nightly crawls through this hideous muck of the city.  The gloomy darkness, this narrow archway above my head, these two slimy corridor walls.  (Hysteric laugh.) Oh, but hark! That sloshing through the muck. Javert! At last you’ve cornered me, Javert! Don’t talk, Javert! Before you seal my doom, I would speak for the last time. You will never take Jean Valjean alive, Javert. (Laughs.) The water in this sewer is rising, Javert. I am six feet nine. You, Javert, are five feet two.  The water rises, Javert.  There is no turning back.  The water! Higher, higher.  Now, Javert, you have Jean Valjean at your mercy.  Pronounce my doom.  Speak, Javert.  Speak.

ALLEN. (Gargles.)

Thus, the wit of Fred Allen, radio’s smartest satirist, is drowned in a display of misguided aspirations. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, the promise of radio as a purveyor of great literature is “exposed as so much hogwash.” US radio artists were often called upon to ridicule that which neither sponsors nor network executives were willing to touch: so-called high art (including popular literature of the past that, like Hugo’s novel, had just enough patina to appear precious).

It was easier for producers and audiences alike to deride and dismiss as affected anything that might effectively challenge the status quo or the intellect. In the best games of pursuit, the lines between wrong and right become blurred; in the radio game, at its commercial best, the distinctions between what is wrong and right for the greater American public were always made with comforting clarity.

On This Day in 1937: The Shadow Gets a Voice-over

I remember the first time I heard the menacing voice of The Shadow—and it was not over the radio. I was a college student in New York City and was cleaning the Upper East Side apartment of a fading southern belle. Well, I needed the cash and she was too much of a spoiled socialite to do more around her place than pet her Shih Tzu and point out the offending dust particles. She told me about some prank phone calls she had been receiving from a rather peculiar and not-so-secret admirer in her neighborhood. I think she had filed a restraining order, but that did not stop this cookie character from entering her sphere telephonically. The eerie message he left on her answering machine, which she did not hesitate to play back for me, was as ominous as a line from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It was not ‘Fire walk with me,’ though, but “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” followed by a declarative but less than clarifying ‘The Shadow knows!’ Sinister laughter concluded this bizarre tele-communication. Let’s just say I was glad to put down the feather duster that afternoon and make off with my meagre earnings.

Several months later I came across those very words once more—and I could not get out to escape them, as I was already home.  I had just discovered the thrills of old-time radio and now realized that the unnerving telephone message etched in my mind was nothing but an imitation—albeit a brilliant one—of the most memorable signature in American radio drama. Yes, those lines sure tolled a bell, even though the knell was delivered in a different voice and accompanied by the somber and to me as yet unfamiliar strain of Saint-Saens’s Le Rouet d’Omphale.

The alter ego of Lamont Cranston—’wealthy young man about town’ who used his mysterious ‘power to cloud men’s minds’ to aid the forces of law and order—The Shadow was a man of many voices. Since he always had to have the last laugh, his strained vocal chords seemed to require a number of replacements.  On this day, 26 September, in 1937, when The Shadow returned to the airwaves after a thirty-month-long hiatus, Cranston received another one of those vocal makeovers, this time courtesy of Orson Welles.

Welles has gotten rather too much credit for his portrayal of The Shadow; after all, he was neither the first actor to play the role nor the one who stuck with it the longest. He spoke condescendingly of the popular program—an attitude common among actors and writers who used radio as a career springboard or a temporary cash cow—and asserted that he read his part without rehearsals (an unlikely story, given the fastidiousness of the sponsors and Welles’s youthful inexperience). To be sure, Welles’s first disappearing act as The Shadow—in an episode titled “Death House Rescue”—was neither a dramatic nor a thespian marvel.

In a story about Cranston’s efforts to save the life of an alleged cop killer on death row, Welles comes across as pompous and disdainful; since he always sounded like none other than Orson Welles, overgrown ‘boy wonder,’ it is difficult to determine whether he was sneering in character or at his character—a ham hampered by an attitude of I’m-way-above-such-baloney.  Agnes Moorehead, who played opposite Welles, managed a less self-conscious performance as Cranston’s companion, the “lovely Margot Lane,” whatever trifle of a line she was being tossed. Unlike Welles, Moorehead inhabited her role rather than interrogating it, which made her a most valuable and much admired player in commercial radio drama.

Still, his pretensions notwithstanding, Welles’s subsequent fame served The Shadow quite well. It encouraged scholars to dig up transcriptions of the long-running series and contributed to their preservation, although surveys of Welles’s distinguished theatrical and cinematic repertoire generally devote little more than a few footnotes to these broadcast performances. Some scripts from the final months of the series (not preserved on tape) even resurfaced in print—as a 1970s high school textbook (pictured above).

