Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) Jack Arnold

When I think of movie monsters who fall for a beautiful human the first one to always come to mind is “King Kong” the over sized gorilla we first met back in 1933. Poor Kong, fell like a ton of bricks for Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), right off the Empire State Building. Okay, he was shot, but still he climbed to the top of the Empire State Building for the girl of his dreams. Oh yeah, the things you do for love.

 Of course, there is also the fabled tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, the most celebrated film version being the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, but for it was always Kong who had the look, the style, the panache when it came to bestial love for a human.    

In 1954, Universal was just one of the studios fighting back at television with Vistavision, Cinemascope and 3-D, along with other gimmicks in an attempt to get people back into the theatres.  Universal’s first 3-D film, “It Came From Outer Space” came out in 1953 and was a smash. The following year, Universal released its second 3-D film, a story about an amphibious creature who falls hard for a beautiful woman in “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

During an expedition in the Amazon Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers the remains an oversized webbed hand. He goes to see his former student, now an ichthyologist, David Reed (Richard Carlson) who along with Mark Williams (Richard Denning) is enthusiastic enough about the discovery to finance an expedition. Along with Kay (Julie Adams) David’s girlfriend and assistant, another scientist, Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell) and the Captain of the boat (Nestor Paiva) they take off in search of the fossil remains that they hope will connect to the recently discovered webbed hand. Prior to their arrival at the expedition site, we see one of Dr. Maia’s assistant’s who stayed behind when Maia went to get help attacked and killed by a mysterious  creature. Actually all we see are only a webbed hand and shadows on a tent wall.  When the expedition finally arrives they find the hideous corpse of the doctor’s assistant. 

After eight days of finding no other remains, the group is ready to return home when David suggest that  part of the area where the hand was discovered may have fallen into the water taking with it the remains the creature. The Captain talks about the water emptying into a beautiful black lagoon only, he jokes, no one has ever returned to talk about it. They agree to forge ahead into the Lagoon. Once in beautiful eerie lagoon David and Mark go diving searching for evidence that can be analyzed and compared to the previously found remain.  Unbeknown to the men swimming, the creature has spotted them and follows the duo but never attacks. When they safely surface, the ship suddenly begins shake violently. The creature has gotten caught in a large net the crew had dropped earlier. Managing to escape the creatures leaves something behind caught in the net… a claw.

Kay, apparently with nothing else to do figures just because there is some strange unknown creature in the waters below, see that as no reason not to go for a swim and does just that. These scenes shot from deep in the sea, looking up, we see Kay swimming languidly, some of the shots are in silhouette, graceful motions without a care. At the bottom of the screen the creature come into view swimming beneath her, following her from below. Apparently, the creatures has never seen such beauty as he follows her, observing her ballet like moves before she retreats back to the boat.  David and Mark decide to go back in after the creature, David, only to shoot some photos to prove its existence and Mark to shoot it dead with a harpoon. For the rest of the film the creature seems to be winning the battle, killing off two crew members, severely injuring Dr. Thompson, killing Mark and eventually kidnapping Kay off the boat taking her to his private cave, where he is eventually tracked down and shot full of lead. In one of the last scenes we watch as the creature stumbles his way back to the lagoon apparently to die. But of course, two sequels were to follow and somehow the creature recovered and lived to terrorized again.    

Based on a story by Maurice Zimm (the original idea came from producer William Alland) with a screenplay by Arthur Ross and Harry Essex, “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” has built up a legacy that far outreaches the low budget origin of the film.  Even in Billy Wilder’s 1956 comedy “The Seven Year Itch”, Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe are viewed coming out of a theater showing “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and Marilyn, sympathetic to the creature, says it only wanted to be loved. Yes, love hurts.  Future films like “Alien” have been obviously influenced by this gill like creature and filmmakers like Steven Spielberg whose film “Jaws”, whether intentionally or not, show influences. The early scenes in “Jaws” where we see the young girl swimming naked in the water in silhouette shot from underneath the camera pointing up are reminiscent of shots of Kay taking her swim in the lagoon. Also, when Dr. Maia’s assistant was attacked we only the creature’s hand and  shadow, in fact the creature’s hand or shadow  are all we see for the first 24 minutes of the film, similar to Spielberg’s not unveiling the shark until well into the movie. 

The underwater sequences, filmed in Wakulla Springs, Florida, are numerous and are excellently shot by James C. Havens.  The best action in the film takes place in these underwater sequences including the overtly sexual attraction of the creature to Kay. As Kay swims on the water’s surface, right underneath her, swimming on his back is the creature. He watches, as we the audience do too, Kay gracefully moving along, occasionally diving doing an acrobatic twist or turn in the water, the creature and us, seeing it all from below. At one point, he seems to either caress or playfully tickle her foot. Kay unsure what it was swims along and eventually back to the boat with the creature following her.  In the end, the creature like Kong kidnaps his true love taking her to a cave-like hiding place where David will eventually find her lying on a large rock sprawled out on her back. 

Contributing to the atmosphere is the excellent music score which had three composers (Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein) as well as some nice eerie camerawork by William E. Snyder. Note the pounding music every time the creature appears another characteristic similar to “Jaws.”  One of Universal’s top low budget directors, Jack Arnold directed. Arnold had already made,” It Came From Outer Space” and would go on to direct the first sequel, “Revenge of the Creature.” He also made, “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, “High School Confidential”, “Tarantula” and a fine little known noir “The Tattered Dress”, with Jeff Chandler. Arnold would spend most of the 1960’s and the rest of his career mostly in episodic television with shows like “Gilligan’s Island”, “It Takes a Thief” and “The Love Boat” among others.  

Overall, the film still holds your interest. Yes, the creature looks like a man in a rubber suit but let’s put it in perspective. BTW, there was actually two actors who portrayed the creature. The swimming creature was Ricou Browning and the land creature was Ben Chapman. As I was saying, the film still holds your interest. nicely paced, sexy, and still packs some good thrills, a minor masterwork of its genre.

***1/2

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7 comments on “Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) Jack Arnold

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    When I get back from the Film Forum this afternoon, I’ll rush back over here to read this gem, John!!

    By the way, you will be sitting right next to me in spirit.

  2. [...] Creature from the Black Lagoon at “Twenty Four Frames” that’s a must read: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/creature-from-the-black-lagoon-1954-jack-arnold/ Jeffrey Goodman’s wildly popular ‘Annual Film Countdown’ has reached the final [...]

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Of course, the screen debut of Clint Eastwood is now one of this film’s most famous trivia notes, but aside from that you have presented an excellent historical and artistic appraisal here. The Creature is basically a sexually-repressed outsider who is looking in on all the fun. This is the weakest “series” in the Universal horror pantheon, even falling below the extended Mummy and Invisible Man spin-offs. But that’s not because the underwater sequences aren’t as impressively choreographed visually, but rather because the writing, acting and mise en scene is just so pedestrian (and boring). Th efirst film, though, is easily teh best of the three.

    But in the end,all the Creature movies get a “free pass” from me, as they define a period in my life that I am simply unwilling to scrutinize. That said, of course I agree that the last film is barely watchable, while the second was only marginally passable.

    • John Greco says:

      Ah Sam! I forgot to mention the Eastwood connection, damn! (lol). Yeah, the Creature series is one of Universal’s weaker series. By the 1950’s their glory days were over but like yourself I still find this film a lot of fun.

  4. [...] Mia also told me about the first time she was stung by a bee.  Ouch!  But it just goes to show, Mia, not to be putting your fingers into just anything.  Showing off her visual arts skills, Mia drew me a flower and a bee with diagrams just in case I didn’t know what it was.  Apparently her flower drawing skills need some work, but I wouldn’t have known the difference.  I tried to draw something in my reply postcard (my leg covered by mosquito bites) but it ended up looking like the leg of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. My leg drawing turned into something like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I’m just trying to give you a hug, Mia, stop running away! (source: Twenty Four Frames) [...]

  5. befaster says:

    Hi John (if you’re still keeping this blog alive). Great review, this totally makes me want to watch it. It is amazing how something like this can slip into the public conciousness and I can reference it without ever actually seeing it. I think there are quite a few movies like that, as well as references from old tv shows and even books. That’s a whole other blog topic however! Just wanted to pass along a note that I borrowed one of the photos from this post and credited you, hope that’s ok. You can see it here: http://befasterblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/going-postal-the-bowen-island-blues/
    Thanks, have a good one!
    Ben

  6. John Greco says:

    Hi Ben,

    Twenty four frames is still very active. Thanks for the nice words and no problem with the photo. I will check out your blog.

    John

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