THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941)
Director: Stuart Heisler
Cinematographer: Victor Milner
Story/Screenplay: Stuart Anthony
Lead actors: Ellen Drew, Philip Terry, Paul Lukas
Supporting actors: Onslow Stevens, Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia, Gerald Mohn, Robert Paige, George Zucco, Charlie Gemora
Elliot Lavine provided his audience with something extremely unusual and offbeat at the tail end of his triple feature on August 10, a troika of films featuring troubled/tortured relationships between siblings. The first two, UNDER AGE and I WAKE UP SCREAMING, feature sisters and fall into reasonably well-defined sub-categories of early noir—with the latter being Fox studios’ influential “taming” of lighting and mise-en-scene that is arguably the template for staging techniques employed in literally hundreds of B-noirs.
It’s the third that is out of the box. THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL has late-blooming director Stuart Heisler at the helm, and only a man marinated in all the rudiments of filmmaking technique could have pulled off such a bizarre hybrid without its component pieces literally falling out from their jerry-rigged places onto the floor.
It’s a film of portentous glances, looming menace, slammed up against characters who self-implode right before our eyes. And it’s a film that slowly shifts its modes of dread as it morphs from noir to horror to outright science-fiction fantasy and takes the frog-in-the-pot audience right along with it.
The twisted plot—or, should we say, the twisted transitions—are nicely captured by the synopsis of this IMDB reviewer:
Stuart Heisler's THE MONSTER & THE GIRL begins with a prostitute (Ellen Drew) coming out of the fog to tell her tale in flashback; she had come to the big city to follow her dreams and fell for a homme fatale (Robert Paige) who tricked her into gangland prostitution but when her brother (Phillip Terry) comes looking for her, he's framed for murder. There's a trial, of course, and her brother's sentenced to death -but before he's taken away, he vows that the gangsters who destroyed his family will get theirs one by one. Now this is where it gets really weird -a mad scientist (George Zucco) comes to see him on Death Row wanting his brain for science (!) and after the execution it's transplanted into a gorilla who proceeds to carry out the kid's threats.
Ellen Drew and Phillip Terry are the haunted siblings. Drew is a bit too hyper in her line deliveries, but she has great command of facial gestures and she sets the tone of the film perfectly at the outset. Terry is more wooden than haunted, but perhaps Heisler pushed him into this type of “surveying the scorched earth” persona.
The boys who mess with them are an all-evil bunch to die for: Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Marc Lawrence, Gerald Mohr, and Robert Paige. Lukas dispenses mayhem and bad acts with a flick of the wrist; Calleia summons up proto-Lewtonesque allusions with a Mephistophelean smirk.
But as many reviewers of the film also point out, it’s the unsung actor in the gorilla suit (yes, it’s a noir that turns into a “revenge of the transplanted creature” feature...) who gives the most touching peformance:
Charlie Gemora's gorilla costume is more realistic looking than the cheesy moth eaten suits worn by George Barrows or Ray Corrigan in minor studio pictures. Also Gemora manages to express real feelings and emotions underneath that gorilla suit.
All of this is handled with great restraint by Heisler, and it’s his slow-down of the pace that gives the gorilla the necessary gravitas to keep a noir tale from jumping the shark via the Empire State Building. Heisler wisely keeps these moves swathed in darkness and features tracking shots that descend to earth, much more in keeping with the sad, downbeat tale that winds down to a neo-Jacobin denouement where the survivors stand around and shake their heads at what has transpired. So much sadness, but at least the evil ones have been dispatched—for now.
Elliot had a mock-query about the noir-o-meter WRT this one. As always, it comes through like a champ for us, registering a strong overall score (128/200, or 6.4/10), with the melodrama elements clearly outpacing the hard-boiled components (a 130 score, or about 20% more pronounced than the “average” noir), and the visual techniques or “mise-en-scene” elevating/transforming what are mostly nondescript settings/threadbare sets. The film scores strongly on the photographic aspects of noir, thanks to the yeoman work of Victor Milner.
Of course this type of smashing together of “genre clichés” is not to everyone’s tastes…the NY Times reviewer in 1941 had clearly seen too many gorillas (most of them, come to think of it, played by Charlie Gemora…) and was at least as dyspeptic as the film he was characterizing as being the same:
Sometimes in reverie this reporter has wondered how many dyspeptic dramas might be spared the public if only a scenarist had taken bicarbonate of soda before sitting down to the typewriter.
That’s a bit harsh for a movie with so many ham-fisted subtleties…as Elliot knows, those type of subtleties are extremely hard to find. But this film has them in profusion. And Elliot fearlessly put this film out there for his Castro audience, trusting that they'd know what to do.
And, of course, the crowd went completely nuts...