Category Archives: 1950s

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.

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

*. A pompous and obscure title card is revealed: “Slender hangs illusion, fragile the thread to reality.” Then there’s some other stuff before we are told “The time is 1945. The place is Asia.”
*. “Asia.” Asia is very big. I assume we are in India, but it’s never made clear. There weren’t that many American soldiers stationed in India in World War Two, were there? And while the part-Creole Faith Domergue looks slightly exotic, as the priestess of the cobra cult she doesn’t look a bit Indian. I mean, with a bit of make-up Leonard Strong can play an ersatz native (he actually made a career out of playing “Asians,” as well as other ethnicities), but they don’t even try with Domergue.
*. The story here gets going when a group of servicemen sneak into a ceremony of the cobra cult. They’ve actually paid a hefty sum ($100) to one of the Lamians (that would be Leonard Strong) in order to see a person turn into a snake or vice versa. What they get is a crappy floor show featuring a woman in snake tights. When they give themselves away as interlopers they proceed to act as boorish Americans abroad, beating up the Lamians and torching their temple. This earns them a curse: the cobra cult will hunt them down and kill them one by one.
*. Revenge comes knocking in the shape of Lisa Moya (Domergue), who follows the doughboys back to New York City and turns into a cobra to start picking them off. They are remarkably quick to twig to the fact that this has something to do with the cult’s curse, but alas one of them has fallen in love with Lisa and she has reciprocated.
*. I’ve heard this one described both as a cult favourite and a “minor camp masterpiece” (Leonard Maltin) but I didn’t enjoy it even as a good-bad movie. It has none of the energy or panache needed to make its ridiculous premise work. The transformation scenes are weak, even when presented indirectly. The CobraVision business should be funnier but just comes across as awkward. The business of Lisa falling in love and losing her faith cracks a smile but that’s it. It’s all very silly, but really not as much fun as it sounds.

Tarantula! (1955)

*. In the 1950s everything got supersized. Blame the bomb. In his book The Monster Show David J. Skal names Godzilla (1954) as the film that launched “one of the biggest ritual displays of naive metaphor the world has ever seen.” The vehicle of that metaphor being giant creatures, the tenor atomic anxiety.
*. This is an obvious point that doesn’t need any further emphasizing here. In this movie the naive metaphor is a giant tarantula. In Them! it’s giant ants. In The Amazing Colossal Man it’s Glenn Langan. In The Giant Gila Monster . . . you get the point. The question I have is why a fear of nuclear war would bring forth such monsters.
*. Radiation makes people sick. Very sick. It doesn’t make things grow or give them super powers, both of which effects are actually pretty cool. And yet that’s the way it was imagined in the early nuclear age, and indeed has been up to the present day and figures like Doctor Manhattan. I’m not sure what to make of that.
*. Another thing driving the spate of gigantism in SF during the ’50s, and perhaps of even greater importance, was the improvement in special effects. By today’s standards the giant creatures stumbling through model landscapes or looming over hillsides may not be very convincing, but they were the CGI of their day. Sure you can see right through the giant tarantula’s legs in some of the shots here, but I’ll bet audiences in 1955 were thrilled. A movie like this gave them everything they paid for.

*. Mara Corday. Damn she looks good. She’s sexy even when just looking faintly bemused at what’s going on. Meanwhile, John Agar tries to do the same thing and only looks like a simpleton. Double standards.
*. Professor Deemer is often described as a mad scientist but his associates seem to have been the really bad ones, especially in their rush to do some human testing. The way the dying Paul injects Deemer with the growth isotope serum is particularly cruel. Their project, however, is humanitarian. Like Dr. Cragis in The Killer Shrews they’re concerned about growing global population and world hunger. Deemer wants an alternative food source while Cragis wants to shrink people so they won’t need to eat as much.
*. Deemer is concerned that by the year 2000 the population will be 3.6 billion. We nearly doubled that. As a result, today’s mad scientists are more interested in radical plans for depopulation than trying to save the human race.
*. Jack Arnold gets a lot of credit for being one of the major figures of this genre, directing such classics as It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. I think he did well enough with the material, but he wasn’t what I’d call an auteur. I feel like he really just keeps things moving along. He knew what audiences wanted to see and he didn’t cheat them, giving them their monsters in a series of building climaxes. The connecting tissue is just the usual dull stuff to be gotten through, which helps build up those climaxes even more.
*. All of which is only to say that this is a movie that’s no more than what it sets out to be, which is to be an excuse to see a giant spider crawling around the desert eating people before having Clint Eastwood flying in to save the day with some well-placed napalm. Fun then and fun now. How confident are we that our CGI blockbusters will play this well in fifty years?

