Jack Arnold: Swiss Cheese at Last

DATELINE: Forgotten Co-Star?

John Saxon, d. 2020.

 One of the great 1950s sci-fi directors was Jack Arnold who gave us Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and a western No Name on the Bullet,that were astounding movies.

Alas, not every great director has the freedom to be an auteur. Arnold wound up in TV, directing some of the big TV shows from 1960 to 1990. It was all trash in the end.  Even directors have to eat.

One of his final theatrical movies was from 1976 in which he received a nice vacation to Zurich and Switzerland where he filmed The Swiss Conspiracy.  It has so many plot holes that even literate Jack Arnold could only give the stolen ice an ending on the ice of the Alps He was witty to the end.

The film is about blackmail over Swiss bank accounts. And, the cast is fairly stellar: Ray Milland as president of the bank, Anton Diffring as his vice president, John Ireland and John Saxon as assorted blackmail victims. It also happens to be a rare movie in which both Elke Sommer and Senta Berger appear.

If you have trouble telling them apart, this movie will help.

The star is benighted David Janssen, already looking worn out. He would die a few years later from his profligate living, but he was always busy in a role, mostly TV movies like SOS Titanic as John Jacob Astor.

Here he is some kind of retired federal agent who takes on a job to uncover a conspiracy of Swiss banking fraud. It’s a conspiracy because you will never figure out who was doing it and why everyone is murdered.

Perhaps the ultimate humor was to have as many plot holes as Swiss cheese. Jack Arnold does his best on this movie. He usually wrangles top drawer performances and makes the script literate, but even he had his limits. No wonder he turned to TV after this movie trifle.

As we watched this film, word came to us that John Saxon had passed away at his home at age 83. He was in seminal form for this movie, and gave many supporting performances of high quality. He was one of those patented movie/TV villlains of the 1960s. His death was forgotten, occurring between Olivia De Havilland and Regis Philbin in a 24-hour period.

Watery Gill Man from Black Lagoon

DATELINE: Goon from the Lagoon

Goon from Black Lagoon

Master director of all genres at Universal Studios during the 1950s, Jack Arnold brought us so many low-budget classics: from the Incredible Shrinking Man to Space Children to No Name on the Bullet.

One of his most famous tales was the directorial gem, Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s supposed to be in 3-D, but you won’t know it.  Film recognition may be enhanced by the odd-ball Best Picture of the Year from Oscar, called The Shape of Water. It’s more like the stolen picture of the year as The Shape of Plagiarism It’s the same movie with a bigger budget, computer effects, and less panache.

So, we wanted to see what Jack Arnold did with his movie with no budget, no big effects, and more panache than horror.

The de rigueur monster of the 1950s, the creature was actually a Gill Man, covered in scales with poorly manicured, webbed fingers. He swims like a cross between Esther Williams and Michael Phelps. And, he is photographed like a choreographed water sequence at Metro from Busby Berkley.

Arnold knew enough to bring in two stalwart 1950s leading men, Richard Carlson and Richard Denning. Carlson was always some kind of scientist with heroic demeanor, and Denning comes off as a proto-Trump businessman on expedition.

Throw in Julia Adams as a research assistant and Whit Bissell as the throwaway scientist, and you have a classic gem of a cast.

Silly plot holes may have you rolling your eyes: the underwater repellent is supposed to be knock-out drops to Gill Man, but it has no effect on the regular guys in snorkel protection mode.

Everyone goes out on a dig at night and leaves Whit Bissell to fall asleep guarding the monster. And, this scholarly scientific expedition claims not to have enough weapons to fight the Creature, though every man has a rifle.

Perhaps Arnold’s most amazing feat is that he put this film together in 75 minutes without bloody gore and with a sense of fun. Victims seem to be scratched like an encounter with one of T.S. Elliott’s cats.

No, this is not Jack Arnold’s best, but it is his most well-known movie, now more than ever.

Space Children: Jack Arnold Classic

DATELINE:  1958 Gem

brothersPlaying brothers: Johnny Crawford & Michel Ray

One of the great under-appreciated directors of the 1950s is largely forgotten now, Jack Arnold. Among his best known films are Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man and No Name on the Bullet. He transcended genre.

In 1958 he tried another science fiction flick that didn’t quite win the cult following of his earlier movies. That was his interesting examination of a space alien that puts mind control on kids in The Space Children.

Mind you: this was way before sweet E.T. and monstrous Children of the Damned took over the minds of juveniles.

It helped that Arnold was fearless with child actors. He simply found the best and let them play it. In this case he used Johnny Crawford, before the Rifleman, and Michel Ray, before Lawrence of Arabia. As brothers, they are as good as the Hardy Boys.

He also cast some of the well-known character actors of the era:  Raymond Bailey (of Beverly Hillbillies), Jackie Coogan (of Addams Family), and Russell Johnson (of Gilligan’s Island), as his adult problems for the kids.

Michel Ray is particularly effective with eyes that seem to presage Nick Hoult 60 years later. It’s Ray who has the ray-beam power to paralyze adults, through his alien host.

These kids are children of rocket scientists—and their mission is to sabotage their fathers’ prototype Star Wars missile program. Yes, this movie is a tad ahead of its time.

The film is subtle and not given over to the histrionics we have come to expect from puerile space movies.

Perhaps the title misled audiences: this was clearly a movie for adults to ponder, not to titillate the popcorn set.

This lost gem can be streamed on your viewing device and clocks in at 68 minutes: it’s a dreamy entertainment.