Movie Reviews - 1950s postsMonday May 14, 2018
Movie Review: Cet homme est dangereux (1953)
“Cet homme est dangereux” is a French B-movie based on a British novel about an American tough guy. Expect dislocation.
Example: The movie opens on a closeup of an actor dressed as an American cop laying out in APB fashion how American gangster Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) escaped from Oklahoma State Prison, and was “last seen heading east.”
Where is he in the next scene? Marseilles. So, yeah, “east.”
All of this is done both on the cheap (just a closeup) and intriguingly (great lighting). You can immediately sense the talent.
I first heard of “Cet homme” when it was praised by Betrand Tavernier in the documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema,” and it’s pretty good for what it is. It’s noirish, with nice, tough-guy snatches of dialogue. But it’s got a plot that’s tough to unpack.
First, the dialogue.
Early on, before we really know Lemmy, a woman on a boat tells him, “I’m sick,” and this is his response: “Don’t worry. You suffer because you’re alive.” Lemmy may be American, but he speaks the French ennui. Later, he even gets meta. He rescues a dim-bulb American heiress, Miranda Van Zelten (Claude Borelli), and as they drive along Marseille’s coast, she starts talking in English. “Speak French!” he admonishes. “People don’t get subtitles here.”
Another woman, Constance (Colette Deréal), pulls up at his hotel, pretends like they know each other, and invites him back to her place for a whiskey. He hesitates.
She: Are you afraid of me?
He (getting in): No. The whiskey.
Dialogue like that just makes me happy. It can sustain me through a week of my own ennui.
As for the tough-to-unpack plot? I’ll say right off that Lemmy isn’t a gangster but an undercover G-man. The target (from the get go?) is French mob boss named Siegella (Grégiure Aslan), who is apparently in the process of kidnapping the heiress, Miranda, when Lemmy shows up on the boat to rescue her. He also finds a dead man in a state room (another G man?) and it pisses him off. He’s so pissed off he kills one of the gangsters, Goyaz, in cold blood and throws him overboard. So not exactly Elliott Ness.
Not sure if there was an original plan involving the stateroom guy but the new plan is to become reluctant partners with Siegella in kidnapping Miranda. So he can get evidence? And put Siegella away? I guess. But he seems to have enough of it fairly early and just keeps going.
It’s really one of those “Nobody trusts anybody” movies. Siegella doesn’t trust Lemmy—not because he thinks he’s a fed but because he’s an uncontrollable element. Lemmy doesn’t trust the women buzzing around him—and shouldn’t. Constance works for Siegella, which we find out soon enough, as does Miranda’s secretary, Susanne (Véra Norman). Another woman, an angry blonde named Dora (Jacquelline Pierreux), turns out to be Goyaz’s lover seeking revenge. She suspects Lemmy but teams up with him, and winds up being killed by Siegella. She is who she says she is; as is Miranda.
At one point, after Siegella and Lemmy agree to work together, Siegella wakes to find both Miranda and Lemmy gone. Traitors! But Lemmy isn’t gone; he’s checking in on Miranda himself, finds her gone, and suspects Siegella. Good bit. Eventually he figures it out: Miranda just flew to Paris for a haute couture fashion show—as heiresses do.
Lemmy uses Miranda as bait but it backfires. He takes her to a country estate, run by Siegella, and lets her play cards while he pretends to succumb to whiskey. For all his smarts and running around: 1) Dora winds up dead, 2) Miranda winds up kidnapped, and 3) Lemmy winds up in a shoot-out with two of Siegella’s men.
In the real world, that would’ve been the end of it: Siegella no longer needs Lemmy, n’est-ce pas? Except all of a sudden Lemmy has a satchel full of Siegalla’s vital intel. It's just there to keep the dishes spinning. So Lemmy, backed by the cops, returns to rescue Miranda, but the cops lose him en route and he’s on his own. He’s caught, tied to a bed, and the room is set on fire. He escapes, of course. The final battle takes place in a country garage. While Lemmy and Siegella duke it out, Miranda and Constance take turns dousing each other with a firehose. Where are the rest of Siegella’s men? Who knows? Hardly matters. After Lemmy chokes the life out of Siegella, and after Constance is properly wetted down, the cops finally arrive and we get our end.
