The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The father of all giant atomic monsters, The Beast inspired Godzilla and numerous other films to have giant dinosaurs or octopi crawl out of the water and wreak havoc on unsuspecting cities. Stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen’s first film in charge of the effects is somewhat hampered by a low budget and a meandering script, but there’s flashes of excellent acting among the blandness, and extremely riveting action sequences of the titular monster bearing down on New York. The cast is filled with sci-fi noteables and Lee Van Cleef. A genuine classic.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Directed by Eugène Lourié. Written by Lou Morheim, Fred Freiberger, Daniel James, Eugène Lourié, Robert Smith. Suggested by the short story The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury. Starring: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, Lee Van Cleef. Visual effects & animation: Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Jack Dietz for Mutual Pictures of California. Tomatometer: 94 % IMDb score: 6.7

Ray Harryhausen's Beast rampaging through New York.

Ray Harryhausen’s Beast rampaging through New York.

A couple of years back I worked as a foreign affairs editor at one of the top newspapers in Finland. One evening as I sat at my desk I saw the newsflash of Ray Harryhausen’s death. Strictly speaking, movies were not my jurisdiction, but I knew that the culture pages were already done and because of the late hour and recent cut-backs we were working on a skeleton crew, so I decided to walk down to the news desk to make sure they hadn’t missed the the flash.

Poster.

Poster.

”So, I suppose someone here is doing a bit on Ray Harryhausen’s death?” I asked.

I was met with blank stares and an unsettling silence.

Ray who?”

I wasn’t surprised that the people my age or younger didn’t know Harryhausen, but I would have expected at least some of the senior editors on deck to recognise the name. But that’s when I realised just how much the world of movies and popular culture had moved on since Harryhausen. Apart from film nerds like me, no-one under 50 watched of cared much about films like The 7th Voyage of Sindbad or Jason and the Argonauts.

I ended up writing the the short obituary myself.

This 1953 film was the first movie where Ray Harryhausen was personally in charge of the special effects, and it was made on the cheap by Jack Dietz’ company Mutual Pictures of California, and distributed by Warner Bros. to cash in on the re-release of King Kong (1933, review) in 1952. Even though the giant monster/dinosaur film had never really gone away, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms re-ignited the craze, and established some of the important tropes of the genre, that still haven’t completely gone away – the awakening (or creation) of the monster through nuclear energy, and the giant dragon/dinosaur rampaging through some major city.

Willis O'Brien's stop-motion Allosaurus in action.

Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion Allosaurus in action in The Lost World (1925).

The giant lizard monster/prehistoric monster genre is one that has me a bit befuddled. As a rule, I tend to leave these films unreviewed, as I don’t see them as science fiction as such. The Lost World (1925, review) was an exception, firstly because the film was such a huge influence on science fiction that I couldn’t well leave it out, but secondly, there actually was quite a lot of science going on in that movie (crazy science, but still). King Kong was a movie that simply could not be left out because of its huge influence on sci-fi, although it is clearly a fantasy film rather that sci-fi. But films like One Million B.C. (1940), Unknown Island (1948) and Lost Continent (1951) are not covered on this blog, because they are simply fantasy films and not science fiction. For a prehistoric creature movie to make it onto this blog, it has to have some other science fiction, or even science, element to it. People just stumbling upon an island with dinosaurs doesn’t cut the mustard. But with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and the subsequent Godzilla (1954, review), we get a thorough sci-fi explanation for the monsters’ existence, which brings these films into a whole new ball park.

Paul Hubschmid and friend.

Paul Hubschmid and friend.

Even if you haven’t seen the film, the plot will be familiar to you. It all starts somewhere along the Arctic Circle, where scientists and the military are doing nuclear tests. Our protagonist Tom Nesbitt (Swiss Paul Hubschmid, credited as Paul Christian), along with a colleague, go out to take readings among in the glacier, but the colleague is killed by a giant dinosaur and Nesbitt scared nearly to death by it. If the movie was prompted by King Kong, then the opening sequence is quite clearly inspired by the Arctic setting of Howard Hawks‘ and Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951, review). The research station is near identical, and director Eugène Lourié even tries to emulate something of the documentary feel and overlapping dialogue. The movie even sports Kenneth Tobey as the non-nonsense Colonel Jack Evans. Tobey essentially played the same character when he did the lead in The Thing … and would go on to reprise it a third time in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review).

