🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1954

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Find previous editions of Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s here: 1950, 1951, 1952,1953

A GILL MAN , A DEVIL GIRL , ROCKET MEN , KILLERS FROM SPACE and JULES VERNE…!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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A visual masterpiece directed by Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green 1971) and a screenplay by Earl Felton, who chose to weed out the extremely detailed and descriptive novel by Jules Verne and create a fast paced visual fantasy that became this fabulous adventure. The film is scored by Paul J. Smith (The Parent Trap 1961) whose splendid music creates a world of majesty surrounding the sets with wonderfully colorful and inventive art direction by John Meehan, (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946, The Heiress 1949, Sunset Blvd 1950, Studio 57 1955-58, M Squad 1957 -58 Boris Karloff’s THRILLER-ep.A Wig for Miss Devore 1962), production design & un-credited art direction by Harper Goff (Fantastic Voyage 1966, Willy Wonker & The Chocolate Factory 1971 also un-credited set design on A Midsummer’s Night Dream 1935,The Life of Emile Zola 1937, Sergeant York 1941, Casablanca 1942) and set direction by Emile Kuri (It’s a Wonderful Life 1946, The Paradine Case 1947, Rope 1948, The Heiress 1949, Dark City 1950, A Place in the Sun 1951, Detective Story 1951, War of the Worlds 1953, The Actress 1953, Shane 1953) brought the enigmatic ship to life as almost creature-like, flaunting interiors that are lavish with gadgets that flirt with scientific-industrious designs of the future!

The film stars Kirk Douglas as Ned Land and James Mason as Captain Nemo. Co-stars Paul Lukas as Prof. Pierre Aronnax, Peter Lorre as Conseil, Robert J. Wilke as first Mate of the Nautilus, Ted de Corsia as Capt. Farragut, Carlton Young as John Howard, J.M Kerrigan as Old Billy, and Percy Helton as the coach driver. 20,000 Leagues helped Peter Lorre step out of his sinister-mystery roles and add great comedic versatility as a character actor to his full career.

20,000 Leagues under the sea

"20000 Leagues Under the Sea" Kirk Douglas 1954 Walt Disney Productions ** I.V.
“20000 Leagues Under the Sea”
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1954 Walt Disney Productions

Nautilus

Walt Disney began to depart from the expensive endeavor of producing animated features, and started to experiment with live action films. Disney became aware of George Pal’s desire to persuade Paramount to allow him to produce Verne’s beloved novel initially utilizing a screenplay by Kurt Neumann. Disney got George Pal to relinquish the rights and took over the project, hiring Richard Fleischer (Follow Me Quietly 1949, The Narrow Margin 1952, Compulsion 1959, Fantastic Voyage 1966, The Boston Strangler 1968, Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970, 10 Rillington Place 1971, See No Evil 1971, The New Centurions 1972, Soylent Green 1973), to direct, and Neumann’s script was out.  It’s no wonder Fleischer was tapped to do more fantasy science fiction films, though his psychological thrillers/documentary style crime films are outstanding contributions.

Adapted from Jules Verne’s fabulous adventure the action takes place in the 19th century – where sailors told tall tales of giant sea creatures that wrecked and devoured sailing ships and the oceans held deep unknowing secrets as unfathomable as the heavens above. The legend of a strange horned sea monster has been wreaking havoc with sailing vessels in the South Pacific. Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his side kick Conseil (Peter Lorre) join an American expedition that includes crooning whale hunter Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) in search of this calamitous sea creature. The trio are confronted by the beast and are swept overboard then taken prisoner by the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason) whose drill ornamented submarine ‘the Nautilus’ turns out to be the sea monster of legend.

Nemo turns out to be a fanatic who’s dark mission is total destruction of all the warships responsible for the evils of mankind. There’s a memorable underwater hand to tentacle fight with a giant squid!

Capt. Nemo: Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Imagine what would happen if they controlled machines such as this submarine boat. Far better that they think there’s a monster and hunt me with harpoons.

Captain Nemo: “The natives over there are cannibals. They eat liars with the same enthusiasm as they eat honest men.”

Ned Land: There’s one thing you ought to know, Professor: Nemo’s cracked. I’ve yet to see the day you can make a deal with a mad dog. So while you’re feeding him sugar, I’ll be figuring a plan to muzzle him.

IMDb Trivia: Actors portraying the cannibals chasing Ned Land painted humorous messages on their foreheads (not legible on-screen). In particular, one actor wrote “Eat at Joe’s” while another actor behind him wrote “I ate Joe”.

The climactic squid battle on the Nautilus was originally shot with a serene sunset and a calm sea. Director Richard Fleischer was troubled by the look of it because the cams and gears that operated the squid could easily be seen, making it look obviously fake. Walt Disney visited the set one day and Fleischer told him about the problem. Disney came up with the idea of having the squid battle take place during a fierce storm (another story is that it was actually screenwriter Earl Felton who came up with the idea). The scene was reshot that way and is considered by many to be the highlight of the film.

