Saturday, July 9, 2022

Cardboard Science: Size queen


Directed by Nathan Hertz Juran
Written by Mark Hanna

Spoilers: moderate

The usual word on Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (or Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, according to the poster, but I hate to see an abbreviation in a title) is that it is an unusually female-forward film for a 50s sci-fi flickmaybe not "rich in subtext," because it's just text, insofar as it involves an unhappy marriage made slightly happier, after a fashion, following the wife's turn towards gigantismand I suppose the lesson is the mind will latch onto anything it can to survive.  It's led to a decades-long attempt to rehabilitate and reclaim one of the lousier science-fiction films of its era, and for my part I don't even really see what the fuss is about, except that many folks must have an abiding conviction that a 50s B-movie about a fifty foot woman simply must be a campy good time filled with themes, and I can't argue with the objective reality that it is one of the better-known and most frequently-referenced movies of its kind, possessed of a poster that's undeniably iconic, though I'm not sure any imagery from the actual movie is.

I just don't see it: there's a "hell hath no fury" thing going on here, obviously, and if that hits a button for you, that's great, I don't begrudge that, but if there were more than just the one 50s B-movie about a fifty foot woman, I am absolutely positive that "The Amazing Colossal Woman" or whatever would be the better version.  (And this despite it sharing a screenwriter with The Amazing Colossal Man.)  In any case, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is pitched in a downright repulsive register which I personally found largely impossible to have any fun with; its particular scorned woman is a vehicle for ugly melodramatics and high-50s lady lunacy from front to back, which might have worked (if nothing else then as camp), if her psychological state were actually the subject of the film, and if the woman who eventually becomes fifty feet tall did not, in fact, spend most of her movie being the third most important character in a narrative that isn't even a science fiction film, or a proto-feminist parable, or a psychobitch romp, but instead is just a remarkably perfunctory and grubby-in-a-bad-way film noir.

Leave out the alien crap and the titular pledge, and what we have is just a gender-swapped riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twicea shitty riff, but a riff: some years ago, unappealing bounder Harry Archer (William Hudson) married Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) for her money, she being the heir to the Fowler fortune of some fifty million dollars, and for reasons never stated, Harry has spent the intervening time being withholding and horrid and unfaithful, most recently with "Honey" Parker (Yvette Vickers), who, when discussing Nancy's refusal to grant Harry a divorce on favorable terms, "jokes" about just killing Nancy and being done with it.  Harry has slightly more subtle plans, for Nancy's a drunk, and things got bad enough once before to send her into a suicidal spiral.  If he could get her drinking again, and he's confident he can, Harry wonders if nature might simply take its course.  Call Amazing Stories and demand an advance.

In fairness, I've skipped ahead: Nancy's already sped out of this dingy hotel bar in their convertible, livid at the attention Harry was paying to his paramour, and what she finds on the road out in the desert would send anyone crawling back to the bottlea double-exposed spherical space vessel of some kind (I think it might literally be a cueball), similar to the hurtling "satellite" that took a world tour over the previous few hours, reports of which we've already heard secondhand, thanks to an incredulous TV host (Dale Tate) relaying this information to us with a snide spin during the KPLOT prologue that opens up the film.  Presently, a colossal being steps out of the ship, seemingly fascinated with Nancy's Star of India (the Star of India?) diamond, but of course she flees at this staggering sight.  Possibly not a very bright woman, Nancy immediately goes raving about alien giants to her husband and the townsfolk, who would probably assume she were in an altered state even if she didn't have a noted drinking problem, but she manages to get the sheriff (George Douglas) and his Deputy Dewey figure (Frank Chase) to go investigate, largely on the basis of being the town's richest inhabitant by several orders of magnitude.  They find nothing, but Nancy doesn't let it go, eventually cajoling Harry into taking her back out to the desert to search for the UFOhe agrees for his own agenda, of course, while her trusty butler (Ken Terrell) can do little to help his mistressbut now they do find the ship.  Harry unloads a revolver at the giant and in a fit of cowardly terror leaves his wife to whatever fate the giant intends.  But she is returned to her home, catatonic but mostly intact, and soon enough that Harry and Honey don't spend the rest of the picture in jail (though this would, in fact, have been substantially more narratively efficient and probably more dramatically worthwhile).  However, being "mostly intact" doesn't last, and very soon Nancy has hit her growth spurt.