Apres le firehose
What sells the movie are the visuals. It’s directed by Jean Sacha, who edited under both Max Ophuls and Orson Welles but only directed six feature-length films; this is the third. The cinematographer is Marcel Weiss, who worked under Bresson and has 37 DP credits. This is his seventh.
They work well together:
Here's our hero about to light a cigarette.
Does he know he's being spied on?
This is Dora. We see what she sees.
This is Constance. We see what Lemmy is about to see.
Love this one: Before the pullback.
Not a bad spot for the penultimate battle.
Lemmy finally caught.
And the villains celebrate in French fashion.
Constance again, before the dousing. *FIN*
“Cet homme” was the second Eddie Constantine/Lemmy Caution film. There would be nearly a dozen more, including the celebrated “Alphaville,” directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1965. Constantine last portrayed him in 1991: “Germany Year Nine Zero,” also directed by Godard, which is described as “a post-modern film about Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.” So a long way from the firehoses.
Movie Review: Big Jim McLain (1952)
“Big Jim McLain” is a fascinating cultural artifact. It’s the first movie from John Wayne’s independent company (eventually: Batjac Productions), and it’s apparently the only Hollywood movie that turns members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—which was, at the time, ruining Hollywood lives—into heroes.
A little background before I get to the greater irony. HUAC’s original reason for investigating Hollywood was as follows: 1) The film industry was crawling with commies, who were 2) injecting red propaganda into mainstream American movies and warping American minds. But while HUAC had some examples of 1), it was never very good at proving 2). In 1947, for example, it called Ayn Rand, a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (like Wayne), to testify, and she tagged the World War II-era “Song of Russia” as propaganda. The Russians in it, she said, were smiling, and Russians never smile. “Pretty much no,” she said when questioned. “If they do, it is privately and accidentally.”
As a result, during the second round of Hollywood hearings that began in 1951, HUAC pretty much dropped 2) and focused on 1). Basically: Betray your friends or end your career. Or both, in the case of Larry Parks.
Go get 'em.
Here’s the awful irony: While HUAC had trouble proving left-wing propaganda in Hollywood movies, preview audiences had no trouble at all distinguishing the right-wing kind in “Big Jim McLain.” Among the preview comments, as recounted in Scott Eyman’s biography, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend”:
- “Good in spots, except for the too, too obvious propaganda (and I am NOT a Commie).”
- “[Stephen Vincent] Benet would turn over in his grave the way he was quoted.”
- “One wonders about the future of this country when this sort of tripe passes for Americanism.”
The movie presents HUAC as surprisingly toothless. (All the better, I suppose, to show us the need for a stronger HUAC.) It opens with a left-wing professor taking the fifth before the committee while investigator McLain (Wayne) and his sidekick Mal Baxter (James Arness) seethe on the sidelines. Here’s Wayne’s voiceover:
Eleven frustrating months we rang doorbells and shoveled through a million pages of dull documents, and proved to any intelligent person that these people were communists, agents of the Kremlin; and they all walk out free.
Yes, that’s what happens. The witness is excused and Wayne claims that Dr. Carter will return to his “well-paid chair as a full professor of economics at the university—to contaminate more kids.” Instead of, you know, having his life completely upended. Or winding up in jail. (See: Hollywood Ten.)
Wayne’s voiceover, believe it or not, is actually the third voiceover in the film. And at the three-minute mark. That’s how disorganized this thing is.
