Saturday, July 07, 2007
(An Analysis & Review: Part Two of Three)
Director Eugène Lourié's trilogy of giant monster movies bookended the entire 1950s sf/monster cycle, effectively launching the decade's big beast mania when he directed the low-budget The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The one-two box office punch of the Cold War sf boom kicked off with the surprise success of George Pal's Destination Moon (1950) and RKO's eleventh-hour rescue from bankruptcy by the 1950-51 theatrical re-release of their 1933 hit King Kong. This was completely unexpected, given the relative boxoffice failure (cost-to-gross) of RKO's brand-new giant ape opus Mighty Joe Young one year earlier; clearly, Kong still had his mojo! Echoing the profitable windfall Universal had enjoyed with the 1939 re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein (initiating the early 1940s monster/horror revival), Kong box office earnings soared, introducing a whole new (pre-TV) generation to the king of Skull Island. Kong's re-release and Destination Moon's success and all that followed -- and came immediately before, embracing the preemptive strike of Kurt Neumann's sleeper Rocketship X-M (launched, completed and released after Destination Moon began production and before it opened!) -- demonstrated sf and monsters were hot. The subsequent success of Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks's The Thing from Another World (1951) had producers and studios scrambling to follow suit; the success of Kong had already prompted indy producer Hal Chester to hustle a new giant monster film into production, hoping to cash in before the post-Kong-redux wave subsided.
This was around the same time that Russian-born (in Kharkov, which is now Kharkiv, Ukraine) veteran Production Designer and Art director Eugène Lourié was hoping to direct a feature. Lourié had already established himself as a production designer, art director and set dresser on many topnotch features, including Jean Renoir's classic La Règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (1939; he was also set decorator on Renoir’s La Grande illusion/The Grand Illusion, 1937, credited on both as Lourié) and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Lourié was also experienced in making optimum use of scant means, having art directed the poverty-row Wild Weed (aka Marijuana: The Devil’s Weed, 1949), which served him well on Beast and later with directors Albert Zugsmith (on Confessions of an Opium Eater, 1962) and Sam Fuller (Shock Corridor, 1963, and The Naked Kiss, 1964). In this path from production design to director, Lourié was following in the footsteps of William Cameron Menzies, another extraordinary production designer/art director/set designer who had juggled both career paths, designing many exceptional films (like the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks fantasy The Thief of Bagdad; Gone With the Wind, 1939, on which he also was an uncredited second unit director; etc.) while directing and co-directing features (Chandu the Magician, 1932; the odd romance I Loved You Wednesday, 1933; Things to Come, 1936; etc.). In fact, Lourié was launching his directorial career helming The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms around the same time Menzies was directing his iconic color '50s alien invasion opus Invaders from Mars (1953) and the bizarre pseudo-Lovecraftian 3D oddity The Maze (also '53).
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a fortuitous happenstance: the right project at the right time, providing a rare opportunity for two creators in particular -- Eugène Lourié and young stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen -- in a low-budget independent venue that provided both room to be inventive, as long as they stayed on task, on time and on budget.
Harryhausen was aching to land his own feature film project, his prior experience with his own short films (primarily his fairy tales) and Willis O’Brien’s special effects crew for RKO’s ill-fated Mighty Joe Young (1949) fueling his determination to perfect a far less expensive, time-consuming approach to stop-motion animation effects that could be done solo, sans the studio and team effort Obie’s techniques and orientation required. However unfairly, Mighty Joe Young had been deemed a box-office disaster, the tombstone on Obie’s studio efforts; the pioneer creator of King Kong would never again enjoy the budget, team or studio support Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack afforded him for Kong and Mighty Joe Young. After working on Mighty Joe Young as ‘first animator’ under Obie, alongside ‘second animator’ Pete Peterson, Harryhausen -- younger, nimbler and determined to avoid the waste and cost he saw RKO indulge (and inflict) on Mighty Joe Young -- believed he had the concepts and means to streamline the on-screen illusions necessary to fusing live-action, miniatures and stop-motion animation. All he needed was a venue. Beast provided the opportunity to test his theories, and prove them he did, delivering spectacular stop-motion monster effects for a fraction of Mighty Joe's cost -- and doing so working alone.