As may have become apparent, I could never quite warm to Welles or wring chills from his impersonation of The Shadow. Then again, I always thought of The Shadow as the voice of a creep on the answering machine of a dislocated Scarlett O’Hara gone twilight. What an introduction!

On This Day in 1938: The Mercury Players “dismember Caesar”

“Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers,” Brutus implores his co-conspirators prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar. This line might have served as a motto for the Mercury Players when Orson Welles and company decided to adapt their stage success Julius Caesar for radio. They needed to butcher Shakespeare’s play, or at least trim it down considerably; and they were making such a sacrifice to accommodate a larger audience—millions who might not have had the opportunity to take in a production of such a play in their rural communities. It was the butchery of high art and a sacrifice to lowly commerce.

“O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!” Brutus (played by Welles), exclaimed. “But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.

The 11 September 1938 broadcast of Julius Caesar is remarkable for several reason. To begin with, it offered an alternative to the not always inspired programming of the commerce and common denominator oriented networks. And not only was the radio-readied production an ingenious exercise in adaptation but a poignant and timely commentary on the crisis in Europe that was about to plunge the world into war.

11 September 1938 was certainly no less innocent than the day we now commemorate as 9/11. “This is the history of a political assassination,” we are told about the story of Julius Caesar, a “dictator for life” upon whom were bestowed “honors” that “seemed to exceed the limits of ordinary human ambition.” As in the Mercury stage production, the radio adaptation dropped the togas to lay bare the urgency of Shakespeare’s drama, a play that was at once a revenge fantasy and a call to reason. Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world?

To drive home that the broadcast was not an invitation to a literary soiree but a call for a political debate, the Mercury Theater on the Air drew upon the services of H. V. Kaltenborn as a narrator. Kaltenborn was among the most prominent and respected radio commentators of his day. What he uttered was news, not ancient history; and it was certainly not highbrow hooey. His commentary, based upon Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (the source for Shakespeare’s play) but sounding thoroughly contemporary, helped to bridge the gaps in this considerably abridged script, which was acted out by the chief players original cast (Welles as Brutus, Martin Gabel as Cassius, George Coulouris as Antony, and Joseph Holland as Caesar). Kaltenborn assumed a role well suited to Shakespearean theater, which relied on eloquent words rather than elaborate stagecraft to relate its stories.

“How many ages hence” Cassius remarks shortly after the assassination, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” In the Mercury Theater on the Air production, these lines are uttered by Brutus, Welles’s ego being comparable to that of Caesar. Yet, rather than playing the ham and exulting the hoped-for glories of the crime—“peace, freedom, and liberty”—Welles’s Brutus is subdued and plaintive, adding a question mark to the lines. After all, the very “peace, freedom, and liberty” of the West was at stake if fascism continued to spread in Europe and threaten the world. A voice like that of the noble, thoughtful conspirator Brutus might not be heard in future “states unborn” or “accents yet unknown.”

Of course, the Mercury Players also had to deal with the limits of liberty and freedom at home—and on the air. In a climate controlled by advertisers and the FCC, a climate that did not allow for overt political commentary, the Mercury Theater on the Air production of Julius Caesar war remarkably bold and as cunningly executed as Caesar’s assassination. To the “common eye” (or ear), Brutus insists, “We shall be purgers, not murderers.” The Mercury Players’ butchery of lines and characters was a worthwhile sacrifice . . .

Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world? Surely the crisis in the Middle East raised similar questions—but when was the last time CBS television presented a play like Julius Caesar?

In Bed With Orson; or, How I Got the Wandering Ear

Elsa Maxwell, Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles

What I didn’t get to tell in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral dissertation, is how I love to cuddle up with a good voice. Aside from being rather too intimate an aspect of my passion for old-time radio to be shared in an academic paper, the sensuality and sway of the human voice, regardless of the words it conveys—seemed to be decidedly beyond the boundaries of my vocabulary.

I am hardly one to shy away from lexical experimentation; but I felt that I could not approach the subject—the mystique—of the vocal with the clarity and precision I aim for in all my linguistic playfulness. How, for example, could I describe the lush, seductive performances of Ann Sothern (as Maisie) and Natalie Masters (as Candy Matson), the sinister melancholy and paroxysmal fury of Peter Lorre (on Mystery in the Air, for instance), or the tender, tattered quavering of Gertrude Berg (matriarch of The Goldbergs) as I listen to them burble, groan, hiss and whimper, as I hear them snarling at or whispering to me?

How could I intellectualize the suave and mannered cadences of Vincent Price as the Saint or the hammy bluster of Orson Welles as Harry Lime? Some passions are not to be explained, to be argued out of existence. They are to be reveled in, secretly, in the shelter of darkness.

