Category Archives: 1950s

North by Northwest (1959)

*. You have to start somewhere when talking about the classics so why not at the crossroads, with Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) waiting for Godot. A crane shot introduces the slanted grid that’s been with us since the opening credits turned into the glass façade of an office building. A kind of chessboard then, for playing a game.
*. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in film history. And, as David Thomson puts it, “one of the most far-fetched events ever filmed in an alleged drama.” For me it’s a scene — I’m talking about Thornhill being chased by the crop-dusting plane — that represents the best and the worst of Hitchcock. It’s iconic, meticulous, unforgettable. It’s also a very deliberate rude gesture at anyone who cares about story, or what Hitchcock derided as “our friends the plausibilists.”
*. I mean, this is an episode that doesn’t even begin to make sense. Apparently screenwriter Ernest Lehman had thought of it as a way to make killing Thornhill look like an accident, which wasn’t an idea worth entertaining even before the plane started firing its machine guns. Yes, as the fellow waiting for the bus points out, it is odd that there’s a crop duster up there when there are no crops to be dusted. But then there is a lonely stand of corn stalks for Thornhill to run into. The appearance of this corn only further underlines the mystery of the crop duster, since this corn is already due to be harvested. What is a crop duster doing in the fall?
*. But that’s just the way the film operates. Apparently its initial inspiration came from Hitchcock telling Lehman that he’d always wanted to film a chase on Mount Rushmore. There now, get me that. But even while shooting, Lehman, who was making parts of the story up as they went along, had a moment of crisis when he realized he had no idea why the characters would be going to Mount Rushmore.
*. You can play along with all this, saying that Hitchcock somehow “proved” that plausibility didn’t matter in the movies. For me, a card-carrying plausibilist, it’s something I’ve never been able to forgive him. Why? Because of what came after: the way movies turned into circus rides. I don’t praise Hitchcock for this development.
*. Here, for example, is someone who does praise him, John Patterson writing in the Guardian: “When Hollywood went all blockbuster-minded in the 1980s, this was the kind of structure – all thrills, no brains – it came to rate most highly. Sequences in Bond movies and the action movies that came to imitate them – Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Jack Ryan movies and everything since – are as tenuously joined to each other as theme-park rides, separate, intense experiences strung together with the merest soupçon of plot coherence or narrative plausibility, just like North by Northwest‘s famous crop-dusting sequence. A good half of every summer’s blockbusters still adhere to this approach and we’re poorer for it. It’s not Hitchcock’s fault that his imitators are such tools, but it is useful now and then to trace a tiresome phenomenon back to its not-so-tiresome source.”
*. But why is North by Northwest not-so-tiresome? It seems to me that the thrill rides that came after it actually had more brains, and in some cases even better thrills. As many have noted (including Lehman), the immediate inheritor of North by Northwest was the James Bond franchise. Vandammn’s house is a great precursor to the Bond villain’s lair, and the buzzing crop duster would turn into a helicopter in From Russia with Love. But despite upping the ante on the stunts and thrills, Bond made more sense than any of what we get here. There is no story in North by Northwest but just an excuse to have the hero run from one place to another, from one set-piece scenario to the next. Peter Ackroyd: “That is why it seems to leave audiences, after the initial euphoria of a successful entertainment, sometimes uncomfortable and dissatisfied.”

