Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Love In the Sonic Age: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Nathan Juran's 1958 B-movie, cult classic, full-of-camp Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is barely a step above anything Hollywood's worst, all-time director Ed Wood would make (such as Glen Or Glenda? of 1953). So why bother with it? Sometimes, what makes a film so bad, is that it's so obvious: a great drama is great because it successfully encodes all its conflicts into sterilized and acceptable plot sequences, but B-movies will often be brash and brazen about what they are wanting to say, and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman hits the limit for the brash and brazen. Anyone who has seen the film knows the word spoken most is "Harry!" for William Hudson's Harry Archer, the husband of mega-rich Nancy Fowler Archer (Allison Hayes who is always crying out for him).
While this isn't the approach I am going to take towards the film, I feel it necessary to mention that Nancy's immense stature, on a political level in 1958, could easily be referencing the United States becoming a super-power on the world scene. In 1957, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in for a second term, and his strong approach to world activities--including catching up in the Space Race with the Soviets who had launched the Sputnik satellite that year--really formed the identity of the United States and basis for our policies, for years after his administration ended. The launching of the Sputnik by the Soviets is the reason why the term "satellite" is used in Attack of the 50-Foot Woman instead of "flying saucer" or "UFO."
Yet, overall, my money is going on this being a kind of modern Adam and Eve story, with Attack of the 50-Foot Woman being about a bad husband as, we shall see The Incredible Shrinking Man is about a bad wife. The listing I made of films in the 1950s referencing the story of Adam and Eve wasn't an exercise in history; there is a reason why "Harry!" is the most (to a ludicrous level) spoken word in the film (please see The Decade Of Turmoil: Film In the 1950s). Please note in the poster above, the hand of the giant coming to get Nancy in her car. It's covered with hair but when we see a full shot of the giant, his head is bald. The lack of hair on the head shows a lack of thoughts, a lack of intelligence (nothing is there) but what is there (the head) is plain for all to see so this translates into Harry's motivations for marrying and then trying to get rid of Nancy: it's plain for all to see.
One of the title cards for the opening showing the desert.
The desert which Nancy drives through (the first moments we see her) when she encounters the alien provides us with a tragic sense of how "dry" her marriage is (which we can contrast to her drinking problem, because she doesn't find love in her husband, she takes to the bottle to "water the desert" that are her emotions; which is why everyone thinks she's been drinking when she tells them about seeing the giant man, she wants Harry's attention). The 30 foot-tall alien is symbolic of Harry, because--like the alien--he wants Nancy's diamond, the "Star of India" (there are a couple of references to elephants in the film, likening the diamond from India to Nancy's very identity).
After seeing Harry flirting with Honey, Nancy drives off into the desert and sees the alien. As she tries to get away, her car engine stalls. If we can take that "alien" to be Harry and Nancy finally seeing Harry for what he is because of the events of that night, then, symbolically, Nancy not being able to get her engine started means she "loses heart" over leaving Harry because she needs him so much... no, it doesn't make sense, but when they are at home that night, that is exactly what happens, she talks about how much she needs him, and it's easier for Nancy to accuse Harry of flirting and making an effort at getting him to drop Honey then to outright leave him and fully realize he's cheating on her. 
Harry means "hairy" in the film, specifically, that Harry is a man fueled by is appetite for money; Honey Parker his mistress, tells him, "We have the same sickness, money," and regrettably, Nancy has $50 million dollars. But Harry is "hairy" because of his appetites for drink, money and sex. The alien, then, is Harry, 30 feet tall who appears to be "dominating" Nancy by his height; he's an alien because he has become "alien" to her, no longer acting like her husband, but someone who is single. The "satellite" or bubble the alien arrives in is symbolic of the way of Nancy "seeing through" the charade/wall that Harry had been putting on with Nancy about his "innocent" relationship with Honey. Nancy and Harry going out that evening was the "vehicle" (like the alien craft) for Nancy to realize what Harry really was (the alien revealing himself to Nancy) and it happening on the road symbolizes the road of their lives together/relationship.
The only shot I could find of the giant alien in the upper-left corner. Please note Nancy's clothes, of course, no where does she actually put on this outfit, but this is a trend in 1950s films with women: women will be seen to change their clothes several times for no apparent reason, but that's because women in the '50s were "always changing" themselves and the clothes merely illustrated their mood changes and role changes. The outfit Nancy wears looks rather primitive, as if invoking the caveman era (we will see Scott Carey wearing a caveman-esque robe in The Incredible Shrinking Man) and  this intentionally takes us back to that "Adam and Eve" theme running throughout the 1950s and re-examining the most fundamental beliefs about relationships.