For his first feature, Harryhausen invented an imaginary creature -- the Rhedosaurus -- that combined characteristics of aquatic prehistoric reptiles, carnosaurs and the sprawl of Moschops. He also concocted some jaw-dropping integrations of live-action and animation effects to deceive the audience’s eyes. Primary among these was the unforgettable confrontation between one of New York’s finest and the Rhedosaurus, which Jurassic Park paid homage to in one of its most horrific Tyrannosaurus rex predatory highlights.
It was a match made in indy-movie heaven. Director Eugène Lourié brought the same inventive eye to the live-action component with comparable economy and skill, blessed with a competent script and cast (embellished immeasurably by Cecil Kellaway’s beguiling presence as the elder paleontologist). It was a remarkable conjunction of talents, timing and venue: Lourié and producer Chester trusted Harryhausen capable of delivering all he said he could, while Lourié’s impeccable sense of place, atmosphere and pacing meant the non-monster screen time worked well and meshed perfectly with the ‘reality sandwich’ (Harryhausen’s own term) the Rhedosaurus roamed within. Warner Bros. picked up Chester’s completed package and backed the film with an eye-popping publicity campaign, making it one of the top box office sensations of 1953 and among Warner’s most profitable pickups ever.
Seen today, sans the novelty of the film’s innovative historic role in the 1950s cycle, Beast holds up admirably, as engaging, entertaining and brisk as any of its era and ilk. It received good reviews in its day, particularly for a genre film at a time when mainstream critics felt obliged to dismiss a mere 'monster' film. It was a fixture of television movie programming, and as such its reputation grew and spilled into new generations. Consider, for instance, the review published in The New York Times Guide to Movies on TV, edited by Howard Thompson (1970, The New York Times Company/Quadrangle Books): the classic one-sentence NY Times TV section blurb read, "Not bad, but no Kong." The uncredited capsule review, however, called the film "not a bad monster shocker... there is genuine suspense and excitement at the climax, thanks to the special and technical effects masters... Ray Harryhausen and Willis Cook... The script is a fairly reasonable business... Credit director Eugene Lourie and his technicians with whipping up some suspense, an eye-popping finale and allowing few lapses along the way" (pg. 27). It was unusual for such a venue to cite either special effects creators or genre directors at the time; that was still the province of monster magazines.
The film justifiably launched at least one celebrated career: Harryhausen, recognizing the need to nurture and maintain both a creative and business partnership and proprietorship were he to avoid the fate of his beloved mentor Obie, gravitated in short order to like-minded producer Charles H. Schneer. Again, the fates were with Harryhausen, and he and Schneer maintained a fruitful and profitable relationship that served both (and fantasy cinema) well over three decades.
Eugène Lourié, however, was as adrift as most independent directors were and remain, and never again had the good fortune to work with Harryhausen. Lourié found few venues as a director, working briefly in television (helming episodes of Foreign Intrigue, 1955, and one episode of World of Giants, 1959) and trapped by the success of Beast to work in sf only in theatrical features, directing the trio of sf films already named -- two of which were dinosaur movies, both for independent producers. The die cast by the success of Beast did little to feed Lourié, artistically, financially or emotionally. The black-and-white Behemoth did little if anything to further his career; the King Brothers Gorgo was a step up in format -- full color, widescreen and picked up by MGM -- but he was still working with penny-pinching producers and tight production schedules, and in terms of content, Lourié still felt strait-jacketed.
Behemoth’s Rhedosaurus-like Paleosaurus (sporting a longer neck and stouter build than Harryhausen’s creature) and Gorgo’s bipedal species (bearing absolutely no relation to the fossil carnosaur, Gorgosaurus) fell short of the appealing design of Beast’s titular creature, but Gorgo’s fin-eared, red-eyed, toothy titan offered its own character and design attributes (further codified by Steve Ditko’s definitive rendition for Charlton Comics’s comic book adaptation and series, the first ever launched by a monster movie license).
