Saturday, April 8, 1978: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) / The Crime of Dr. Hallet (1938)

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.

The Crime of Dr. Hallet

Synopsis: Dr. Paul Hallet (Ralph Bellamy) and his colleague Dr. Jack Murray (William Gargan) are medical researchers in a remote region of Sumatra, where they are seeking a cure to the “Red Plague” that has been sweeping the area. The conditions are primitive and as the movie opens, they are burying a third researcher, who has fallen victim to the disease.

Months pass and the tropical disease institute that funds them has not sent a replacement for their fallen comrade. At last they receive word that a Dr. Saunders will be joining their team and is en route. Hallet is elated at the news, knowing of a Dr. Saunders who, though elderly and near the end of his career, is nevertheless an eminent scientist who specializes in the study of tropical diseases.

But the Dr. Saunders who has set out to meet them is not whom they expect. Dr. Philip Saunders (John King) has recently graduated from Harvard medical school, and at his going away party in the United States, no one seems to understand why he he wants to go to a disease-infested jungle on the other side of the world — least of all his posh wife Claire (Barbara Read) who confides to a friend that when Saunders returns from his trip she plans to divorce him.

When Saunders arrives at the camp Hallet doesn’t pretend to hide his disappointment. Not only is the new scientist inexperienced, but he’s also a Harvard man (Hallet, we learn, is a Yalie). He puts Saunders to work doing menial tasks around the lab — cleaning test tubes and feeding the test animals.

Saunders is unhappy at the frosty reception but is determined to prove his worth. On his own time he begins researching the disease and develops a test vaccine which he begins using on a set of monkeys he houses in cages some distance from the camp.

But just as Saunders believes he’s made a breakthrough, Hallet beats him to the punch, developing a test vaccine that appears promising. Saunders volunteers to be the first human test subject; he takes an injection of the deadly virus, then Dr. Hallet’s vaccine. But the test vaccine fails, and before long Saunders is dead.

It’s only then that Hallet discovers Saunders’ promising research, along with $4,000 in travelers checks (worth about $175,000 today) — indicating that Saunders had self-financed his role in the expedition. Guilty at the way he treated his younger colleague, Hallet decides the research is too important to abandon. Determined to prove the worth of Saunders’ research, he forges Saunders’ signature on the travelers’ checks so they can continue working. Furthermore, he wires back home that Hallett, not Saunders, died of plague.

Before long a new scientist comes to work in the camp – but this one is even a bigger surprise than Saunders was. Dr. Mary Reynolds is a young, beautiful woman, and before long she and Dr. Hallet fall in love — though she believes Hallett is Saunders.

To complicate matters further, once it’s established that Saunders’ vaccine is a success, Claire Saunders basks in her husband’s new-found fame, and decides she will travel to Sumatra to be with him….

Comments: When I was a kid my dear departed mother sorted films into two broad categories: “women’s movies” or “men’s movies”. Women’s movies had romance and dancing and beautiful clothes and people having conversations. Men’s movies featured fistfights and people getting stabbed in the stomach with swords and men sweating a lot. The Crime of Dr. Hallet tries to keep a foot in each camp; there’s a medical melodrama, a good deal of sweating and some manly competition between Drs. Hallet and Saunders. As the movie goes on, though, there’s a romance between Dr. Hallet and the strong-willed Mary Reynolds. It’s a B-picture suitable for both the average 1930s Joe and his date.

The best thing about this movie is the presence of a young Ralph Bellamy, who really sells Dr. Hallet as a man who is pretty complicated, even if he doesn’t make much sense. As in The Man Who Lived Twice, Bellamy really gives his all in this little picture, and his performance raises things a few notches above where it rightfully ought to be.

Hallet is at first arrogant enough to make his new colleague wash test tubes and feed monkeys after traveling thousands of miles to join the expedition, then guilty enough to assume his identity in order to give him credit for finding the cure to a pandemic.

It’s not entirely clear how Dr. Hallet plans to get away with faking his own death and posing as Dr. Saunders, a man who has living friends and relatives who can identify him. But who can judge the motivations of a guy who’s been in the jungle for the last few years?

It’s a pleasing storyline, if a little convoluted, and my initial feeling was that this film just has too many moving parts to work; but I was surprised to find it was remade in the following decade as Strange Conquest (1946).

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