As the film opens, it's with a newscast of people around the world who have spotted this "satellite." One in the Barents Sea, another in Cairo, then one is Auckland, New Zealand and the telecaster says, "It should be passing over our California desert any minute." Why does this happen? Because in each case, it was spotted by a man, and that means, generally, men of the 1950s, all over the world, could see what kind of man Harry Archer really was: someone making his living off a woman. At one point, when the Sheriff and Jess, Nancy's life-long butler, have found the alien's craft, they enter and see large diamonds in balls and deduce that the diamonds power the alien and the craft in some way. In another scene, as Harry gets Nancy ready for bed after her encounter, he takes the diamond from around her neck and puts it in his shirt pocket, then shows it to Honey that night and tells her it will be hers if she waits a little longer.
Honey Parker and Harry Archer at Tony's Bar discussing Nancy.
Nancy's diamond, then, literally keeps Harry going to get rid of her so he can be with Honey; it (and the money used to buy the diamond) fuels Harry to even be willing to commit murder. Another interesting detail Attack of the 50 Foot Woman utilizes are the scratches around Nancy's neck where her doctors speculate the alien took the diamond necklace from and which is probably how the radiation (causing her gigantic stature) entered her system.
To me, this is the best moment of the B-film, when it takes on some film noir characteristics. Harry has decided to take Nancy's life by giving her a lethal dose of one of her sedatives, in the very immediate foreground of this shot. As he prepares to go up the stairs to her room, the light (left side wall) casts Harry's shadow against the stair well until it "unites" with his figure, going up the stairs. At the base of the stairs, he has turned his back on a portrait of a woman, literally meaning that he has turned his back on Nancy "as a woman," and this is the reason why she suddenly becomes a monster. The ascent up the stairs means that he is fully conscious of what he is doing and is ready to do it.
When an animal hunts another animal, it is customary to "go for the jugular," the large vein in the throat and that's exactly what Harry has done to his wife, clawed at her to get to her wealth, symbolized by the great diamond she wears. No where is Harry's lowliness as a man and husband more apparent than when Harry and Nancy have been driving through the desert, looking for the alien, and they spot it; Nancy gets out of the car and is attacked by it, but Harry turns and drives off, leaving her there. This is when Nancy gets the diamond stolen and the radiation exposure. This has two purposes symbolically. Recall, that even when Nancy is 50 feet tall, the deputy says, "I'm not going to shoot at a lady," to let us know that he still sees Nancy as human and a lady, not like Harry who sees others as he sees himself: a monster.
Harry went to save Honey but wouldn't save Nancy.
The reason Harry and Nancy drive out into the desert looking for the alien is that it illustrates the confrontation. Now viewers of the film will say, they had a confrontation the night before but those were just the verbal confrontations. This is how "sick" Nancy is: when she shows the alien to Harry, she's showing Harry himself, how gross he has become to her, and she rejoices about it, because she's right. She can't rejoice that Harry loves her, she can only rejoice that she wasn't imagining that Harry was cheating on her and trying to use her for her money, she was right he really is (think of Ingrid Bergman's character in the 1944 thriller Gaslight when her husband--like Harry Archer--tries to convince his wife she's going crazy and she's happy to find out she's not, in both cases, he really was after her wealth and trying to kill her). 
Harry, in the driver's seat (like what Honey was talking about) looking for the alien with Nancy when she spots "flashes of light" which symbolically indicates the "flashes of understanding" and illumination about what Harry has done in the past (her looking behind her, reviewing their relationship).  At one point, Jess and the sheriff take a station wagon Nancy has and they go and look for the alien. The alien picks up the station wagon and demolishes it: if the alien is Harry, and station wagons can symbolize a family vehicle, then Harry's unwillingness to have children with Nancy contributes to his dehumanizing of her, because it is "natural" to want to have children and re-produce, it is unnatural to avoid doing so.