The comparative banality of the imitative Paleosaurus design didn’t help; Behemoth never earned much attention, but Gorgo was and is much beloved by my generation. It’s arguably the most effective man-in-suit dinosaur movie made outside of Toho Studios, thematically and dramatically among the most effective of its subgenre; even The New York Times capsule TV movie reviews habitually singled Gorgo out as rewarding viewing, a singular honor for a genre film before the 1980s. The one-sentence blurb read, "Gorgeous, for a monster," and the full review is a rave:
"For awesome technical wizardry and the boiling crescendo of its climax -- probably the most hair-raising close-up of metropolitan panic ever captured on film -- this is one of the best monster-shockers since King Kong. And Kong was a runt compared to the amphibious beast, Gorgo, who even topples Big Ben as she roars into London to rescue her baby (monster) from a circus -- a rather charming metaphor and the substance of the picture, which is intelligently handled from the freeze of the opening, when two sailors, Bill Travers and William Sylvester, capture the baby animal, with mother close behind and sore as hell. Credit director Eugene Lourie and his fine technicians for a hair-raising home-stretch." (The New York Times Guide to Movies on TV, 1970, pg. 83)
For Lourié, though, enough was enough. The monster genre was a dead end -- Gorgo was his final directorial credit, concluding that arc of his career with two decades of active film industry work still ahead of him, returning to production design, art direction and set dressing and dabbling with special effects. Lourié’s effects and production designs for Flight from Ashiya (1964) and pre-Irwin Allen disaster films Crack in the World (1965) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969; note that Krakatoa is geographically west of Java) were cohesive and effective, his visual skills evident even in as dismal a film as Ashiya. Note that Crack in the World is a sleeper ripe for rediscovery, a rousing apocalyptic sf adventure that delivers on its titular promise with an unexpectedly potent climax and startling final image.
Considered solely in the context of Lourié’s body of work, Behemoth is a modest but honorable accomplishment. Per usual, his visual design is efficient, at times quite inventive, cutting corners where ever possible while still maximizing the evocation of size, scope and/or claustrophobia, as the narrative requires. Lighting is essential to every aspect of this tapestry. The current DVD transfer preserves and showcases the film’s visual qualities perfectly, save for the unfortunately common drawback of contemporary digital restorations that undermine ‘day for night’ sequences, intent on clarity above all. The first casualty here is the farm scene (Chapter 11, “Burning Sensation”, 37m 40s-39m 13s) that begins with the dog barking outside -- “What’s the matter with Tobey?” -- and ends with the effects painting shot of the farm lad’s body, toasted black where he fell against an unscorched stack of hay (a horrific image evoking both Hiroshima and cases of spontaneous human combustion), critical as the Paleosaurus’s first dry-land excursion. I recall this as a nighttime sequence, but all post-1990s broadcasts and transfers eliminate the darkening filters that made this play as a night encounter. In all other aspects, the Warners transfer preserves and enhances Lourié’s imagery and compositions. Lourié’s clever illusory tactile effects work well throughout (e.g., the rippling light-and-water illumination of the submarine launching chamber, a ‘dry’ set appearing ‘wet’), and the integration of stock footage in the inevitable military mobilization montages coheres well with the mesh of genuine outdoor seaside (Cornwall), village and city locations and studio interiors.
Behemoth is also a British sf film, and needs to be considered in that context. It is specifically a US/British production directed by a Russian/Ukranian/French filmmaker, hired to emulate his own American success (Beast), filming in the UK, with the production completed by American special effects. This places Behemoth in the then-rarified context of other international coproductions of the era, like the US/Mexican The Beast of Hollow Mountain/La Bestia de la Montaña (1956) and The Black Scorpion (1957), the US/Japanese The Manster/Kyofu (1962) and various US/UK coproductions, prominent among them producer Richard Gordon and director Arthur Crabtree's uncanny Fiend Without a Face (1958).
Surprisingly, Behemoth eschews any association with Scotland’s famous Loch Ness Monster, though the West German release title Das Ungeheuer von Loch Ness happily evoked that link to drum up box office. Sea serpents and semi-aquatic dinosaurs -- especially if you count Apatosaurus, among the most popular dinos of the early 20th Century under the now-abandoned moniker Brontosaurus -- were staples of early cinema, animated (line animation and stop-motion animated) and non-animated.
The earliest film I’ve seen linking dinosaurs and sea or lake monsters was the venerable British programmer The Secret of the Loch (1934), directed by Milton Rosmer from a script by Charles Bennett and Billie Bristow. This is also Britain’s first giant monster movie, a direct precursor of Behemoth, and worth due consideration here. There’s no razing of even a modest Scottish building amidst the action, but there’s little doubt that the international success of King Kong (1933) was a catalyst for The Secret of the Loch, along with the 1932-33 sightings of the Loch Ness Monster that earned mocking press in the UK. There’s no documentation I know of that the film was directly prompted by the historic spring 1934 Loch Ness Monster photo Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson released, which drew international attention to the Loch monster, initiating the tourist industry explosion that continues to this day. British programmers were notoriously impoverished and quickly-shot productions; still, the release month on record is May 1934, within weeks if not days of the original publication of Dr. Wilson’s photo. It’s unlikely the film was that rushed a production! The Loch Ness sightings of 1933 undoubtedly fueled the film’s release, with the timely arrival of Dr. Wilson’s photo a convenient but entirely coincidental publicity coup.
Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson's famous Loch Ness Monster photo, 1934
The Secret of the Loch is one of a handful of features Ray Wyndham Productions made in a short two year window of opportunity under the umbrella of the venerable Associated Talking Pictures. The British 'quota' system -- requiring that UK cinema's exhibit a prescribed quantity of regionally-produced films -- was all that kept the British film industry alive for decades, as Hollywood was already dominating international theaters, and the 'quota' era films were notoriously low-budget affairs. The Secret of the Loch was indeed such a programmer, though far more inventive and daring (its monster wasn't revealed to be a fake) than most. Its greatest legacy among film buffs rests on the involvement of future director David Lean (as editor) and Charles Bennett’s co-scripting credit. This was Bennett’s thirteenth screenplay credit at the tender age of 35 (he almost lived to see his 96th birthday!). Bennett scripted Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much the same year, and Hitchcock immediately extended that collaborative chemistry with the classic The 39 Steps (1935) and five more features, ending with Foreign Correspondent (1940).
Bennett is particularly beloved among fantasy film fans for his marvelous adaptation of M.R. James’s short story “Casting the Runes” into Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957) and his many movie and TV scripts for producer/director Irwin Allen, including the lizards-as-dino color remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1960). Aside from the coincidental use of iguanas as dinosaurs, there’s little else to link Secret of the Loch with the 1912 novel The Lost World, save Bennett’s credit; still, some sources (including imdb) still erroneously credit Doyle’s novel as a story source for Loch -- it isn’t.
Sir Seymour Hicks as Professor Heggie, precursor of many a 1950s monster movie scientist
Other than the neodinosaur, the only tentative link between Secret of the Loch and The Lost World is the character of Professor Heggie (Sir Seymour Hicks), bridging Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger with the many paleontologists and scientists of the then-current sf pulps and the giant monster movies two decades down the road. Like Challenger, Heggie distrusts the press, and the entire first half of the film revolves around the friction between Heggie and eager Daily Sun reporter Jimmy Anderson (Frederick Peisley). Thus, Heggie arguably initiates the ‘scientist & his daughter/granddaughter/ward’ archetype codified in the 1950s sf boom. Heggie’s granddaughter Angela (Nancy O’Neal) becomes the nominal heroine by association, even as the second half of the film docks the romance & reporter hijinks to earnestly ferret out the monster, with Jimmy surviving the Professor’s increasingly homicidal rage and an encounter with the monster that is witnessed by many, photographed, thus vindicating the scientist and winning Angela.
The Loch Ness Monster is unveiled on-screen as a common iguana moving among dry-shot miniature shipwreck sets, surfacing momentarily after emerging from its subterranean cavern and nearly scarfing down the deep-sea-diver suited hero (note that this isn't the first use of live reptiles to simulate saurian lifeforms: D.W. Griffith himself introduced the practice for his caveman parable Man's Genesis way back in 1912).