One of the models of the Nautilus created by Harper Goff was a “squeezed” version which could be filmed with a standard lens and still look normal when projected in Cinemascope.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

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Clawing Monster From A Lost Age strikes from the Amazon’s forbidden depths!–Creature from a million years ago!… every man his mortal enemy… and a woman’s beauty his prey!–From the Amazon’s forbidden depths came the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Julia and the Gill Man

Creature From the Black Lagoon showcases Universal’s iconic Gill Man directed by science fiction & noir icon Jack Arnold. (The Glass Web 1953, It Came from Outer Space 1953, Tarantula 1955, The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957, Man in the Shadow 1957, The Tattered Dress 1957) Stars Richard Carlson as Dr. David Reed, Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence, Richard Denning as Mark Williams, Antonio Moreno as Carl Maia, Nestor Paiva as Lucas, Whit Bissell as Dr. Edwin Thompson.

The Creature or Gill Man is one of the most famous monsters that has endured, and perhaps one of the most emblematic figures of 1950s science fiction. His suit designed by Bud Westmore and team of uncredited designers. As Tom Weaver points out the creature suit “is so logical in design that designers of other underwater monsters have to be very careful not too obviously to imitate the monster they are imitating”  Visionary Master Guillermo del Toro’s team of designers and special effects artists did an outrageous job of paying homage to the Gil Man while still maintaining an original, and arresting modern edge to the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water (2017) The Gill Man still remains the most iconic monster of the 1950s

Creature From The Black Lagoon was also adapted to be shown in 3D! It was after Universal had a hit with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space 1953 that they saw the potential for box office success with a science fiction film especially one they could easily adapt to 3D format.

Producer William Alland –(according to writer/historian Tom Weaver)– had heard of a legendary half -man half-fish creature who lived in the upper regions of the Amazon. The Creature suit was extremely form fitting, too tight to be worn over aquatic breathing equipment. The swimmer would have to hold his breath for extended periods of time. Ben Chapman played the part out of the water wearing ‘the land suit’ modeled with paint (a dark silvery green and red highlights) by Millicent Patrick– Chapman not being a good enough swimmer.Ricou Browning wore the underwater suit which was lighter is color in order to make it stand out in the darker underwater scenes. Because he was able to hold his breath for five minutes, Browning was responsible for the stunning underwater scenes.

“Jack Arnold, started adding fins and gills to a sketch of the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar statuette, and arrived at the basic look of the new monster. Arnold and Alland did play their originating the design , but actress and artist Millicent Patrick was chiefly responsible for the look of the Gill-Man. At the make up shop, Chris Mueller developed a bust of the Creature using one of Ann Sheridan as the basis. Also contributing to the design were Jack Kevan and Westmore himself, head of the make up division.”

Both Browning and Chapman had full body molds made, so that suit would fit their bodies perfectly. “The result is a remarkably convincing monster, which looks like a suit almost solely because it has to be a suit (…) a tendency fir the suits to look a little rubbery around the joints, The Gill Man is life-like, enough so as to engender a happy suspension of disbelief by most viewers, as the film proved enormously popular.”

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Lucas:-There are many strange legends in the Amazon. Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of a man-fish.”

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We can sympathize with monsters, like Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s undead creation, & The Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. We can find our involvement (at least I can), as one viewed with empathy toward the monster’s predicament. Embedded in the narrative is a simultaneous pathos, that permits these monsters to express human desires, and then make sure that those desires are thwarted, frustrated and ultimately destroyed.

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Richard Carlson Julie Adams Richard Denning and Whit Bissell as Dr. Edward Thompson study the fossil of an amphibian man found near the Amazon.
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The crew catches something in their net… and whatever it was… has ripped a giant Gill Man size hole in it leaving behind a claw!

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Mr. ‘It’s mine all mine” and Kay and Mr. “But think of the contribution to science!” looking at the poor trapped Gill Man-a lonely prisoner of scientific hubris and egocentric men.
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The creature trapped in a bamboo cage… floats, quietly thinking deep thoughts–while the three look on pondering what to do with him..

‘The Outsider Narrative” of 1950s science fiction can be seen so clearly in Jack Arnold’s horror/sci-fi hybrid Creature From The Black Lagoon. Film monsters like The Gill Man form vivid memories for us, as they become icons laying the groundwork for the classic experience of good horror, sci-fi and fantasy with memorable story telling and anti-heroes that we ‘outliers’ grew to identify with and feel a fondness for.

As David Skal points out in The Monster Show, he poses that films like Creature From the Black Lagoon …are the “most vivid formative memories of a large section of the {American} population…{…} and that for so many of these narratives they seem to function as “mass cultural rituals.”

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Continue reading “🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1954”

Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Robert Ryan’s death July 11, 1973 with a special nod to Karen & The Dark Pages for their spectacular tribute to this incredibly real man!

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“Ryan was unfailingly powerful, investing his tormented characters with a brooding intensity that suggests coiled depth. Cut off from the world by the strength of their ‘feelings’ his characters seem to be in the grip of torrential inner forces. They are true loners. Ryan’s work has none of the masked, stylized aura of much noir acting. He performs with emotional fullness that creates substantial, complex characters rather than icons.”Foster Hirsch-FILM NOIR: The Darker Side of the Screen

Clearly Robert Ryan’s infinite presence in film and his numerous complex characters manifest an embracing universal ‘internal conflict’ of masculinity. I tribute certain roles the actor inhabited during his striking career. Though he was cast more often in the part as the imposing heavy, the depth and breadth of Ryan’s skill with his rough-hewn good looks should have landed him more roles as a lead male capable of such penetrating levels of emotion. He had a depth that suggests a scarcely hidden intensity smoldering at the surface.