*. On the other side of this debate are those, and they are legion among writers on film, who admit to this emptiness but find in that very quality (the barren crossroads, Thornhill’s null middle initial, the cryptic title) something essential to film. Anthony Lane: “When, a couple of hundred years from now, an alien federation finally pulls in for gas on planet Earth and asks to see one of those things called ‘movies,’ we could do worse than offer it Cary Grant having cocktails on the train, or hanging off a ledge of presidential rock, as an unsurpassed demonstration of what we mean by film — what it’s all about, what it can be made to do, what it is for.” Emphasis in the original.
*. I can’t go along with this. If a ticket on fairground ride were all that movies are about, what they are for, I would have given up on them long ago. To be sure, there’s a time and a place for this kind of filmmaking, and I wouldn’t deny its entertainment value for a moment. But to claim North by Northwest is film in epitome, rather than just the essence of Hitchcock, is going much too far.
*. Of course there’s a lot to like. Bernard Herrmann’s score. The way James Mason says “Games? Must we?” I doubt there’s another actor who could have delivered that line so perfectly. Martin Landau’s icy killer eyes. (A homosexual? According to Lehman “a little hint” of that crept in, to his professed surprise. Landau says it was something he added on his own.) And of course the banter. I don’t think much of Lehman’s script as a story, but the dialogue is fun and surprisingly risky in places. I like how Eve (Eva Marie Saint) says she’s not into the book she’s started. Lehman: “I don’t write dialogue. I write repartee.”
*. Lehman says a couple of things that struck me as odd on the DVD commentary track. In the first place he talks about the amount of research he did, including getting booked for DWI and climbing part of the way down Rushmore. I wondered how this could have possibly made for a better script, since they are both entirely fanciful episodes (and how much of the chase on Mount Rushmore was written anyway?). But he claims this footwork was “absolutely vital to me” and that he “never could have written any of it without doing the research.” Which I think just goes to show that every writer has a different way of working, and takes inspiration in different ways.
*. The other thing Lehman says that I was surprised by comes during the opening scenes in New York. He remarks how little it has changed. It “looks pretty much the same . . . well this is the ’50s, I imagine it’s pretty much the same today.”
*. I found this particularly strange because one of the things that stands out the most for me watching both this movie and Vertigo today is their representation of 1950s America. It seems like I’m watching a series of postcards from the past in their evocation of San Francisco, New York, or various tourist destinations. The sky so blue, the cars so large and shiny. Every vehicle on the street of Manhattan looks like it’s just been polished. Then those hotel lobbies, those clothes, all that mid-century affluence. I can’t think of too many other movies, even of this same period, that have the same glossy quality. It all seems so rich and artificial, a vision of the past that’s still incredibly bright and new. It can’t be nostalgia, for me, but it does remind me of slideshows of my parents’ vacations. Only so much nicer.
*. It’s not a look that’s typical of Hitchcock. It’s really only in a few of his films. But I can’t think of too many other films that have it. This is the 1950s that so many people think they miss.
*. OK, it’s very nicely turned out and put together. And it’s a lark. The talk has actually aged better than many of the action sequences. It’s not a favourite movie of mine, but I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s iconic and unmissable. It does have a lot to answer for though.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

*. I thought it a bit sad to go back and read Pauline Kael’s review of The Wages of Fear, where she describes the film as “an existential thriller.” How long has it been since “existential” has had that meaning? Over the course of the last ten years (I think I’m right on the timeframe) it has come, exclusively and quite reductively, to only mean a threat to one’s existence. Kael’s readers, however, would have been thrown back on their readings of Sartre and Camus.
*. Is this a (properly) existential film? My own definition of existentialism — eschewing such stuff as existence preceding essence, whatever that means — is that it’s a vision of life that sees the individual as utterly alone. Which, in turn, leads to the freedom to take ultimate responsibility for your life. The four men transporting the nitro have made their choice and have no one to blame but themselves for the situation they are in.
*. Or is money the new God in this world? It is what makes the world go ’round, the unmoved mover of this ruthless capitalist universe. The men are trapped because of lack of money; with money they would have freedom. That seems a point worth entertaining too. Money precedes essence. Life is cheap.
*. You could even push such conjectures further back in trying to understand just what the hell these scourings of postwar Europe are doing in this town anyway. Dennis Lehane speculates: “While we’ll never discover what has driven them there [the town of Las Piedras], we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse.” I don’t agree. One assumes they came, like one of Joseph Conrad’s European losers holding down some forlorn outpost of “progress,” to get rich, or to at least lord it over the natives. Then they found themselves at the end of the line. I’ve heard such things still happen today in some parts of the world.

*. It’s not often you find yourself wondering about such things in an action or suspense thriller. But they order these things differently, or at least they used to, in France. But I wouldn’t want to go all the way and call this a philosophical film. It takes a long time to get going, but the opening scenes of life in the village seem kind of pointless to me. Roger Ebert thought they were only meant to evoke a sense of “aimless ennui.” Which sounds French, but isn’t deep.
*. Then (and we’re an hour into the picture) the trucks roll out of the yard and we’re into the good stuff. This is where critics usually go into raptures over how Henri-George Clouzot provides a master class in suspense. Which I think he does. The problem watching The Wages of Fear today though is that it’s a class that subsequent generations of filmmakers took and learned only too well. Put another way, I think the best directors make this kind of movie just as well today.
*. Now that’s a long way from saying that today’s filmmakers always do this stuff better. William Friedkin even remade The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer, to mixed results. But in general I think audiences are more familiar with how a good suspense sequence is created, and it’s a process that has tightened up over the years. To the point where I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by The Wages of Fear the first time I saw it. I’d been expecting something more of a revelation. I appreciate it more today, but it doesn’t thrill me as I’m sure it thrilled audiences at the time.

*. Another point relating to this is the unsympathetic protagonists. Do we really care all that much if Mario and Jo make it? They aren’t very likeable people. Credit to Clouzot for that, but I wonder what his point was, or if he had one. That they aren’t worthy of redemption? That no one can achieve redemption? That in taking the job they were putting a price on their lives anyway and once you’ve done that there’s nothing else left that defines you? What would Mario do if he got back to Paris? Just hang out at a different café or bistro, with another pretty girl hanging off him.
*. I do like the way the lead truck with Luigi and Bimba makes an offscreen exit in a flash of light and puff of smoke like a magic trick. Now you see them, now you don’t. They’ve been vaporized. And for what sin, or mistake? Who knows? They probably didn’t.
*. There are other things I don’t like. I’ve mentioned the scene-setting at the beginning, which seems to me to go on far too long. Then there is the ending, which strikes me as false and silly. Silly because I don’t believe for a moment that Mario would be careening down that mountain road like a total idiot. False because his crash is intercut with shots of Linda at the café, and what is she to him? Little more than a dog. Ebert found her character “inexplicable” with “no apparent purpose” and I’m afraid he’s right. Mario isn’t going back to be with her. Clouzot should have made a movie of men without women. Linda is an unnecessary romantic foil.
*. In short, this is a good movie but not (or no longer) exceptional. Important, but not one I enjoy all that much. I think Clouzot was trying to make an American-style blockbuster, and mostly succeeded. But America took umbrage, cutting from its release version what it took to be anti-American slurs. And even in France, while successful, it wasn’t a huge hit. The fourth highest earning film of the year in that country doesn’t strike me as being wildly successful. The top three, in case you’re interested, were The Greatest Show on Earth, The Return of Don Camillo, and Peter Pan.

The Racket (1951)

*. There’s a scene in The Racket where I actually winced a bit. It comes at a point when Tom McQuigg (yes, that’s the tough-guy name for the no-nonsense police captain) gets exasperated and tosses a paper cup to one side. It just seems off. I don’t buy it. Someone has to pick that cup up off the floor now, and a character like McQuigg shouldn’t have had to punctuate his words with such a silly dramatic gesture anyway.
*. As awkward as this plays, it’s actually repeated in a later scene where McQuigg confronts crime boss Nick Scanlon (yes, there’s a pair of names you won’t encounter outside of such films as this). Scanlon doesn’t have a cup, but he’s eating an apple and at one point he takes what’s left of it and throws it to one side, the exact same gesture made earlier by McQuigg. It’s very silly.
*. Perhaps I only noticed moments like this in The Racket because there was nothing else going on that I was paying much attention to. This is a not-very-interesting crime drama that’s actually a remake of a silent film of the same name that was also produced by Howard Hughes, which was in turn based on a popular play that had made a star of Edward G. Robinson. Hughes had remade it to cash in on the public interest in the Kefauver Committee’s hearings.
*. The Kefauver Committee (full title The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce) held hearings in 1950-51, which made The Racket timely if nothing else. The next year there would be a number of pictures inspired by the Committee, including The Captive City, Hoodlum Empire, and The Turning Point. It was also portrayed in The Godfather Part II, where Michael Corleone testifies before it.

*. I guess I’m going into other stuff here rather than discussing the movie. Eddie Mueller has a very good DVD commentary where he talks about some of the background. It’s informative, but you can tell he isn’t a big fan of it either. Here are some quotes: “Man that is a clunker of a line,” “not a particularly well choreographed fight scene”, “it’s not a very action-packed screenplay,” “does Robert Mitchum look like a cop? I really think he would have benefited immensely from actually wearing the uniform,” “I think Mitchum was less than fully engaged with this one” (meaning he was just walking through the part, which was his habit when he didn’t care about a script according to his Out of the Past co-star Jane Greer), “this is another absurd bit of screenwriting,” “that whole nightclub scene was pretty low rent . . Howard Hughes could really make an impoverished looking production sometimes. There was virtually no money spent on sets in this movie.”
*. The only part I might disagree with in all this is Mueller saying that it’s not an action-packed screenplay. In fact, I think there is a fair bit of action. It’s just that the action isn’t well handled. Robert Mitchum isn’t the most energetic actor on screen at the best of times, and here he really is “walking through” his part. Look at the scene where he discovers the wounded Johnson (William Talman), who is dying from a gunshot wound. “Better get a doctor,” he says, with all the concern and urgency of someone telling the time.