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

*. I’ve talked before about how, back in the day, big-name producers sometimes overshadowed, even creatively, their directors. Examples include Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (directed by Christian Nyby) were Val Lewton’s Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur) and George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (directed by Byron Haskin).
*. But in the case of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms it’s not the producer’s name that gets most of the credit. Instead this is Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with pre-eminence given to the man who did the stop-motion animation monster effects.
*. Poor Eugène Lourié. This was his directorial debut, having previously worked as a respected art director. Apparently he didn’t care much for directing, or at least directing monster movies, which he was immediately pigeonholed for after the success of this one. I wonder if he ever called up Ichiro Honda to commiserate. Meanwhile, Harryhausen says he was left on his own to do his scenes (that is, all the monster stuff).
*. The rest of the film, meaning the non-monster stuff, is predictably poor. The script feels like a work in progress, which I think in part it was, especially at the end. The business about the monster carrying a virus is really strained, and seems to only be introduced to take the military option of blowing it up off the table. Then the way it’s killed is an even bigger stretch. But then, by the standards of the genre I guess it’s not too crazy.
*. How cool is it that the marksman on call is Lee Van Cleef? He even says he picks his teeth with a grenade rifle. Go get ‘im, Angel Eyes.
*. I said that the ending was a stretch, with its silly idea about shooting a radioactive isotope at the monster, but that it’s not all that crazy given the genre we’re dealing with. And, I should add, given the time. These SF films from the ’50s and ’60s are full of pseudoscientific claptrap that just seems hilarious today. Two of the biggest laugh lines here are the title itself, since 20,000 fathoms is far deeper than the deepest part of the ocean, and the professor claiming the Beast has survived from the paleolithic age, which it obviously preceded by a few million years.
*. I’m not sure why they went with a title that was so far off the mark since my understanding is that the monster (a Rhedosaurus, which is a species they made up) was frozen in ice at or near the surface. But I guess it’s all carnival-barker hype anyway.

*. It’s also worth pointing out, while talking about the genre, that this movie introduced the idea of a giant monster somehow created or awakened by the explosion of atomic weapons. Godzilla would be on his way in another year.
*. Comparisons to Gojira (Godzilla) are inevitable. In terms of effects, I think Harryhausen’s work holds up quite well. Toho couldn’t do stop-motion animation because it was too expensive and so had to go the rubber-suit route, which worked out for them pretty well. Gojira, however, had more of a story behind it, for better or worse.
*. Speaking of silly genre elements, both this movie and Gojira (as well as the rest of the Godzilla franchise) share the ridiculous notion that these giant monsters can somehow be lost. I love the radio announcer here saying “It was last seen on Wall Street.” That’s it? And nobody knows where it went? How do you lose a dinosaur on Wall Street?
*. I find Lee (Paula Raymond) a sexy babe, in a somewhat rigid way, and really loved the way she kisses her fuddy-duddy old professor twice . . . on the mouth! Her boyfriend doesn’t get a taste of that action even at the end when he is going off to fight the monster. Oh to have lived in those blissful days of yore when professors naturally took their students in as “assistants.” And she makes coffee and brownies too!
*. This is a movie I can still watch and enjoy, but I think a lot of that comes down to it being very short. I like watching the Beast strolling through the canyons of NYC, tossing cars and eating people. The rest of the movie is silly trifle but at least quick and good humoured. Despite being a huge box-office success, however, it didn’t spawn a franchise like Godzilla’s. Perhaps a giant lizard that looked like a lizard (walking on four legs) just couldn’t be infused with enough personality. Godzilla quickly transformed into something almost human, but the Beast was done evolving.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