There are many such pleasures to be had listening to recordings of US radio broadcasts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a period during which voices were trained for and attuned to the special demands of the microphone. For me, they can be found and felt when encountering a friendly and well-groomed speaking voice of an announcer like Harry Bartell; a distinguished, eloquent recital like Ronald Colman’s (as in his D-Day reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army”); a tough, noirish delivery like Joseph Cotton’s (on Suspense); an unsentimental everymanliness like Joe Julian’s (on Corwin’s An American in England); a glamorous, sultry purring like Marlene Dietrich’s (as the peripatetic adventuress of Time for Love), Ilona Massey’s (as a spy-catching baroness in Top Secret) or Tallulah Bankhead’s (in her memorable role as hostess of the Big Show); a warm, avuncular drone like Nigel Bruce’s (as Sherlock Holmes sidekick and narrator Doctor Watson), a smart and charming lilt like Claudette Colbert’s (frequently heard on the Lux Radio Theater; above, in bed with Welles and etiquette maven Elsa Maxwell) or a queer pomposity like Monty Woolley’s (in his role as the Magnificent Montague).

Quite often, these voices had to convey lines better left unspoken, words unworthy of the actor’s talent. Yet through the magic of timbre and intonation, gifted performers could imbue almost any line with feeling, subtlety, or sly innuendo. And I’m not even talking about the suggestive reading Mae West lent to her characterization of Eve that got her banned from the airwaves. Last night I went to bed with Dane Clark. I didn’t quite get through his performance of John Andrews in a NBC University Theater production of John Dos Passos’s “Three Soldiers,” but his voice still lingers in my mind’s ear this morning.

Ever since I got my first radio, as a child, I have gone in search of voices, soothing, thrilling, enticing. I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong. It was a levitating grown-up table, an off-limits chamber made of air and furnished by my imagination. Today, these disembodied voices come to me mainly by invitation. Whom, I wonder, am I going to take upstairs with me tonight?

“War of the Worlds”: A Report from the Sensorial Battlefield

We know that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.  We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.  With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.  Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.  In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .

This 1950s paperback from my collection includes the script of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

With these ominous lines, read by Renaissance ham Orson Welles, opened what is now the best-remembered and most widely discussed of all US radio plays—Howard Koch’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” (30 October 1938).  Apart from this introduction, a slightly tweaked passage of Wells’s original narrative, the infamous Mercury Theater production took great liberties with its source.  It was an infidelity that proved most felicitous; for rarely has any story been transferred from one medium to another with greater ingenuity and with such sensational results.

Steven Spielberg’s cinematic update, which I experienced yesterday, pays homage to both Wells and Welles by quoting these words, by delivering them in a sonorous, Wellesian voice (Morgan Freeman’s), and by employing them as a literary bookend for an episodic melodrama that unfold as a series of more or less stupendous set pieces.  Freeman’s voice-over narration notwithstanding, Spielberg’s conventional sci-fi thriller—some kind of intergalactic Jurassic Park—has none of the qualities that made the radio play such an engaging and provocative experiment in adaptation.

Like all filmic reworkings, Spielberg’s spectacle struggles with and falters under the pressure of making terror visible, of equating the evocative with manifest dread.  The opening montage sums up the war to be fought by zooming in on the sources of threat and salvation, cosmos and microcosm.  Neither infinite outer space nor infinitesimal innerspace remains hidden from view.

The camera soon assumes the role of the terrorizing invader alluded to in Wells’s introductory remarks, as the menaced protagonists are being “watched closely,” “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”  As in our daily lives, captured by infiltrating webcams and ubiquitous close-circuit security equipment, vigilance and violence coincide; the act of surveillance has become the art of assailants.  And still, the demand for ocular proof has to be satisfied at all costs.

Throughout the movie, the hero’s daughter is cautioned not to look as camera and special effects expose the audience to the horrors of alien warfare and the consequences of human frailty.  In one scene, she is being blindfolded by her father in an attempt to shelter her from the murder he feels compelled to commit.  For one brief moment, the audience is spared a graphic scene.  As the crime is being perpetrated behind closed doors, a close-up of the girl’s face reveals that her mind’s eye creates an image no less terrifying than the atrocities she had witnessed before.  The father, like most western adults, has become too dependent on visuals to recall the power of suggestion and the thrills produced by the insinuating ear.  The movie thus manages to disclose his failings—and our sensorial loss—but cannot combat the empire of the eye to which it is beholden.

However futile, the radio artists of the 1930s and ‘40s were among the last dramatists to wage war against the dominion of the visual world.  Howard Koch’s adaptation proved to be one of the last victorious battles, dealing such a blow as to put censors on guard against the forgotten force of non-visual stimulation.  Then, “in the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .”

Related writings

“Thousands Panic When Nelson Eddy Begins to Sing”
“‘War of the Worlds’: The Election Edition”