*. In summing up, Mueller admits he prefers the 1928 version and how it would have been better if the remake had been more like the original: focusing on the battle between the cop and the crook for control of the city, with less attention given to things like the Committee. He also suggests that it might have been better if Robert Ryan and Mitchum had switched roles. At least it would have been fun seeing Mitchum wearing that tie Scanlon has on in the final scene. That’s a showstopper.
*. I did think it was an interesting decision not to show the Old Man, head of the criminal syndicate. We don’t even hear his voice over the phone. Mueller says that to increase his amusement while watching the film he likes to imagine the Old Man was Hughes, a reclusive figure who controlled, even micromanaged everything but according to Mitchum never set foot on the RKO lot.
*. Such speculations help to pass the time. As do arguments over whether or not it counts as true noir. Mueller jokes about this as well, saying that the shadows made by a Venetian blind on William Conrad’s face are what tell us it’s noir. I’d maybe point to the lighting in the scene in the garage. Aside from that, however, I think this is just a “conspicuously uninspired” (Bosley Crowther) tales of cops and robbers.
*. Perhaps I’d like it a little more if I had a clearer idea of what’s going on. What with Hughes’s interference the film is a mess, making use of several different directors and turning the original script into something ungainly. I was never sure what exactly Turk’s role was in all this, and what was going to happen to him at the end. Part of the problem is what Mueller identifies as the way all of the corruption is taken totally for granted. McQuigg knows who all the bad guys are, and they know he knows, but . . . life just goes on. At least until the Committee arrives. Then something is mumbled about Acme Real Estate and the door closes, leaving Mitchum to deliver some lines about the turning of the wheels of justice that you’ll have a hard time remembering any more than all the rest of it.

The Land Unknown (1957)

*. Apparently there really had been reports of a warm body of water found in Antarctica, which gives this film its jumping-off point. A group of researchers, and one lady journalist for the Oceanic Press (OP), head south to investigate. Their helicopter is hit by a Pterosaur and they descend into a volcanic cavern where dinosaurs still roam.
*. If it sounds like The Lost World, or even King Kong, don’t think that’s a coincidence. This is a genre with a history, one which runs up to the present day.
*. As with most such creature features the plot is just an excuse for Clifford Stine to do his thing and show us a bunch of monsters. Real lizards are enlarged by way of process shots with tiny people in the foreground. There is also a model water beast (or Elasmosaurus) and a guy walking around in a rubber suit playing a Tyrannosaurus. Yes, I looked up the names of all these beasts. Best of all, however, is a giant carnivorous plant that is always just about to grab Shirley Patterson.
*. Jack Arnold was originally slated to direct and it was going to be in colour with a decent budget. But there was a change of plans and it became a B-picture, or sub-B even, with Virgil W. Vogel at the helm.
*. There’s nothing much to say. I don’t think it even has any historical or cultural interest or significance. It’s the kind of thing I enjoyed when I was 8 years old, along with the Godzilla movies and other stuff the local networks ran on weekend afternoons.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