The first voiceover (Harry Morgan) is the folksy, cornball kind. It talks up Daniel (or “Dan’l”) Webster, and suggests you can summon him from his grave by calling his name:
And sometimes the ground will shake and he’ll respond, “Neighbor, how stands the union?” And you’d better answer the union stands as she stood: oak-bottomed and copper-sheathed! One and indivisible! Or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground!
Then we get a bland, bureaucratic voice to talk up HUAC’s good works:
We, the citizens of the United States of America, owe these, our elected representatives, a great debt. Undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them as a whole and as individuals, they have staunchly continued their investigation, pursuing their stated beliefs: that anyone who continued to be a communist after 1945 is guilty of high treason.
Then we get the rest of this horseshit movie.
McLain and Baxter (who, like a lot of Wayne’s 1950s sidekicks, is a hothead, to better highlight Wayne’s cool one), fly to Hawaii to ferret out a Soviet cell there. The ringleader is named Sturak, and he’s played by Alan Napier, who would later play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the 1960s camp classic “Batman.”
What’s the commie plan? To “create a paralysis of island shipping and communications.” Who’s a commie? Eggheads mostly: a doctor, a labor lawyer, a bacteriologist, a rising star in the labor union. One guy, who looks like a bruiser but has a glass jaw when fighting McLain, claims to be a country club type, and condemns “white trash and niggers.” Back then, you see, commies played up our “Negro problem,” and this was Wayne’s way of showing that they, and not Strom Thurmond, were the true racists. Our open-mindedness, in fact, is on display in the end, when smiling soldiers report to duty as Wayne, and his fiancée, Nancy (Nancy Olson), stand at attention nearby. Here are the names:
- Donahue! (black)
- Pratt! (black)
- St. John! (Asian)
For a non-military movie, we get a lot of homages to the military. In Hawaii, McLain and Baxter first stop at the final resting place of the U.S.S. Arizona. The soldiers aboard, Wayne tells us, “have been there since Sunday ... Sunday, December 7, 1941.” The date that will live in infamy. And the one that propelled Wayne to join the military. Kidding. Wayne fought World War II from a Hollywood backlot. He became a star.
The plot is thin. McLain and Baxter hand out subpoenas, then get on the trail of Willie Namaka, a member of the party who’s been acting erratically, and who may be ready to talk. Early obvious clues as to commie headquarters (the Okole Maluna Club) are saved for the final reel. Nothing is smartly pursued except Nancy, by Big Jim, and she’s easily caught. You could argue that McLain, for a staunch capitalist, has a pretty lousy work ethic. Just as he and Baxter are on what seems to be a trail, his voiceover interrupts: “The weekdays were real dull. But not the weekends!” Then we get a travelogue of Hawaii: sailing, dinner and dancing.
Two extended comic relief sections go nowhere: a nutjob fellow traveler (Hans Conreid) claims to have met Stalin; and a brassy blonde (Veda Ann Borg) all but blackmails Big Jim into taking her out to dinner before handing over intel about Namaka. Everyone talks up Wayne’s size. He’s 6’4” we’re told numerous times; the blonde even calls him “76,” with its double meaning: inches and “spirit of.” That’s “a lot of man,” she adds. Arness, about the same size, and broader of shoulder, gets bupkis. No, that’s not true. He gets killed. Wayne fights on alone. Because that’s the Hollywood way.
Riding into the sunset
In the end, after McLain saves the day, we get a replay of the opening HUAC hearing in which the commies, including Sturak, plead the fifth and then walk away. Later, McLain has the following conversation with Honolulu’s Chief of Police Dan Liu, played with the expected stiffness by Honolulu’s Chief of Police Dan Liu:
Liu: I wonder how Mal would’ve felt about this fifth amendment.
McLain: He died for it. There are a lot of wonderful things written into our constitution that were meant for honest, decent citizens, and I resent the fact that it can be used and abused by the very people that want to destroy it.
“Big Jim McLain” is a low-budget affair, a B movie with an A actor; but its suggestion that HUAC was an upright but surprisingly toothless organization whose hands were tied once the suspect decided to plead the fifth, and that it, and not the accused, were the victims of “vicious slander,” is beyond insulting.