The second way this scene communicates to us is by showing us how Harry, a very "small man" in moral stature now, prefers a small woman: Honey Parker. Like honey, Honey drips and oozes but is also very sticky, and like her last name suggests, Harry thinks life with her will be a "park" compared to Nancy. But Harry Archer is an "archer," he shoots everything down and kills it with his un-Cupid-like archery skills (this is why Honey and Nancy both die). Honey is used to invoke "sweet as honey," but not in a good way, more like a cavity-way, because the appetites of both "Harry the hairy" and "Honey the sticky," everyone knows who to blame for Nancy's troubles. 
As Nancy goes on her rampage throughout town looking for Harry, a young couple who get into a car and start making out sees Nancy heading for them. It serves as a warning to them (and to all young couples) not to get married because of their sexual appetites and lusts, i.e., not to let sex become the "vehicle" (the car they are parked in) of marriage because marriage is so difficult, it requires more than money and attraction to make a marriage work. This shot displays Nancy's state of being well: while we could dismiss it, saying it was just the clever projection of her image over the backdrop screen to make her look big, it also means that Nancy is only a shadow of her former self.
Why does Nancy grow to become the 50-foot woman?
When Harry decides to give Nancy a lethal injection of her sedative, it's also, at least on one level, symbolic of the sex act (injecting her) and basically raping her, dismissing her humanity, just as he turns his back to the portrait of the woman at the foot of the stairs, he turns his back on Nancy's humanity and human needs. So, to Harry, if she's not human, she's a monster, a monster to him just as Harry is a monster to Nancy. That's why Nancy keeps saying "Harry!" throughout the film, our name and our recognition of our name is a unique and singular identifying feature of us as individuals and human beings (as in Silence of the Lambs, when the Senator makes a commercial appealing to her daughter's captor and uses her daughter's name over and over again). By invoking Harry's humanity, Nancy wants to remind Harry of her humanity, but by the time she's 50 feet tall, it doesn't really matter anymore.
Nancy taking her husband "in hand." Please remember this shot, it's important.
When Nancy picks up Harry, and he says that she's squeezing him to death, it's because Harry didn't hold Nancy when he had the chance and when she needed him the most. Like in When Harry Met Sally, and Harry (Billy Crystal) rhetorically asks how long a man has to hold a woman after sex until he can leave, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman's Harry only wants to have the world served up to him, he doesn't want any responsibilities he has to fulfill.
Nancy grows to be 50 feet tall because she has $50 million dollars.
What would normally be an asset for a man (wealth) becomes a lability for Nancy, rather obnoxiously pointed out by the news broadcaster. The image just below, with the electric tower, is really great because it shows how much "power" Nancy has and how she's using it destructively (destroying herself by falling for a "small man"). In terms of the 1950s, this is the point of the "power struggle," that when women have power (literally, the image below) they use it to harm themselves and others because if a woman cannot find a man that can dominate her (Harry was 30 feet tall to Nancy, she wanted him to dominate her and be worthy of her respect and love, but he wasn't) she turns against herself and her gifts and qualities that should have been used to give life and happiness to others (the power lines below), and in turn, happiness to herself, becomes destructive to her (please see The Medusa Within: Clash Of the Titans for more on the dual nature of women). 
And, lastly, the references to elephants.
The reference the newscaster makes to elephants, and then the elephant syringe the doctors order to give the gigantic Nancy her medicine, all points to the same dehumanization by the townspeople that Harry did to Nancy: Nancy was nothing but her fortune symbolized by the diamond from India (where there are elephants). When the sheriff goes to investigate the alien Nancy saw, he tells the deputy that, because Nancy pays the taxes around there, they are going to go and have a look.
Nancy chained like an animal with meat hooks.
In relationship to the atomic bomb being dropped, it was easy for people to reduce others to their economic values (or less) because life became so cheap in World War II (including the horrors committed in concentration camps and just the things that people do during wars). Instead of valuing life more because of the dramatic loss of life, people valued other people even less, and it is the social documents that film presents to us that reminds us of how culture and society changed and how film documented that change.
Honey hiding under a table because she doesn't want Nancy to find her.
In conclusion, it's typical of scientists in the 1950s to say that they have absolutely no idea of what is the problem, or the solution, or the cause, or the future of a disease or other phenomena, and part of that, I believe, is because it has to do with the most complicated being on earth, the human, and our mind, specifically when it involves love. My point of going through these films is to try and establish a counter-thesis to the long-held assumption that these films are really about aliens or monsters that symbolize the Communists and instead are about ourselves, and how the changes socially and culturally taking place in America in the 1950s were reflected in our art.
Please click on to enlarge for easier viewing.