*. Say you’re a moviegoer with simple, even childish tastes. You know what you like and what you like is a good giant-bug movie. So you’re all in when you see an ad for The Deadly Mantis.
*. I think you’d still be likely to be disappointed. The problem here is not the story, which is as disposable as always in such films. Apparently a volcano in the southern hemisphere causes some ice to thaw at the North Pole, releasing the giant mantis. The army and the scientific establishment are called in. You know the drill.
*. And the appearance of the mantis isn’t all that bad. Clifford Stine was in charge of the effects and he does well enough with what he had to work with. They actually built a 200-foot long papier-mâché mantis for some of the shots. It’s not that impressive because it doesn’t move very much and looks ridiculous when flying, but it’s passable. In the final battle in the Manhattan Tunnel it’s even a bit impressive.
*. The real problem here is with the huge amount of footage they’ve shoehorned in from other sources. Some of it is stock footage but a lot of it also comes from other movies. Most of it consists of scenes of the U.S. military in action, but there’s also an Inuit village that is presumably being attacked by the mantis. There’s so much of this material that you start to feel that the movie is a collage put together in the editing room. It also underlines the fact that there’s virtually no real story here to follow. All you’re really doing is following the mantis, which seems to be buzzing all over the place geographically. Originally he’s supposed to be going due south, but he winds up in Washington and then heads back up to New York City.
*. About the only thing I found interesting was the treatment of the “female woman,” as the lovestruck airmen at the DEW base call Marge Blaine (Alix Talton). She’s the obligatory babe appearing in all these movies, whose main purpose is to scream and be rescued. But, and this is a quality she shares with most of her B-movie, creature-feature peers, she’s also a genuine professional woman. In this case a journalist. She doesn’t like being swept off her feet at the end, but, what the hell, she’d like to marry that nice Col. Parkman anyway. You can have your cake and eat it too. Or at least it seemed that way in the ’50s.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

*. I posted separate notes for Gojira and the American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Godzilla Raids Again had an Americanized version as well, Gigantis the Fire Monster, but I’ll talk about both movies together here because there’s not as much to say.
*. It was a very quick turnaround for Toho to get this movie out, I think taking only six months from greenlighting it to having it in the can. As you might expect from that kind of schedule, they pretty much replayed Gojira (without, as Steve Ryfle points out, the same political or moral depth). The repetition even extends to a curious echo effect with the climax. What I mean is how, in both Gojira and Godzilla Raids Again, the action actually hits a peak midway through the film, which is when Godzilla destroys Tokyo in Gojira and Osaka here (an echo that may have been meant to recall Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The big confrontation at the end then plays out as a letdown. Burying Godzilla under an avalanche of ice is a little more impressive than having him disintegrated by the Oxygen Destroyer, but it isn’t nearly as fun as his wrestling match with Anguirus the ankylosaur.
*. On the commentary track Ed Godziszewski says that this is the only time in the franchise that Godzilla is actually beaten by humans without the use of any special technology. An observation which just underlines how useless the usual attempts by the army to take him out are. We’d see tanks rolling in and rocket launchers firing at Godzilla throughout many other films in the franchise, but the generals never appear to realize how pointless such efforts are. I guess if you’re a hammer then everything looks like a nail, and perhaps there’s a message about wasteful military spending being made too, but it does get silly after a while.
*. The back story isn’t very interesting, and even in the original Japanese (reading subtitles and not being confused by the awful dubbing) I found it hard to follow exactly what was going on. With the trio of escaped convicts stumbling around like the Three Stooges we can see the beginning of a comic turn that would become a lot more developed in the next film in the series, King Kong vs. Godzilla.
*. This is a movie that still wants to engage our feelings a bit, what with Kobayashi’s death accidentally (?) showing the way to defeat the monster. But this is another diminished echo from the first film with the death of Serizawa, and it doesn’t play nearly as strong.
*. Not a giant leap forward then, but a small step in the direction the franchise was going to take. In the monster brawl between Godzilla and Anguirus you get a foreshadowing of everything essential to the series that was to come. They just needed to add colour and some eccentric secondary players and they’d be set.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