*. My DVD of On Dangerous Ground is part of a box set, Vol. 3 in the Film Nor Classic Collection. By this point it seems to me Warner Bros. were starting to scrape bottom (though they had more of these sets to come). I don’t mean this in terms of the quality of the films, but in their connection to film noir. The first film included in Vol. 3 is Border Incident, a movie about an investigation into illegal immigrant farm labour. The second, His Kind of Woman, is a very odd sort of crime comedy (also, like Border Incident, set partially in Mexico). Were these noirs? Well, they were about cops and criminals.
*. One can argue endlessly over the definition of noir. And indeed many people have. Since the 1970s it’s been a favourite topic for critics. Is noir even a genre? Does it describe a moral vision, a style of photography, a setting, or scripts grounded in hard-boiled, tough-guy fiction?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing over this but personally I think it’s a stretch to see On Dangerous Ground as noir. It seems to me more like a crime melodrama. But others disagree. In 100 Film Noirs (part of the BFI Screen Guides series) authors Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips include it. And it’s in this box set. So there’s some consensus out there for seeing it through this lens.
*. As Glenn Erickson notes on the DVD commentary track, this is a movie that has enjoyed a revival in terms of its crtical standing. Its current high reputation, he tells us “is all retroactive.” When On Dangerous Ground came out it was not well received, for what I think the innocent viewer will understand as obvious reasons. Ida Lupino’s judgement was that it was well produced but suffered from a poor script. Bosley Crowther concurred, thinking director Nicholas Ray made the most of “flimsy material,” the story being “a shallow, uneven affair.” It’s a movie that splits in two, and however deliberate a decision this was (it’s not in the source novel), Variety thought it seeemed like “two pictures grafted together.”
*. I’d agree with these negative judgments. It is a poor script from A. I. Bezzerides (best known for writing Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and making a surprise cameo here as the sleazy Gatos). Much of the dialogue strikes me as overwrought and formalistic, and in the second half the romance between Jim (Robert Ryan) and Mary (Lupino), however capably rendered, is just too much. Again, this was not a failing that anyone missed at the time. Ray’s original ending did not have Jim coming back to Mary but presumably continuing his lonely downward spiral in the city. But that would have been too bleak even for noir.
*. It is an interesting film to look at, and has some terrific photography in different modes, from the handheld camera in the early street scenes to the chiaroscuro in the shed. This made the poor quality of the DVD transfer I was watching all the more disappointing. You really need to see the restored version.
*. What is that thing in the farm house that looks like the sculpture of a tree branch? Is it a sculpture of a tree branch? Or is it supposed to be a tree?
*. Did Robert Ryan look like Sterling Hayden back in the day or what? I actually thought he was Sterling Hayden for a moment.
*. Speaking of misidentifications, when the cops chase down the man in the street, they’re going off a radio description that only tells them they’re looking for a man in a gabardine coat. No wonder they get the wrong guy! That’s not a lot to go by. How would you even be able to tell if someone was wearing a gabardine coat if you were just driving by them anyway?
*. In their chapter on the film in 100 Film Noirs Hillier and Phillips mention that it’s a favourite of Martin Scorsese “and a key influence on Taxi Driver.” This echoed something Erickson says in his commentary: that the later film On Dangerous Ground most resembles is Taxi Driver. I’m not sure I see much of a connection. Travis Bickle is, like Jim Wilson, an alienated loner who sees the city as full of garbage, but is there anything aside from that? Is Iris supposed to be Mary? Is Travis rehabilitated? Does he renounce violence? I don’t get it.
*. There’s a lot to like here. Bernard Hermann’s score really grabs you by the lapels as the titles come up (if you have lapels), and it nicely develops an echoing hunting theme as the chase after Danny begins. Both the city streets and snowy upstate landscapes are well evoked and juxtaposed. Danny is an interesting figure, bold even for the time. Ryan does a good job in what is a complicated role. Lupino does her best to get us to take Mary seriously. But I keep finding myself drifting back to those earlier judgments. This really is a flimsy script, both on a line-by-line basis and for its contrived and sentimental premise. That’s hard to overcome.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

*. Why Kiss Me, Deadly? Note the comma, so I’m talking about the Mickey Spillane novel this film (whose title goes without the comma) is based on.
*. What I mean is, why bother with a book that producer-director Robert Aldrich didn’t seem to much care for, and that screenwriter A. I. Bezerides thought was “awful”? “I wrote it [the script] fast because I had contempt for it,” Bezerides would later say, “It was automatic writing.” Spillane, naturally, hated what Bezerides had done.
*. Were they just making fun of Spillane’s already cartoonish Mike Hammer, using him as a means to parody the crime genre? That may be, since he’s made into an even less likeable character here than he is in the book. He’s more of a heel, pimping out Velda as part of the scam he runs as a “bedroom dick,” and he seems to take more pleasure in dealing out callous punishment, even to the innocent.
*. As if all this weren’t enough, note how big a brickhead Aldrich makes Hammer out to be. As Alex Cox puts it in his video introduction to the Criterion release, where Spillane’s Hammer is violent, thuggish and stupid, Aldrich’s is violent, thuggish, and stupider. Of course, Christina knows, he doesn’t read poetry. But can he even read? Does he need Gabrielle to read that Rossetti poem to him because he can’t? Then there’s the scene where the feline Pat (Wesley Addy) says to him “Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean.” Presumably Pat knows Mike pretty well, but it’s like he’s talking to a pre-schooler. And the stubbornly dull look on Hammer’s face as he’s being told off by Pat tells quite a story. Does he get it now?

