(1955) Directed by Robert Gordon; Written by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith; Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis and Ian Keith
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“It’s just like the basic concept of Mickey Mouse. He only has four fingers… So why animate an extra one that you’d hardly ever show? Nobody counted them. I didn’t think anybody would count them… Unfortunately, one time I was interviewed by a certain magazine (Famous Monsters of Filmland), and I let it be known that the octopus was actually a sextopus.”
– Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 2007 DVD commentary)
– Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 2007 DVD commentary)
Thanks to Quiggy from The Midnite Drive-In and J-Dub from Dubsism for hosting the Disaster Blogathon, a three-day exploration of calamity in its myriad forms. Since this blogathon coincides with Sea Monster Month, I present for your approval Ray Harryhausen’s sea monster spectacle, It Came from Beneath the Sea.
Ah, 1950s America… McCarthyism, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, and growing social unrest. If that wasn’t enough to make you question the “good old days,” every manner of super-sized radioactive creature was out to kill us. Okay, maybe that last threat was fictional (as far as we know), but that premise was enough to keep audiences glued in their seats and ready to come back for whatever new terror awaited them. It Came from Beneath the Sea was the brainchild of producer Charles H. Schneer, who after watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, wanted to collaborate with Ray Harryhausen on a movie depicting a creature destroying San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
The movie begins with some unnecessary voiceover narration (don’t worry, it’ll be back to annoy us) before we’re introduced to the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine as they narrowly avoid a disaster, escaping the sticky clutches of an unknown aquatic beast. This prompts the navy and the sub’s commander, Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) to lead an investigation, recruiting two top marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis).
Amidst the sea monster plot, there’s a tepid love triangle between Mathews, Joyce and Carter. At least on the surface, the two scientists appear to have much more in common, which should have created more friction with Mathews. Carter seems to be a genuinely nice guy, recognizing her for her accomplishments and respecting her credentials. Instead, the script chooses to place the alpha-male Mathews as victor by default (I suppose the heart wants what the heart wants, but I have to question Joyce’s judgement in this case). Joyce isn’t that easy, however, as illustrated by an innuendo-laden scene that sneaked by the censors. When Mathews comes on a bit too strong, she teases him, embracing a graduated cylinder in a way that seems a bit too familiar (wink, wink).
It Came from Beneath the Sea takes a reasonably progressive stance toward women, at least by 1950s standards, albeit through mixed signals. In an early scene, pompous Navy officials dismiss Joyce’s theory about a giant octopus. Domergue effectively communicates her character being shut down through body language, displaying a combination of devastation and barely suppressed anger. In a later scene, when Commander Mathews tries to convince her to leave, it’s clear that he’d rather have her out of the way than concede her superiority in her field of expertise. Dr. Carter reminds Mathews that his colleague Joyce is smart, independent and capable, yet somehow manages to be condescending (“…there’s a whole new breed that feel they’re just as smart, just as courageous as men.”). Less than a minute later, his speech is undercut when the title creature makes a dramatic appearance on the Oregon coastline, causing Joyce (in typical ‘50s fashion) to scream her head off.
Because the film was a low budget production, the filmmakers relied on ingenuity* to tell their big fish (uh, cephalopod) tale. One trick was the abundant use of stock footage. Most of it blends in quite well, especially introductory shots of the atomic submarine Nautilus (the real one, launched in 1954). Subsequent shots don’t match up, as when we see the crew on the deck of a conventional World War II era submarine,** which misses the clean lines of the vessel that was established in the opening scene. Cost-cutting measures carried over to the music score from Mischa Bakaleinikoff, consisting of music sourced from other film soundtracks in the Columbia Pictures library.
** Fun Fact #1: The filmmakers couldn’t get cooperation from the City of San Francisco to shoot within the city, necessitating the crew to shoot location footage (including the famous bridge) covertly.
** Fun Fact #2: Likewise, the submarine interior was filmed inside a real (non-nuclear) Navy sub in dry dock, adding to the authenticity of the cramped scenes. However, it’s easy to see, even by 1955 standards, that this is not the interior of a state-of-the-art modern submarine.
Despite some penny pinching, Ray Harryhausen works his stop-motion magic with the giant octopus.* Due to time and budgetary limitations, it proved cost effective to animate six tentacles instead of eight, although Harryhausen joked that the radioactive beast would have been reduced to a tripod if the budget had been much smaller. The interior metal armature was provided by Harryhausen’s father, a longtime collaborator on his film projects. As with many of his creations, Harryhausen added signature touches, such as a subtle flick of a tentacle, which infused the creature with a lifelike eccentricity. Whether it's sinking a ship, tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge,* or wreaking havoc on the San Francisco waterfront, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of perverse pleasure from the trail of destruction caused by the mutant octopus.
* Fun Fact #3: To create the texture of the octopus’ skin, Harryhausen used crumpled tin foil and made a cast.
** Fun Fact #4: Harryhausen built a replica of a section of the Golden Gate Bridge out of lead, which would crush easily. Where’s the replica now? According to Harryhausen, it once belonged to science fiction editor/collector Forrest J. Ackerman, but has since been acquired by filmmaker Peter Jackson.
Between the scenes of monster mayhem, there are some pacing issues, but it’s a small price to pay for the dividends we receive, courtesy of Mr. Harryhausen’s mesmerizing effects. After all, we’re not here for the scintillating dialogue, smoldering romance, or pseudo-scientific conjecture. We’re just here to see a malevolent creature from the deep tear the crap out of the Golden Gate Bridge and cause wholesale destruction on land and sea. I’m happy to report that It Came from Beneath the Sea more than delivers on that account.