Friday, 22 May 2015

Indestructible Man (1956)

Indestructible Man is one of those low-budget 1950s science fiction potboilers that turns out to be a whole lot better than you might expect.

Butcher Benton (Lon Chaney Jr) is in San Quentin about to be executed for one of his many crimes. Butcher is a hardened criminal and he accepts his fate but he still wants revenge - revenge on those who betrayed him. Most notably he blames his lawyer Paul Lowe (Ross Elliott). The one thing Butcher won’t do is to reveal where he’s hidden the money from his last robbery - he especially doesn’t want Lowe to know where the money is. Butcher wants the money to go to burlesque dancer Eva Martin (Marian Carr).

Police Lieutenant Dick Chasen (Max Showalter) was responsible for bringing Butcher to justice. As far as the department is concerned the case is now closed but that’s not good enough for Chasen - he wants to recover the money. Butcher isn’t going to help him but Chasen is not giving up.

Butcher is executed but his story is not over yet. Scientist Professor Bradshaw is working on some advanced medical research and he needs corpses. His assistant manages to get hold of a nice fresh corpse for him - the corpse of Butcher Benton!

Professor Bradshaw puts 280,000 volts through the deceased criminal, with results that are surprising (surprising to Professor Bradshaw anyway). The deceased criminal is no longer deceased! He’s very much alive. He can’t talk, since the electric current has destroyed his vocal cords, but his brain is definitely functional. And there’s something else - the electricity has caused his cells to multiply, making him effectively indestructible. Butcher is now an unstoppable walking corpse and he still wants revenge. And being now alive, he also wants his money.

Butcher is soon on the trail of his former confederates and he has murder in his heart. Pretty soon the police discover they’re dealing with an unkillable murder machine. Dick Chasen is back on the case and he also finds time to fall for Eva Martin. Butcher meanwhile is leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. How do you stop an indestructible man?

The most interesting thing about this movie is that it’s done in a film noir style. Of course a lot of B-movies look slightly film noir but that’s just a function of their very low budgets. If you have cheap and shoddy sets then they won’t look quite so bad if you keep everything in shadow! In this case though my impression is that the movie-makers decided to make a virtue of a necessity and adopted the look as a deliberate stylistic choice. Film noir was a term that did not come into general use (except in France) until the late 60s but the style was certainly well known long before that.

It’s not just the visuals that seem film noir - the whole tone of the movie is reminiscent of hard-boiled tough-guy crime movies of the 40s. It doesn’t include any actual flashbacks but it does refer to events that happened in the past and it does feature a film noir-style voiceover narration.

Director Jack Pollexfen had a fairly lengthy career as a screenwriter and producer but only directed three movies. Considering the very low budget he had to work with he can’t be faulted for his handling of this film.

Lon Chaney Jr always had a rather tragic aura about him and that works to the movie’s advantage. Butcher is a monster but he’s also a man who has been grievously wronged and we can’t help but feel at least a little bit of grudging sympathy for him. Chaney was good in this sort of role and he does well here. He gets virtually no dialogue but he is a convincingly menacing monster. The other cast members are quite adequate for B-movie purposes. 

Indestructible Man fell into the public domain long ago and most of the DVD editions of the film are what you expect in such circumstances - watchable but a long way from pristine.

Indestructible Man has a nicely moody film noir vibe to it and while the story is far from original it’s fast-moving and exciting and all things considered this movie is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

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