There's quite a lot wrong with this, enough that the script clunkiness isn't even remotely the worst of it, though it's not beneath notice that the sci-fi plot is wholly dysfunctional all by itself, with Nancy's enigmatic space giant (which the screenplay wants very much to let us know is thirty feet tall) having done something to her for some unfathomable reason, transforming her into a being like him, which is never explained or really even acknowledged as a mystery worth explaining.

But the fragmentation of the plot, that's down to these being just nowhere close to fundamentally compatible modes.  There's a reason that despite the two genres overlapping chronologically, 50s sci-fi practically never went noir.  (The only title coming to my mind at all is The Brain That Wouldn't Die, which is arguably just so sleazy in its mad science that it feels noir.)  Now, sure: some of my favorite movies are "sci-fi noirs"your Blade Runners, your Reminiscencesbut those movies are, very obviously, doing something different, building dystopian sci-fi worlds to externalize the hopelessness of their inhabitants, or, alternatively, using noirish characters to explore their sci-fi concepts in a depressive register.  This?  This is just noir smashed into a sci-fi scenario, and they don't work together and indeed operate at cross-purposes, not least because a tale of the fantastic simply doesn't benefit from being dragged through the dirt like this; but even on the most basic mechanical level, the idea that a noir protagonist beheld aliens and watched his wife grow fifty feet tall yet continues to ponder how he's going use this to his advantage for his infidelity-driven murder perhaps represents an even more nihilistic view of humanity than any real noir.

It is also empty and stupid, with basically no work put in to make it believable (or interesting) as sci-fi or noir.  The latter is just presented as a stock plot: there's no sense of falling into depravity; we meet Harry and Honey having already arrived and picking out new curtains for depravity's living room.  Hudson and Vickers, while suitably slimy and shrill, respectively, are given precious little to actually do by Mark Hanna's screenplay; what they do have, they approach as lifeless stereotypes.  There's a few hardboiled exchanges, but the dialogue snaps less than it whines; and Hayes, nominally at the center of things, is basically consigned to a feature-length exercise in hysteria, with very few moments where she has any other emotion or even a different level of that one emotion to play.

As this is all a means to an end, motivating one extremely eventual rampage (it is, arguably, just full-on padding), nobody cared enough to reckon on (let alone dramatize) the character dynamics that drove these pathetic jerks to this pointHarry and Honey's whole sex-consumed debauch appears to be limited entirely to making out in a bar booth for a few hours every night.  Frankly, I'm a little hung up on the industrial realities at play, for in a movie called Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, where a giant babe is the selling point, by no means was the fifty foot woman going to be unattractive, or even getting older; accordingly, Nancy's played by a busty 26 year old model, so that can't be Harry's problem.  (The better question is how beautiful, independently-wealthy Nancy ever got hung up on this guy.)  It's the fuzziest possible triangle, which you're basically just expected to take as read; but the only thing wrong with Nancy is her backstory, the mental instability and alcoholism which Harry caused, and the only thing right about Honey is, I guess, she's a trashy murderess and so sexually liberated she still dresses behind a screen when Harry's around.  It's like if the third act of a terrible noir was appended to the second and third acts of a sci-fi flick except this doesn't even get the proportions right; it's like if the third act of a noir was stretched out to four fifths of an hour, and then there's a sci-fi flick at the end.

It's too much to say the sci-fi is limited to only the last fifteen minutes (Attack is at least short), but Nancy's unconsciousness and the effort to keep Nancy's gigantism secret means it stalls out for the film's laggard middle stretch, and there is surely not fifteen minutes worth of satisfactory sci-fi here.  Attack was director Nathan Juran and cinematographer Jacques Marquette's follow-up to The Brain From Planet Arous; as he had with Arous, Marquette also produced, although significant slack was picked up by the Woolner Brothers, a marginal outfit most notable for distributing a few of Mario Bava's movies in the U.S.  I am not as familiar with Attack's production history as I am Arous's, but it is baffling that Arous was the cheaper production.  Attack looks ridiculous, but I don't really come to these films to ridicule them; sometimes that's a happy byproduct of a movie's silliness, but it's rarely a draw in and of itself.

Thanks more to Juran and Marquette than anyone else, it at least has a few good individual beats: the best, by an astounding margin, gives Hayes the only variation on her one emotion she ever gets, as Tate's TV announcer returns in the midst of Nancy's agonized realization that she very well might be having another breakdown.  Tate dishes on the crazy heiress for the benefit of his audience, and everything about the shot design, the tenor of Tate's extravagantly cruel mockery, and the editingNancy never turned on a TV, and Tate's smug face is just dropped right into the scenemake it feel like we've been let in on a woman's own self-loathing inner monologue, in the form of a hallucinated public humiliation.  It is like nothing else whatsoever in the movie, which has never had any interest beforehand, and will never show any interest again, in poking at Nancy's psychology beyond whatever superficial motivations bring us to a huge lady rampage.