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Robert Ryan as Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire 1947
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Robert Ryan in Act of Violence ’48

A critic for the New York Times reviewing Act of Violence (1948) wrote about Robert Ryan’s persona as the madly driven veteran bent on revenge, Joe Parkson calling him “infernally taut.”

Frank Krutnik discusses ‘Masculinity and it’s discontents’ in his book In A Lonely Street, “In order to make the representation of masculinity in the noir thriller, there follows a schematic run-through of Freudian work on the determination of masculine identity.” Claiming Freud’s work can be co-opted into film with an emphasis of it’s relevance to analysis of the cultural machinery of patriarchy.” He discusses patriarchal culture which relies heavily on the maintenance of a gender-structured ‘disequilibrium’ with it’s roots in the myth of the Oedipal Complex. Involving not only the power-based hierarchy of male service to masculine power but the established normative gender values which inform both the male and female figure.

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Act of Violence Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson co-starring Janet Leigh

Many of the characters in Ryan’s noir world are informed by a cultural ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness and strips the limits of desire as an obligation to masculine identity. Patriarchal power structure predetermines a fixed and limited role that creates a destiny of submission and impotence in Ryan’s characters. But within the framework of these extreme male figures lies an intricate conflict of varying degrees of vulnerability and fragility.

Ryan manifests this duality within hyper-masculine characters. Outwardly physical, confrontational, and hostile, Ryan is a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth. He was never just a dark noir brute or anti-hero but a complex man actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. His performances suggest a friction of subjugated masculinity bubbling within.

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Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night

The trajectory of the male through the Oedipus Complex encompasses the male subjectivity which is a principle issue in the noir ‘tough-thriller.’ The ‘existential thematic’ link to the Oedipus myth concerns questions of male desire and identity as they relate to the overarching law of existing patriarchal culture substituted for the original fearsome ‘divinity.’ This element is one of the driving psychological themes underlying in any good classic film noir.

In this post I put my focus primarily on Ryan’s characters within the framework of each film and while I discuss the relationship between him and the central players I do not go as in depth as I usually do discussing his co-stars or plot design.

I apply this thematic representation to much of the roles engendered in the films of Robert Ryans‘ that I’ve chosen to discuss here. A patriarchal power structure establishes the tragedy of man’s destiny, a fixed and limited role in the character’s own destiny as there is a predominant power that threatens them into submission and sheds light on their own impotence. So many of the noir characters in a Robert Ryan noir world are shaped by a cultural authority structured through ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness in the male identity that strips away the limits of desire, as an obligation to ‘masculine identity.’

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Ryan’s stoic boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s The Set Up

I’m focusing on particular Ryan’s roles within a noir context that depict archetypal hyper-masculine tropes and the problematic strife within those characters. Whether Ryan is playing the deeply flawed hero or the tormented noir misfit, his characters are afflicted with an inherent duality of virility and vulnerability, an inner turmoil, alienation, persecution and masochism. It’s a territorial burden that Robert Ryan so effortlessly explores.

These films show Ryan’s trajectory through forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Within a noir landscape, the schism of stark virility and tenuous masculinity exposes the complexity of alienation, masochism and frailty. Robert Ryan’s performances are a uniquely fierce and formidable power.

I’m discussing: The Woman On the Beach (1947) haunted & emasculated coastguardsman Lt. Scott Burnett, Caught (1949) neurotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig, The Set- Up (1949) noble over- the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, Born To Be Bad (1950) misanthropic & masochistic novelist Nick Bradley, Clash by Night (1952) cynical misogynist projectionist Earl Pfeiffer, Beware, My Lovely (1952) morose psychotic vagrant handyman Howard Wilton,On Dangerous Ground (1952) unstable, alienated violent cop Jim Wilson, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) racist persecuted ex-con Earle Slater.

Within the framework of these ‘extreme’ male figures lies an intricate conflict with varying degrees of vulnerability & fragility within the male psyche. The narratives don’t necessarily flesh out this conflict plainly, but Ryan’s performances certainly suggest and inform us about the friction of this subjugated theme bubbling to the surface as he manifests the duality within his hyper-masculine characters. Robert Ryan was a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth.

Robert Ryan

Ryan is never just a dark noir ‘brute’ or anti-hero but moreover a complex male who is actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. A complexity of stark virility and ‘tenuous maleness’ as the narrative witnesses Ryan’s trajectory transforming him through various dynamic forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Outwardly physical, confrontational, hostile and ultimately masculine, and the schism that is inwardly emotional, alienated, self deprecating, masochistic and fragile within the film noir landscape. Robert Ryan’s performances still maintain a uniquely fierce and formidable aesthetic of the ‘suffering-marginalized man.’

Continue reading “Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir”