Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958) -***
In 1957, Universal International Pictures made a pretty big stir with The Incredible Shrinking Man. Director Jack Arnold was in those days the studio’s foremost specialist in inexpensive sci-fi/horror movies, having previously helmed such hits as It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted the script from one of his own most potent novels. And the special effects crew included men who had done impressive work on This Island Earth and the more comedic entries in the old Invisible Man series. It was a formidable concentration of talent, and while the finished product leaves me frustrated at how much of the novel’s cinematic potential went unrealized, that apparently wasn’t an issue for the average late-50’s movie-goer. The Incredible Shrinking Man was a success at the box office, and in the years since, it has acquired a reputation as one of the last truly classic science fiction films of the 1950’s. Naturally, it was ripped off almost immediately.
The man most responsible for that rip-off was one whose works have inspired at least as much love among B-movie fans as Jack Arnold’s, albeit for very different reasons. Whereas Arnold had a knack for winning respectable results from modest resources, independent producer/director Bert I. Gordon is justly remembered as the driving force behind some of the most endearingly goofy and misbegotten monster flicks of a decade in which goofy and misbegotten monster flicks were thick on the ground. Gordon’s answer to The Incredible Shrinking Man was The Amazing Colossal Man, which inverted Matheson’s premise to yield a much more conventional monster romp, rendered with a degree of persuasiveness that was similarly opposite to what its inspiration had offered. The Amazing Colossal Man nevertheless made a decent amount of money for distributors American International Pictures, enough so that a sequel— War of the Colossal Beast— would follow in 1958. Meanwhile, a different independent producer weighed in with a rip-off of the rip-off.
That second-order rip-off artist was Jacques Marquette. Marquette was a cinematographer of substantial ability, but his career as a producer was a short one, notable mainly for two pictures which he made in collaboration with director Nathan Juran. The first of these was the John Agar anti-classic, The Brain from Planet Arous; the other was Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Both are somewhat difficult movies to assess. On the surface, they’re a couple of cheap, shoddy absurdities, riddled with illogical plot developments and hampered by special effects that are occasionally breathtaking in their insufficiency. Juran’s own opinion of them was low enough that he refused to use his real name, taking screen credit under the pseudonym “Nathan Hertz” instead. But despite that, he and Marquette (who ran the cameras as well as producing) brought to the films a degree of subtle craftsmanship that somehow manages to counteract the foolishness of the proceedings while simultaneously calling attention to it. Furthermore, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman specifically benefits from some shockingly insightful characterization courtesy of writer Mark Hanna and lead performers Allison Hayes, William Hudson, and Yvette Vickers.
Nancy Archer (Hayes, from The Hypnotic Eye and The Unearthly) is heiress to the $50 million Fowler fortune, and it hardly takes a psychologist to figure out what her husband, Harry (Hudson, of The Man Who Turned to Stone and The She-Creature), seeks to get out of their relationship. Harry’s true affections are reserved for Honey Parker (Vickers), the scheming honky-tonk hussy whom Harry has recently installed at a hotel in the little California desert town to which the Archers have retreated for the sake of minimizing Nancy’s press profile. Nancy, you see, has a history of both alcoholism and mental instability, while the Archers’ marriage has a history of very public disintegration. In fact, Nancy spent some months in a private sanitarium not long ago, and she and Harry are newly reconciled (in theory, anyway) from a separation of similar duration.
So with all that in Nancy’s background, she is not widely believed when she returns from a drive through the desert one night, raving about a UFO and a giant alien. She came upon the huge, spherical craft parked smack in the middle of the road, and when she got out of her car to see what was going on, the machine’s 50-foot pilot (Michael Ross later on, but represented in this first appearance solely by a floppy rubber hand as big as Allison Hayes) emerged and started groping after her. Nancy’s impression is that the creature for some reason wanted her necklace, the pendant of which is an internationally famous diamond called the Star of India. Her status as far and away the wealthiest person in town ensures that Sheriff Dubbitt (George Douglas, from The Snow Creature and The Colossus of New York) and his deputy (Frank Chase, of The Creature Walks Among Us) are prepared to humor her no matter how absurd they consider her story. Naturally, however, they can find no sign of flying spheres or titans from another world anywhere in the area that Nancy identifies as the venue for her encounter. Harry and Honey, who have lately been brainstorming for ways to seize control of Nancy’s money, are thrilled with what they take to be evidence of her impending final crack-up.
