Thursday, 30 January 2014

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

A classic movie monster &
superbly crafted film



A few weeks ago I was watching an episode from the TV show American Pickers, and one from the show, Toy Hunter. In both episodes, the model of the” Creature” from the 1954 film, Creature from the Black Lagoon was spotted by the pickers and snapped up by them for a pretty good amount. Due to its popularity it could be counted on fetching a good price when re-sold. This probably stands as just one testament as to how far the “Creature” has permeated our historical popular culture and consciousness. It is enough for most people to merely see a model or poster of the “Creature” or hear the title, Creature from the Black Lagoon, even if they have not seen the original film, in order for them to grasp the relevant connotations and associations. Let’s see something of what has made this so…..





A previously unknown prehistoric creature from the Devonian age lurks in the waters of the Amazonian jungle. A group of scientists in search of fossilized remains set out to try and capture the creature and bring it back to civilization for study.

Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by William Alland
Screenplay by Harry Essex, Arthur A. Ross
Story by Maurice Zimm
Music by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein
Cinematography: William E. Snyder
Editing by Ted J. Kent
Distributed by Universal International
Running time: 79 minutes
Box office: $1,300,000


CAST


Richard Carlson (David Reed)
Julie Adams (Kay Lawrence)
Richard Denning (Mark Williams)
Antonio Moreno (Carl Maia)
Nestor Paiva (Lucas)
Whit Bissell (Dr Edwin Thompson)
Bernie Gozier (Zee)
Henry A. Escalante (Chico)






Trailer


Plot





(Spoilers Follow Below)

The film, Creature from the Black Lagoon, begins with a quote from the book of Genesis;

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void...”

Interestingly enough we then move onto a description of the evolution of the Earth and its “infinite variety of life.” We are then told that the “record of life is written in the land.”






A geology expedition in the Amazon led by Dr Carl Maia uncovers a fossilized skeletal hand with webbed fingers, “dating back to the Devonian age”, thereby providing evidence from the Devonian period of a link between land and sea animals. When asked by one of workers if the find is important, Dr Maia states that “Yes, I think it is-very important!” He explains to the native workers that he needs to go back to the institute on the coast in order to get help to dig out the rest of the fossil.





The find is indeed important but the potential danger cannot be ignored as we are reminded by the sight of a webbed. and clawed hand emerging from the water with the sense of danger, anticipation and tension enhanced by the music





Dr Maia pays a visit to his friend, former student and guest at his marine biology institute in Brazil, Dr. David Reed. Dr Reed is an ichthyologist who works at an aquarium in California. He is able to persuade his boss, Dr. Mark Williams to fund an expedition to the Amazon to search for the rest of the skeleton.





The expedition makes use of a tramp steamer, the Rita, which is captained by Lucas. The expedition members consist of David Williams (2nd from right), Carl Maia (2nd from left), Mark Reed (far right), Kay Lawrence (Reed's girlfriend and colleague-middle)) and scientist, Dr Edwin Thompson (far left).






Captain Lucas has a very realistic and pragmatic view of the place the expedition is venturing into based on his experience. For him it is a place where “everything in this jungle” contains nothing but “killers.” Far from being a place to fear, David sees it through more idealistic eyes as being a place full of potential for scientific research. He can’t stop talking about Devonian animals as they navigate their way along the river.

The expedition arrives at the camp only to discover that Maia's entire research team has been killed-but by what? We had a hint when we saw the creature’s hand emerge through the tent’s opening prior to its attacking Maia’s native team at the camp site. We are not presented with a full view of the creature yet, just tantalizing glimpses to maintain the tension and shock value.

The excavation of the area where Carl Maia discovered the fossilized hand turns up nothing. Mark is for giving up the search since from his materialistic and opportunistic perspective, “we failed” and “that’s all people will understand.” David, on the other hand, theorises that thousands of years ago the section of the embankment containing the rest of the skeleton may have fallen into the water, was washed downriver and broken up by the current. Lucas informs them that the tributary empties into a lagoon which he calls, the "Black Lagoon", a place to which many people have entered over the years, but none have come back. The scientists decide to risk it, and in keeping with Matthew’s narrow and unscrupulous motives, this course of action will enable him to “turn failure into success.”

