Archive for Jack Arnold

Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by dcairns

 

Title suggested by the great Tom Lehrer, who listed several possible movie themes before actually singing a suggested love song for Pasolini’s OEDIPUS REX.

In fact, writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-classic already has a swooning romantic theme, performed by Ray Anthony on his trumpet as part of music supervisor Joseph Gershenson’s score, economically compounded from the work of four different composers. Despite their varied attributions, Universal’s fifties sci-fi horror ouput have a highly distinctive and consistent musical style, maybe because Gershenson (whose name sounds like a drunkard’s slur) compiled most of them — lots of musical SHRIEKS OF ALARM, like the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s motif of alarm…

Ahah! The Chiseler has the explanation: uncredited Herman Stein is the musical link, the man with the shrieks.

The music accompanies a really enjoyable title sequence, though one might argue that the little outline of a diminishing human figure is unnecessarily literal. The big white encroaching cloud looks to be the same element used later for the radioactive fogbank, before it was optically inserted into an ocean background. By itself, it’s scarily abstract.

“I’m telling you, this movie is a goddamn masterpiece!” Fiona would declare several times during our recent viewing of it. It starts gently — all the non-shrinking scenes are done very straightforwardly, following Sidney Pollock’s sage dictum, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” Jack Arnold could be quite prosaic in his shooting, but he knew how to make the most of a strange set-piece. The opening scene is just relaxed banter on a yacht with our two likeable leads — until that weird cloud descends, missing minor Hawksian Woman Randy Stuart as she goes to get the beer, but dropping glittering particles on Grant Williams.

One of the things the sci-fi movies stimulated in me was my Keatsian negative capability — getting pleasure and fascination from things I couldn’t understand. I *think* I picked up on the fact that the eerie cloud is never explained. Fifties audiences would no doubt have read it as fallout from an atomic test, but it gains in power from not having such a standard diagnosis applied. Kind of like the way NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a bogus sci-fi explanation for zombie-ism, but Romero’s sequels gain power by walking it back and leaving the plague a mystery.

The next few brief scenes show Williams very gradually coming to suspect what’s up with him. This is where Matheson worried that the film would be boring, and was annoyed that his idea of presenting the narrative out of chronological order was rejected. I don’t want to say that Matheson was wrong — we don’t have his version of the film to judge, though we do have his novel, which Fiona has read and admired (“There’s much MORE, including sexual stuff.“) — but I think the version we have works like gangbusters, partly BECAUSE of the very linear structure. Though the cloud’s appearance in the titles, and then minutes later in the first scene, suggest a film looping back on itself, the rest of the story has a rare and powerful inexorability, the drip-drip of a problem getting steadily, catastrophically worse. I think it would lose all that, plus the surprise value of discovering each stage of our man’s diminution as it occurs.

(Matheson also objected to the catchpenny title: “They didn’t think a shrinking man was incredible enough.” But I guess a bit of circus barker ballyhoo is not inappropriate here…)

Maybe the filmmakers were worried that the early stages would be slow, though, because they ramp up the pace as best they can, getting to the point where special effects are required ASAP, so that each scene will have some element of the visual uncanny. So that now the eye and mind have plenty to boggle at, be in split-screen effects that show a diminished Williams facing a normal-sized Stuart, or Williams grappling with out-sized props. The early stages of the sickness call to mind Herzog’s “explanation” of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL — imagine the world has grown gigantic overnight so we must clumsily struggle to interact with our once-familiar objects.

Williams is outstanding. Like Arnold’s filming style, his slight blandness is appropriate to this tale of the monstrous-domestic. And he has the acting chops to produce credible angst: Lee Strasberg training and all that. Fiona also remarks on his mellifluous voice, a boon for the film’s last half, when our hero has no dialogue but keeps in touch with us via his philosophical voice-over.

We all know our cats would eat us if they could.

The incremental nature of the plot doesn’t become tiresome, because although it literally is one damn thing after another, we have the false hope of the treatment that briefly halts our hero’s shrinkage, the brief, tentative quasi-romance with the “circus midget” (censorship prevents any hint of dinky hanky-panky, leaving the viewer to make up their own deleted scenes in their own filthy imagination) and two types of terror-suspense. There’s the inexorable existential threat of shrinking to nothingness, which there seems to be no protection from, leaving us to worry about what can possibly resolve this story, apart from DEATH — and there’s the incidental threats encountered along with way, which kick in when the movie’s most distinguished cast member, Orangey the cat (immersing himself in the role of Butch), stops seeing Little Grant as his lord and Kibble-dispenser, and starts seeing him as a potentially tasty snacklet.

Orangey, another Stanislavskian player whose work is always totally real, has major roles in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (the nameless role of “Cat” is more significant than it sounds), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (written by Matheson, who must have admired his work here: he provided a drag role, as Cleopatra), and another fifties sci-fi job, THIS ISLAND EARTH (as Neutron — not sure when I saw that one, but probably within a year of my 1974 annus mirabilis). Plus more giantism in Bert I. Gordon’s VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, in the rather crudely-sketched role of “giant cat.”

Fiona asked me if I’d ever screen this film for students. I might. I did recently recommend it to one, because of its ending. I could certainly see myself screening one of the beautifully designed suspense sequences. Novice screenwriters tend to think in terms of overall story and dialogue, not realising that planning the details of a story’s action is a huge part of the job, more important than mere LINES. The what-happens-ness of a story. How each occurrence can move the dial from Happy to Sad. Breaking down the ISM’s titanic struggle with a mousetrap or a house spider, showing how clarity of action and planning and the interruption of surprise reversals makes an audience emote, would be just as useful as looking at Hitchcock. The fact that we are never quite unaware of the matte lines, process screens, and scaled-up sets, and yet we respond viscerally and emotionally to each victory and defeat, teaches an important lesson, if I could but put it into words.

Maybe it’s Michael Powell’s “There is no such thing as realism in the cinema.” Or maybe it’s that the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt is the bunk — we can be quite aware that we’re watching a film, and still be caught up in the drama. That’s why reminding the audience of the fakery is only worth doing if you can make a good joke of it. Because we always know it’s not real. But for it to work, we have to believe that simultaneously it IS real, somehow.

Down, down, down. Our hero the ISM is banished to the basement by his cat, presumed dead by his wife and brother, the house now a vast wilderness of predators and perils, food scarce and escape impossible. Arnold, director of TARANTULA (NOT such a distinguished movie), trots out his signature arachnid to do battle with our man. I guess we have to admit, one spider was probably harmed during the making of this film. I’d love to believe it was tenderly chloroformed and revived with a cup of tea and a biscuit, but I fear the worst.

And what of the ISM himself? He slays the spider, and finally escapes the basement by dwindling until he can fit through the mesh of the screen window — the first time his tininess has been of benefit to him. Out in the garden, surrounded by more threats, he delivers a beautiful parting VO that totally collapsed my seven-year-old mind to a singularity and then exploded it, a primal atom, into a Universal-International Cloud of Unknowing.

 

“So close… the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe. Worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature, that existence begins and ends, is man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came… acceptance. All this vast majesty of Creation, it had to mean something… and then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

Note the obligatory reference to the deity.

But WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Little Fiona asked her mum, in Dundee. Little Me asked my dad in Edinburgh. Neither parent could really explain it. It was Beyond Mums and Dads. Years later I saw some minor celebrity, I forget who, discussing the impression the film made on them as a kid. “I was terrified. I kept saying, ‘He’s going to die, isn’t he? And in the end he does.” But does he? This was the challenge. He “melts away” to “nothing” but “still exists.” I think my Dad suggested he had become subatomic, although in “reality” it would take him a while to get that small — he looks to be maybe ant-sized when he leaves the house — and it’s not clear that he could ever be that small — what’ he made of, if he becomes smaller than an atom? I don’t know when an ISM would become too small to be complex enough to function as a human being, but part of the beauty of the film’s ABC structure is that the incredible aspect comes on gradually, like a tall tale (ironically enough)… “Do you believe me so far? How about now? How about NOW?”

I get the impression kids are quite literal-minded. I certainly could be. I was a pedantic little swine. But here was an ending that couldn’t be reduced to one literal meaning. Grant Williams was, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

“I still exist.” — and then THE END comes up SO FAST, rushing you out of the movie, back into Life, with so many questions…

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Coelacanth Buy Me Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 16, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-16-10h00m54s183So, they just found a warm-blooded fish, huh?

This is an entry for For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, a very worthy cause. Click for more entries, and PLEASE use the Gort button at bottom to donate.

MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS may be dumb — and it is dumb, dumber than a continent of hammers — but at least it nips along at an agreeably peppy pace. When a prehistoric fish is delivered to the college’s top scientist, water leaks from the ice it’s packed in, and anything absorbing that water regresses back along its evolutionary pathway — a friendly Alsatian becomes a ravening sabre-tooth dog, and the chummy sexist scientist mutates into a Neanderthal brute — all within the first fifteen minutes. The movie’s over an hour later, and quite a lot more bad craziness has transpired.

Director Jack Arnold, who made lots of “classic” fifties sci-fi (TARANTULA, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and one authentic masterpiece (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN), doesn’t try to dignify this malarkey more than it deserves, and can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but at least turns in a shapely sow’s ear with perfect hearing.

It turns out that the plasma of gamma-irradiated coelacanths only has temporary effects, so our hero mutates back from his simian rampage with nothing worse than a hangover. The college floozy who was pursuing him isn’t so lucky ~

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She’s apparently died of fright — I think the filmmakers wanted to be clear that there hadn’t been any Neanderthal funny business, after so much talk about man’s lower instincts. But for some reason she’s been hung from a tree by her hair, which leaves her corpse floating uncannily, like a ghost. I think this is inspired the popular idea (originating God knows where) of cavemen dragging their brides about by the hair. Indeed, later the ape-man does a bit of hair-tugging.

The movie now has a problem. It can throw in random shit like a giant de-evolved dragonfly it’s just invented (hmm, the page in my biology schoolbook dealing with giant prehistoric dragonflies appears to have been GLUED IN) but to keep the action going it has to have the hero accidentally does himself again, which it achieves by letting the dragonfly bleed into his pipe. The hero SMOKES DRAGONFLY BLOOD and this causes him to regress once more. Now he starts to suspect he’s the one who’s been terrorizing the campus and killing people, so to make sure he doses himself again — and again!

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I like his busts. You got a prehistoric John Randolph on the left, then a George Arliss, a cro-magnon James Coburn, and finally a very collectible George Kennedy. Probably the last two were built for Universal’s stone-age remake of CHARADE, a project cancelled when it was pointed out that postage stamps hadn’t been invented in the neolithic era, and that the original CHARADE hadn’t been made yet anyway.

What’s in a name? Our scientist is called Blake, the same as Christopher Lee’s fiendish alter ego in I, MONSTER, the film which pointlessly changes the names of the leads from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while retaining the plot and all the supporting characters’ names. When Dr. Blake calls Madagascar to learn more about his fish’s provenance, he speaks to a Dr. Moreau. Well, that explains everything.

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There’s a pretty accomplished lap dissolve transformation when we finally see it, and Arnold comes up with a couple of other nice gimmicks to avoid expensive trick work (and repetition), but the ape-man is more of a rubber mask, hairy gloves and a ripped lumberjack shirt than a fully evolved makeup (and why do lycanthropic types always seem to wear checked shirts?).

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This was a lot better than the similarly-plotted THE NEANDERTHAL MAN (1953), which I thought was awful. But since being impressed by the same director’s THE SCARF (1951), I’ve kind of wanted to see THE NEANDERTHAL MAN again. EA Dupont couldn’t have regressed that far in two years, could he? You bet he could — the hero of MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS regresses millions of years in seconds.

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Ones That Got Away

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 9, 2014 by dcairns

millican

When I get late submissions from students at work, it’s annoying because sometimes I have to fail them, and always I have to warn them that if they submit late in their final year, they WILL fail. Away from work, I am DELIGHTED to get late submissions, ie for The Late Show Late Movies Blogathon, where it’s like an unexpected treat, a parcel on Boxing Day. Imagine my pleasure as The Blue Vial posts an appreciation of character thesp James Millican, featuring also wise words on stalwart B helmer Jack Arnold (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN changed my life). Here.

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As I was preparing for the blogathon, I ran the final film of Lew Landers, supremely prolific B-hack best known for the Karloff-Lugosi campfest THE RAVEN and 173 other films, serials, whatnots. The film is called TERRIFIED (1963) and it’s not very good but I watched it one night with Fiona and we made note of lots of funny things to say about it and I wrote them down the following day… or I thought I did. I have forgotten all of them, and everything about the film, except —

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1) Someone is trying to terrify people to death. He drives one poor chap mad before the titles even role, by threatening to bury him in cement.

2) There are two leading men and the more promising one (Rod Lauren) clearly fancies himself as a James Dean method guy, which is an interesting presence to have in a Lew Landers movie.

3) Most of the action takes place in a roadhouse and a ghost town, so it’s cheap.

4) The supposedly terrifying things are really lame.

5) The only familiar name associated with it is Denver Pyle, who has some impressive credits but whom I might not remember if not for The Dukes of Hazard being on all the time when I was a kid, and his name being, implausibly, Denver Pyle.

But that’s it! The rest is GONE, and I will NOT be watching TERRIFIED again. Life is not only too short, it’s possibly too sweet.