Category Archives: 1950s

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

*. In my notes on Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy I talked about how great a falling off it marked from the comedy-horror heights of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually came out two years before Meet the Mummy and it’s even worse, so it wasn’t a consistent decline.
*. This is grim stuff. Not just a clunker in terms of the humour — I don’t recall smiling once at it — but for the desperation of the comedy and general sense of unpleasantness. We begin with Mr. Hyde killing a man in the street, which isn’t a joke at all. In Britain the film would actually receive an X rating. In 1953!
*. The plot has our heroes, two characters named Slim and Tubby (I’ll leave you to sort them out), playing American cops who are visiting London and working with the bobbies as part of some kind of study-abroad program. But they are soon removed from the force after a chaotic riot at a suffragette rally. Meanwhile, one of the suffragettes is the ward of Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff), and she has caught the eye of a dashing young reporter. That’s the love interest. Dr. Jekyll wants to keep his young ward for himself though, and enlists the aid of Mr. Hyde to rid himself of the reporter. But, trying to get back in the good graces of the police chief, Slim and Tubby are on the case.
*. That’s the plot, and it’s dreadful. The would-be laughs involve very little wordplay and instead rely mostly on pratfalls and the like. One scene takes place in a wax museum so we get double-takes at wax figures being mistaken for living creature, and then vice versa. There are also a number of predictable scenes involving something scary coming up behind Slim or Tubby that they remain oblivious too. Ha-ha.
*. At one point Tubby (yes that’s Lou) gets turned into a mouse-man. Here’s how laboured the humour is. When they go back to explore the doctor’s secret lab they find it’s all been dismantled and made over into a wine cellar. No idea how, but there it is. Trying to find some explanation for how Tubby got turned into a mouse, Slim picks out a bottle of Moselle wine and says “See, Mouse-ell! That’s what turned you into a mouse!” So he then keeps giving Tubby glasses of Moselle to see if he’ll turn into a mouse again but it only makes Tubby drunk. I mean, it doesn’t make sense on any level.
*. Leonard Maltin: “Special effects are film’s main asset.” Which is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) if you’re watching an Abbott and Costello movie for the special effects, you’re in trouble; and (2) the effects are terrible. The transformation scenes are a considerable step down from what had been done in 1931, and the full Mr. Hyde is just a guy (not Karloff, by the way) wearing a mask.
*. Watching this one I was actually surprised it came out as late as 1953. It feels at least ten years out of date. Seventy years later on, it hasn’t improved a bit.

Richard III (1955)

*. What a terrible opening scroll. “Laurence Olivier Present’s Richard III by William Shakespeare.” That apostrophe! How could they?
*. And the thing is, the rest of the scroll is almost as bad, being a bunch of fustian English that does little to introduce the play. This is disappointing because Richard III is a play where the audience could use a lot of help, and seeing as they went through the trouble of providing an introduction it might have been of more assistance.
*. I think they should have foregone the scroll. The thing is, I’ve rarely been able to keep all the characters and their relationships straight and I’ve read the play numerous times and also know the background history pretty well. It’s just a hopeless task.
*. The play itself has often been described, and is best enjoyed, as a one-man show. That’s the case again here. Pauline Kael found the supporting cast “a dull lot,” but then that’s what they’re supposed to be. Though Ralph Richardson’s Buckingham is well developed and I found him interesting to watch.
*. Apparently Olivier wanted Orson Welles for the part of Buckingham, as he thought Richardson would play as too likeable. But I think Richardson is perfect. Buckingham is a politician, after all, just like Richard. And I’ve never been a big fan of mixing American and British actors in Shakespeare. I think Welles might have looked especially out of place in this production, though the thought intrigues me. He was so good at rascals.

