Friday, January 20, 2017

Movie Review: Behemoth the Sea Monster/The Giant Behemoth

One of the most interesting filmmakers when it comes to dinosaurs was Eugène Lourié. A Franco-Ukranian who fled the country after making the anti-Revolutionary film The Black Crows,  he revived his career in France as an artist for the film industry, acting as production designer for directors Jean Renoir and Rene Clair, and art designer for Rene Sti, Georges Marret, Jean de Limur, Marcel L’Herbier, Georges Lacombe, and fellow exile Viktor Tourjansky. As a director from 1953-61, he dabbled in American television, the high concept sci-fi film Colossus of New York, and three films about prehistoric sea monsters.  After his brief directorial stint, he returned to art direction, this time in Hollywood, doing such films as The Battle of the Bulge, Crack of the World, Confessions of an Opium Eater, and more TV work. His interest in special effects led him to work in the spectacular Krakatoa, East of Java. He retired after 1980’s Bronco Billy, and his only speaking role was as a doctor in the 1983 erotic thriller Breathless. He died in LA in 1991. 

His first, best, and most successful of the three Sea Monster films was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I’ve already discussed it but needless to say, his excellent eye combined with amazing effects by the master Ray Harryhausen to make a blockbuster. Godzilla was born of both the Beast and King Kong (the favorite film of both Harryhausen and his Toho counterpart Eiji Tsuburaya), proving to be just as successful as his parents. Both Godzilla and his Beastly progenitor proved to be decisive for Lourie’s next films.

The epic producer Ted Lloyd partnered up with thriller-focused David Diamond with Lourie to make a new science fiction epic. The rising interest in science fiction about atomic radiation prompted writers Allen Adler (who also wrote Forbidden Planet) and the obscure playright Robert Abel  to consider making a film about an amorphous bloblike being resembling a flying, glowing ball of light, that ravaged London with horrifying radiation. However, the distributors Eros Films and Allied Artists knew of Lourie’s dinosaur blockbuster, of course, and the 1956 Godzilla was an international smash as well. So, they insisted to change it to the more visually interesting, kid-friendly, ever popular dinosaur. 

So, Lourie, in tandem with the blacklisted writer Daniel James who had helped him write Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, turned the alien ball into a prehistoric monster. Lourie suggested the unemployed effects revolutionary Willis O’Brien to do the beast, the producers chose Jack Rabin (this also happened in the production of O’Brien’s brainchild The Beast of Hollow Mountain), but Jack Rabin in turn hired O’Brien as supervisor. Since his old apprentice Harryhausen had gone off to his own career, O’Bie had his current apprentice Pete Peterson (Who had helped him with Black Scorpion and worked alongside both O’Brien and Harryhausen in Mighty Joe Young). Matting and optics was provided by the prolific Louis DeWitt and Irving Block, partners with Rabin, and Phil Kellerson provided miniatures of London and the countryside. 

The story begins with a gently rocking shot of the north Atlantic, an echoy narrator quoting the first line of Job 40:15 (the rest of the passage, talking about a river-living herbivore probably corresponding to a hippopotamus or elephant, is naturally omitted) before the credits open. David Diamond gets the first name, with Gene Evans, Andre Morell and John Turner as the top billed cast. Lourie is given sole screenwriting and directing credits, interestingly. Stock nuclear explosion footage leads to a pretentious monologue on the real and relevant issue of the dangers of radiation by the main character, Professor Steve Carns. He’s played by Gene Evans, real life war hero and Hollywood and TV’s prolific tough-as-nail officer, mixing in professorial intellect with the stereotypical American gung-ho bravado as he sets up the premise of the movie. He concludes with “Gentlemen, we are witnessing a biological chain reaction; a geometrical progression of deadly menace!”.

 While this seems uncommonly thoughtful for the time (many on both sides of the pond treated and to some extent still treat nuclear weapons and power very casually), the bombast undermines him faster than Al Gore reading out environmental science. I believe the only black person in the movie is seen as part of the international symposium here.  While he is razzed by an unnamed scientist played by South African TV star Leonard Sachs, he is appreciated by the other main character Professor James Bickford, played by Andre Morrell, a prolific English stage and film actor who supported Jack Hawkins in both Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben Hur. 