Nobody seems to get it. For most of its history, Hollywood movies have been unintended propaganda for the right. They’re neocon bedtime stories, tales of good vs. evil, in which good (generally white) triumphs over evil (generally not), and often with a gun. The whole thing is a century-long ad for the NRA. And at the height of Hollywood’s powers, when this absolutist, All-American message was being broadcast around the world, dominating the global film industry in a way that few American enterprises ever dominated their industries, HUAC attacked, and damaged, this Hollywood brand. It accused a successful capitalist enterprise of communist sympathies, and hurt its bottom line in the name of capitalism. Then it rode off into the sunset not knowing how stupid it was. But it left behind this movie to remind us.
UnAmericans this way.
Movie Review: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Here’s how dumb I am: I kept waiting for the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. As the movie began (interminably, with an overture), I also wondered, “Wait, isn’t Jane Russell supposed to be in this?” Of course, I was thinking of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Marilyn Monroe’s other 1953 hit; but to my credit, “Diamonds” does fit better with this title.
And I did get “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”—just not as a song.
Halfway through the film, at a private fashion show, Pola (Monroe) is modeling a red swimsuit in front of Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), a gas-pump-jockey-looking rich bastard who is really interested in Schatze Page (Lauren Bacall), and the woman hosting the show says, as Monroe poses, “You know, of course, that diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Which has got to be one of the quickest pop-cultural-reference turnarounds in history. “Blondes” was released in August and “How to Marry a Millionaire” in November. Did the song get released first? Did screenwriter/producer Nunnally Johnson (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Dirty Dozen”) see an early clip and figure it would be an indelible cultural moment?
The movie is actually full of such sly winks. When Schatze is trying to convince aged Texas oil man J.D. Hanley (William Powell, the least-likely Texas oil man in movie history) that she likes older men, she references Bacall’s real-life husband: “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella, what’s his name, in ‘The African Queen.’” Ditto Loco (Betty Grable), stuck in a picturesque Maine cabin and listening to big-band music on the radio.
Loco: Good old Harry James.
Waldo: Is it? How can you tell?
Loco: How I can tell is because it is Harry James.
James was Grable’s husband. The punchline is that the bandleader they’re listening to is really Ziggy Colombo. Are these girls ever right? Oh, girls.
No means yes
They don’t come off well, do they? Set aside the gold-digging aspect for a moment. Loco mistakes the “lodge” comment of Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark) for an elk’s lodge rather than a romantic tryst, then mistakes forest ranger Eben’s “my trees” comment for vast wealth rather than enthusiastic job responsibility. Schatze, the one who dreams up the scheme of three fashion models subleasing a swanky Upper East Side apartment in order to scam rich husbands, can’t even see the rich man beneath Brookman’s lack of necktie. She thinks he’s a gas-pump jockey like her ex. She doesn’t even question what he’s doing as the sole audience at a private fashion show. She also keeps verbally resisting him (“As soon as I finish this, I never want to see you again”) even as she keeps giving in to him. She’s a “no means yes” girl. Fun times.
Monroe’s Pola, who’s the dingiest of the trio, comes off best by being sweetest. Schatze keeps selling furniture to pay the rent, and dissing Brookman while leading on Hanley; Loco carps the entire time she’s surrounded by beauty; but Pola is nice to everyone. She’s that classic Monroe character: oblivious to her stunning impact. She finally falls for the man who owns the apartment, Freddie Denmark (David Wayne), because he tells her she looks great wearing glasses. (She does.) She’s also the best actor of the three.
It really was Monroe’s moment, wasn't it? Grable, 37, the biggest pinup of World War II, was about to end—she would only make two more movies, then a bit of TV, then nothing—and Bacall, still only 29, never did anything as long-lasting as her work with Bogart in the 1940s. But Monroe, 27, second-billed, became white hot afterwards and never cooled down.