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Kenneth Tobey (second from right) as Col. Evans and Paul Hubschmid as Dr. Nesbitt on the stretcher.

We quickly move back to the States, where it turns out nobody believes Nesbitt’s story of a giant monster, and he is forced to talk to a shrink (King Donovan from The Magnetic Monster [1952, review] and Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956]), who tells him his brain has simply short-circuited from the stress. In the meantime, we catch up with our Beast, who proceeds to sink a Canadian trawler. Back to Nesbitt, who next consults Professor Thurgood Elson (a brilliant, brilliant Cecil Kellaway), a kind and whimsical professor, just about to go on his first holiday in 13 years. Nesbitt posits that the prehistoric creature would have been thawed out of the ice by the blast, and come back to life. Elson politely informs Nesbitt that he is a complete loony, but his assistant, the beautiful young Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) thinks there may be something to his story, because Nesbitt has written such a brilliant paper on radioactive isotopes, and ”he seemed so sincere”.

Shipwreck!

Shipwreck!

Meanwhile, the Beast wrecks a lighthouse in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, and the one scene that justifies the ”Inspired by a story by Ray Bradbury” credit. Then we go on to some character development, where Lee shows Nesbitt drawings of dinosaurs, hoping he might recognise the monster he saw. Take note that we here have a female character that is more than just window-dressing. She also serves coffee and sandwiches, naturally. The scene with the two politely flirting with each other over the dinosaur pitcures is actually rather enjoyable, as it has a very laid-back and natural feel about it, absent from many films of the decade, with Nesbitt slouching on the floor next to a sofa, with Lee in the sofa, precariously brushing her (fully covered) knee agains his shoulder, which would have seemed rather racy at the time. Unfortunately it is also interpunctuated with really bad jokes about her as a palaentoligist and representing the past, him being a nuclear scientist, representing the future. ”Well, let’s get back to the present”, she interjects as a kiss hangs in the air. Another cringe-worthy line is ”I make coffee strong enough to enter the Olympics.” I had to rewind to make sure I didn’t mishear it. Someone actually wrote that line? Finally Nesbitt finds what he is looking for: it is a rhedosaurus, Lee informs him. No, don’t bother googling, it doesn’t exist. There may be some half-clever word-play going on as ”rhedo” means ”in reserve” or ”backup-” in Latin. This is literally the backup dino, when all actual critters failed to live up to Harryhausen’s vision.

Paula Raymond as Lee, Paul Hubschmid as Nesbitt, Jack Pennick as first mate and Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson.

Paula Raymond as Lee, Paul Hubschmid as Nesbitt, Jack Pennick as first mate and Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson.

We then veer off to find the Canadian captain of the sunken trawler, which takes up a good deal of time, only to have him refuse to testify about the ”sea serpent” he claims to have seen (10 minutes of padding done right there, and Swiss Hubschmid gets to showcase his fluent French), but his first mate (Jack Pennick) picks out the same dino as Nesbitt did, making a real case for the existence of the monster. Lee and Nesbitt are able to convince Dr. Elson, who in turn convinces Colonel Evans, who seems to be in charge of both nuclear explosions and defence against prehistoric monsters. One might think he would have risen in rank to general by now. Elson noted that attacks at lighthouses and ships have been made along the east coast of USA from north to south, and this being a rhedosaurus, the thing is probably on its way to its place of birth at the Hudson river (that’s where fossils have been found). With the help of Evans, Elson sets out to find the thing in a diving bell, and promptly gets eaten while enthusiastically describing the beast to Lee over the radio. Cue short sequence of sadness and reminiscing over his silly walk and the way he would give his specimens pet names.

The Beast.

The Beast.

Then begins the final fifteen minutes of the film, the ones it is remembered for – the Beast climbs ashore on Manhattan and starts wreaking havoc. Colonel Evans takes charge of the defence of New York City, because he is apparently the most bad-ass man in the military and is not only expert on nuclear bombs and sea monsters, but also on urban warfare and disasters. As his adviser he gets Dr. Nesbitt, because a man who studies nuclear isotopes is exactly the guy you need for strategy when fighting a 100-foot prehistoric monster. Actually the scenes of the military stalking the wounded beast in a desolated New York are quite eerie and very effective. Of course conventional weapons have nothing on the Beast, and to make matters worse, it also spreads some kind of radioactive disease (conveniently discovered five minutes before the film’s ending). Evans’ strategy to hire Nesbitt as adviser pays off, when he suggests firing a rare nuclear isotope into an open wound of the Beast – thus destroying it from the inside, and preventing the radioactive germs from spreading in the wind. Quickly the isotope is loaded into a grenade, and given to the army’s best rifle man, which actually turns out to be none other than a young Lee Van Cleef, of later spaghetti western fame. However, to get a good shot, he must climb a rollercoaster, along with Nesbitt carrying the isotope in a lead-lined box, leading to the suspenseful last scene of the movie. And the rest you can probably figure out for yourselves.

Destroying the lighthouse.

Destroying the lighthouse.

The movie is, as mentioned, ”suggested by” a story by lauded sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. Bradbury had written a story called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms for The Saturday Evening Post in 1951. It is a beautiful and sad little tale of two lighthouse keepers who observe that each year in the autumn, when they start blowing their fog horn, an ancient creature (described much like a brontosaurus) comes to pay a visit. The creature, perhaps the last of his kind, thinks the horn is the call of a female of his species, and lonesome and love-lorn, he comes looking for love, but each time returns down-beaten, as the lighthouse stubbornly refuses to give in to his amorous calls. At last, one year, the creature becomes so angry at this taunting that wakes him from his sleep and gets his hopes up every year, that he promptly destroys the lighthouse.

The original drawing from The Saturday Evening Post, 1951.

The original drawing from The Saturday Evening Post, 1951.

Whether or not this little story inspired one of the five screenwriters to write the scene where the Beast topples the lighthouse is not known. What is known is that the screenplay was more or less finished, when producer Jack Dietz brought it to Ray Bradbury and asked if he was interested in doing a re-write, perhaps hoping to gain some extra push for the movie by adding the up-and-coming author’s name to the roster. Bradbury was already one of the hottest tickets in the sci-fi fields, after having released his Martian Chronicles and his magnum opus, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury himself was now trying to assert himself as a screenwriter. This was 1952, when he would later write the screenplay for It Came from Outer Space (1953, review), but that film was released earlier, because of the time it took Harryhausen to complete his stop-motion animation. Bradbury wasn’t particularly interested in taking a crack at somebody else’s work, which he has rarely done, but he pointed out the similarities between the lighthouse scene and his recently published short story. Sensing a win-win opportunity, Dietz bought the rights to the short story. Thus he got the chance to connect the respected writer’s name to his film, and Bradbury got paid for doing nothing at all, and further advanced his reputation as a screenwriter. The film had another working title, but now took the name of Bradbury’s story. Bradbury later renamed his story The Fog Horn when he anthologised it, as to avoid confusion with the film. The short story in The Saturday Evening Post was accompanied by a drawing by James R. Bingham, which Harryhausen replicated in the film.

Animator Willis OBrien left with Eugène Lourié during the making of The Black Scorpion in 1957.

Animator Willis O’Brien (left) with Eugène Lourié during the making of The Black Scorpion in 1957.

Legend has it that Mutual Pictures had a hard time finding a director for the movie, and one that had been attached pulled out before the film had gone into production. Eugène Lourié, the assigned production designer, suggested he might take over directing duties, and the producers agreed. Lourié was a respected French (born in present-day Ukraine) designer, who had worked with directors like Jean Renoir, René Clair and Charlie Chaplin, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was his first directorial effort. He got some other directorial work on TV, but is best known for his monster films – the others he directed were Colossus of New York (1955), as well as two British productions, Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959) and Gorgo (1961). After this he quit directing, as he was tired of only getting offered monster films. However, he had a long and successful career as production designer, art director, special effects creator and sometimes even writer, producer and actor. He was nominated for an Oscar for his special effects on the disaster film Krakatoa: East of Java (1968). He also did the art direction and special effects on Crack in the World (1965).

Paula Raymond and Cecil Kellaway.

Paula Raymond and Cecil Kellaway.

