Saturday 24 June 2017

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of an outlier among the classic Universal monster movies. It came out in 1954, some years after Universal’s monster cycle had ended. It’s also in some ways a typical 50s sci-fi horror offering but it still has some features that link it to the great Universal horror films. It has a sympathetic (or at least partly sympathetic) monster, there’s an emphasis on atmosphere and there’s an emphasis on achieving an impressive visual impact. It’s a movie that looks classier than most 50s sci-fi/horror flicks.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was actually shot in 3D. 3D is a silly idea that Hollywood periodically gets obsessed with. I watched this movie in good old 2D and it looked just fine.

The movie opens with an odd but mercifully brief prologue about the creation of the Earth which is purely an excuse to show off some gimmicky 3D photography.

The actual story begins in the Amazon Basin with the discovery by middle-aged scientist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) of an exciting fossil. His former student David Reed is excited as well. Perhaps he might persuade Mark Williams to fund an expedition to look for more such fossils. Mark Williams is David’s employer. Mark is always willing to fund research if the results are likely to attract plenty of public attention and enhance his own reputation. Mark is keen and an expedition is soon assembled.

A decrepit river steamer, the Rita, is hired and they set off. They are not dismayed by a disturbing tragedy involving a couple of Carl’s Indian assistants. The expedition initially seems like it is going to be a washout until someone suggests that they might find something if they’re prepared to push on into the unexplored reaches of the river to find the so-called Black Lagoon. 

What they find is not quite what they expected. Fossils are one thing, but finding a previously unknown ancient life-form is something else when it’s very much alive. The gill man is not just alive but he’s going to be quite a challenge to deal with. He’s probably not going to take kindly to any attempts to capture him and that of course is exactly what the scientists are hoping to do. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Director Jack Arnold would go on to helm some of the more entertaining science fiction movies of the 1950s including the excellent The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The characters are what you expect in a sci-fi B-movie but the relationships between them are slightly more complex than you might expect. There’s professional tension between the ruthless Mark and the more ethical David but there’s also tension between them over Kay. David and Kay are very much a couple but it’s obvious that Mark isn’t entirely happy about this and that he some interest in Kay himself. Kay seems quite happy to have two hunky young men both lusting after her.

The acting is just a little better than standard B-picture level as well. Richard Denning makes Mark an interesting character, a wealthy successful man who is still driven by uncontrolled ambition and whose ethics are somewhat flexible. Richard Carlson as David is a perfectly adequate hero. Julie Adams plays Kay as mostly a nice respectable girl but also as a girl who is aware of the effect upon men of her sexual charms and gets a certain amount of enjoyment from this.

Of course the great thing about a movie in which scuba diving plays a major role is that it provides plenty of opportunities for the leading lady to cavort about in a bathing suit (and Julie Adams fills a bathing suit more than adequately). And of course the two leading men get to spend much of the movie with their shirts off so there’s eye candy for the ladies in the audience as well as for the men.

The key scene in the movie has Kay going for a swim. Unbeknownst to her the gill man is just below her, following her every move. While he tries to kill every man he encounters he does not appear to be interested in killing her. It’s reasonable to assume that he sees her swim as some kind of mating signal and it’s a signal he’s eager to respond to her. There are some obvious parallels here to King Kong of course. There also seems to be only one creature, obviously male, which further suggests that he is desperate to find a mate and he knows Kay is female and would therefore be (from his point of view) the most suitable mate he can find. The instinct to perpetuate the species cannot be denied, although Kay was hoping to perpetuate the species with someone other than an amphibian swamp monster.

The gill man of this movie inspired countless guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters over the next couple of decades but at the time he was a striking enough monster and he still looks rather impressive in the underwater scenes especially.

The underwater sequences (credited to James C. Havens) were the movie’s big selling point and they are exceptionally well done. On the whole the special effects stand up well.

The pacing might seem a bit leisurely but Jack Arnold knows what he’s doing. He shows us the monster early on because he’s in the happy position (for a B-film director) of having a monster that looks impressive and it makes us sense to give us a look at the said monster as early as possible. We’ve seen the creature but nothing much of a menacing nature happens for quite a while. The creature is there and sooner or later it’s going to come into collision with the expedition members but Arnold builds the suspense slowly.

Having the expedition run from a decaying but picturesque old steamer rather than a modern research vessel is a nice touch.

