The Power, 1968. 8/10

Interesting cast and an interesting premise for this sophisticated late-’60s sci-fi movie. George Hamilton is Prof. Tanner, joined by Professors Sally Hallson (Yvonne DeCarlo), Van Zandt (Richard Carlson), Henry Hallson (Arthur O’Connell), Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette), Talbot ‘Scotty’ Scott (Earl Holliman), and Meinicker (Nehemiah Persoff) to research human endurance for the government’s space program. Well, that’s a creepy situation right there.

A Naval officer Nordlund (Michael Rennie) comes to check on the scientists’ progress. Strangely, one of the researchers turns out to not only be hyper-intelligent, but also has telekinetic powers. “This is most extraordinary.” Hallson kind of stirs things up with a cunning test: as a group, a paper can be made to spin around; no one knows who’s the genius, though. Meanwhile, people start turning up dead. A sub-text of the genius deal involves the possibility of creating supermen with these powers.

Immediately, we’re plunged into crime/mystery territory. A name ‘Adam Hart’ pops up. So, there’s a double mystery: who has ‘the power’? and who’s the murderer? (Possibly the same person). Tanner and Margery brainstorm about who the culprit might be, but the police suspect Tanner.

Weird stuff starts happening to Tanner. He ends up in one of the most surreal settings possible–a funhouse. He thinks he’s the next target. Then another odd setting–an isolated desert spot–to look into Hallson’s background. He finds out something about the mysterious Adam Hart and his “black gypsy eyes.” Everyone’s a little cracked there. So, Tanner, waylaid by the bad guy’s underling, thinks he’s done for; but he finds a nice oasis, err, gunnery range. Sure, this scene is reminiscent of Cary Grant’s face-off with a crop duster in North By Northwest. But it’s a thriller device worth recycling.

Yvonne DeCarlo does a great bit as Hallson’s boozy widow Sally. As Tanner’s quest in surreal-land continues, he, Margery, and Meinicker try to blend in by crashing a party. But not before a near-lethal clash between the two guys at Margery’s apartment. “We’re too much like dogs trying to catch the dogcatcher” admits Meinicker. A Mary Tyler Moore lookalike at the party discovers that Meinicker is dead. So much for going incognito.

Looks like Nordlund is next. We get a very Hitchcockian elevator shaft pursuit. He wants to kill both of the surviving ‘suspects.’ I guess he’s off the hook then… But Tanner has a more humane plan to catch the murderer. He skulks around Van Zandt’s pad, and is nearly rundown by Nordlund’s car. He escapes, flying off a bridge into the drink, but manages to free himself, only to find some cops waiting.

Now, since Van Zandt has just been killed, Tanner’s in the proverbial ‘heap o’ trouble’. But the detective half-believes him, so the cops find a way smoke out the fiend, using Tanner as a decoy. Thanks to some quick thinking, Tanner shakes the police and finds that Scotty, the least likely suspect, is apparently the mastermind. He’s shot in a police standoff. Tanner momentarily disappears, but Margery somehow finds him.

Finally, Nordlund shows up (Tanner confronts him by calling him Hart). Nordlund/Hart induces Tanner’s very macabre hallucinatory sequence–complete with juicy flashbacks. The movie is worth watching for that alone. I was completely fooled; I was sure Nordlund/Hart was the ‘superman’. Then, I was ready to accept that it could be Scotty, or even Margery.

All of this pretty much stands the plot on its head. Far from being the ‘wronged-man’ protagonist of film-noir, Tanner ultimately proves to be the right man (as the criminal mastermind). What’s confusing is that Nordlund/Hart shows the same (heart-attack) symptoms as Tanner; doesn’t that imply that he’s a ‘superman’ too? How else can he force Tanner to have that Pandora’s box of evil hallucinations unless he has telepathic powers?

Another question involves the murders: why does the ‘superman’ have to kill anyone? Presumably because the other scientists won’t trust him, and might do him harm. Bending people to your will should be enough of a power trip, without going psychopathic. Besides, what has he got to fear since he can control their thoughts and perceptions? I’m twiddling my thumbs on that one…

For a movie with a very complex plot, things could be a little clearer at the end. Those who say that the sci-fi plot is basically hijacked by the mystery/thriller plot have a valid complaint. Another way to look at the plot(s), though, would be seeing the science fiction becoming reality as the movie progresses.

In the best story-telling tradition, we see what the premise indicates; the other part of the plot has the characters trying to figure out the plot that the telepathic stuff literally creates. So the murder mystery contains the actions or consequences of the enhanced telekinetic thoughts.

There’s a lot going on in The Power, and it does meander and slow down in spots. But an original concept, well-acted, with stylistic settings and atmosphere. 8/10.

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