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Armageddons On A “B” Budget

Science fiction, horror, monsters on the loose – they’ve been a part of the movies almost since the beginning of the

medium.  Georges Melies famously turned out a vaudeville-flavored adaptation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in 1904, the Edison company produced the first of a nearly century-long parade of film (and later TV) adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1910, and early special effects wizard Willis O’Brien sent a stop-motion animated dinosaur rampaging through the streets of London in a 1925 version of The Lost World, paving the way for future generations of similarly marauding giant apes, resurrected dinosaurs, and oversized insects. Still, — on a purely quantitative basis – the collective output in genres of the fantastic and macabre throughout cinema’s early years was dwarfed by a massive explosion in their popularity following the Second World War.

It was the beginning of the atomic age, the space age, and the Cold War.  At the same time, the movie business was growing increasingly dependent on a young audience with leisure time, disposable income, and which also – due to the events of the day — possessed a sense of great and horrible scientific possibility as well as of the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.  Throughout the 1950s, the youth audience’s appetite for the sensational and fantastic was fed with a steady diet of, for the most part, cheaply made, shabbily produced, blatantly juvenile sci fi thrillers and monster movies heavy on action and short on credibility, yet often still managing to touch on the conscious and subliminal fears of the time, particularly the only half-understood effects of atomic weapons, and the Cold War possibilities of invasion, subversion, and wholesale destruction.

There were massive alien onslaughts (War of the Worlds, 1953) and less conspicuous extraterrestrial infiltrations (Invaders from Mars, 1953); any number of prehistoric beasts resurrected from their hibernations (The Deadly Mantis, 1957) or discovered in remote, unevolved corners of the world (The Land Unknown, 1957); monster-creating experiments gone awry (The Killer Shrews, 1959) and accidental mutations (Beginning of the End, 1957); civilization-threatening effects from atomic testing (Them!, 1954) and the odd end-of-the-world scenario (Day the World Ended, 1955).

Even by the standards of the day, many of these entries were embarrassingly bad.  In Invaders from Mars, the dorsal zippers on the costumes of the alien “mu-tants” is painfully obvious; the overgrown Killer Shrews are clearly dogs in shaggy coats; the army of giant grasshoppers overrunning Chicago in Beginning of the End are too evidently not scaling the side of a downtown newspaper building but crawling along a 2-D photograph of same.

Still, among the massive amounts of dross a few golden nuggets did emerge.  Many of the more memorable sci fiers from the period share several characteristics.  For one, they were often the successful, more attentively made prototype from which cheaper, sillier clones glutting the market were derived.  For another, their elevated quality owes no small debt to the fact they were often turned out by storytellers with a stronger grounding in mainstream drama than in sci fi and fantasy.  For many of these moviemakers, such work had less to do with an interest in aliens or the usual trappings of movie science fiction than in the dramatic promise of the material, and these directors and producers creatively connected with their stories in fashions no different or any less serious than they did with any other property.

Howard Hawks, for example, was already an established director of high reputation with films like His Girl Friday (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), and Red River (1948) to his credit when he produced his only sci fi effort – and a classic 1950s sci fier — The Thing from Another World.  Director Robert Wise – whose later films included the classic musical West Side Story (1961), insightful historical epic The Sand Pebbles (1966), and the science “factual” The Andromeda Strain (1971) — had begun his career as an editor at RKO working on prestigious films like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), then served his directorial apprenticeship in RKO’s “B” unit helming superior if small-scale efforts like gothic horror The Body Snatcher (1945) and the dramatically full-bodied Western Blood on the Moon (1948) before turning to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), another piece of memorable 1950s sci fi.  Cambridge-educated Don Siegel – who, 20 years later, would begin a fruitful collaboration with Clint Eastwood on a string of films including Dirty Harry (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979) — had come out of Warner Bros.’ shorts department to direct several tough, smart “B” pictures like The Big Steal (1949) and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) before turning out his only sci fi movie, yet another celebrated tale of the fantastic from the period, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Still other sci fiers which, perhaps, don’t deserve to be labeled classics, are nevertheless worthwhile and remain entertaining today thanks to the non-fantasist pedigree of their makers.  Eugene Lourie, who launched the revived-dinosaur-on-the-loose trend with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), was not even a director by trade, but a respected art director who had worked with director Jean Renoir in his native France before coming to the U.S. in the 1940s. It was no doubt Lourie’s designer’s eye which helped him camouflage the thinness of his $250,000 budget with a visual stylist’s flair and a penchant for mood.  Only able to afford having his creature – brought to life by the dean of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen – on-screen for just a few minutes of his movie’s 80-minute running time, Lourie hoards that precious footage, often showing the beast only in brief, tantalizing glimpses, or keeping it cloaked in darkness.