Of course, we know perfectly well that the frazzled woman is telling nothing but the truth, and the next time Nancy has a run-in with the humongous space man, Harry is on the scene too. The situation comes about when Nancy insists that her husband take her out giant-hunting, determined to prove to somebody that she isn’t just losing her marbles again. Harry does not exactly cover himself with glory on this occasion; one look at the alien, and the son of a bitch speeds off in Nancy’s car, leaving her to her own devices! Nancy’s longtime butler, Jess Stout (Ken Terrell, from Port Sinister and The Wasp Woman), is taken aback to say the least when Harry returns to the mansion without her, and Jess arranges to have the cops intercept Harry at Honey’s hotel room— where the two two-timers are caught right on the threshold, luggage in hand. Obviously this attempt to cut and run occurring in tandem with the sudden disappearance of Harry’s filthy-rich wife lands him and Honey in an immense amount of trouble, but the impending legal action is put on hold when a naked and comatose Nancy curiously turns up on the roof of her pool house. Dubbitt plausibly concludes that she simply wandered up there on a bender before succumbing to alcohol poisoning, but that still leaves a fair many unanswered questions about why Harry and Honey were suddenly so hot to get out of Dodge. The sheriff is the least of the conspirators’ worries, however. Whatever the alien did to Nancy while swiping her diamond for use in its spacecraft’s powertrain, radiation from its body soon starts transforming her into a giant, too, and 50-Foot Nancy is going to want to have words with both Harry and Honey just as soon as she emerges from that coma.
Modern audiences are likely to be just a little bit irritated with Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, on the grounds that Nancy doesn’t launch her retributive rampage until the last ten minutes of this 66-minute film. Until then, the movie focuses instead first on the triangular relationship among the main characters, and then on the efforts of the local authorities to find and deal with Nancy’s space giant. This is probably the point on which Attack of the 50-Foot Woman most closely resembles The Amazing Colossal Man (which, significantly, Mark Hanna also co-wrote). It’s worth pointing out, though, that Colonel Glenn Manning did at least become huge relatively early in the latter movie, even if he didn’t actually do anything until the final reel, either. In any event, it means that a person must watch the bulk of this film for something other than what they presumably came to it for, and the alternate sources of engagement are something of a mixed bag. The hunt for the alien is an occasion for much hilarity, in essentially the way one would expect from a movie with this title and this pedigree. It’s funny enough when the use of simple double exposures instead of real matting renders the alien and his ship transparent in the shadowed portions of their bodies. The revelation that the gargantuan astronaut’s spacecraft is scaled on the inside for the comfort of creatures perhaps one tenth his height, and that this representative of a hyper-advanced extraterrestrial civilization dresses like an extra in an Italian Viking movie, is something else again. The sharp-eyed will also get a chuckle out of the fact that the same actor plays both the titan from space and the owner of Honey Parker’s favorite bar.
Attack of the 50-Foot Woman’s failings as a straight-up monster romp are only part of the picture, though. There’s an important sense in which this movie is also a relationship drama, and those elements are strangely powerful and engrossing— as well they should be, considering that they’re really the secret heart of the film. Clunky and histrionic as they are, Mark Hanna’s writing and Allison Hayes’s acting capture with disturbing accuracy the love-hate dynamic of a deeply dysfunctional, abusive relationship. Some years ago, I happened to watch Attack of the 50-Foot Woman at a time when I was helping a very close friend extricate herself from a similarly toxic marriage, and it was like a punch in the stomach for me seeing the drunken Nancy follow up an embittered tirade asking how she could have been so stupid as to take Harry back after his last round of infidelities by collapsing, sobbing, into his arms and begging him not to leave her. That scene didn’t affect me as strongly this time around, but I’m nevertheless inclined to trust my previous reaction, and to credit Hanna and Hayes for creating something at least potentially resonant. William Hudson is never called upon to do anything quite as intense, but his rendition of a cowardly, self-interested, small-hearted slimebag is equally effective in its quieter way. As for Yvette Vickers— well, let’s just say there’s a reason why she spent most of the 50’s playing one sexually predatory bad girl after another, from her early delinquent pictures like Juvenile Jungle and Reform School Girl, all the way to her scene-stealing performance as a female answer to Harry Archer in The Giant Leeches. Vickers herself reported that she got to be such a specialist at parts of this type that it started to affect her real-world social life. She couldn’t go to a party in Hollywood without every woman in the house literally grabbing hold of their men in an effort to keep them away from her! Again as with Hanna and Hayes, there’s a certain clumsy broadness to what Vickers does here, but she too has managed to dredge up something discomfitingly real along with the cheap, flashy crap. I can’t argue in good faith that Attack of the 50-Foot Woman isn’t junk, but I can and will argue that it’s junk with heart.