*. It’s a standout performance by Olivier, and I’d maybe rate it his best Shakespearean role on film. That’s putting it ahead of some tough competition (his Hamlet, Henry V, Othello, and King Lear), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Richard so well played. He is powerful, unscrupulous, and seductive. Ian McKellen is more a pathetic grotesque, it’s a great interpretation, but eccentric. Olivier’s Richard, one feels, could pass as normal, which makes him more dangerous.
*. The rest of the production is solid, but not overwhelming. It’s stagey, but Olivier did his best with the battle scene and I thought it worked well. It’s not up to the level of what Welles did with the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight, but then few if any filmmakers have climbed those heights. (As a footnote, both Welles’s Shrewsbury and Olivier’s Bosworth were shot in Spain. The difference being that in this film it looks like Spain. Chalk another one up for Welles.)
*. I also liked the costumes, especially with Richard’s hanging sleeves giving him a bug-like appearance. Aside from that, however, most of it is stagecraft on film. Gielgud’s Clarence adopting a pose that mirrors the crucifix on the wall opposite him in his cell, for example. Or the way Richard has his posse kneel to him in the courtyard. All of this accompanied by loud cues in the score.

*. It was fun coming to this movie again, decades since I’d last seen it. Several scenes have always stuck in my mind. Clarence being hammered into the butt of malmsey. The look Richard gives the young prince when he makes the crack about his shoulders. Richard crying out for a horse. Now here, I thought, is a man who really needs a horse!
*. Olivier had limits as a filmmaker. He could certainly film a play, but in the end the stage was always his creative comfort zone. Still, there are the performances. And for his Richard III to still be reigning after over sixty years is quite an achievement. How did he do it? Yes, Shakespeare is for all time, but in this particular case I think it’s Olivier who is our contemporary. I’ve mentioned how normal he can seem, and how this makes his Richard dangerous. But I wonder how much of that is due to our having become more familiar with such figures. In politics, has Richard become the new normal? At times it certainly seems that way.

Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1955)

*. I’ve mentioned before how near allied the Dr. Jekyll story is to werewolf mythology, both of them involving the personification (monsterfication?) of human duality and the struggle between our normal or everyday selves and a bestial id.
*. But who says you have to choose? Meaning not that you can have Mr. Hyde and the Wolf Man appear in the same movie, but that they can be combined in the same character, with a bit of vampirism thrown in for good measure.
*. Such is the premise behind Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, which has Janet Smith (Gloria Talbott) and fiancé George Hastings (John Agar) showing up at a generic, fog-enshrouded English country estate that she’s about to inherit (I’m pretty sure you’ll have seen it before in other movies of this ilk). Alas, another part of her inheritance comes due to the fact that she’s actually the daughter of Dr. Jekyll, who it turns out was a werewolf. Which may, we are told, be an inheritable condition. Cancel the wedding!

*. What’s more, this particular strain of lycanthropy, as all the villagers know, can only be dealt with by planting a stake in the werewolf’s heart. A werewolf, George learns from a book that he consults, is a soul that leaves a corpse to suck the blood of living persons. Which is a totally novel conception of what a werewolf is, and is where the vampire angle I mentioned comes in. I wonder if the writer (Jack Pollexfen, who had also written The Son of Dr. Jekyll) even knew the difference between a vampire and a werewolf. Or if he cared.
*. In sum, this is a bit of a grab-bag of familiar ingredients. Despite the title and the presence of a secret chemistry lab (which plays no part in the story at all) it has nothing to do with either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. But there’s more. This is also a gaslighting story, as a scheming doctor with a ready supply of pills and potions is looking to drive the heiress Janet crazy and suicidal. What exactly he hopes to achieve by this wasn’t clear to me, though I’ll admit I wasn’t paying close attention. Then at the end there’s yet another wrinkle thrown in that just makes you want to throw your hands up at the whole thing.
*. So it’s silly, and quick, and mostly fun. Fans of director Edgar G. Ulmer and leading man John Agar will be satisfied. Ulmer does his best, which is pretty good, to take our minds off the worthless script while Agar dons a jacket that makes him look like a carnival barker or member of a barbershop quartet. Gloria Talbott gets laced into a corset and can really scream. Worth a look if you enjoy the low-budget SF-horror of the ’50s but not a movie I can see myself ever watching again.