In life what seems like great personal success and accomplishment can often be dashed if we are blinded to and unaware of what might be lurking just around the corner unseen and ready to lash out and dash our happiness and hopes for the future. We have a similar sense of this as we are made aware of the fact that the amphibious "Gill-man" has been observing these intruders into its realm as it follows the Rita all the way downriver to the Black Lagoon.

When the expedition arrives at the lagoon, David and Mark once again reveal the tension between their opposing points of view and motives for being on the expedition. David is enthralled by the prospect of studying so many species of fish while Mark is only intent on finding the rest of the fossil, thereby enhancing his own prestige. In his defence, Kay states that “he’s produced some important findings.” David responds that “he’s also taken credit for some important findings.” Another layer of tension is added with Kay and David’s relationship and Mark’s obvious jealousy.






After Mark and David return from diving to collect fossils from the lagoon floor, Kay decides to go swimming. We at last gain our first clear view of the creature as it swims just below Kay in what almost appears to be a choreographed graceful underwater ballet. The creature tentatively reaches for Kay’s foot but withdraws just as it is about to make physical contact. Here we are reminded of other “monster” tales such as King Kong, whereby a repulsive and dangerous creature is captivated by female beauty and displays a rather human side to its character.

The Kay-Gill Man underwater scene is given greater significance when contrasted with the enormous power of the creature which becomes briefly caught in one of the ship's draglines. As it tugs on the net, it almost capsizes the Rita and manages to tear a hole in the net in its bid to escape.

Williams wishes to go back down and hunt whatever is in the lagoon. Reed opposes the course of action, stating that they should attempt to study it and take photos, not just go after “trophies.” While on the dive the two men’s opposing motives stand out starkly as we see David brandishing a spear gun while Mark handles an underwater camera. After the creature is speared but escapes from them, David characteristically declares, “dead or alive, what’s the difference?”






Lucas tells the men when they get back on board that “even I Lucas have heard of the legend of a man-fish” - an old river legend about a gill man who lived underwater. Soon one of the men on deck is attacked and dragged into the water by the creature.

Lucas comes up with the idea of using a native knock-out potion which makes fish rise to the surface. They decide to use it by spreading it over the lagoon with the result that a huge number of fish float to the surface, but no ”Gill-man.” They then decide to get the knock-out potion deeper down into the lagoon by making some pellets and using them to flush the creature from the bottom. Later, the creature appearing to be unaffected by the potion, attempts to climb into the boat but is frightened by the light of a lantern.


Reed and Willliams follow the creature as it disappears into the water and they come across a cave concealed by the bank. As they track the creature’s footprints through the sand, the “Gill-man” kills one of the crewmen by the boat and attempts to capture Kay. As the effects of the Knock-out solution takes hold, the creature collapses onto the ground.





The creature is placed in a makeshift cage and held on board the Rita. However, it later manages to break free and attack Thompson. Thompson, fighting for his life, smashes a lantern over the creature setting it on fire. Unfortunately, Thompson is very badly injured from the attack.

In an interesting turn around, it is now Williams who wants to stay in order to try and recapture the creature. It is also Reed along with the others, who wishes to quit and leave with whatever evidence and data they have obtained. Reed believes that they are “not equipped to fight monsters” and that a “later expedition can do it.” Lucas uses another form of persuasion by pulling a knife on an aggressive Williams and telling him they are leaving immediately. End of argument!






Before long it becomes obvious that the pursued has now become the pursuer as the boat is blocked by a snag as it heads out of the lagoon. Since it was not there before, it is surmised by Mark that the creature placed the obstruction in order to ”keep us from getting out.”





An attempt to clear the snag with a winch fails as the obstruction is too heavy. The enraged creature breaks the links attaching the line to the obstruction putting an end to the attempt to move the barrier.

After it is decided by Reed to make another attempt using the aqualung, he and Williams come to blows resulting in Williams being knocked out.







While working underwater, Reed does not notice the creature. Suddenly Williams appears and after a couple of attempts to shoot the animal with the spear gun, he manages to hit it. The creature, however, manages to get hold of Williams and a dramatic life and death struggle begins between them. With David’s joining the underwater battle, the creature retreats, however Mark has been mauled to death in his attempt to capture the creature single-handedly.

Another attempt to use the knockout solution is made in order to slow the creature down while they try to clear the barrier. Reed armed with the solution in a makeshift spray gun begins work on clearing the obstruction. When the creature approaches within range Mark fires the solution several times at it.






The plan has worked and the lagoon is finally cleared. While attempting to remove the logs the members don't see the creature climb on board the Rita. The creature then abducts Kay and takes her to his cavern lair. David, Lucas, and Carl give chase and eventually David finds Kay but the creature attacks him. Two of the crew open fire from the beach entrance of the cave hitting the creature multiple times. Reed stops the men from firing any more rounds into the creature. The “Gill-man” then retreats to the lagoon and sinks into its watery depths.






"Creature Feature: 50 Years of the Gill-man" Trailer

Points Of Interest 


Genesis

While at a dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane, Producer William Alland was informed by Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa of a myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon river. Once a year, it was claimed, this creature emerges and claims a maiden. He then leaves, and the village is then safe for another year. This idea was then developed into story notes entitled "The Sea Monster" together with inspiration from Beauty and the Beast and then a version of the tale was put together called, The Black Lagoon. With the success of the 3-D film House of Wax in 1953, Jack Arnold was hired to direct the film “Creature From the Black Lagoon" using the same format. (I haven’t seen the 3D version yet, so I can’t comment on its effectiveness in that format).


Director: Jack Arnold


Jack Arnold directed the film's sequel, "Revenge of the Creature," as well as "The Incredible Shrinking Man", and "Tarantula", all of which will be featured in this blog later.

What was clever about Arnold’s direction of “Creature From the Black Lagoon" is that he didn’t just rely on full shocking shots of creatures and lashings of blood, guts and violence in order to scare his audience. Instead, he relied on simplicity and suggestion in the form of a shot of the creature's hand and a piercing three-note musical piece played by brass instruments. He left it up to the audiences’ imagination fill in the blanks and join the dots. And not a computer-generated monster in sight; just a guy in a rubber suit (or two guys in two suits!) The film plays well on people’s basic fear of the unknown.






The beautiful and eerie black-and-white underwater sequences, the initial glimpses of the creature's webbed claw, the nerve-shattering theme music set us up for the creature impressive appearance: A half-human/half-fish-like creature with gills, covered in scales, and with cold, emotionless eyes.





CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON Rare Behind the Scenes Images


Evolution Solution


From the film’s outset we are left with the idea that the processes of geological transformation and biological evolution are not six day affairs as the Christian bible would seem to have it, but are instead ongoing processes measured in time scales too large to be comfortably comprehended by the human brain. Even in 2014 there still exists a tension between “Creationists” and the proponents of Darwinian evolutionary theory as to what constitutes the “truth” about the origins of our world and the life that inhabits it. 


We first see Reed underwater using an aqualung and hovering around the 40 foot depth mark as indicated by a line indicating depth. Before he emerges from the water, he has to pause for pressure changes. This scene quickly establishes the limitations of human beings in an aquatic environment (the “Creature’s” world) and how far evolution has taken us from our original beginnings on this planet.


Odd Bed-Fellows


The tension between Reed and Williams is first set up and then maintained throughout the film. On the one hand, we have Reed who is concerned primarily with scientific research. For him, the fossilized hand and the expedition to find more of the skeleton will “add to our knowledge of life in the world.” On the other hand, Williams is motivated more by profit and publicity. For him, the find and the expedition will have “great financial value.” And so, as often happens in life, two mutually opposed but oddly interdependent concepts are about to sally forth arm-in-arm into the unknown only to leave an inordinate amount of mayhem, misery and destruction in their wake.


Setting


The photography and tropical locales are beautiful even being shot in black and white. Those scenes featuring heavy mists and primeval jungle noises serve to create at times menacing atmosphere. The Black Lagoon itself with its still mirror-like waters, surrounded by jungle foliage and palm trees, together with the sounds of monkeys, birds and other exotic fauna is a serene place. The sense of serenity is reinforced by the soothing background music. Then there are the tastefully artistic underwater scenes with shafts of sunlight penetrating the watery depths from above; a riot of shimmering air bubbles and the “Gillman’s” abrupt emergence from billowing clouds of sediment stirred up by his movements.


The Creature Featured:


The film's central feature would have to be the monster itself. The "Gillman" now stands along-side classic movie monsters icons such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. He seems to combine the best qualities of such characters: a savage monster; an intelligent thinking being; appreciative of beauty; injured by thoughtless humans; seeking retribution and worthy of sympathy.






The “Creature” like other monsters from the era such as Godzilla, represents a force of nature awakened by human science that once brought into being cannot be controlled. For the 1950s it was the fear of the power of the atom. Our own 21st century monster is runaway global warming which many fear is the result of thoughtless human activity heedless as to the consequences of its actions.

The creature was played on land by stuntman Ben Chapman and his suit, designed and crafted by make-up artist Bud Westmore, was coloured with iridescent greens and blues and was mottled with many other marine hues. However, the marine hues chosen for this "dry suit" photographed too dark when filming underwater. A wet-suit version had to be produced for underwater scenes. The Gillman suit made it impossible for Chapman to sit for long hours each day that he had to wear it. It also overheated necessitating him to be frequently hosed down. Since Chapman could not see very well while wearing the suit’s headpiece, he had managed to scrape Julie Adams' head against the plaster wall when he was carrying her in the cavern scenes. In order to make the gills in the suit pulsate, Chapman had a little squeeze bulb that he held in his hand. A tube from the bulb ran up his arm. By squeezing the bulb the gills could move. The creature’s lips were moved by Chapman moving his chin. Chapman, however, had no control over the eyes.

The “wet-suit” for underwater scenes was worn by champion swimmer Ricou Browning who often had to hold his breath for four minutes during long takes because the suit did not allow room for scuba gear. His swimming prowess is certainly evident from such scenes as when the Gill Man swims effortlessly beneath Kay in the eerie underwater “ballet.”






Just A Scary Story Or Freudian Slip?


For many the scene referred to above often lends itself to a Freudian interpretation in the sense that the Creature is a figure that adolescent males can relate to and identify with: Interest in females, awkwardness in trying to form relationships, moodiness, being misunderstood. And so we have the Creature underwater and the young males (all ages!?) in the audience joined together in leering longingly at Julia Adams as she performs her seductively erotic underwater ballet. It certainly must have had an impact on Steven Spielberg, who would pay homage to this scene in his opening for his film Jaws 21 years later.


For The Record


The Devonian period (part of the Paleozoic era), also known as the “Age of Fishes, began about 416 million years ago. It was a time of great changes in the Earth’s appearance. The giant single supercontinent of Gondwana was moving northward, away from the South Pole. A second supercontinent began to form around the Equator known as Laurussia formed by the coming together of parts of North America, northern Europe, Russia, and Greenland.





The Devonian period derived its name from red-colored sediments that were created when North America collided with Europe. The rocks from this period were first studied in Devon, England.

The Tiktaalik, a link between fish and the first vertebrates to walk on land, was found in the Canadian Arctic in 2004. This fish from the period had characteristics of terrestrial animals, including ribs, a neck, and nostrils on its snout for breathing air.







The first amphibians breathed through rudimentary lungs and through their skin. They probably could have left the water for short periods in order to escape predators.









©Chris Christopoulos 2014