The Greeks have a word for it
The movie is mostly interesting as cultural artifact. You get New York in the early 1950s, America before rock ‘n’ roll and Brown v. Board of Education, and the movie industry doing everything to compete with television. “Millionaire” was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope (but released second, after “The Robe”), and it’s saturated in Technicolor. So it’s wide, colorful ... and flat. And not just the characters. The first act takes place almost completely in that Sutton Place apartment, so you sensed right away that it was based upon a play—specifically “The Greeks Have a World for It” by Zoë Atkins, which debuted in 1930 and was made into a 1932 movie starring Joan Blondell, Madge Evans and Ina Claire, where it was retitled “Three Broadway Girls” to avoid Atkins’ innuendo. It also became a syndicated TV series in the late 1950s, starring Lori Nelson, Merry Anders and a pre-“Jeannie” Barbara Eden.
Could you make the film today? Doubtful. You’d need a different spin. The girls couldn’t be such gold-diggers, not to mention dumb. Not to mention girls.
Movie Review: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
“Superman and the Mole-Men” is less movie than intro to the 1950s TV series. It only last 60 minutes. It just seems to last as long as a movie.
At the same time, it’s an odd intro for the series. We’re never in Metropolis, never see the Daily Planet, never meet Perry White or Jimmy Olsen. It’s just Clark and Lois visiting the town of Silsby, Texas, population 1,430, to write about the deepest oil well ever drilled: six miles deep. As they arrive, though, the well is being shut down. Why? I would’ve guessed because they drilled six miles deep and never struck oil but apparently there’s a more sinister reason for the shutdown. Hideous things are emerging, mole men, who cause old men to have heart attacks and young women to scream, and who bring out the vigilante in the small-minded and intolerant. That’s what the movie’s really about. If the villains in the first two “Superman” serials were megalomaniacs bent on world domination (Spider Lady and Lex Luthor, respectively), the villains of “Superman and the Mole-Men” are your next-door neighbors, preaching intolerance and vigilante justice.
Preventing this, standing in the doorway of injustice, as it were—in a move which prefigures other doorway stands (see: Atticus Finch)—is the Man of Steel, Superman, who, as the opening intro tells us, is “a valiant defender of truth, justice and the American way.”
Interesting sidenote. For most of his career, Superman had fought for truth and justice. Full stop. So why add “the American way” here? I’d always assumed a Cold War scenario, the American way vs. the Russian way, but according to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: An Unauthorized Biography,” it was a defensive salvo against another kind of intolerance. By this point, comic books and superheroes were seen as gateway drugs to juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. Public bonfires were even held in Southern cities to burn Action Comics, Detective Comics, Captain America, etc. Think of all of that money going up in smoke. Anyway, that's why Superman fights for the American way here. It’s patriotism as the last refuge of the witch-hunted.
Superman vs. the Second Amendment
The theme of small-town intolerance is particularly fascinating, since, in this movie, Superman himself is rather intolerant. If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, amazed at the amazing things he can do, Reeves takes it down a notch. Or two. Or 10. Growing up in the mid-1970s, Reeves’ was considered the touchstone performance, the one and true Superman (until Christopher Reeve came along), but I was never a fan, and I’m even less of a fan now. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. (Maybe that is the American way.)
This is never truer than in the movie’s key scene.
Two Mole Men—midgets with low-budget furry costumes and bald wigs—have emerged from the well to creep around the small town of Silsby. To what end? I guess they’re just exploring. But they cause a heart attack and a scream, and they’re trailing radium, so rabble-rouser Luke Benson (veteran character actor Jeff Corey, doing good work) gathers a mob to capture them and string ‘em up. One is shot atop a bridge, but Superman, or at least a shitty animated version of Superman, catches him and carries him to the hospital, then seems to forget all about the other one, who is pursued by bloodhounds into a shack. The shack is lit on fire. What to do? He worries for a bit, then crawls to safety. I’m sure someone wanted him to dig to safety—mole man: hello?—but probably no budget for this. So he crawls.