*. Outside of Japan this was the first Godzilla movie, though it came out after both Gojira and its Japanese sequel Godzilla Raids Again. So it might be the third Godzilla movie if you see it as a separate entry in the franchise.
*. I think we do have to look at it as a different movie and not just an English-language version of Gojira. In fact, in creating something sui generis they retained less than an hour of footage from Gojira and added a lot of extra footage that didn’t change the story at all but helped the movie find an American audience. What this mainly meant was having Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin duly observe the events of Gojira while much of the political message was cut.
*. Yes, Steve Martin. Which is a generic enough American name, but in such a movie as this it couldn’t help but make me think of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The way Burr is introduced into Gojira here, with lots of edits and actors dressed like the original cast but only seen from behind addressing Burr (while not always looking directly at him), is similar to the role played by the other Steve Martin in the later movie.
*. There is a point to this comparison. In both movies I think the introduction of a new character into an old movie is done pretty well. I was even slightly impressed at how well it’s handled here. It’s certainly a much better Americanization than what they did to the sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. But it still seems ludicrous. And it’s even sillier here because Burr has no role whatsoever to serve in the plot. He is strictly an observer, smoking a pipe, or stroking his chin, or just sweating — a lot — while Gojira (the movie) plays out in front of him.
*. It must have been a difficult job playing against nothing — perhaps analogous to today’s stars acting against a green screen — but even so Burr underwhelms. Danny Peary: “His emoting is so nonexistent that at times it’s hard to believe he knows he’s making a horror film.” I think Burr claimed he only worked on the movie for a day but apparently it was three or four. However, while he leant the project some credibility I think all the cutaways, with Burr showing the same lack of expression and solemn delivery in every situation, are ridiculous. In Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid Steve Martin really acted a part, and the silliness was part of the joke.
*. J. Hoberman: “Burr is an insert — but then so is the monster. Sharing space with Godzilla is inconceivable — as opposed to King Kong, who was made to interact with humans and even fall in love.” I don’t think this is quite right. The monster isn’t an insert but the movie’s star and whole reason for being. But Burr does fit in, as the role of people in a Godzilla movie is primarily to provide reaction shots to what’s going on. They are effectively a surrogate audience. That’s even more the case here, as Burr, a reporter who is “a little rusty” in his Japanese, has to have all the important information translated and explained to him.
*. The new English dialogue is very bad, with the ironic feel of being a translation. Beginning with the opening voiceover: ” I was headed for an assignment in Cairo, when I stopped off in Tokyo for a social call, but it turned out to be a visit to the living hell of another world.”
*. The other point worth mentioning here is that the nuclear theme — the Monster as the Bomb — is mostly trimmed. Some have seen this as a way of playing to the American audience by not forcing them to consider the destruction of Hiroshima of Nagasaki. I think the cuts most definitely were a way of catering the American market, but not because of the politics. The simple fact was that Americans weren’t much interested in such matters. As distributor Richard Kay put it, “We weren’t interested in politics, believe me. We only wanted to make a movie we could sell.” And politics doesn’t sell, then or now. What sells are even bigger monsters, which may in turn help to explain the dramatic inflation of Godzilla’s reported size.
*. Gojira director Ishiro Honda found the question of its Americanization amusing, since his movie had been made in imitation of American monster movies like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In a way Godzilla was going home, just as Kurosawa’s Westerns would be remade by Leone.
*. In their DVD commentary Godzilla authorities Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski conclude by giving Godzilla, King of the Monsters! credit for bringing the monster to an American audience and thus putting Godzilla on the map, ensuring Toho would continue with the franchise. It seems likely however that Toho was going to keep making these movies regardless, since box office was good and there had already been one sequel. Still, despite its obvious inferiority to Gojira and overall silliness this is the movie that introduced Godzilla into the North American consciousness, and it’s a remarkable job of adaptation in its own right.

Gojira (1954)

*. Gojira is a movie with such a huge legacy, or long tail, that it’s hard to view today with innocent eyes. In 2015 Guinness World Records recognized Godzilla (to give the monster his American name) as the longest-running film franchise in history, and that only went up to the 2014 Gareth Edwards picture. Since then there have actually been six or seven more entries. I think the total runs to around 35 movies now, most of them produced by Japan’s Toho. More recently, however, the monster has also been picked up by Legendary Pictures for its MonsterVerse series.
*. But I want to go back to those innocent eyes I mentioned. I’ll admit I don’t have them anymore. I grew up watching these movies on television as a kid, where they were broadcast as weekend afternoon “creature features.” Today I can say I’ve seen the more recent Hollywood versions, and also read a fair bit about the films, though only a small percentage of the enormous amount that’s out there. So re-watching Gojira I have to carry all this baggage with me.
*. To put the question directly: Is Gojira, which is by any estimation a classic and among the most influential movies of its time, actually any good? Putting aside sixty-five years of Godzilla, is this a well-made movie?
*. When it was re-released in the U.S. in 2004 Roger Ebert put it this way: “Is there a reason to see the original Godzilla?” He thought there was, “not because of its artistic stature, but perhaps because of the feeling we can sense in its parable about the monstrous threats unleashed by the atomic age.” In conclusion: “This is a bad movie, but it has earned its place in history, and the enduring popularity of Godzilla and other monsters shows that it struck a chord.”
*. The idea of a giant monster being a product of the atomic age was not in itself something new. Gojira was directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which had just come out the year before. Indeed, the initial outline of the script for Gojira had the working title The Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea (or something like that; I’ve heard different versions). The two main differences here were (1) the anti-war, anti-nuke message, very much informed both by Japan’s experience in the Second World War and ongoing nuclear testing in the region, and (2) the way the giant monster took the form of a man in a rubber suit stomping around model sets, a kind of practical special effects associated with the label Tokusatsu.
*. Of these two new developments the first, sadly, has less resonance today. The monster as metaphor for atomic bombs seems an artefact of the ’50s more than of our own time. While it’s heartfelt, it’s overplayed and doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as it did in the Cold War. I’m not saying that’s how it should play, but I think it’s how it does.