The film is one that can split opinions, as it did in the day. The New York Times, notoriously unkind to science fiction and monster film, wasn’t at all impressed, and Armond White panned the story. He also noted that titular monster didn’t exactly send the audience running in panic, and added: ”On sober second thought, however, this might have been sensible.” Variety was kinder, praising the special effects and animation. Of current-day reviewers, there are some who feel this is Harryhausen’s best film, even though they are in the minority. Others deride it as a slow-moving and messy low-budget schlocker, which is partly true, but perhaps not the whole truth.

Kenneth Tobey and Paul Hubschmid.

Kenneth Tobey and Paul Hubschmid.

Indeed, apart from the idea of wakening a monster through a nuclear explosion (a stroke of genius), there is little originality in the script. Horror and sci-fi films through the ages have revolved around a central character trying to convince the rest of the world of some menace that others refuse to see, which is what Nesbitt does throughout most of the film, and the idea of the giant monster loose in the city is a clean ripoff off King Kong, even if the destruction rendered is on an unprecedented scale. Some will try to seek some profundity in the fact that the monster is used as a metaphor for nuclear power, or the nuclear bomb, but the problem is that the script never really gets around to that part. There is much talk between the scientists in the beginning of the movie about the danger of this new untested science. They even make themselves guilty of pompous biblical analogies, as one scientist says that every time a nuclear test goes off, he feels as if he is at the beginning of a new Genesis, to which Nesbitt replies that he is afraid they instead be closing the chapter of the old one. But as soon as the monster is on the loose, all these considerations are out the window, and it’s just another monster-on-the-loose film. True, when Elson is going down in the diving bell, Nesbitt says that he should be the one going down, as he was the one who set the monster loose, but it never gets any further than that. The subject is just simply dropped. If the film tries to make a point about nuclear weapons, it definitely loses all coherence in the end, when it is actually a nuclear device that kills the beast. It is possible that there was at one point an idea, but considering the many hands at the script, it might have gotten lost in the re-writes. Most probable is that Jack Deitz and the other producers simply thought it was a good marketing strategy to combine the unease regarding nuclear tests and bombs with the rekindled interest in giant monster movies. However, the script got something right, as it was nominated for a Hugo.

Fred Freiberger.

Fred Freiberger.

Primary screenwriters were Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger. Freiberger also co-wrote the 1957 film Beginning of the End and a number of other films, but found his true career in TV, where he became a prolific writer and producer. He wrote and/or produced several episodes for The Wild Wild West (1965), Josie and the Pussy Cats in Outer Space (1972), Super Friends (1973), The Six Million Dollar Man (1977-1978) and Superboy (1988-1989). He also wrote and produced two sci-fi TV movies and was principle producer on the TV series Space: 1999 (1975) and Beyond Westworld (1980). He is probably best remembered, however, as producer of the third and final season of the original Star Trek series (1968-1969), taking over from Gene Roddenberry. Debate has raged over his talents as a producer, since four of the sci-fi series he produced were cancelled during his watch – apart from Star Trek, they were Josie and the Pussy Cats in Outer Space, The Six Million Dollar Man and Space: 1999. But actors Nichelle Nicholls and William Shatner of Star Trek have both defended Freiberger, claiming he did what he could – and well – with a series that NBC had decided was going out anyway. Some sci-fi fans still refer to him as ”the series killer”, while others point out that Freiberger on all the three major shows stepped in to try and save series that were already in big trouble. The animated Josie and the Pussy Cats in Outer Space was a spin-off of Josie and the Pussy Cats, and was Freiberger’s own idea, and was probably never meant to run for more than one season.

Building the rollercoaster for the last scene.

Building the rollercoaster for the last scene.

Lou Morheim initially had a similar career trajectory as Freiberger. He started out writing scripts for films, but soon found himself as writer and producer for TV shows. He is perhaps best known for co-scripting the films The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Hunting Party (1971), as well as for producing the hit western series The Big Valley (1965-1969). He also worked as a writer and producer on the TV shows The Outer Limits (1965) and The Immortal (1975).

Fire at Will! Thats his name.

Fire at Will! (Thats his name).

Screenwriting credit for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was also given to Lourié, Daniel James and Robert Smith. James worked only on four films, all of them with Lourié – he also co-wrote Behemoth the Sea Monster and Gorgo. Robert Smith this blog already knows as the producer of the abysmal Invasion U.S.A. (1952, review), which he also wrote. He also wrote for the TV series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957) and Sea Hunt (1958-1961), although why anyone would give him a job in Hollywood after Invasion U.S.A. is beyond me.

Cecil Kellaway.

Cecil Kellaway.

Despite the fact that the film doesn’t offer much in the way of food for thought, and it sometimes feels a little plodding, it never feels overtly slow or boring, but is thoroughly entertaining all the way through. The film never tries to be more solemn that it is, and throws in a bunch of off-hand remarks and jokes here and there. The world hangs in the balance, but it is only a movie, and a B popcorn reel at that, and the filmmakers know it. The lightness is partly thanks to Cecil Kellaway, who does an absolutely wonderful job as Professor Elson, and is thoroughly enjoying himself. What a loveable character! We have already encountered Kellaway in The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), where I described his portrayal of the knowing police officer pursuing said invisible menace as ”superb”. I also wrote that he was ”a South African stage actor who got lured from Australia to Hollywood in the early thirties, and after a decade of doing mostly comedic characters in B-films, rose to fame as a sought-after character actor, and was nominated for two Oscars for supporting roles in The Luck of the Irish (1948) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)”. He also appeared in Destination Space (1959), as well as the TV-series The Twilight Zone (1959). He was offered the role of Kris Kringle in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), but turned it down. Instead it went to his cousin Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for it.

Ray Harryhausen.

Ray Harryhausen.

The star of the film is naturally Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation. As mentioned, this was Harryhausen’s first film in charge of special effects. He didn’t invent the puppeteering technique, but picked it up after seeing pioneer Willis O’Brien’s work on The Lost World and King Kong. Harryhausen made his first short stop-motion film in college in the early forties, and sent the unfinished movie to George Pal, who at the time was known as a master animator, rather than a visionary sci-fi producer. Pal was so impressed that he hired Harryhausen as an animator on his popular Puppetoon children’s short films. Harryhausen continued with these films up until 1952. In between he also got hired by his idol Willis O’Brien to work on the pseudo-sequel to King Kong, Mighty Joe Young (1949), which earned O’Brien an Oscar, although Harryhausen did most of the animation on the movie.

The problem with stop-motion animation has always been that it is an extremely time-consuming process – and that’s not only because the puppets themselves have to be so carefully adjusted. There was also the question of combining the puppets with the actors – and make it all look real and three-dimensional. What Willis O’Brien had done to create this effect was sandwich the puppets between painstakingly painted glass mattes and rear-screen projection of the actors. But since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a low-budget movie made for only 210 000 dollars – less that It Came from Outer Space with its rubber aliens, for example, the producers simply couldn’t afford to hire him for the length of time it took to paint and adjust all the glass mattes. So Harryhausen had to think of something new. What he did, was that he learned from other special effects people how to film so-called travelling mattes – or what we today refer to as blue- or green-screen. Once he had that down, he could replace the glass mattes with travelling mattes that gave the same depth-illusion, but had the added benefit that he could use live-action film or photographs. This meant that he could do his work much faster, but it still took half a year for him to conclude the effects on movie.

The Arctic scene.

The Arctic scene.

The lesson he learned from O’Brien was the importance of giving the puppets character and personality – intelligence, if you will. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is perhaps not the prime example of this, but the again, we are dealing with a dinosaur and not a Cyclops. Still, the Beast isn’t merely a killing machine, as many other movie monsters tend to be, but has its little quirks and is clearly interested in the new world he is exploring, which is what makes him so interesting to watch. It’s not Harryhausen’s best work, and there are sequences where the animation is rather jerky. But in some instances you almost believe that what you are seeing is a real live dinosaur from the deep.

The Beast burning.

The Beast burning.

Harryhausen is best known for his fantastic work in the fantasy epics based on Greek mythology, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but he got his start in science fiction. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was followed by It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Much of his later work was produced by Charles Schneer, who also indulged Harryhausen his wish to co-create one of his pet projects, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964). The dinosaur movie The Valley of Gwangi isn’t his best film, and is one of those that some would call sci-fi, but which I call fantasy. His best known film outside the mythological movies is probably One Million Years B.C., which is a film that is probably watched by creationists as a documentary. To be fair, the film is probably better known for Raquel Welch’s minimal bikini than for Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, but some claim that the movie contains some of his best animation. One should point out perhaps, that even though we speak of Harryhausen films, he didn’t direct a single full-length feature film, he did co-produce many of them, however.