Back in town, Benson and the mob hear that the first mole man didn’t die after all, some nut in a cape saved him, so Benson incites the mob with a speech that sounds straight out of the Sarah Palin/Tea Party cannon:
Now them two reporters from back east … they’ll try to stop us, like as not, but we ain’t gonna be stopped. This is our town. We don’t need any strangers telling us what to do.
And off they go to lynch the little guy. Who’s there to stand in their way? Not Atticus Finch reading a book but Superman. It’s right through might.
The mob doesn’t know who they’re dealing with yet.
Mob guy: We’re running this town. Maybe we want to string you up, too!
Superman: I’m going to give you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi stormtroopers!
They blow that chance. A gun goes off and Superman has to shield Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) from the bullet; then he urges her inside and away from the door, and says the following to the mob:
Whoever fired that shot nearly hit Miss Lane. Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.
Which he does. He beats up a bunch of Texans and takes the guns from their cold, not-so-dead hands. How great is that? From the perspective of 21st-century political debates, in which nutjobs everywhere worry that Pres. Obama is “coming for their guns,” this is a laugh-out-loud moment. What used to be entertainment is now a nightmare scenario for the paranoid. Who knows? Maybe Superman put the fear in them in the first place.
Defender of truth, justice and sensible gun control laws.
Superman vs. the First Amendment
That's how this Superman deals with the Second Amendment. He's not much better with the First Amendment.
When the presence of the Mole Men becomes known, Lois tries to get to a phone to call in the story, but Superman urges against it.
Lois: I’m a newspaperwoman and I have an obligation to report the facts.
Superman: That’s true. But these facts would start a nationwide wave of hysteria. You saw what happened here tonight. No. If we’re going to stop this thing, it has to be stoppped here and now.
PR dude: He’s right, Miss Lane.
Lois (deflated): I guess so.
Oh, Lois. Where’s our feisty girl from the Fleischer cartoons or the Kirk Alyn serials? Or the comic book or comic strip? This is part of the tamping down of Lois Lane. She can’t hear the scoop for the wedding bells in her head. She promises to love, honor and obey even though there ain’t no ring on that finger.
So what happens after Superman dispenses with Luke and the mob? The escaped mole man returns with two others and a big ray gun, which they train on Luke, who screams in pain until Superman steps between him and the gun.
Luke: You saved my life.
Superman: That’s more than you deserve.
Eventually the mole men return underground and blow up the well. “It’s almost as if they were saying, ‘You live your life and we’ll live ours,’” Lois says, amazed. Superman nods.
And that’s the end.
“Superman and the Mole Men” is a dry, little black-and-white movie filmed in a dry, little backlot somewhere. Its main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills. The whole thing makes me vaguely nauseous. It’s like something you’d only watch when you were sick in bed; and it would only make you sicker.
But it’s worth it for the gun scene.
Ferocious mole man cornered. Was Stan Lee thinking of this guy when he started writing FF #1?
Movie Review: Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
At some point I began to feel less antipathy toward, and more sympathy for, the people who made “Atom Man vs. Superman.”
Tough gig. With a miniscule budget and B actors and little time, you have to create a 15-chapter story about a super-powered being, Superman (Kirk Alyn), battling an evil scientist, Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), where, at the end of each chapter, the hero, or the hero’s friends, are in grave danger. You have to figure out the trap and you have to figure a way out of the trap that—most important—maintains the status quo. Everything has to stay the same but there has to be tension, conflict, and peril throughout. The rhythm of the series is thus: clash, separate, regroup; clash, separate, regroup. Until the final chapter when the hero captures the villain and we get to see the loveliest of words onscreen: The End.
How do you do this? How do you offer constant conflict and resolution while maintaining the status quo?
You make your characters pretty dumb.
The dumbest character
The characters in “Atom Man vs. Superman” are pretty dumb. No thug of Luthor can ever shoot Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane. They have to leave them unconscious in a van that gets blown up or in a warehouse filling with gas or in a barn filling with exhaust.
Superman, meanwhile, can use his amazing powers to get out of predicaments but never to capture anyone important. At the end of Chapter 4, for example, “Superman Meets Atom Man!,” Superman is forced into “the Main Arc,” which teleports its occupants into “the Empy Doom,” a kind of proto-Negative Zone, where one’s “lost atoms will roam forever.” At the same time, Lois is placed unconscious in a car hurtling toward a cliff. How will she be saved? By Superman, of course! But, wait, wasn’t he transported into the Empty Doom? A little too pleased with himself, Superman explains:
His machine didn’t affect me! My atomic structure is different than that of human beings. … I just moved so rapidly I became invisible to the naked eye!
Every kid in the audience: “So why didn’t you just grab Atom Man while you were at it? Or why don’t you go back to his hideout now? You know where it is, dude. You just left it.”
Instead, he gets in the car and drives Lois back. You read that right. Plus he forgets all about the hideout. Until he needs to find it again. But he can’t find it because it’s lead-lined. Which would seem to be a giveaway even if he hadn’t been there before.
Lex Luthor? Brilliant scientist, etc. Here, he actually invents the transporter beam 16 years before “Star Trek.” “This apparatus,” he says, “can accomplish the transmission of matter over short distances. Its secret ray breaks down the component atoms and reassembles them here.” He’s got ray guns that start fires and cause earthquakes, and he’s got the main arc, and he’s got a spaceship, a fucking spaceship in 19-fucking-50; and yet after he’s successfully transported Superman into the Empty Doom, and Superman’s image appears on TV, he buys into the scam that the image is live rather than taped, and he sends a lacky into the Empty Doom to make sure Superman is still there. Guess what? He is! And Superman uses the open channel to return to return to Earth! D’oh!
Even so, there’s no contest about who the dumbest character in “Atom Man vs. Superman” is. Perry White (Pierre Watkin) gets everything wrong:
- When Luthor demands money or he’ll destroy Metropolis River Bridge, Perry is sure nothing will happen.
- When Jimmy reports on one of Luthor’s men disappearing into thin air, Perry complains, “You can’t even cover a routine fire without getting hallucinations. … It’s a plain case of hysteria or hypnotism!”
- When Lois tells Perry about Superman’s secret messages from the Empty Doom, Perry says, “You were probably hypnotized!”
- When Jimmy himself is transported to Luther’s hideout, and even has the coin with which they did it, Perry refuses to print the first-person account, saying they can’t print it if they can’t prove it. But when Clark Kent disappears along with Superman, and both Perry and Lois wonder if they were the same man, Perry tells her to write that story. “If I don’t publish the story someone else will!” he says.
- When Luthor hires men to frame them and divert attention from himself, and Clark suggests as such, Perry says, “Sounds like the plot of a cheap detective story!”
- When Clark suggests that there’s a connection between Luthor and the villainous Atom Man, Perry responds, “Luthor is running a legitimate television station. I’m sure he’s on the level!”
Great Caesar’s Ghost, dude.
Does Perry White get anything right in this series?
The frightful, pointless Atom Man
According to Glen Weldon in his book “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” the movie is actually based on a storyline from the Superman radio series. What’s the story? I guess Luthor wants money and power, and I guess Superman does what he can to foil him, and I guess the Planet reporters are after a scoop.
In many ways “Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than the previous Kirk Alyn serial, “Superman” (1948). We get more stock footage (floods, fires). We get redos from the first serial: Clark Kent ducking behind a file cabinet and emerging, a second later, with a dancer’s lightness and a triumphant blast of music, as Superman. An entire episode is devoted to Lex Luthor telling his assistant, Carl (Rusty Wescoatt, who also played a henchman in “Batman and Robin”), the story of Superman’s origins on Krypton, which lets the producers re-use that footage.