There's a few other fine bits: Juran and Marquette do a credible job with very, very little when the sheriff and the butler investigate the interior of the spaceship, the streams of light and mist conjuring some pretty decent atmosphere for a $5 set made out of, I believe, pegboard; and inside they find a call-back to one of Arous's more iconic shots, discovering a whole series of glass objects (it is implied to be the engine, drawing on diamonds like Nancy's as fuel) that warp and distort their faces.  I'm also at least moderately impressed by the photography in Harry's last-ditch attempt to murder his wife, a backlit silhouette stalking into a blackened bedroom, followed by another silhouette, and it's terribly suspenseful before being interrupted by the big (ahem) reveal.  These nicer elements are ruined anyway by their context: in the case of the ship, Juran and Marquette are irritatingly content with human-sized corridors and doors in a giant's spaceship, and the design of the giant is itself unbelievably deflating (a bald man wearing a uniform that must've been a cast-off from a medieval adventure movie, unless interstellar giants are French); as for the murder attempt, Harry is stymied by his wife's new size, and because I guess they had one and only one "giant hand" prop, overnight Nancy has already reached her final stage, and we are asked to accept the non-euclidean proposition that this hand, that fills the fucking bedroom by itself, extends to an arm and a torso and everything, without having already ripped through the entire house.  They put Glenn Manning in a tent.  More to the point, they put Glenn Manning in a matte shot once in a while.

As I hope all this makes clear, Attack is a sci-fi spectacle at the lowest possible level of implementation, its visuals barely indicative of the narrative's action; even "suggestive" would be an unwarranted compliment.  It comes off like some perverse deferred payback to the special effects gods for Arous, where every cheapo effects shot had been accomplished with well-considered discipline regarding what it representednow every one courts abject failure and usually gets it.

We do get the title, for all the good it does.  Marquette was a solid cinematographer but Attack certifies him as an outright wretched special effects photographer.  A few shots use miniaturesthese work out okay.  But because even model sets cost some money, nearly the entirety of Nancy's rampage is built instead out of double-exposures of Hayes, almost all of them extremely bad double-exposures (cf. Clifford Stine's Tarantula, the gold standard for this kind of thing), turning her into a lumbering ghost in a halter top who vaguely mimes interactions with the world around her.  It's cut together about as well as possible given Marquette's embarrassing footage, but there's no hiding, for example, the radically variable actual size of our giantess, who in one particularly awful shot of Nancy striding up to the bar where Harry and Honey are once again canoodling, she's less a sci-fi monster than she is just a plausibly tall person.  And this is on top of just less-engaged direction and photography all around; it's barely worth mentioning when you've got the more flamboyant crapulence, but the day-for-night shooting sucks too, and it's just a logey, unhandsome film generally. 

It is all told a bad disappointment; it's the single most famous 50s sci-fi flick I'd never seen before, and now I have, and I somewhat wish I hadn't.  There's something that could be done here, and enough potential that I wish all the remakes and homages weren't a bunch of ugly-sounding Z-cinema jokes (e.g. Attack of the 50 Foot Camgirl, and I have vague memories that Christopher Guest's direct remake is no better than the original, though it has a funny joke about scuba diving).  But this is more of a dud than I ever expected.

Score: 3/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Satellites orbit, Dale, they don't... do that.  (Is it worth mentioning that the only actor returning from Arous, in a two-scene role, is this film's MVP?  And second place is the comic relief deputy, who's at least slightly funny.)
  • Leaving aside the whole "diamonds powering spaceships" thing, the Star of India is a fuckin' sapphire.
  • Harry, if I were you, I'd probably just wait to see if being fifty feet tall kills her by itself.
  • Should a 50s science-fiction movie include a scientist, somewhere?
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Harry MRAs all over the first act about how California's community property regime screws over men, and he wouldn't get a dime in a divorce unless he were a woman, but inheritances are separate property regardless.  Dummy.  The house is probably half yours, though.
  • Okay, there's one scientist, sort of, a psychologist or M.D. or something who posits that our "supersonic age" is especially deranging to women.  All those sonic booms just hit 'em right in the uterus.
  • My legal advice: just give this pathetic gold digger a property settlement.
  • I apologize for the middling, confusing-if-you-think-about-it post title, but Brennan Klein took the good one
  • Negative amounts of wonder, just howling voids where souls are supposed to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment