There was always something about Richard Carlson that didn't sit quite right with me. He usually looked a bit too desperate and eager to please. In this film, next to the golden haired Richard Denning, he looked like a rock heap (though he's supposed to look beefy) against Denning's smug, patrician smoothness. Carlson needed to be taller.
It's also possible that I am swayed by Denning's golden locks. I'm a sucker for yeller hair.
But I digress.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, directed by Jack Arnold is a favorite fifties film that, for whatever reason, I never seem to tire of watching. In some strange way it is a comforting film, perhaps because it brings back a memory of childhood awe at the movies..
An oddity: I noticed that Henry Mancini is listed on IMDB under Music for this film, though uncredited. Go figure. The soundtrack for CFTBL is certainly recognizable - a gloomy, portentous and rather shrill cacophony. But nothing in it is recognizably Mancini. Who knew?
The prehistoric fossil of a clawed hand has been found sticking out of a rock wall at a South American dig. Archaeologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), hacks the hand out of the rock and races to the Maritime Institute to show his find to Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning).
We then get a lecture by the officious and earnest Dr. Reed as to the mysterious wonders of the ocean and the, as yet, undiscovered marine life living in the earth's oceans and rivers. This lecture is meant, of course, for us sitting in the audience dumbfounded by events. Since, certainly, everyone at the Maritime Institute knows all this data by heart. But there are nice aquariums in the room and we get to watch fish swimming about.
In those first few minutes too, the personality quirks (which will remain intact for the entire film) of the three main protagonists are established. Richard Carlson as David Reed is a believer in research for research's sake, he seeks knowledge, he is a man still awed by the possibilities in nature.
Richard Denning as the cynical Mark Williams, is the exact opposite. To him, research is only a means to an end. He is head of the Institute and as such, in charge of constantly raising funds to keep the place AND their research afloat. Important finds being endowments. It is also hinted that Mark is not above taking credit for important scientific finds made by others.
There is a hint of sexual tension in the room since the third part of this triumvirate is the beautiful Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence. I'm not entirely sure what it is that she does at the Institute - maybe a secretary or assistant. But it's obvious that her main job is to function as peace-maker between the two Richards. She is very fond of David Reed and don't think the jealous Mark isn't aware of it. Tension.
Adventure on the Amazon!
They've leased a rickety looking riverboat captained by the delightfully gruff Nestor Paiva as Lucas and the expedition has added a member, Dr. Edwin Thompson, played by another ubiquitous 1950's character actor, the always serviceable Whit Bissell.
But Back at Camp, All Is Not Well...
In the meantime, at the archaeological base camp, something scaly and drippy has risen out of the river and killed everyone. (Two natives left behind to keep watch.)
When later, the gruesome deaths are discovered and the rest of the fossil skeleton eludes them, the expedition (after bickering back and forth) decides to move further up the Amazon (which looks remarkably like Cypress Gardens, Florida) despite the obvious danger.
Captain Lucas has whetted their appetites for adventure with a tale of a mysterious black lagoon in the interior. A place from which no man comes back alive.
The Black Lagoon Awaits!
Once at the lagoon, the men drop anchor and net into the water. Mark and David can't wait to get their scuba gear and go exploring.
There is some excellent underwater photography as the two men swim about, unaware they are being watched by a Creature who makes himself scarce. They do find some paleontological evidence that the skeleton (which belongs to the clawed hand fossil) might have originated in the lagoon in prehistoric times. So, the search is on for evidence.
Note Mark bickering in the background.
Aside from the bickering between the two Richards and the lingering looks and obvious affection between David and Kay AND Kay having to keep reminding David that Mark isn't so bad, the men talk scientific stuff and are eager to find out what is at the bottom of the lagoon.
At one point, Kay, emerges from her cabin in a snazzy white bathing suit and, since the men are busy discussing fossils and whatnot, she decides to jump in and have a swim.
Yes, you read that right.
This is the highlight of the film, actually. While Kay has a good swim away from the boat, the Creature spies her shapely form and decides to venture forth to investigate. He swims along, stretched out beneath Kay in the deeper water. She remains unaware that she is being courted by an amphibious creature who is instantly smitten by Kay's female-ness. (It can't be easy for a one of a kind gill man to get hooked up.)
There's a wonderful moment when the Creature, beguiled, attempts to touch Kay's toes as she swims in place and she, feeling something, dives, but the Creature has hidden himself among the reeds. He is shy.
When the men notice that Kay is gone, (she is paddling about on her back, unconcerned) they call out to her to hurry back. Better yet, Captain Lucas starts the engine and the boat chugs along to meet Kay who still has no idea of any danger. As she swims towards the boat, the Creature glides along beneath her. The whole sequence is my favorite in the film.
Question: Were 1950's bras really so pointy? Even in bathing suits? The answer: Yes, they were.
Just as the Creature is about to grab at Kay, she is lifted up onto the boat. The Creature is immediately snagged in the huge net the men had earlier rigged to trap any interesting specimens.
The Creature attempts to break free, rocking the boat (literally) as the men try to reel in the net and see what they've caught and Kay realizes that perhaps a swim was not such a great idea.
The Plot Thickens!
When it becomes obvious that the boat's wooden winch might be destroyed by the Creature's strength, they release the net and the Creature breaks free. But in the torn net, they find a piece of skin that tells them that something biologically unfamiliar and very much alive is swimming about down there.
Mark and David decide to head underwater to get a look at what almost toppled their boat. Well, wouldn't you?
They manage to take a picture of the Creature as he pops up from behind some water plants. Then they give chase and Mark spears the Creature for no reason other than he can. The Creature, wounded, goes into deep underwater hiding. Plotting revenge, one would assume.
The photo, when developed later, shows nothing but a blur and the other members of the expedition don't really believe Mark and David's story of a gill man.
But while they're bickering, the Creature has returned, pissed off - and who can blame him? He kills one of the boat hands and dives back into the water.
Okay, so now the REAL bickering begins as David and Mark fuss over the basic idea of whether to capture the Creature alive or shoot to kill. A dead specimen is as good as a live one in Mark's book. They reach a compromise and decide to trap the supposedly wounded Creature with a mixture of a substance used by Captain Lucas and the local fishermen to dope fish, making them rise to the surface.
That same night, the men stand guard on the boat, waiting to see if the Creature will make an appearance. The substance they put into the water knocked out a whole bunch of fish, but seems to have had little effect on the Creature who later makes an attempt to board the boat, but is thwarted by the light of a lantern which bothers his eyes.
He swims away, then rises from the water and heads for a cave. The men take after him.
...and Thickens Some More!
Once the Creature is subdued, he is held in a bamboo cage/contraption (there's bamboo on the Amazon?), David and Mark bicker about whether to leave the Lagoon immediately to show off their find (Mark's idea) or stay awhile and do the proper research to back-up their find, (David's idea) - the whole question turns moot when the Creature escapes and mauls poor, unfortunate Dr. Thompson who spends the rest of the film in a cabin with his head wrapped in bandages, unable to speak.
You can tell he is not thinking happy thoughts.
David demands they leave then - a flip-flop? Well, it's obvious to anyone that the Creature simply cannot be contained by such a small group. They must leave and come back with a bigger expedition. But just when David wants to leave, Mark doesn't. He wants that creature and he wants it bad.
It's the biggest scientific find ever! Who will believe them without proof?
David says: Mark, we're fighting for our lives and you're worried that no one will believe us!
Nobody sane is listening to Mark at this point. When they attempt to flee, they discover that the Creature has blocked the entry to the Lagoon with fallen tree branches.
David must swim under the boat and loop a hook around the blockage for the winch to lift the dead wood out of the way.
I'm going it alone. I'm the hero!
He insists on going alone though Mark objects. They have an altercation. David climbs down into the water and uses an underwater spray gun full of the doping substance to try and subdue the Creature long enough to fix the blockage.
Mark, in the meantime, recovered from the altercation, throws on his gear and dives into the water, spear gun at the ready.
When the Creature attacks, he grabs Mark. After a scuffle, Mark meets a watery end. (Well, you knew that was coming.)
David gets back on board the boat and shortly thereafter the Creature climbs up, grabs Kay and dives back into the water. Love will find a way.
The men can't shoot for fear of hitting Kay.
They follow the Creature who has taken Kay to his cave which has a handy underwater entrance.
A dramatic studio publicity still.
Of course, as in most of these sorts of films, it's the Creature who gets it in the end, though his future is left a bit ambiguous. By that time though, I'm always rooting for the Creature who has only been defending his turf. He can't help it if he was smitten with the lovely Kay.
There were a couple more Creature movies, one in which they turned him into an imitation human after he was almost burned to a crisp - it was particularly dreadful. But we'll pretend these atrocities never happened.
This is the one and only, original Creature From the Black Lagoon and will always remain so. Watch no imitations!
...and just in case you wondered:
Ricou Browning, the swimming creature.