[Note: It's also worth mentioning the role another British genre offering -- literary, rather than cinematic -- played during this period in codifying contemporary approaches to narratives featuring a prehistoric monster, pre-1950s. That would be the forgotten boy's adventure juvenile novel The Terror of Villadonga, better known under its reprint title The Spanish Cave, by Geoffrey Household, first published in 1936 by The Bodley Head. Household's excellent thriller posits a living plesiosaurus in the subterranean sea caverns along the coast of Spain, along with an inventive and convincing contained ecology capable of sustaining the creature and its precursors over millennia. This gem is overlooked even by the otherwise comprehensive Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction: A Thematic Survey by Allen A. Debus (2006, McFarland & Company, Inc.), though it is a significant work and was quite popular in its day and in the 1960s, when it enjoyed a healthy new print run on both sides of the Atlantic. I'll be writing about this novel, and other forgotten gems of prehistoric fiction, in another venue, another time.]
Diver Jimmy saves the day! The Secret of the Loch, 1934
Behemoth emerged from the tail end of the 1950s monster movie cycle, eschewing the remote regionalism and romantic thrust of Secret of the Loch to favor the codified templates of its own Cold War era. That template is quite strictly adhered to (the Paleosaurus's first onscreen appearance is by the clock, almost precisely at the 30-minute mark; it climbs out of the Thames to trash London exactly at one hour), and Behemoth's characters have none of the wit or warmth of Bennett’s in Loch, nor even of Eugène Lourié’s more successful companions Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gorgo.
Alas, two books I wish I could cite for this review -- Lourié’s biography My Work in Films (1985) and John Baxter’s seminal text Science Fiction in the Cinema (1969) -- have yet to turn up in the unpacking process here at hacienda Bissettios, nor can I lay hands on the three issues of Fantastic Films with the Eugène Lourié interviews. I recall Baxter citing the scene in which the American scientist hero Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) dissects bottom-feeding flounder in search of traces of radiation, the eerie radiance from the most contaminated specimen providing the only light, as the film’s most effective moment; like most, he didn’t have much use for the film.
Scouring my shelves for something I have unpacked that might offer a Behemoth-contemporary British critical assessments of the ‘50s sf boom, I found Frank Hauser’s short essay “Science Fiction Films” (in International Film Annual No. 2, edited by William Whitebait, aka G.W. Stonier; John Calder Ltd, London/Doubleday, New York, 1958; pp. 87-90) of interest. The year before Behemoth was released, Hauser wrote:
“The Beasts from 20,000 fathoms, the Godzillas and other sports... are little but bugaboos dressed up in atomic hats: though whenever their provenance is traced to the Bomb, the disquiet of guilt makes itself felt... Perhaps every sizable film movement has a traumatic origin. The trauma of the war, to which every British film studio returns with such desperate enthusiasm; the trauma of disgrace, from which the French cinema drew its studies of corruption and blank pessimism; the trauma of incompetent dictatorship that gave Italy its neo-realistic analysis of poverty. In America the atomic bomb was undoubtedly a major instance of such a national disturbance; and it is from America that all the films so far mentioned have come. Indeed, there have been few others to deal with. Britain made a few, including the imitative but reasonably exciting Quatermass Experiment, and the usual assortment of low-budget space trips... But to America, where the Bomb was built and tested, by whose airmen it was dropped on the orders of their own President, the whole subject has a quite special significance, the relations between scientists and soldiers an immediate urgency. Now it seems that that period of history is ended. The Science Fiction bombardment is all but over. In the future, the emphasis is more likely to lie on Us going there, rather than Them coming here. The fact that the Russians and the British have their own weapons of total destruction removes the obsessional element from the matter. A pity in a way: for whatever their defects of viewpoint or intellectual grasp, Science Fiction films usually took more trouble to entertain and give at least technical value for money than the nondescript comedies and flatulent epics which have succeeded them.” (Hauser, pp. 89-90)
I quote this passage at length because it neatly summarizes Behemoth’s position in the cycle: it’s indeed another “bugaboo dressed up in [an] atomic hat,” stumbling in the footsteps of the spent American torrent of alien invaders (the “Them” of Hauser’s “Us” and “Them” reference) and outsized radiation-spawned monsters. Behemoth carried the baggage of the latter while suggesting the darker, mature apocalyptic British sf films literally just around the corner (e.g., Village of the Damned, Children of the Damned, Val Guest’s excellent The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Joseph Losey’s remarkable The Damned, etc.). Indeed, Hauser’s political framing of the cycle, and citation of Britain’s new position in the nuclear race of the ‘50s, is perceptively spot on, and relevant to Behemoth’s rather uneasy tone. That this radioactive menace is the result of unbalanced ecology rather than another bomb-resurrected monster is a minor but vital change of pace, and closer to reality than any film in the big beast cycle since Them! had evidenced (though a strong case could be made for Harryhausen & Schneer's initial team effort It Came from Beneath the Sea, 1955, as a direct prototype).