*. Another nice comment on Hammer’s empty head is the fact that when shot up with sodium pentathol he has nothing to say. Of course he doesn’t give the gang any information about the great whatsit because he doesn’t know anything about that yet. But he doesn’t say anything at all. His stream of consciousness is just a dull moan.
*. What makes Hammer’s dullness even more striking, and perhaps significant, are the number of cultured and intelligent people he’s surrounded by. On the commentary track James Ursini adverts to the “intellectual-artistic patina the film has,” while J. Hoberman, in his essay, notes how “the movie unfolds in a deranged cubist space, amid the debris of Western civilization—shards of opera, deserted museums, molls who paraphrase Shakespeare, mad references to Greek mythology and the Old Testament. A nineteenth-century poem furnishes the movie’s major clue.” All of this goes right over Hammer’s head. Is Aldrich getting at something here?
*. Note what Danny Peary says in this regard: “Culture is on the way out as these barbarians [the brutes and gangsters, like Hammer] take over: Trivaco, who sings opera (badly), is beaten; Velda, who practices ballet exercises (badly), is used by the man she loves as if she were a hoooker and he were her pimp; Christina (the most likable character in the film), who appreciates poetry, classical music, and art, is eliminated. Intellectuals (Soberin) are killed, and the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of stupid Gabrielle.” Yes, stupid, sleepy-eyed, butch Gabrielle (Aldrich wanted Gaby Rodgers to play her as a lesbian). And remember, she’s the one Mike gives the book to so that she can read him the poem!

*. So is all this part of advancing the parody? An example, as Alain Silver suggests on the commentary, of noir’s vision of class war? Is it political? Have Spillane’s dirty commies been replaced by poetry aficionados and gallery owners? Or is the point simply that modern life only proves the survival of the dumbest, its explosive ending expressive of what David Thomson calls “the sheer rapture of stupidity”? Poor Gabrielle just can’t help playing Pandora and opening that damn box. Though why she wants to is beyond me. Soberin was presumably the only guy who was going to be able to fence whatever was inside. It’s amazing how she keeps getting the drop on people. I don’t think that’s because she’s playing dumb. She really is dumb, but that works to her advantage.

*. Is such a movie meant to be torn apart on this level? Are we supposed to wonder about that missing comma in the title? Are we meant to find that significant? Of course noir is notorious for having plots that are balls of yarn, with lots of unanswered questions and threads that lead nowhere, but Kiss Me Deadly seems more chaotic than most. And we never actually see Hammer figuring anything out. There’s no real plot because if there were it would be too difficult for him to follow. So what we get is just an almost random string of incidents and accidents. There are no clues to follow How, for example, does Hammer get from anything in Rossetti’s poem to Christina swallowing the key? There’s no connection at all that I can see.
*. Question: What is the art gallery owner Gish’s connection to all this? Diker points him out to Velda at a bar, but that’s all we’re told. I guess Soberin is his doctor, and Gish sees him as collecting some new kind of art, but what does that mean? It’s just information like Rossetti’s poem, not even a clue. I mean, I could ask the same question as Christina’s connection to all this as well. Was she part of the gang?

*. Perhaps tearing apart and tearing down is the point. The French New Wave were in love with Kiss Me Deadly I think because it’s a movie that seems to be coming undone at the seams. And by that I mainly mean its editing, which is discontinuous and at times incoherent, becoming an all-too-visible art. The early scene where Hammer fights the hood in the street sets the tone. Do the rapid cuts make sense? It seems to my eye as though the two paired closeups are repeated, or at least the one of the hand Hammer is holding behind the hood’s back. It’s quite jarring.
*. To me it seems like a grab bag of a movie. For example, I hate the way things start, after Christina is picked up. While the opening titles scroll backward (something that has always struck me as just a stunt) we get the incredibly annoying heavy breathing/sobbing of Christina over top of Nat King Cole. Her noises sound totally forced and unnatural to me and she goes on far too long, to the point where I have to think Aldrich had a point he was trying to make. I don’t know what it might have been.