Sure, for the first time, we get close-up shots of Kirk Alyn as Superman flying, steadying his arms, looking down with concern; but when he flies Superman is still mostly a cartoon. As is the flying saucer. That’s right. Luthor also has a flying saucer. Forgot to mention that. He winds up shooting it at the Daily Planet airplane to blow it up. You’d think flying saucers grew on trees.
Luthor has a secret identity in this one, too: the titular Atom Man, a frightful being in a … Naw. He’s just wearing a mask that looks like a totem-pole head. It looks like they took a jug, cut in eyeholes and a mouthhole, sprinkled on glitter, and plunked it on Lyle Talbot’s poor head. You know the scene in “Duck Soup” where Groucho gets his head stuck in a pitcher and Harpo draws a Groucho face on it? Like that.
So what’s the point of Atom Man? Why ever be Atom Man when you’re Lex Luthor? I’m not sure. Maybe they needed the character for the title. Maybe the atom bomb was all the rage in 1950, the year after the Soviet Union detonated theirs, and that’s why exploding atom bombs dominate the opening credit sequence. Was this the first use of A-bombs as entertainment? Is this how we reduce what’s fearful to us? By letting Hollywood producers have a go?
Atom Man is also necessary because, for much of the serial, Luthor pretends to go straight. He’s caught in Chapter 1 and paroled in Chapter 3, where, outside the prison, he tells the waiting press, “I’ve invested in a television studio. My inventive genius will revolutionize the business!” He then uses the TV truck as a means of spying on the city. He even hires Lois Lane as a woman-on-the-street reporter, asking passersby questions such as, “Is city life more exciting than country life?” I.e., revolutionizing the business.
Luthor’s investment, by the way, makes total sense given the genre and the year. “Atom Man” was the 43rd Columbia serial. They would make 57 of them, the last in 1956. What killed the serial star? TV, of course. Superman may fight Luthor here but the serial’s producers knew who the real enemy was.
For some reason, Lex Luthor (top) turns himself into the jug-headed Atom Man (middle). Superman (bottom) can't figure it out, either.
Is that a missile between your legs or are you just happy to see me?
Other changes? Noel Neill’s Lois is less of a grump. She smiles so much, particularly when Superman is around, that my cheeks hurt just watching. Jimmy (Tommy Bond) is the same, Perry is dumber. Alyn’s Clark feels subtler this time around—he plays the nerd and the coward more often—but his Superman is a bit stiffer, his voice more stentorian. He says everything with an exlamation point! Like a comic book character!
For all its cheapness and stupidity, though, “Atom Man vs. Superman” presages many things in the Superman cinematic ouevre:
- The shot of the dam breaking and about to flood the town is a forerunner to the Hoover dam sequence in “Superman” (1978).
- Lois draws glasses on a picture of Superman to see if he’s Clark Kent, as in the opening to the Donner cut of “Superman II.”
- Lex Luthor creates synthetic kryptonite here; Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) does it in “Superman III.”
- Superman gets trapped in The Empty Doom (or Phantom Zone) here, as does Supergirl in 1984’s “Supergirl.”
Even this headline, from when Supes fights his way back from the Empty Doom, presages things to come:
The serial also presages the ending of one of the darkest comedies ever made: Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” We all know that ending even if we haven’t seen the movie: Maj. ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) riding the a-bomb out of the bay-doors of the plane and into the Russian night, wa-hooing it up, Texas-style, as the world moves inexorably toward its doom.
Here, Lex Luthor shoots a nuclear missile at Metropolis. Instead of forcing it into space, a la Chris Reeve in “Superman” (or “Superman II,” or “Superman IV”), Alyn rides it out to sea, where it explodes harmlessly. Or “harmlessly.” It is a nuke, after all:
What to make of a man with a nuclear-powered missile between his legs? This looks like a job for Freud.