Monday, November 07, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

"In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth...this is the planet Earth, newly born...the heat rises, meets the atmosphere...the restless seas rise..."

With a few sentences omitted for space, Jack Arnold's 1954 feature, Creature from the Black Lagoon begins with a narrator speaking the words displayed above. The ominous-toned speaker thus commences what might be easily dismissed (by the uninformed...) as a simple "B movie" with an aura of grand eloquence, and more critically, a sense of importance and perspective.

Watching the film begin, I was startled to see how even a "monster" movie of the 1950s aspires to concern something; aspires to be about something educate and entertain its audience. Does Doom (2005) or its ilk even make the same effort, I wonder? I mean, the opening narration sequence here, which details in images some early stages of the Earth's evolution, must have been expensive to produce, and strictly speaking, isn't 100% critical to the central narrative. To include it must have been a controversial decision, and yet there it is in all its wonderful, bombastic 1950s glory, granting the film a sense of history and context it would otherwise lack.

I was inspired to watch Creature from the Black Lagoon again by my friend, Tony Mercer, who commented on this blog after I reviewed The Incredible Shrinking Man here. I'm glad I screened the movie again, because I enjoyed it deeply, and also found it a valuable and illuminating experience. Besides my initial notation that the filmmaker's had attempted to put the entire history of the world into a kind of historical view point with that voice-over narration, I also appreciated the technical value of the film: it is much cannier in its use of images than it is often given credit for; and the film holds up today - 51 years after its release - much better than one might expect.

Creature from the Black Lagoon opens in the Amazon. A strangely human-like fossilized hand/wrist is discovered in the rocks by an archaeologist named Carl Maia (Antonio Morena). Hoping he has unearthed a previously unrecorded life-form - a missing link between life in the seas and life on land - he seeks the help of a friend, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) at the nearby Instituto de Biologia Maritima. David and his beautiful girlfriend (also a scientist), Kay (Julia Adams) are intrigued by the discovery and petition their publicity-minded boss, Mark Williams (Richard Denny) to authorize an expedition. William agrees and they all head up the Amazon River on an old barge called the Rita. There, on a tributary leading to a black lagoon, a place that remains "exactly as it was 150 million years ago," the scientists confront the Gill Man, a strange life form that can move easily from the black depths of the water to dry land. A battle is waged between Reed and Williams over how to handle the creature -- pure research vs. killing/capture -- and in the end, the hunt for the "monster" will prove deadly to more than one crewmember.

When I re-watched The Incredible Shrinking Man recently, I thoroughly admired director Jack Arnold's efficient visualizations of that fantastic scenario. The same is true here. Though Creature from the Black Lagoon runs a scant eighty-something minutes, Arnold proves noticeably adept at finding the quickest, most efficient and cinematic way of expressing ideas and themes. Early on, for instance, it is necessary to introduce Reed, and Arnold does so by taking his camera straight down underwater, following a line of depth markers -- 20 feet, 25 feet, 30 feet, 35 feet -- all the way down until his camera lands on a busy swimmer, Reed, conducting research at the bottom of the sea. It would have been easier and much less costly, no doubt, simply to cut from the surface to Reed far below it, but instead -- and this is the essence of good dramatic filmmaking -- Arnold utilizes an unbroken, single shot that preserves space to reveal visually that David is a hands-on kind of guy, doing the hard (and dangerous) work himself. We wouldn't have understood that so quickly and so easily with a cut (or a series of cuts), and so this unbroken shot not only establishes location, but also something important about the heroic quality of the lead. And indeed, when the film climaxes, it is David out in the water clearing debris from the Rita's path, living up to his introductory scene, doing the difficult labor himself.

The underwater photography throughout Creature From the Black Lagoon is nothing less than extraordinary, and one classic sequence immediately jumps to mind. The lovely Julia Adams -- adorned in a white one-piece bathing suit - swims across the black lagoon by her lonesome. Her shapely figure cuts the placid surface, and far below, in utter darkness, the creature mirrors her every move.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on with this sequence, both thematically and visually. Since the gorgeous Adams is adorned in white, the traditional color of a wedding gown, it is easy to see her as the creature's intended bride. The Gill Man is tantalized by this visitor to his domain and keeps returning to the Rita not merely to kill crewmembers, but to claim his beautiful prize, one senses.

Furthermore, this relationship is viewed differently by each character during the swimming sequence. Kay believes she's swimming a solo and revels in her every graceful motion, but deep in the darkness below (a blackness opposite to Kay's almost shining white) the monster believes differently. He sees them as partners, sharing something special: a dance just for two. And as Kay spins sensuously in the water, the males in the audience no doubt sympathize and share the creature's longing for her (why else the fascination with this movie monster over the years? He's a guy who doesn't get the girl, despite his deep desire for her...)

Adams is quite an athletic beauty and there is something unfettered and uninhibited about the water dance she performs when Kay believes she's alone. But then the scene ratchets up the suspense as the Gill Man, no longer content to admire Kay from afar, moves in to touch her, his webbed hands growing ever closer to her kicking, dangling naked feet. Thus the Gill Man goes from an obsession with Kay to something much more dangerous: a need to possess her. Again, this is the dynamic of many a love relationship, isn't it? With an unrequited love leading to increasingly desperate behavior.

In many regards, Kay is the film's central and most important character. Every important conflict in Creature from the Black Lagoon involves possessing her, at least to some extent. She is the love object for not only the Gill Man, but for rivals Mark and David. Each of the three "men" in her lives wants her for himself, and indeed, acts to win her. If you're so inclined, you can even look at these men as equaling a rough ladder of evolution. On the bottom rung is the Gill Man, using brute force, murder and killing to win his female prize and take her. Next up the ladder is Mark, who shows off his machismo with - ahem - a very large spear gun. Notice how he keeps drawing attention to the weapon, and wants so desperately to use it. He's a human male, unlike the Gill Man, but one still driven by such qualities as pride (the need to show off) and vanity (the need to prove to the world that he captured the creature). On the top rung of the movie's male characters is David. He shows his respect for science and his opponent, and works for the communal good...knowing when to give up the hunt and seek escape. However, finally and ultimately, it is up to Kay to choose which kind of man she will favor (survival of the fittest?), and in a film about dead ends and blind alleys of evolution, this character dynamic represents a fascinating subtext, a mirror to the external adventure.

For Kay will not merely decide which man to favor as her mate, but is also the most diplomatic and evolved of all the film's characters, a comment, perhaps, on women and the role they play in humanity. Early on, she defends Mark to David. "Publicity brings endowments, and without money, there wouldn't be any research," In other words, it is the woman who is able to see all sides, to bridge the gap between evolved and unevolved, and ultimately, that's why she's the film's most valuable prize.

"There are many strange legends in the Amazon,"
a character in Creature from the Black Lagoon reminds us at one point. This film is about the discovery of something legendary, something wild, and the need of the human race to understand and possess it, much as the men in the film seek to possess Kay. The film has maintained its popularity with fans over the years because, like King Kong, the films' nemesis (the creature) is thoroughly understandable. He's a beast in love, and so we see something of ourselves in him. If you ask me, the real villain in the film is not the Gill Man, but Mark. The creature works by instinct alone, and who can blame him for that? David is evolved enough to let his intelligence and intellect dominate his choices and decisions. But Mark should know better than to pursue the kill so indiscriminantly, and ultimately he pays for this mistake with his life. A man should be evolved enough to know that there are things in this universe that deserve better than to be trophies on a wall - whether it be a woman or a creature from the black lagoon.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is available on DVD.

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