Throne of Blood (1957)


*. Shakespeare isn’t known for his great original plots. He usually just borrowed some old (sometimes very old) stand-by or took an episode from a historical chronicle to dramatize. Among the few plays where he did come up with an original storyline (The Tempest was one), it’s not the story that stands out.
*. So when a director decides to “do” a Shakespearean play in another language, thus losing all the language and only keeping the plot, he’s playing from behind. He’s going to have to go big (meaning give the play a novel interpretive angle or a bold look) or else go home.
*. I think Akira Kurosawa pulls it off in this movie, in large part because he’s drawing on such an alien theatrical tradition. And while I can’t be sure, I think he’s made a movie that probably means something very different (though still meaningful) to Western and Eastern audiences alike.


*. A literal translation of the Japanese title (so I’m told) is Spider Web Castle. Not as catchy, but it does introduce one of the main motifs of Kurosawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare: from the mist that conceals and reveals to the “labyrinth” of the forest, we feel we’re lost and caught in a trap.
*. In my notes on Rashomon I talked a bit about how the point of that movie was not that people experienced the same events differently, but that they were all lying, not least of all to themselves. Kurosawa saw the theme as being that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”


*. This is the same point being made here. The Witch is surprised (or perhaps just disappointed, it’s hard to tell) that Washizu isn’t happy about having his good fortune told. “You humans. Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires — you try to hide them.” Washizu should embrace his fate, and not lie to himself about it. As the Witch tells him during their second meeting: “If you choose ambition, choose it honestly, with cruelty.”
*. The Witch is against hypocrisy. But hypocrisy, for Shakespeare, is what makes the world go ’round. All of it, after all, is a stage. Washizu and Asaji are players in both the old and the modern sense. They strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then disappear.


*. This is especially interesting in relation to Asaji. She’s made up as a stage actress and is obviously performing for her husband (I don’t believe her for a second when she tells him she’s with child). The keynote of that performance is her surprisingly cool demeanour.
*. David Thomson says Asaji “fails to suggest the nagging sexual force that urges her husband on”. True, but different cultures find different things sexy. Asaji knows her gender role and she knows her man: she can play the yin to his yang, her quiet, unemotional cool against Washizu’s hyper-emotional, eye-rolling glowering.
*. Toshiru Mifune’s acting really carries a load here. Everyone else around him is far more composed, sedate. It’s not just Asaji but Miki as well. It’s even the sets, the interiors of which are quite minimal and theatrical. You need a passionate performance to play against so much blank canvas.


*. At the end, the same temperature differential can be seen writ large inside the fort as Washizu screams and yells at his men, who listen in stony silence before reaching for their bows.
*. Yes, shooting real arrows at Mifune makes the finale seem even more impressive. But you have to wonder then if the soldiers in the fort are all such bad shots or if they’re trying to miss him. Sure he gets hit, but the arrows all cluster to one or the other side of him. Of course that was necessary to film it the way they did, but despite being “real” it doesn’t look entirely realistic.
*. I’ve seen Birnham Wood go to Dunsinane many times, on stage and screen, but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than it is here. Pauline Kael thought this one of the two great moments in the film. It helps that no human figures are seen, only the soft, shaggy tops of the trees undulating in the mist, looking like an evergreen amoeba coming to absorb the castle.
*. I’m not as fond of the opening and closing chorus. The effect is to present the movie as a legend, a ghost story, a tale of long ago. Compare the equally un-Shakespearean epilogue to Polanski’s Macbeth, where the effect is very different. Polanski underlines that this is not a unique story but one that will be repeated many times in ages hence.


Joe Macbeth (1955)