To cite one particularly illustrative moment:  the beast has come ashore in lower Manhattan.  That night, the city is under blackout orders with citizens ordered to stay in their homes (a dramatically valid and clever device for keeping the streets of Warner Bros.’ back lot set dark and depopulated).  As the animal prowls among the shadowy downtown canyons, it comes in contact with an electrical barrier set up by the military.  In lightning flashes, the beast is seen roaring and rearing in pain as it touches the hot wires.  Blackout.  Then, fade up on silent files of soldiers moving slowly along the blacked-out avenues tracking the blood spoor from the wounded creature, the only sound their boots on the pavement.  Lourie’s precise and restrained handling of The Beast becomes more impressive when compared to the similarly-plotted but more opulently produced 1998 remake of Godzilla (estimated budget:  $130 million). Where Lourie’s lean and focused plot tantalizes and tries to treat its fantastic premise with a measure of intelligence, Godzilla is a loud, busy, often ridiculous and bloated construction trading mood and mystery for overwhelming spectacle and numbing action.

Gordon Douglas was a solid, journeyman director with a full, well-rounded resume (his filmography includes everything from Hal Roach comedies to the gritty Frank Sinatra vehicle The Detective [1968]) who brought a craftsman’s touch to his one sci fi title, a movie which launched the giant bug cycle:  Them!, a fast-paced yet disciplined story about giant ants which, in the film’s action-packed climax, nest in the storm sewers of Los Angeles.  The mechanical ants may seem laughable compared to present-day CGI creations, but Douglas’ handling of such fantastic material – presenting his incredible tale with a low-key, almost Dragnet-like proceduralism – gives the film a deliciously slow build and sense of mystery typically lacking in today’s more extravagantly produced, hyperkinetic effects-fests.

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While so much downscale sci fi product from the 1950s was turned out by producers and directors whose chief talent seemed to be no more than an ability to bring their movies in on time and within scanty budgets, there were a few genre specialists who managed – even within their budget constraints – to deliver tales of the incredible with a recognized intelligence, and more than a little flair and style.

Producer George Pal is often credited with launching the 1950s science fiction boom with such early successes as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The War of the Worlds.  Pal’s movies typically benefited from more upscale production values than most 1950s sci fi fare, with a good deal of his budgets going into what were then remarkable special effects giving his movies – still small by major studio standards – a grand-scale feel.

One of Pal’s favorite directors was Byron Haskin.  A one-time newsreel cameraman, cinematographer, and special effects technician, Haskin brought a sense of visual style missing in so much 1950s sci fi to Pal’s fantasies.  Looking at The War of the Worlds, one is struck by Haskin’s carefully orchestrated visual plan; gliding, extended, scene-setting crane shots, contrasting with sharp, static diagonals and increasingly frantic, fragmenting cutting in his action sequences.

Haskin’s films for Pal were well above the 1950s sci fi norm thanks to Pal’s ambition to position his projects as serious, major efforts.  Most sci fi directors of the time, however, plied their trade at an unmistakably B level (or lower).  Of those who regularly worked in the genre, only one seemed able to routinely and sure-footedly walk the line between creative cinema and commercial necessity:  Jack Arnold.

Arnold directed a series of modestly-budgeted sci fi films for Universal throughout the mid-1950s, stretching the genre as far as imagination and his limited budgets allowed.  He successfully added the first new creature to the Universal horror ranks in over two decades with his three pictures featuring the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and his movies set in the California desert are respected by genre aficionados for his ability to exploit the barren terrain’s sense of isolation and threat.

Best of the desert series, It Came from Outer Space (1953), shows Arnold’s skill at creating a sense of foreboding without resorting to budget-busting effects or gimmickry.  The story of a crash-landed alien vessel whose inhabitants take human form in a benign but misinterpreted effort to repair their ship and be on their way, Arnold wisely avoids showing the aliens as much as possible.  Instead, their presence is depicted through subtle giveaways in their human guises:  a woman unfazed by a chill desert wind, a man staring unblinkingly into the blinding sun.

Arnold’s acknowledged masterwork is the self-described The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).  What could have been a simple gimmick movie gradually becomes an essay on the value of every individual’s existence.  The movie is, for the time, surprisingly downbeat:  there is no cure, no rescue for the protagonist (Grant Williams).  The story moves from visceral excitement – a doll-sized Williams stalked by a housecat – to a grim, brutal battle for survival between a still-smaller Williams and a spider in the shadowy basement of his abandoned house.  On the verge of turning completely dour as Williams helplessly shrinks to the microscopic, Richard Matheson’s script (adapted from his own novel), instead, takes a turn for the inspirational.  Looking up at the star-filled night sky, size, Williams muses, has nothing to do with worth:  “So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite.” As Arnold’s camera pulls up and away from the dwindling Williams, and Elliot Lawrence’s score swells as images of mammoth galaxies float by, Williams realizes no life – however small — is meaningless, and his last voiceover lines are a defiant:  “To God, there is no zero.  I still exist!”

True, these were the exceptions rather than the norm.  Most of the sci fi and fantasy that played across 1950s movie screens was nothing more than cheaply-produced, forgettable matinee fodder; movies with no more ambition than to divert the young folk on a weekend afternoon.  But, on occasion, a sharp director, an ambitious producer, a keen writer was able to turn a little into a lot…in contrast to the situation today, when so many with so much manage to accomplish so little.

– Bill Mesce