Peek-a-boo: first glimpse of the Paleosaurus in Behemoth
I don’t want to make too much of Lourié’s slight confection. It’s imitative of much that preceded it, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (many elements), The Lost World (1925, in its final London panic and the Paleosaurus’s bursting of London Bridge), and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955, lifting the climactic torpedo attack verbatim). Lourié never thought much of Behemoth, though he gave it his best; in the context of his trio of dinosaur films, it’s by far the weakest. Still, there is genuine dramatic gravitas to the film. It’s a decidedly male film (as was Gorgo): there is only one female character, the daughter (Leigh Madison) of the monster’s first victim, poised in the film’s first quarter to fill the traditional potential partner role, but Lourié impassively abandons her as quickly as the narrative leaves Cornwall. Thus eschewing any romantic component, focused solely on two men negotiating an international effort to deal with an unprecedented ecological disaster, Behemoth anticipates the eco-horror/sf of the late ‘60s and 1970s. Lourié helms with a steady hand and able eye for atmospherics, despite the usual restrictions of budget and time, and Evans and Morrell play well off one another. Their characters becoming an effective team -- they, too, are a bridge, between the OSI (Office of Scientific Investigation) of the Curt Siodmak/Ivan Tors sleeper Magnetic Monster (1953) and the eco-disaster investigative team of Doomwatch (the 1970s UK TV series, not the lackluster feature film version).
Evans is neither the eccentric scientist (that role is filled here, for the brief lifespan the script allows his character, by Jack MacGowran) nor the ‘ugly American’ of Hammer’s Nigel Kneale adaptations (Brian Donlevy’s Quatermass and Forrest Tucker’s Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas were walking indictments of American conceit and imperialism). Introduced as a strident guest speaker at an Atomic Commission function, Evans is a resolute scientist certain of his observations and conclusions, seeking to avert the cataclysm he sees coming, exhibiting the brusque arrogance most such roles commanded in British sf of the period; Morrell, responding to his earnestness, chooses to be his ally and diplomat. With the coda’s glance between the team as both listen to a radio report of a massive beached fish kill along the Eastern US coast, it’s clear they’ve more work to do together, now on an international beat. The first eco-cops?
Refusing to ridicule its monster, despite the impoverished special effects, Behemoth honors its subject and heroes via the steadfast skill, seriousness and sobriety of its execution. Sans pretensions to being anything more than it is, Behemoth echoes, emulates, anticipates and bridges the strengths of Lourié’s own Beast, Gordon Douglas’s Them!, Val Guest’s Nigel Kneale adaptations and the soon-to-come black-and-white Guest and Losey apocalypses (Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Damned), the latter more adult sf in every way (and notably sans monsters).
It’s too bad that both WB’s packaging of Behemoth as a “Camp Cult Classic” and the Muren/Tippett commentary track so soundly misrepresent Behemoth, but an unbiased viewing takes care of that -- again, one should be thankful the film is available in its original form, whatever the window dressing.
Final installment to run tomorrow; have a great Saturday!