*. I don’t think there could have been anything new about doing Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a gangster drama in 1955. Somebody must have done it on stage before, as they’ve done since. It’s tale of cut-throat ambition fits well with the genre, as you could see movies like Scarface and Little Caesar, which told similar stories about the “number one boy” taking over from a kingpin. And on screen we’d see it done again with Men of Respect (1990). Criminal organizations, like large business corporations, are thoroughly Macbethian.
*. This British production doesn’t have much interest except in so far as seeing how they’re going to bring all the old familiar elements up to the present day. So Joe Macbeth here, played by Paul Douglas, is the chief lieutenant of a boss named the Duke. Joe is married to a cold-blooded riser named Lily (Ruth Gordon), and his best buddy in the gang is Banky (the Carry On gang’s Sid James), who has a son named Lenny. Lenny is an adult, with a wife and child, so his part gets to double up as Macduff.
*. Perhaps the oddest thing in all of this is that the fortune-telling woman who takes over the role of the witches is a dramatist herself, and references the play Macbeth. So this is an updating of the Macbeth story where the characters are themselves aware of the Macbeth story. But no one seems to connect the dots to figure out that they’re in a remake. And don’t say it’s because they’re all a bunch of hoods, because one of them even quotes Keats. Back in the day, a basic knowledge of Shakespeare was pretty much general knowledge. I used to know people of that generation (most of them dead now) who never went to college but who could quote the reams of the Bard at you.
*. Some of it works well enough. The murder of the Duke is nice, with the tolling of a buoy bell playing in the background. The closest parallel to the play comes when Macbeth’s butler answers the knocking at the door. The appearance of Banky at dinner is less impressive, because inexplicable. We’re never made to feel as though this is a world where the supernatural has any purchase, or that Joe is the kind of guy high-strung enough to start seeing things.
*. Douglas might have pulled it off. He’s older than you’d expect, not really an ambitious up-and-comer. In fact, he doesn’t project ambition much at all. He’s more a solid, ox-like follower than the kind of guy you expect to see killing his way to the top, wading in blood, etc. This might have worked if they’d done more to develop his being the muscle and Lily the brains (as I’ve said before, it’s always a bad sign in such movies when women do the driving), but they don’t give us enough of this. And besides, she still has to fall apart at the end.
*. It’s not a well-made movie. Douglas is miscast but does his best, and his Macbeth is at least something a bit different. Gordon is a suitably chilly Lily. But aside from that you find you’re just watching out of curiosity to see what they’re going to do with it, not because you’re entertained.

Return of the Fly (1959)

*. Huh? The 20th Century Fox logo comes up and it’s . . . in black and white? Hadn’t The Fly been shot in beautiful DeLuxe color? What happened?
*. Money happened. They weren’t going for any kind of an art-house vibe here, rest assured. But at the time shooting in colour was a lot more expensive, and the budget here was about half that of the original so . . .
*. There’s some continuity. Kurt Neumann died shortly after finishing The Fly so Edward Bernds took over directing chores. Vincent Price is back as François Delambre and not looking a day older while little Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) is all grown up. The chalkboard in the lab still has André’s last message to his wife on it, which I thought a nice touch.
*. But the lab has moved. For some reason the original lab, which was in the basement of André’s house, is now said to be located at the foundry. Why did they move it? Especially since now Philippe has to build his own lab . . . in the basement of his house (that is, the same house the lab was originally located in). Why did they move the lab out of the basement just so that they could move it back?
*. I mentioned in my notes on The Fly how it benefited from a tight script. The script here, despite the film being 15 minutes shorter, is not as tight. In fact, it’s bizarre in its complexity, including a reporter introduced in the opening scene who is never heard from again, a love interest for Philippe who only opens her mouth to scream on a couple of occasions, a cop (or something) who is turned into a guinea pig hybrid, a heel who is looking to steal Philippe’s invention and sell it to the highest bidder, and his fence, who is a peculiar guy running a funeral home as a front for some business we’re told nothing about.
*. The set-up will have been familiar to any horror movie fan at the time. Basically Philippe is the son of Frankenstein, driven to follow in his father’s footsteps and even discovering a book with all his notes which might as well have been titled How I Did It. Also like father like son is the transformation, which gives Philippe the head, arm, and (this time) the leg of a fly. The heel turns on him and stuffs him in the disintegrator cabinet. Why? I couldn’t figure this part out. Or why he stuck the cop in the device. To kill them? Hardly. It would have been easier just to shoot them. So just to mess them up? I didn’t get it.
*. They do their best to ratchet up the grotesquerie. The guinea pig man is kind of freaky. The fly man is bigger, with a much bigger head, though for some reason his clothes still fit. Unlike the original Fly this one gets to go around killing people though. Not because he’s bad but because they deserve it.
*. The best you can say is that it’s better than average for ’50s monster flicks, but that’s not saying much. It can’t hold a candle to the first movie. Despite being shorter it’s duller in every frame. Where the end of the original still has the power to shock, the ending here has the white-headed fly captured and Philippe (and the fly!) successfully reintegrated. No spoiler alert for that. It’s rotten enough already.

