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

No Man of Her Own (1950) Mitchell Leisen

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 Released in 1950, the film stars Barbara Stanywck and John Lund, it was directed by Mitchell Leisen from a screenplay by Sally Benson and Catherine Turney, based on the novel “I Married a Dead Man” by Cornell Woolrich who wrote it under the pen name William Irish. This was the first of four film versions to have been made from the book. In 1983, there was “I Married a Shadow (Jai Espouse une Ombre) starring Natalie Byle. In 1996 came “Mrs. Winterbourne” with Ricky Lake and in 2001 a made for TV movie called “She’s No Angel” with Tracy Gold. By the way, do not get this film confused with the 1932 Clark Gable/Carole Lombard “No Man of Her Own,” the only thing they have in common is the title.

Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman with an immoral past finds herself pregnant and dumped by her low life lover Steve Morley (Lyle Bettger) for another dame. He slips Helen some money and a train ticket underneath the door of his apartment and tells her to get lost, go back home to San Francisco. Thus begins a series of events, wild as they are, that will change everyone.

On the train heading home Helen meets Hugh and Patrice Harkness (Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter) a newly married couple who are on their way to Hugh’s parents’ house in Illinois where Patrice will meet her in-laws for the first time. Like Helen, Patrice is also pregnant. Enroute, Helen and Patrice become chatty, sharing some bonding moments; Patrice even lets Helen try on her ring. Just at this moment, the train derails resulting in a deadly crash. Hugh and Patrice are killed while Helen is injured ending up in the hospital. With the ring still on her finger everyone in the hospital assumes she is Patrice Harkness. Helen, her life at a dead end, allows the misunderstanding to continue and soon finds herself lovingly welcomed into the home of Hugh’s parents. Hugh’s brother, Bill (John Lund) is immediately attracted to her but he is also a bit suspicious of her however, he says nothing. Though at first feeling guilty, Helen eventually settles into the middle class, middle America home as both she and the baby are warmly embraced by the Harkness family. Life is good until her former creep of a lover Steve resurfaces, seeing dollar signs, he has a scheme of  his own.

“No Man of her Own” is a well-paced atmospheric tense noir and Barbara Stanwcyk gives another one of her effective performances with a strong female character. She is especially impressive during the marriage ceremony scene which is all part of Steve’s blackmail scheme. We here her in voice over telling us what she is thinking, yet if your watch her eyes, they reveal even more than what is said. The biggest problems with the film are a weak performance by John Lund who comes across as just plain bland and unexciting. Additionally, at forty-three years old, Barbara Stanwyck is a little too old for the role though, as I mentioned earlier, she gives her usual strong performance. Finally, I have not read the Woolrich novel on which the film is based however, from what I have read in doing research the book’s ending is much bleaker than the happy ending tacked on to the film. The darker ending would have made for a much stronger film than the obligatory happy studio ending.

 A few words must be said for Lyle Bettger who is excellent as the totally despicable slimy Steve, Helen’s cold hearted blackmailing boyfriend. Bettger made a career in mostly “B” films and later on TV typically as a villain. Here he is effectively vile and loathsome, he makes you just want to take a shower and wash his slime out of your system.

If you ever read a biography on Billy Wilder you would come to believe Mitchell Leisen to be the worst director ever to sit behind a camera. Wilder claims Leisen ruined his scripts (“Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn”, both co-written by Charles Brackett) and this is what made him determined to become a director himself, to protect the written word. Preston Sturges also complained about Leisen cutting his scripts (“Easy Living” and “Remember the Night”). So are Leisen directed films that bad? Well, I have seen “Midnight” and it is a funny and smartly written and well directed film as is “Hold Back the Dawn.” As for the Sturges written “Remember the Night” it is a nice blend of romantic comedy with some dark drama and a Christmas season background. It also is a precursor to the reuniting Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck four years before Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Leisen’s films are always visually stylish thanks to his background in art direction and costumes. In his time he was a well-respected and versatile studio director, despite Wilder and Sturges thinking, who did well whether it was a romantic comedy, melodrama, or musical. He sometimes even mixed them together as he did with “No Man of Her Own”, a blending of woman’s melodrama with noirish overtones and doing it successfully. Other Leisen films include “Hands Across the Table”, “Swing Low, Swing High”, both with Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray, “Arise My Love”, “I Wanted Wings” and “The Mating Season.”