Paul Hubschmid and Ray Harryhausen in latter years.

Paul Hubschmid and Ray Harryhausen in latter years.

The acting in the film often receives some flack, and surely there are no Oscar-worthy performances in it. But overall I find that the acting is quite decent. Swiss Paul Hubschmid’s accent is all over the place, but I find it quite refreshing to have an accented actor as a heroic lead, which you don’t see that often in films like this. Of course, they could have named his character Hans Zimmer or something, instead of Tom Nesbitt, since no-one buys that he is American or British. But if it worked for Schwarzenegger, then why not for Hubschmid … In fact, Hubschmid comes off as one of the more nuanced of the many buff leading men in the Hollywood B movies of the day, which should come as no surprise as he had a solid theatrical and cinematic background, having acted on stage and in film in Germany since the thirties.

Paul Hubschmid and Michael Caine in Funeral in Berlin in 1966.

Paul Hubschmid and Michael Caine in Funeral in Berlin in 1966.

Hubschmid moved to Hollywood in 1948, and acted mostly in B movies, under the name Paul Christian. He had one of the leads opposite Maureen O’Hara and Vincent Price in Bagdad (1949) and another lead opposite Viveca Lindfors in Don Siegel’s No Time for Flowers (1952). He returned to Germany in 1953, and appeared both on stage and in film, although few of his German films of this era reached an international audience. He continued to make international movies, and in 1958 starred in his only other sci-fi film, the Italo-US exploitation movie The Day the Sky Exploded. In 1959 he starred in two popular German historical adventure romances directed by Fritz Lang, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Tomb of Love. The films were mangled and re-edited into a single 90 minutes long feature called Journey to the Lost City in USA. He appeared alongside Michael Caine, Oskar Homolka and his wife Eva Renzi in the German-British production Funeral in Berlin (1966) and the American WWII movie In Enemy Country (1968). He had the dubious honour of starring alongside Burt Reynolds in the missing bad link movie Skullduggery in 1970. Hubschmid practically retired in 1975, but still appeared sporadically in film and on TV until 1992. He passed away in 2001, 84 years old.

Paula Raymond and Cary Grant in Crisis in 1950.

Paula Raymond and Cary Grant in Crisis in 1950.

Paula Raymond’s part is unfortunately not very well written, and she gets most of the cringeworthy lines of the movie, like the coffee fit to enter the Olympics, and ”I have a deeply abiding faith in science. Otherwise I wouldn’t have become a scientist”. Raymond seems as if she is not quite sure how seriously to take the role, and comes off as one of the weaker links in the movie. She was, however, a fairly sought-after actress for B movies in Hollywood, and was even poised for bigger success at one time. After a string of bit-parts in the late forties, she was picked up by MGM as a leading lady, first opposite Cary Grant in Crisis (1950), then Devil’s Doorway (1950) with Robert Taylor, and The Tall Target (1951) with Dick Powell. However, her roles got smaller, and she was let go from MGM in 1952, and found herself appearing as leading lady again, but now in B movies. She quickly transitioned to TV, briefly left the business in 1955 only to return in 1958, and her career started to pick up again in 1959 with a good number of guest spots on successful shows. But her career was interrupted by a car accident, which nearly tore off her nose, which required a year of plastic surgery to mend. She was back to acting in 1962, but her career never really took off after that. A broken ankle torpedoed what would have been a regular role on Days of Our Lives, her second missed opportunity after she had turned down a role in Gunsmoke in 1952. Her last credited acting roles (according to IMDb) were the apallingly bad horror films Five Bloody Graves and Blood of Dracula’s Castle (both 1969), starring John Carradine and Robert Dix. She had a bit-part in the 1994 mystery thriller Mind Twister. Alledgedly a fall in 1984 in which she broke both her hips hindered her career, but on the other hand, she hadn’t had much of a career since 1962, and it was unlikely to pick up tremendously after her 60th birthday.

Kenneth Tobey is steady in his signature role, as mentioned earlier. Tobey was a prolific character actor, who didn’t appear in as many sci-fi films as his reputation would have it. For more on him, read my review of The Thing from Another World. Donald Woods as one of the military men is also dependable, the seasoned character actor that he was. In 1952 he hae a few minutes in the limelight as the titular character of the short-lived TV series Craig Kennedy, Criminologist.

Lee Van Cleef as the sniper.

Lee Van Cleef as the sniper.

Western legend Lee Van Cleef probably doesn’t need any introduction. Many might not know, though, that at the same time that he made his film debut in High Noon (1952), he also appeared in a number of episodes of the kiddie show Space Patrol, the main rival of Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review). In 1956 he appeared in Roger Corman’s sci-fi movie It Conquered the World, in one of the leads, and made a guest appearance on The Twilight Zone in 1961. He is also remembered by sci-fi fans as Hauk, the man who sends Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken into New York in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).

Steve Brodie,

Steve Brodie,

The movie is filled with an impressive cast of B film foot soldiers, and it would take forever to name all that should be named. But let’s pick out a few. Steve Brodie (as another military type) played the ill-fated reporter Herbie Yokum in Donovan’s Brain (1953), appeared in a couple of episodes of Science Fiction Theatre (1955), and appeared in three of the worst sci-fi films ever made. He had a starring role in the sci-fi comedy The Wild World of Batwoman, that holds the place of the 40th worst film in history on IMDb. He played on of the leads in The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and had another leading role in the truly awful Frankenstein Island (1981). He sort of made up for it in a role in the low-budget fireworks that was The Wizard of Speed and Time in 1988. Ross Elliott appeared in supporting roles in Carolina Cannonball (1955), Tarantula (1955, review), Indestructible Man (1956), Monster on the Campus (1958), The Crawling Hand (1963) and a whole bunch of sci-fi TV shows.

Paula Hill who plays some character called Miss Ryan’s claim to fame is that she played the female lead in the cringy patchwork Mesa of Lost Women (1953, review). Michael Fox as the ER doctor appeared earlier the same year in The Magnetic Monster, and went on to appear in the other two Ivan Tors films about the Office of Scientific Investigation: Gog (1954, review) and Riders to the Stars (1954, review). He also appeared in Conquest of Space (1955, review), War of the Satellites (1958) and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), as well as a number of TV series. Fox doubled as dialogue director on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The above mentioned King Donovan’s greatest claim to fame is playing one of the leads in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also appeared in The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. Prolific character actor and acting coach James Best is best known for his role as Sheriff Roscoe Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985). He had bit-parts in Riders to the Stars and Forbidden Planet (1956), as well as starring roles in a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone (1962-1963). Some fan at IMDb has written that The Dukes of Hazzard was ”far below his talents”, but that writer should have taken a better look at his resumé and found out that he also played the lead in The Killer Shrews (1959) and The Brain Machine (1977), and I’m not sure how much lower you can go.

Robert Easton.

Robert Easton.

In a tiny bit-part as deckhand we find Robert Easton, renowned character actor and a dialect coach in Hollywood. Easton provided the voice for one of the leads in the SF marionette series Stingray (1964-1965), had a starring role in The Giant Spider Invasion, played the Klingon Judge in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), appeared in Storybook (1996) and had one of the leads in Spiritual Warriors (2007). He worked  as a dialogue coach on a number of high-profile movies, including Al Pacino’s Scarface (1981), Good Will Hunting (1997), and The Last King of Scotland, where he worked, among others, with Forest Whitaker, who won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his portrait of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He also worked with actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger (not entirely successfully, it would seem), Charlton Heston, Liam Neeson and Anne Hathaway, among others. Easton passed away in 2011. In an obit The Boston Globe writes that Easton started paying attention to speech patterns to tackle a stutter as a child, and started learning accents when he feared getting typecast as a dumb southerner. In later years he was instantly recognisable for his long, white hair and white, wizard-like beard.

Paula Raymond, Paul Hubschmid, some guy, Cecil Kellaway and Kenneth Tobey.

Paula Raymond, Paul Hubschmid, some guy, Cecil Kellaway and Kenneth Tobey.