Creature from the Black Lagoon looks rather splendid on Blu-Ray. It’s a well-paced and quite exciting monster movie with a bit more substance than most and better made than most. Highly recommended.

Monday 19 June 2017

Fail-Safe (1964)

Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe was released in 1964, some months after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and it's basically the exact same story but treated with deadly seriousness rather than black comedy.

Lumet's movie is definitely the lesser of the two films but it is intriguing to compare it to Kubrick's masterpiece and it's worth seeing if you're fascinated by the Cold War.

Here's the link to my review of Fail-Safe.

Saturday 3 June 2017

Dr Strangelove (1964)

In the early 1960s Stanley Kubrick had become obsessed by the subject of nuclear war. He had been particularly impressed by a novel called Red Alert by Peter George. The idea of a nuclear war breaking out by accident seemed like a horribly real possibility. Kubrick’s original intention was to film the novel as a straight thriller. In 1964 he changed his mind and decided to treat the subject as comedy. This represented an enormous risk and there were those who thought he was about to throw away his career. In the event of course Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a huge hit when it was released by Columbia in January 1964.

The basic idea is that the commander of a Strategic Air Command airbase, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), decides that he can no longer stand by and watch communists steal the nation’s precious bodily fluids so he launches his own personal nuclear strike. He orders the thirty-four B-52 bombers under his command to attack targets in the Soviet Union. Ripper believes that once the president realises the bombers cannot be recalled he will have no choice other than to launch an all-out nuclear war. The Soviets will launch their missiles and bombers in a retaliatory strike so the US might as well get in the first strike.

Due to a series of blunders and misfortunes there seems to be no way to prevent General Ripper’s B-52s from going ahead with their strike.

The President, played by Pete Sellers, is appalled. He’s even more appalled when his scientific adviser, Dr Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers), conforms that the Soviets have a doomsday device. If General Ripper’s bombers reach their targets the doomsday device will be triggered and it will be the end of life on Earth. 

Sellers also plays the stuffy Group Commander Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer on secondment to the Strategic Air Command and acting as Ripper’s executive officer, is horrified also and quickly realises that Ripper is quite mad. Unfortunately Ripper is smart as well as mad and he’s seemingly thought of every counter-move that could be made to stop the bombers from launching their attack.

General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is horrified but also oddly excited by the prospects. He knows Ripper is mad but Ripper’s twisted logic makes sense to him. Why not take the opportunity to start a nuclear war? He’s confident that US casualties can be limited to only ten or twenty million dead which seems to him to be perfectly acceptable.

The decision to play this as a mixture of satire and black comedy mostly works. It works because the performances mostly work. George C. Scott is an absolute delight as the excitable Buck Turgidson, swinging wildly between sanity and his own kind of madness. Sterling Hayden is a joy as the terrifyingly insane Ripper. Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano (who is ordered to attack Ripper’s airbase and capture the mad general) and Slim Pickens as Major Kong, the pilot of one of the B-52s and a man who treats war as if it’s a rodeo event, are both wonderful.

Now we come to Peter Sellers. I’ve always had serious reservations about Sellers as a comic actor. He’s not bad here although his performance as Dr Strangelove seems to me to be too over-the-top and threatens to nudge the film over the line into mere silliness. 

One  can only be thankful that Kubrick was prevailed upon to drop the pie fight scene. Treating this kind of subject matter as comedy was risky but apart from that mercifully cut aberration it succeeds.

The first time I saw this movie I wasn’t overly impressed. The Cold War was still going on and the movie seemed to me to be a bit silly. The idea of people in a position to start a world war being maniacs or bumbling fools (or both) seemed implausible. Today it all seems very plausible indeed.

It’s also undeniably very funny. The gamble of playing it as comedy not only pays off, in retrospect it’s hard to see how it could have achieved its impact in any other way.                       

The highlight is undoubtedly George C. Scott’s inspired performance. And whatever misgivings I have about Peter Sellers he is very funny here (and apparently improvised most of his dialogue).

Mention must  also be made of the superb War Room set designed by Ken Adams. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning and the social effects still hold up pretty well.

While Dr Strangelove was in production Columbia was also making Fail-Safe, a straight thriller with an eerily similar plot. So similar that Kubrick promptly sued. Dr Strangelove beat Fail-Safe into the theatres and was a huge hit while Fail-Safe did only modest  business at the box office. Which was hardly unjust since Dr Strangelove is by far the better film.

Dr Strangelove is a rare political film that manages to be wonderfully entertaining as well. Highly recommended.