The Fly (1958)

*. The Fly is a simple little movie that’s all the better for not trying to be anything more. There are only a handful of characters and the plot deftly weaves together the back story (related in Hélène’s confession) with what’s going on in the present (the hunt for the fly with the white head). Each narrative, in turn, has its own climax: the revelation of André’s head in the flashback portion and the discovery of the fly in the spider’s web at the end of the frame story. Everything else is just meant to tease us and build up to these two moments, and this is done quite effectively.
*. This double structure isn’t really there in the George Langelaan story (published in Playboy, which actually was a great magazine to read back in the day). So it’s an expert bit of screenwriting by James Clavell, and his first credited work. I read a few of Clavell’s Asian novels as a boy (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Noble House, etc.) and when I saw his name come up here I remember thinking it must have been a different James Clavell. It wasn’t. The novelist was the movie writer, and a director too. To Sir, with Love is probably his best known work, but he kept busy on a wide variety of projects. Reading the highlights of his bio, the range he covered is truly impressive.
*. It’s an adaptation that improves on the original. In Langelaan’s story, for example, when André goes through the cabinets again at his wife’s urging he comes out newly remixed with bits of the cat Dandalo’s head. He still has the fly’s eyes and mouth, but he’s furry and has cat ears. I’m glad they stuck with just having a fly’s head because this sounds more silly than grotesque. The other thing they do is add the scene where they discover the fly in the spider’s web. This is just referred to in the story, as François explains to Inspector Charas that he buried the fly in a matchbox next to his brother’s corpse.
*. Also in the story Hélène commits suicide at the end. The movie went with a happier ending. It’s actually close to the formula, used so many times in the early Universal horror cycles, of a romantic triangle, with a woman attached to a man who becomes a monster and an earnest, square type waiting in the wings (I talked about this a bit in my notes on The Invisible Man, if you’re interested). I think uncle François will be stepping into more than just his brother’s shoes in the future. Although at the beginning of Return of the Fly it’s some twenty years later and they’re burying Hélène, with François only muttering in a voiceover about how he “loved [her] deeply, hopelessly.”

*. A final change from page to screen: the story is set in France, the movie in Montreal. I wonder what the thinking was there. France too Old World? Montreal exotic but closer to home? To be honest, I don’t know why they didn’t just change the names and set it in New York. As it is, the proceedings have a kind of antique feeling to them. Were we to be impressed by those neon lights in the lab, or were they just there to show off the DeLuxe color?
*. Just sticking with the subject of Montreal, one of the things David Cronenberg, who’d go on to do his own version of this material, didn’t like here was the way none of the names were French-Canadian names and the characters spoke with French not French-Canadian accents. I don’t know how he’d tell. Yes, they sound different, but none of the actors here were French or French-Canadian (though Patricia Owens was born in British Columbia), and I didn’t think they were trying to put on much of an accent anyway.
*. Pedestrian direction by Kurt Neumann (Pauline Kael called it “draggy”), whose last movie this would be (he died shortly after it was released). I don’t think a more flamboyant style would have added anything.
*. They kept the death in the industrial press, with its stroke set to zero, which must have been pretty shocking at the time. Though the way they conceal the body in various shots is pretty amusing. There’s always someone or something just in the way of our seeing the bloody pancake.
*. It’s the little things that count. We do better creature effects today, but I find the fluttering/trembling of the fly’s mouth parts or proboscis to still be disturbing, even disgusting. You don’t need gore to turn people off.
*. Here’s another little thing. Watch how, in the final scene, Hélène takes Philippe by the hand as they walk away and he has to step over one of the croquet wickets. Did they  not rehearse the shot? You might not even notice it because the kid takes it totally in stride. That’s a professional.
*. The cast are good. It’s not often Vincent Price fades into the background, but he does here. David Hedison is a bore, but Patricia Owens makes everything work. Watch her as she’s at the control of the press at the end. She’s really good.
*. Of course what everyone remembers the most about this movie is the shocking finale. I still remember the first time I saw it. I had no idea what was coming and it really got under my skin. It’s one of those movie moments that, however trashy or ridiculous, are indelible.