We then cut from London to Cornwall, where fisherman Tom Trevathan and his daughter Jean pick up unexpected dead fish. Jean leaves her father briefly, and he is killed by a bright blow as he stands on the shore. Tom is played by the character actor Henri Vidon, and Jean is played by the top-billed actress Leigh Madison, who had just finished her only starring role in the heist film The Pleasure Lovers. Looking into pub for her father, she recruits her boyfriend, the smirking barfly John(played by another prolific character actor John Turner). They find Tom dying on the beach from severe burn wounds, identifying his attacker simply as “behemoth”. After Tom’s funeral, Jean and John return to the beach and find hundreds of dead fish washed ashore, along with glowing shining goop that burns Tom’s hand when he tries to touch it. 

Hearing the news, Carns recruits Bickford, who is curious enough to check out the weird incident. The heroes talk with John and other Cornish residents, who report fish dieoff before John takes them to Dr. Morris, who in turn exposits on Tom’s mortal injuries and reveals John’s burned hand. As John, Jean, and the Cornish watch, Carns and Bickford find no trace of residual radiation.  We never see the Cornish again, despite seemingly setting up Jean and John as protagonists; instead the scientists head back to London where Carns jumps to the conclusion that the radiation is associated with a living animal.

Bickford takes Carns to Dr Ned Lee (actor unidentified) and his radiology lab where Carns examines flounder (which is another thoughtful, scientific bit) and has them radioauthographed. One caught off Plymouth shows heavy radiation, leading Carns to Plymouth to investigate. With an equally fearless captain, they brave a storm and sight the diving head of a sea dragon (or rather a stiff but thankfully brief and well-shot prop head).  Bickford wires him immediately of a ship sinking- Carns inspects the wreckage the following day and concludes a giant radioactive sea beast. Pickford has to concede when he reveals that the glowing glob that burned John was radioactive vomit from said sea beast. They tell their findings to Admiral Summers (played by another prolific character actor, Australian Lloyd Lamble), who actually takes them seriously enough to call the Royal Navy to keep their eyes open.
This all seems rather leisurely, from the report of the death to the RN’s vague proceedings, and only now does it seem the plot actually begins. NATO (represented by stock footage and radio broadcasts) sweeps the sea with radar. Finally the monster comes on land, reducing a farm family to ash with a brief closeup of the head overlaid with the glowing circles. 

In true Godzilla fashion, it leaves a stereotypical footprint that invokes sauropod and theropod feet without matching either in the slightest. Carnes and Vickford finally meet Professor Sampson of the Natural History Museum, who identifies it as a Paleosaurus (the name having been used in the 1800s for indeterminate teeth belonging to sauropodomorphs, phytosaurs, and other archosaurs).  Jabbering and mugging furiously with quivering lip and eye bulging, he estimates it to be 200 feet long, shows concept art to describe the animal, and declares-“Oh, it's heading for the Thames. They always made for the freshwater rivers to die. That's where their skeletons have been found - some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows that gave them birth. You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere, but I had no proof, scientific proof, and I had to keep it to myself, or my colleagues would have all laughed at me. See, no form of life ceases abruptly, and all those reports of sea serpents - well, what can they be?... The tall, graceful neck of paleosaurus. He can stay underneath the surface for an age, and now he comes to the top.”

“I suppose you know it’s also electric?” he exposits; somehow knowing that despite muscles, let alone electric ones, never been imprinted in any Triassic rock. This electric ability is explained by Carnes as how the monster projects its radiation on demand. Bickford and Carns race back to the admiralty to tell Summers “first block off the Thames”. Being a military figure in a monster movie, he draws the line here and offers vague promises instead of sending a squadron to patrol the mouth. Stock footage establishes radar is ineffectual as Sampson takes a helicopter to investigate. No sooner than he sees the glowing outline of the animal than it releases more glowing circles that blows up the chopper. 

After another stock footage interlude, we cut to ferries across the Thames, focusing on one identified as leaving from approach S.E. 18. We see the natural monster victims-a happy young couple and a girl with her doll- as the cuts establish the crossing. In about a minute with additional quick cuts of reactions, the ferry rolling and pitching, and a very cheap looking dragon puppet, the Behemoth capsizes it. 