*. The “suitmation” stuff should have dated even more, and it has in one sense. Such effects struck many people as ridiculous even at the time, and in the age of CGI they seem even more so. The stop-motion of King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms plays better. (Stop-motion would have been prohibitively expensive for a production like Gojira.) That said, there’s also something timeless about these effects. I think this is because they tap into childhood play so much, and the destruction of model tanks and warplanes, toy cars, sand castles, and towns made out of Lego. While Gojira isn’t really a movie for kids, that was the direction the franchise would find itself taking, and I think it was inevitable.
*. Godzilla is, of course, the star. Does the rest of the movie hold our attention? I think slightly more than the filler we find in the average giant-monster movie. Things get started on a high note with two aural cues provided by Akira Ifukube: the martial march that would be later identified as Godzilla’s main theme and the peculiar industrial sound of his roar, like metal straining (but which was, in fact, instrumental).
*. As an aside, Ifukube apparently wrote the main theme in a week without having seen any part of the movie. I think it was probably something he’d had in his head for a while and been waiting to use.
*. From there things move along at a snappy pace, with director Ishiro Honda whipping the story forward at newsreel speed, complete with lots of quick wipes. I also like the way Godzilla is introduced gradually, from his earthquake footsteps and toxic roar, to the discovery of his giant footprints, his head (a puppet) appearing over the skyline, and finally his climactic assault on Tokyo.
*. Unfortunately, the movie stalls badly after this point. The three leads and their love triangle aren’t very interesting. The political message becomes heavy-handed. The dialogue, at least if the subtitles are at all accurate, is laughably hammy. The final underwater showdown between Serizawa, armed with his Oxygen Destroyer, and Godzilla is a big letdown after the destruction of Tokyo. It is also downbeat in a way that goes beyond being merely anti-Hollywood. It’s a solemn ending, what with Serizawa’s death and the warning about how nuclear testing will only beget more monsters. Were they thinking of all the sequels? I don’t think that was the point.
*. Still, I don’t think there’s any way to judge Gojira outside of its genre, or apart from its legacy. And even at the time it came out reviews were mixed. I think it is a great monster movie, and one I’ve gone back and watched several times over the years. It has some exceptional qualities, as well as lots of primitive charm. And while it’s a movie grounded in its time and place, it’s certainly more than just a historical or cultural curiosity.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