The Brain Eaters (1958)

*. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) is usually regarded as having set a standard, and perhaps the standard, for bad movies. But it was far from alone in being an instance of low-budget, incompetent filmmaking in the 1950s. The next year would see the release of this movie, which, while no means as hilariously awful as Plan 9, is a fun example of the so-bad-it’s-good flick.
*. It does have Joanna Lee in it, who had also been in Plan 9. And it did get a nomination for a Golden Turkey Award, which was what launched the audience cult for Ed Wood’s folly. So you might as well sit back and enjoy the crazy switches from day to night and back again, sometimes within the same scene, the hopeless acting, the ridiculous dialogue (“Will he live?” “No, but he’s going to, at least as long as science can make him”), and the laughable monsters, which are crudely concealed from view most of the time in glowing crystal-ball traveling cases but look like bedroom slippers when they finally appear.
*. You wouldn’t have expected anything less (or more) from a film shot in six days on a $26,000 budget. Even Leonard Nimoy has his name misspelled in the credits as Nemoy. I don’t think he was looking to conceal his identity. I think it was just a typo.
*. As in all such movies there are also a bunch of little things that make you go “Hm.” Like the description of the giant cone as being 50 feet tall and with a diameter at its base of 50 feet. That’s not what it looks like. Then there’s the scene where Glenn confronts the Mayor, who turns out to be his dad. But the actors looked the same age to me (I checked, and the fellow playing the Mayor was in fact nine years older).
*. The story is actually kind of strange. Robert Heinlein sued the producers for ripping off his novel The Puppet Masters, but I don’t see a resemblance that’s close enough to be actionable. For one thing, the Brain Eaters aren’t aliens but creatures who have been lurking underground since the Carboniferous Era. As for attaching themselves to the back of their hosts’ necks, something similar had been done in Invaders from Mars. I’m not sure you could copyright that. The main line of continuity I saw had to do with the takeover of the communications network.
*. Roger Corman said he hadn’t been aware of Heinlein’s book but settled out of court for $5,000. The bigger effect, however, was that a production of The Puppet Masters being planned was scrapped, meaning it would take another forty years before that novel would get filmed.
*. The Brain Eaters themselves are more like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Heinlein’s Puppet Masters. Indeed, Nimoy’s speech at the end was pretty close to what he’d say in the 1978 Philip Kaufman entry into the Body Snatcher franchise. If the Brain Eaters take over then everyone will live together in peace and harmony. Who could object to that?
*. A cheap, silly, but still pretty enjoyable time-waster that has the added virtue of not wasting too much time (it’s only an hour long). A minor example of the alien-takeover genre that was big in the ’50s, so also instructive on that front. But mainly of interest to people who just like bad movies.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

*. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those movies that I saw as a kid and that I’ve never grown out of. I still drop in for a re-watch pretty regularly and it always holds up. Not a perfect film, but perhaps a perfect B-film, and one with a real cultural resonance, as evidenced by the various directions taken by its remakes.
*. The main tack taken with regard to its significance is to read it politically. This has been so seductive precisely because its politics are so ambiguous. Danny Peary: “Much of the film’s cult following is a result of the picture’s ability to be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: as being anti-McCarthy and an indictment of the red-scare American mentality; and as being an anticommunist allegory.”
*. And the reason why it is so ambiguous? I think because nobody involved in making it thought they were making a film with a political message. Instead, it was part of a sub-genre of alien body snatchers that was popular at the time. Peary points to the other SF movies of the time dealing with the same theme: Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). He might also have included The Brain Eaters (1958), which may have been derived from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). I’d note here that The Puppet Masters, chronologically first on this list and perhaps the first SF story of this type, had an explicit anti-communist message. So there’s no denying this was in the air. When the psychiatrist here explains the mass hysteria as “worry about what’s going on in the world, probably” there’s a tip of the hat to anxiety, but over what, exactly?

*. I don’t see it so much as a Red Scare movie today, but that may be because the Red Scare itself is such a distant memory. Do we still think of communism as “a malignant disease spreading through the whole country”? Instead the film’s message seems more like a general broadside against thoughtless, soulless conformity. Does that have a political side as well? Today accusations of being brainwashed or having become “sheeple” get thrown around pretty freely on the right and the left. I don’t see the pod people as commies, but then they’re not libertarians either. Instead they’re a bit like Nietzsche’s last men: Earth seems like a nice place to call home, so they’ll just move in and get comfortable.
*. The novel by Jack Finney doesn’t say much more. The aliens are just another embodiment of the universal life force. They’ll settle down on Earth and breed and . . . that’s about it. They don’t really have any goals or larger purpose. And I think this is the real critique of the aliens. Not that they are conformists, or have no emotions, but that they have no ambition beyond survival. They aren’t as evil as they are boring and one-dimensional.
*. I like Finney’s novel a lot, and while they drop some good parts from it I think the screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring here changes things in ways that work better on screen. It’s also made into a far bleaker story, even with the addition of the upbeat ending that was insisted on by the studio (“Operator, get me the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is an emergency!”). In the book Becky and the second couple are never transformed, and Miles manages to discourage the aliens from any takeover plans just by burning down their pod farm. They know they’re licked then and so just hop off planet so they can start wandering again and find a better place.
*. So yes, the ending here is terrible. On a par perhaps with the end of Psycho. Both Siegel and producer Walter Wanger disliked it. But in its defence I’d point out a couple of things. First, there was no way they were going to get away with Miles wildly ranting “You’re next! You’re next!” Second, the ending they wound up with is actually better than the ending of Finney’s book, which really feels tacked on and unconvincing.
*. Don Siegel. Yes, you could think of him as a hack. He worked very quickly shooting genre material, but he was good at it and not without a sense of style and an eye. In addition to keeping everything whipping along for a tight 80 minutes he does some interesting things with shooting at odd angles to disorient us. This is small-town America but on a kilter. Then look at the way that curved branch in the foreground mimics the snake of people climbing the hillside at the end. What a nice touch.

*. There are few special effects, but the bodies coming out of the pods look good and I think they’re quite effective. That there is no way to tell the aliens from the humans makes everything more sinister, and easier. I like the indeterminacy it gives rise to as well, as in the scene where poor little Jimmy is given his sedative. About the only moment I wish they’d cut is the peek behind the curtain to see Wilma and her uncle. We don’t need that. We know she’s been transformed.
*. When Miles goes snooping around Becky’s basement, is that a movie match he lights, or did they just make much better matches in the ’50s? By my reckoning it burns for 30 seconds before it gets down to his fingers, all in one take so there’s no trickery. I do think matches were probably better back in the day, but on the other hand, it looks suspiciously thick so it may have been a special prop.
*. “I want your children,” Becky says to Miles. Bold, but I guess things are looking desperate for them by that point. What she says also makes me think of something A. O. Scott had to say about the film: these are “old flames who clearly want nothing more than to jump into bed with each other, and it sometimes seems as though the whole alien conspiracy is designed to prevent exactly that from happening, because instead of doing what they so obviously want to do Miles and Becky have to run all over the little town of Santa Mira.” They can’t sleep and they can’t fuck. What a nightmare.
*. Remember that in the novel Becky isn’t transformed. Here she is, and Miles’ recognition of the change is the film’s dramatic highlight. Who can forget those two close-ups? But what’s the point? To say that she’s changed, she’s no longer the woman he loved, and then she betrays him! “A moment’s sleep and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction!” More than one man has woken up to a similar experience. And even more women, probably.
*. Well, it’s a great movie. One of the few Bs from the period that transcends its budget and genre. It’s not a movie I see more in with every re-watch, but one that I enjoy just as much every time. The pod people have never gone away, and who doesn’t feel at some point, looking around him or herself, that they may be next?