More montages show the news spreading of the attack, and soldiers meticulously evacuating the populace.  We return to our heroes discussing how to kill the animal, with the navy suggesting bombing and Bickford nixing the idea on the basis of the radioactive debris contaminating the city, even ruling flamethrowers out as the smoke could be irradiated.  Instead, “suppose we introduce, say, 10 centigrams of pure radium into this disintegrating mass” as to overload the radiation. Of course the possibility of this causing another atomic explosion isn’t discussed, as it’s a pretty lazy copy of the Rhedosaurus-killing radioactive bullet.  “Couldn’t we fill up a shell with radium, say, anti-tank?” an officer suggests (hilariously this would prove quite effective against the prehistoric dragon Reptilicus). Bickford nixes that, too, saying they can’t risk missing the 200 foot long BEHEMOTH.  “You know, a torpedo would be an ideal solution” muses Carns. “No, that’s a really dumb idea since you’re even more likely to miss”, muses myself and the audience.  No one points out the ridiculousness of torpedos being more accurate against a giant moving animal than an anti-tank shell, so we just cut to shots establishing the city in terror, focusing on the docks

.More awful shots of the puppet neck finally give way to the monster landing in all its animated glory. It wrecks cranes and storms into the streets. Unfortunately the camera insists on keeping low to the ground and focusing on panicking crowds. The same street and its panic is intercut with extremely awkward closeups of the monster. The same car is stepped on several times. Very impressive shots of the monster in the street are intercut with generic crowds running and extreme closeups of the moving animated head with the buildings projected behind it.  Hilariously, one group stops to gawk at the monster, and the Royal Army’s resistance is a single squad with some light machine guns. Both these are burned with the glowing overlay circles and a shot of a drawing of their charred corpses. The rampage abruptly cuts to Bickford FINALLY putting on a radiation suit and visiting completely welders working on the torpedo.

 The next scene is the best in the film; framed by distant city lights, the dark silhouetted Behemoth lumbers towards the camera past a power plant, getting zapped by electrical towers, then smashing them in Godzilla fashion, dragging one past the camera. While derivative of the same scene in Godzilla,  the lighting makes the dragon shape look striking and menacing, and the wide shot finally gives a sense of hugeness so lacking with other shots.  This and the next monster scene are the only ones that that come close to Lourie’s constant dramatic framing of the imposing Beast From 20,000 fathoms. More shots show London burning and a generator exploding as the Beast walks along the riverfront. You can make out what might be Westminster but it’s poorly established. Still, the lighting and the framing again finally put the monster to spectacular use, especially as spotlights illuminate the Behemoth grabbing a starting car and throwing it into the Thames.  The rampage abruptly ends as Behemoth rears up impressively before crashing through a motor bridge. It’s not even the tower bridge like O’Bie’s original Lost World. 

We cut back to the scientists finally welding the torpedo. Remember how pointless it was for Nesbitt to join the sniper in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms? This takes it a step further with the entirely redundant Carnes acting as navigator in a two-man sub.  The film even seems to lampshade this

“Just tell me where to steer and when to pull the trigger” jokes the captain
“I’ll certainly try” chuckles Carnes. 

The Behemoth is finally seen swimming in stop-motion, an impressive effect that Godzilla would not see until 1999 and again very reminiscent of a similarly inventive scene in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Aside from a nondramatic bump, the mission is successful and the monster abruptly explodes. Somehow this doesn’t nuke the completely unprotected and leaky sub and the Thames itself.

In the best non-monster scene in the film, Carnes and Bickford settle into their car when the radio reports of dead fish appearing on the Atlantic coast of the US, prompting a grimace.
You may notice I’m a lot more detailed in this review than in Beast. Well, it’s simply because you should fast forward through the thoughtful but very slow-paced film and focus on the very brief stop motion. Unlike Gorgo or Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, it’s rather clunky. As much as I like scientists taking the lead in films, these old gents may be likeable but man are they dull. The cast is just minimalist, and the action extremely brief. You could tell this is the cheapest of Lourie’s films, sadly, and even the mighty O’bie and Peterson had to work for one week on a shed table for the animation with what looks like a very stiff, unexpressive model where you can visibly see the stitching of the rubber alligator skin.  The monster just lacks the pathos of the Rhedosaurs despite having a similar, dragonlike design. 

I rate it 58 out of 100-while the pacing is tedious, it’s very careful. The science wavers from predictably sloppy (the paleontology especially) to rather thoughtful and accurate (the effects on marine life and how it is measured). The cast is fine but extremely minimal-the young Cornish couple is dumped entirely and no woman is seen again for more than a single scene at a time. The paleontologist is played for laughs rather than pathos, rather annoyingly. The monster scenes are brief and often poorly shot, but with a few standouts worth watching. I’d rent this movie, not buy it.  And don’t worry, I’ll get to Gorgo soon enough!

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