Other notable bit-part actors include Roy Engel (see my review of The Man from Planet X, 1951), Joe Gray, who appeared in The War of the Worlds (1953, review), a number of James Bond-inspired comedies with agents Flint and Matt Helm, as well as Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) – and the actor that appears in about one third of the films I review, Franklyn Farnum, always there, always uncredited. One of the stuntmen on the film is legendary Gil Perkins, who, among other things, doubled for Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1953, review). Perkins also had a number of speaking roles, some of them rather big.

Omnomnom.

Omnomnom.

The movie looks stunning, if you consider it was made on 210 000 dollars. In today’s money, that’s 1,5 million dollars, which is basically the budget for a straight-to-DVD film or a really expensive film made in Lithuania. Harryhausen cleverly drops the Beast in front of photographic mattes of New York, and does a great job with the miniature city that the thing rampages through, and it is very well matched by Lourié’s live-action footage and special effects. The movie is shot by John L. Russell who did such a great job with Edgar G. Ulmer on The Man from Planet X, and less so on Invasion U.S.A., The Atomic Kid (1954), Tobor the Great (1954, review) and Indestructible Man. His great claim to fame is shooting Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Credit should also be given to Oscar-nominated Bernard W. Burton for matching the live-action shots and the animation shots together. He also co-produced with Dietz and Hal E. Chester.

This was without doubt the best film that Jack Dietz ever produced, as he was known for producing real low-budget crap with Bela Lugosi at Monogram, like The Corpse Vanishes (1942), The Ape Man (1943, review), The Return of the Ape Man (1944) and the hilarious Voodoo Man (1944, review). He went on to produce two more films, including The Black Scorpion (1957). Dietz made quite a killing on The Beast, as it went on to gross 5 million dollars in the US alone.

Run to the hills! Run for your life!

Run to the hills! Run for your life!

But as stated before, not Harryhausen’s best film (although to be fair, most films he worked on had pretty rotten scripts), and not his best animation work, the script meanders a bit too much, and with a few exceptions the acting is rather bland, although never bad. But the monster was the most impressive thing seen on screen since King Kong, and according to the Variety review made the great Kong look ”like a chimpanzee”. The creature’s rampage through New York is absolutely riveting, and well worth waiting for. It crushes cars and tosses them in the air as if they were pillows, crashes through buildings, tramples bystanders and eats a poor policeman in one of the great shots of the movie. One gaffe is that the monster seems to change in size throughout the film. At one point his head is about the size of a car, but in the policeman-eating scene, the poor guy looks like a tooth-pick, as one reviewer pointed out. Nevertheless, the film became an instant classic, and revitalised the giant monster genre, most importantly inspiring Ishiro Honda and Toho Studios to make Godzilla in 1954. One gag that Honda incorporated from The Beast, that wasn’t even seen in Lourié’s film was the radioactive fire-breath of Godzilla. The dinosaur in The Beast didn’t breath fire, but it was considered at one time, and the idea was used for some of the posters, from where Toho picked it up. Despite its flaws it is a highly entertaining and partially extremely well-made, and a must-see for anyone wanting to understand the roots of a genre that is as vital today as it was in the fifties, with multiple Godzilla remakes, Pacific Rim, the Jurassic Park and Transformers franchises, and so on.

A fun fact is that Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury were very good friends from youth. They were born two months apart in 1920 and died eleven months apart in 2012 and 2013.

Janne Wass

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Directed by Eugène Lourié. Written by Lou Morheim, Fred Freiberger, Daniel James, Eugène Lourié, Robert Smith. Suggested by the short story The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury (although not really). Starring: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, Lee Van Cleef, Steve Brodie, Ross Elliott, Jack Pennick, Ray Hyke, Paula Hill, Michael Fox, Alvin Greenman, Frank Ferguson, King Donovan, Merv Griffin, James Best, Robert Easton, Franklyn Farnum, Roy Engel. Music: David Buttolph. Cinematography: John L. Russell. Editing: Bernard W. Burton. Production design: Eugène Lourié. Set decoration: Edward G. Boyle. Makeup artist: Louis Phillipi. Special effects: Willis Cook, Ray Harryhausen: George Lofgren, Eugène Lourié. Visual effects & animation: Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Jack Dietz for Mutual Pictures of California.

 

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29 thoughts on “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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