*. Probably this film’s greatest claim to fame today is having anticipated, and perhaps inspired, Alien. Not so much in a visual way (a more suggestive precedent there might be Bava’s Planet of the Vampires), but definitely in terms of various plot points.
*. The basic set-up is the same. In the year 1973 (yes, you may laugh) a rescue mission lands on Mars to pick up the lone survivor of an earlier expedition that had been wiped out. The survivor is suspected of having killed the rest of his team and he is being brought back to Earth to face a firing squad (though nobody seems to believe he’s actually guilty of anything). Meanwhile, the real killer, an alien, sneaks on board the spaceship and once they leave Mars it begins killing off the crew.
*. In addition to this story outline, Alien also picked up many individual scenes along the way. The banter of the crew around the breakfast table is one clear example. Then there is a brief scene in a kind of air duct, the use of a welding torch (instead of a flamethrower), and the blowing of an airlock to kill the creature at the end.
*. I don’t think any of this makes Alien a rip-off (though apparently there was a lawsuit). I think a lot of people were impressed by It!, and given its obvious limitations in terms of budget and talent they figured they could take what worked and improve on it. That makes sense to me.
*. One filmmaker who probably had such an idea was John Carpenter. He introduced It! for Turner Classic Movies and praised it as “a little gem among a lot of really bad films that were made at that time,” with “a great little engine that drives suspense.” Carpenter might have even remade it himself, but instead remade a very similar film, The Thing from Another World.
*. I should note in passing here that The Thing from Another World was an influence on Jerome Bixby’s script. As was a story by A. E. van Vogt, “The Black Destroyer.” Once you start pulling out threads of influence you find they don’t have any end or beginning.
*. In short, material like It! is exactly the kind of thing any filmmaker should want to renovate. There are so many places in It! where you can see a better movie trying to break out and overcome the lack of talent and budgetary constraints. One just has to dump the silly stereotypes (the female crew members, including one medical doctor, serve coffee and nurse the wounded), and get rid of the corny dialogue (“Every bone in his body must be broken. But I’m not sure that’s what killed him.” “Mars is almost as big as Texas.”).
*. The monster, a shaky Ray Corrigan in a poorly-fitted rubber suit that looks a bit like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, needed a redesign, and Giger certainly delivered there. Various improbabilities had to be dropped, like setting off all those grenades to no effect, either on the monster or the ship. These are all easy fixes. Meanwhile, there are plenty of really good things to keep. The dead hand flopping down behind Carruthers. The discovery of the drained body in the air duct. And best of all the use of the strong vertical axis of the ship’s different levels, with the surviving crew being effectively treed by the monster as the film goes on. All the time the clock is ticking for both the crew and the monster: “it has to kill us or starve and we’ve got to kill it or die.”
*. That central series of stairways provides a solid visual spine to the proceedings, and it’s actually a bit surprising that later movies (like Alien) didn’t want to borrow it. But then I guess it’s kind of awkward to work around too. There’s a terrific moment when the crew come up with a plan to walk outside the ship and re-enter it on a level below the monster. Clever! But they initially have no idea what they’re going to do once they’ve pulled off this maneuver! And as things work out it really does seem to have been all for nothing.
*. I mentioned the curious way nobody seems to actually think Carruthers is guilty of anything, despite his being in some sort of very loose custody. I raise this point again because I’ve seen It! compared to plots like And Then There Were None. I don’t see this at all. The potential is there to play up Carruthers’ possible guilt in killing off the crew, but that’s simply a road the movie never even starts down. Everyone knows they’re up against a monster right from the start.
*. It’s very cheap, and though I’ve read some reviews that praise the acting I think it’s terrible. Indeed, I wouldn’t rate it much ahead of Plan 9 from Outer Space in either category. But unlike Plan 9 it’s shot through with good ideas and Carpenter’s “great little engine” of a story. A seed in space, I’d call it. And one that would grow.

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

*. Another trashy monster flick from the ’50s that’s nowhere near as entertaining as its camp reputation would lead you to believe. Not only is it not as good as the classics like Them!, it’s not even as much fun as Tarantula! (1955) or The Killer Shrews (1959), the latter also directed by Ray Kellogg, shot back-to-back with this movie, and released with it as a double feature.
*. Only 74 minutes long and still crushingly dull. The human story is worthless, being about a bunch of what I think are supposed to be teenagers hanging out, working on their hot rods, and going to dances. Then along comes the title monster to upset everyone. The hero has a sister who has to wear leg braces and he sings her a song. That such a short movie could have so much padding is really impressive.
*. Unfortunately they don’t have a lot of footage of the Giant Gila Monster (actually a Mexican Beaded Lizard) to show us. All Kellogg could come up with is a bored-looking lizard slowly crawling around some miniature sets. In fact, the scenes with the lizard are actually duller than the scenes with the kids, or the ones where the police bumble about trying to find out what’s going on.
*. Apparently one of the taglines ran: “Only Hell could breed such an enormous beast. Only God could destroy it!” That’s pretty misleading, since theology plays no role in the proceedings. What’s more, I don’t recall there being any explanation offered for how this giant creature came to be, or where it has been hiding all this time. The most we get is the suggestion that something in its diet threw its thyroid “out of whack.” That’s some thyroid.
*. As for the creature’s disappearing act, that’s taken care of by the opening voiceover: “In the enormity of the West, there are still vast and virtually unexplored regions, bleak and desolate, where no human ever goes and no life is ever seen. It is as though the land had been [I have no idea what the next word is] by God. It is in these lonely areas of the impenetrable forest and dark shadows that the Gila Monster still lives. How large the dreaded Gila Monster grows no man can say!”
*. It should have been good fun, like The Killer Shrews, but I found it nearly unwatchable. Not even good for a laugh, with or without a sarcastic commentary.