Invaders from Mars (1953)

*. A movie so strange and singular that I hardly know where to begin.
*. Perhaps one way is to see it as the start of something. In the introduction to my paperback edition of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Heinlein biographer William H. Paterson Jr. refers to that 1951 novel as “the first to work [the] aliens-among-us cultural fear.” The ’50s would really run with this, from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (first published as a serial in 1954 and made into the classic movie in 1956) to 1958’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Ed Nelson’s The Brain Eaters, the latter being a movie that Heinlein sued for plagiarism (The Puppet Masters wouldn’t be filmed until 1994).
*. So perhaps Invaders from Mars, a film based on a story treatment that had apparently been inspired by a dream the author’s wife had, is the first movie to tackle this same theme. I don’t know if it was connected to The Puppet Masters at all, either at the time or since, but the idea of aliens controlling humans by way of a radio receptor implant on the neck is at least similar to where the “titans” (Heinlein’s puppet masters, so called because they hail from Saturn’s moon) attach themselves to their hosts at the beginning.
*. Another first for this film came by way of its being rushed into production to beat George Pal’s War of the Worlds as the first feature to show aliens in colour. As cheesy as much of it looks today, audiences must have been impressed at the time, though the effects can’t hold a candle to what Pal achieved with his much larger budget.
*. These firsts, however, don’t make Invaders from Mars strange, only notable. What makes it strange are two things.
*. In the first place, there’s the look of the movie. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies, best known as an art director (a job title he is credited with inventing). Menzies has some well-known credits, but I don’t know if he did anything as odd as this. And I’m not talking about the fact that it was designed to be shot in 3D and then wasn’t, or any of the alien effects. Actually, the alien ship is kind of dull, a feeling that is not lessened by knowing that the bubbles on the walls were actually thousands of inflated condoms.

*. What I mean by odd is stuff like the set of the hill leading up to the sand pit, which apparently took a big chunk of the film’s budget but that they got a lot of good use out of. It’s odd because it’s so artificial it makes one think of the bizarre landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I mean, you’d know that much just from seeing a farmer go out to a field behind his house in his slippers. But that link to Caligari comes up again in the police station, with its long corridor and high desk sitting at the end. Where do you think the ceilings are in that station? Somewhere in the arc of the heavens.

*. As another example, look at the lettering painted on the street that says “Restricted Area.” I’ve never seen lettering of that Old West style used in such a way.
*. Of course, as with Caligari the point seems to have been to give the movie a dream-like quality, which ties into the other thing that makes Invaders from Mars so strange: its ending. First we follow David (Jimmy Hunt) running away from the spaceship, which has been planted with a bomb, while a montage of scenes from the movie are replayed over his face. This is weird, and looks weird too, echoing the looping of scenes that leads up to the countdown. But then the ship explodes and David wakes up. It seems the whole thing was a dream. He goes to bed and then the beginning of the movie plays again, as he is awoken by the spaceship crashing, again, into the sand pit. Wait, what?
*. It’s an ending that recalls Caligari, with its boxes-inside-boxes ending. And just like with Caligari the ending was changed in different versions because people didn’t like it. For the British release they cut the final bit out, which I guess made things a bit tidier. But it’s still pretty wonky.
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the Martian head in the glass globe (played by Luce Potter, who had been one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz) very strange too. What’s with the tentacles? And her pained, voiceless face is wonderfully inscrutable. She seems performing in a silent movie, with some hidden script. And isn’t that how it should be? One wonders how a Martian would feel about all this. Just a job?

*. The contemporary New York Times review called it a movie for kids, and it has that feel. Those Martian guards in their soft green pyjamas (complete with zippers running up the back) are large but strangely unthreatening. In fact, the scariest people we meet are David’s transformed parents. David’s dad even lays into him at one point.
*. Only 79 minutes, but in this case I can’t really call it tight. There’s lots of stock footage of the U.S. army rolling out the tanks to take on Martian spaceship, which is kind of unnecessary since they don’t actually do anything. I wish they’d left that stuff out, but I guess they needed the extra running time to get a release.
*. The weirdness I’ve been talking about is what recommends the film today. It certainly is odd to look at. I’ve mentioned Caligari but it also reminded me a lot of The Night of the Hunter with its dreamy visuals and threatened children. I think it’s more a freak than a great movie, but its status as an indie/cult classic is well deserved. Despite so many movies that borrowed from it, and even a remake in 1986, it’s never been duplicated in either its look or its spirit, and much of it remains unforgettable to this day.