Friday, September 7, 1973: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Synopsis: Deep in the Amazon rain forest, paleontologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a fossilized hand embedded in an ancient strata of rock. The hand appears to be almost human, but also has characteristics of an aquatic creature.

Returning to Manaus with a photograph of the hand, he consults with marine biologist David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his assistant / girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), who work at a maritime institute there. They all agree that they should try to convince the head of the institute Mark Williams (Richard Denning) to fund an expedition to dig out the rest of the Devonian-age fossil, which might prove to be an evolutionary link between humans and aquatic creatures.

Mark is excited at the prospect of such an important discovery — though he seems more interested in the publicity than the science — and the four of them along with Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell) charter a boat called the Rita to take them upriver. There is considerable friction on the voyage between David and his boss Mark, who is nursing long-simmering jealousy over the beautiful Kay. Mark’s headstrong ways also run afoul of Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the generally easygoing boat captain, who responds to Mark’s bullying comments by pulling a knife.

When they reach the site of the find, Maia is surprised to find that the men he left to stand guard are nowhere to be found. Soon their bodies are discovered, horribly mangled. Lucas speculates that only a jaguar’s claws could have caused the kinds of wounds the men suffered.

The scientists dig far into the rock strata but don’t find the rest of the skeleton. David theorizes that part of the rock shelf might have broken loose and over hundreds or thousands of years been washed out to a lagoon a short distance away.

Lucas says he is familiar with the place, known by the locals as the Black Lagoon, which is rarely visited because a monster is rumored to live there. The Rita sails out to the lagoon, which proves to be an idyllic spot. David and Mark dive to the bottom to collect rock samples, but are observed by a man-like creature that lurks near the bottom.

Maia quickly determines that the rock samples match the strata where the hand was found, and the scientists are elated. Kay decides to go for a swim in the lagoon, but unknown to her, the creature is watching her closely, and is swimming only a few feet below her….

Comments: A latecomer to the Universal monster pantheon, Creature From the Black Lagoon hit theaters more than two decades after Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man, and more than a decade after The Wolf Man. But while it lacks the gothic underpinnings of those earlier films, it’s a welcome addition to the club. Like the best monsters of classic horror, the titular creature is both fearsome and sympathetic, and Milicent Patrick’s iconic design of the creature helped to ensure that it would never be forgotten.

The monster is still a pop-culture phenom today, easily recognizable even by those who’ve never seen the movie; among other things it spawned one of the most popular pinball machines of the 20th century:

But the main reason for the movie’s enduring appeal is simply that it’s extremely well-written and executed. Jack Arnold’s direction proved that his success with It Came From Outer Space the previous year had been no fluke. Splendidly paced, the film deliciously pivots from the scientists hunting the creature to the creature hunting the scientists, and while the film does have the shopworn romantic triangle that seemed standard in movies from this era (along with ye olde dominance-establishing fistfight) it doesn’t hobble the narrative. The movie springs deftly from one set piece to the next, the danger ratcheting up progressively until the final scenes, and as in It Came From Outer Space the 3-D process isn’t overused.

Arnold got the most from his cast of Universal contract players. Richard Carlson had proven to be a capable leading man in It Came From Outer Space and he does just as well here, portraying a man who’s both tough and idealistic. Richard Denning’s hard-edged persona is a good counterpoint to David’s optimism and restraint, and their differing approaches to dealing with the creature creates great dramatic tension.

The part of Kay isn’t particularly well-written, but the beautiful Julie Adams and her white bathing suit became iconic; the scene in which she goes for a swim, attracting the attention of the lovelorn creature, is one of the film’s best and it is easy for us to believe that Kay can draw suitors from entirely different species just by showing up. For many years Adams seemed puzzled that so many fans and interviewers just wanted to talk about this movie, when she’d played so many other, better roles in her long career on stage and screen. But she seemed to embrace the movie later in life, and became a good-natured ambassador for the film on the convention circuit.

The creature itself was played by two people. Ben Chapman played the title role on land, while Ricou Browning donned the green suit for the expertly filmed underwater scenes, all of which were done by a second-unit team in Florida.

Nestor Paiva is charming and funny as Lucas, and he would be the only member of the cast to return for the first sequel, Revenge of the Creature.


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