*. Standing at the center of it all is Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer. Meeker is someone who really shouldn’t work in the role, and it’s a strange performance that has been often remarked upon. He smiles or smirks a lot at seemingly inappropriate times. Some find him sadistic. He’s certainly a bully, slapping people around just for giggles (though I think the coroner asks for it). I guess he’s a tough guy as well (what horrific move does he pull on Sugar Smallhouse?), but he’s just got a jerky quality to him that’s beneath the usual noir hero. It’s not that he doesn’t come off as a latter-day knight or anti-Galahad (as Ursini calls him) patrolling the dirty streets of L.A. — he actually does have some sense of loyalty, at least to Velda and Nicky — as that he’s charmless. Naturally the babes swoon all over him, but even that seems like a joke.
*. In any event, Aldrich was supposed to do a couple of Hammer films, but My Gun Is Quick would be directed by Victor Saville (executive producer of Kiss Me Deadly) and star Robert Bray as Hammer. The Aldrich-Meeks experiment was over. But given that the edited version of Kiss Me Deadly (not the “original” version but the version audiences saw) had Mike and Velda presumably dying in the beach house meltdown I doubt he really had plans for a sequel. As it is, he is often credited for drawing the curtain on the classic age of noir and after Kiss Me Deadly struck out on his own.

*. Of course the ending makes no sense. The box that screams and sends out an incendiary glow before exploding is a wonderful construct, but can’t be squared with any understanding of the behaviour of radioactive material. Silver sees it as something like a dirty bomb but that’s more than a stretch. I wonder if Aldrich or Bezerides even knew about things like that. Well, I’m sure they didn’t care.
*. Many critics comment on the mythic characteristics of the plot, especially given the references made to classical figures. One thought that has always niggled away with me is that Mike actually does die in the opening car crash and the rest of the film plays out like a noir version of Carnival of Souls. I think this occurs to me for two reasons: (1) despite falling down the cliff in his car, without a seatbelt on, and the car bursting into flames on its way down, Hammer seems totally uninjured when he wakes up the next day in the hospital; (2) Soberin makes a strained reference to Christina’s resurrection after he’s killed her, and when Nicky sees Mike after his accident he says “Look Sammy! My friend just returned from the grave!” That may not seem like much, but more has been made of less in suggesting that Lee Marvin is actually dead at the beginning of Point Blank.
*. So maybe the whole thing is the dream of a dead man. It’s a weird enough movie to allow the conjecture, a film “real yet surreal” in Thomson’s judgment. As with most such films you’re left wondering how much of the chaos was intentional. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. Much of the dialogue feels wildly overwritten, even for a comic book. The pieces don’t fit together and not all of the pieces are interesting. I couldn’t stand the character of Nick Va Va Voom, for example. Still, it’s a movie I enjoy, and for a genre flick it remains something of a singularity.

The Killer Shrews (1959)

*. The Killer Shrews is a one of the best-known independently-produced, Grade-Z horror films of the 1950s, largely because of its eponymous pack of killer critters. I mean, they even sound funny. Killer shrews?
*. That these shrews are fanged beasts with poison saliva should make them more threatening, but the fact that they’re just a bunch of coon hounds wearing long-haired coats and toothy masks sort of undercuts the scare factor. Now to be fair, I do get a kick out of their appearance. At least I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything else like them. But they’re not scary.
*. A terrible movie? Sure. But it definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Of course the plot is silly and the shrews ridiculous, but there are all sorts of enjoyable moments along the way. A quick list: Captain Sherman (James Best) being offered a martini upon his arrival at the island; Sherman using the barrel of his pistol to tighten a tourniquet around Mario’s leg; Ann looking like she’s trying not to break out laughing when Mario dies; Sherman getting ready to toss Jerry’s unconscious body to the shrews before having second thoughts; the escape plan that has the survivors duck-walking to the boat under a bunch of inverted metal tanks; and finally Sherman’s final line to Ann’s father as he takes Ann in his arms and claims her with a lustful smooch: “I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet.”
*. Any movie with so many smile points in just 69 minutes can’t be all bad. And in fact The Killer Shrews is a lot of fun. Some people complain about there being so much talk in the first half of the picture, but I didn’t think the arrival of the shrews (all four or five of them) made that big a difference. It’s never a terribly suspenseful or thrilling movie. But it deserves its reputation as one of the best of the worst of its time.