Saturday at the Movies: 50s 3D Horror and Early Talkie Hitchcock

I attended two very different revival screenings yesterday. In the early afternoon, I visited the Castro to catch the newly-restored Creature from the Black Lagoon in all of its 3D spender. Then, in the evening, I dropped in at the Pacific Film Archive to catch a rare, early Alfred Hitchcock talkie, Rich and Strange.

Both were fun, but neither was a must see.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

I’d seen this 1954 science fiction monster movie three times before–all theatrical and always in 3D. But that was way back in the 1970s. Yesterday, I believe, was my first time seeing it without benefit of marihuana.

It was still pretty funny.

Set in a previously-unexplored tributary of the Amazon–that looks suspiciously like the imageUniversal back lot–Creature follows a small group of scientists, plus a colorful local fisherman, as they search for fossils and find something stranger–a sort of man-fish highbred that doesn’t appear to be particularly well-adapted for anything. Perhaps that explains why he’s all alone; his species is well on the way to extinction.

Why am I calling the creature he, despite the lack of any visible genitalia? Everyone in the movie assumes that the creature is male. What’s more, he seems strangely interested in the one female member of the expedition (young and beautiful, of course).

So let’s take a moment to consider that one female character in the movie, played by Julie Adams. She’s supposed to be a scientist, but she never does anything remotely scientific. While male scientists scuba dive to collect underwater rocks, then run tests below deck, she hangs around, puts herself in dangerous situations, and occasionally screams. But as anyone familiar with 1950s horror understands, those are the primary responsibilities of all female scientists.

(To be fair, some 50’s movies treat female scientists a tad more seriously. See It Came From Beneath the See  for a better role model.)

The other characters are equally stereotyped. You’ve got the handsome, virtuous young man, the older, wise scientist, the boss who cares more about money than research, and the colorful fishing boat captain. Much of the dialog is memorable, although perhaps not in the way the screenwriters intended:

Captain: What kind of fishing is that? Who eats rocks?

Old scientist:  I eat rocks, in a manner of speaking. I crush and look inside them and they tell me things.

This was my first time seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon with decent 3D. Before that, I had only seen it in the dreadful anaglyph 3D version of the 1970s, which required cheap, colored glasses that degraded the image.  Yesterday’s screening used modern, polarized, digital 3D, which gets considerably closer to how the film would have looked in the dual-projector setups of 1954.

Director Jack Arnold (who a few years later would make the excellent Incredible Shrinking Man) and cinematographer William E. Snyder don’t overdo the 3D effects–or at least they don’t overdo overdoing them. The underwater scenes are particularly effective in 3D. On the other hand, rear projection scenes are particularly fake.

But then, you don’t go to a movie called Creature from the Black Lagoon expecting realism.

Rich and Strange

The Pacific Film Archive‘s Alfred Hitchcock series is winding down, so it felt like a good time to catch a rare work from the Master of Suspense. Except that Rich and Strange was made in 1931, before he had come anywhere near earning that title.

You can’t honestly call this modestly budgeted British programmer a thriller, as there are very few actual thrills. image(You can, however, call it East of Shanghai; as did the American distributers.) It starts as a comedy of manners, becomes a fake travelogue, then turns into a serious drama about adultery. A shipwreck sequence near the end gives it a little bit of that Hitchcockian suspense.

Why a fake travelogue? Because everything shot for the film was done on a soundstage. Stock footage and studio sets make up for all of the story’s locations.

The plot is simple and initially conflict-free: A bored and miserable married couple (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry) unexpectedly come into some money. So they decide to travel the world first class, seeing the sites and spending time with the "best" people.

Of course things don’t go smoothly. He suffers from seasickness. She gets bored. They both get very drunk. Each is successfully romanced and seduced by someone else, almost destroying their marriage.

For an early talkie, Rich and Strange appears strangely like a silent movie. The many dialog-free sequences are clearly shot with a hand-cranked camera. It even uses a surprising number of narrative intertitles ("To get to Paris, you must first cross the channel.") These add to the light sense of fun, and make for some of the best sequences. The wordless, over-cranked opening, where the husband battles rain, a crowded subway, and a defective umbrella, is one of the funniest sequences in Hitchcock’s work.

The movie sags a bit in the middle, as adultery threatens the marriage and some broadly-drawn characters threaten the film. But the shipwreck sequence, with the characters trapped in a cabin on the sinking ship, reminds us of the Hitchcock to come.

Mildly entertaining on its own merits, Rich and Strange‘s major value today is as a glimpse of the artist who, in three years, would emerge as the greatest creator of thrillers that the cinema has ever known.

The PFA presented a rare, imported 35mm print of Rich and Strange.