Gorgo: It Came from 1961


GORGO (1961)

Directed by Eugène Lourié

MGM (Britain), 78 minutes, not-rated

(filmmaking) ★★★ (campiness)


People often get nostalgic on their birthdays. Since it’s mine today, I’m visiting the Movie Wayback Machine for a new look at a flick I saw as a kid. In the early Sixties helicopter parents weren’t a thing. Mothers routinely slipped kids a buck and told them to walk downtown to see­ a movie. (Anything to get them out of their hair.)


I was fond of monster pictures like Godzilla and Gorgo, the latter an attempt to cash in on cheesy Japanese sci-fi. As a film Gorgo is a cave full of cheddar, but the production team knew that and didn’t try to dress it up as a warning against atomic weapons or scientists gone mad. It has an all-male lead cast, which was how most monster movies were made. It stars Bill Travers, William Sylvester, Vincent Winter, and Martin Benson. Never heard of them? That’s a tipoff that you are in the presence of a low-budget picture. Gorgo cost $650,000 to make, which wasn’t chump change—about $6.1 million today—but still wasn’t much. Apparently most of it was spent on rubber suits and Styrofoam.


The plot line involves pearl divers near Ireland’s “Nara” Island—an anagram of Aran—whose rust bucket trawler nearly capsizes when an underwater volcano erupts and sends huge waves across stern and bow. When Captain Joe Ryan (Travers) and First Officer Sam Slade (Sylvester) take a dingy ashore to Nara, a furtive harbormaster tells them they cannot dock for repairs. Why? An orphan lad named Sean spills the beans; there is Viking gold in the waters and sharing isn’t on the agenda.


Until, that is, an eruption-aroused monster stirs from the sea bottom and takes out several islanders. Ryan and Slade cut a deal—some of the gold in exchange for killing it. It occurs to them, though, that such a creature taken alive would be worth its weight in treasure. They proceed to net, chain, and haul it aboard, where several Irish professors pronounce the critter as prehistoric (duh!). They assure Ryan and Slade that the government in Dublin will “compensate” them for their efforts. Instead, they head for London, where Andrew Dorkin (Benson), a Barnum-like circus impresario, offers top-dollar to display “Gorgo,” a backdoor reference to the nickname of the Greek gorgon Medusa. 


Tower Bridge is falling down/Falling down...


What could go wrong with placing a large red-eyed, pointy-toothed creature in a deep concrete pit surrounded by electric wire? Gorgo’s mother, for one. When she can’t find junior, she flattens Nara, sinks a British destroyer, and is unfazed by bullets, shells, and depth charges. Mama is ripped and on her way to London. It’s naff fun to watch her destroy vast swaths of London, including Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and loads of Georgian townhouses and apartment flats—if you watch carefully, it’s the same footage recycled in many cases—and there’s nothing the British military can do to stop her. There’s some wry humor of a general telling aides they must “bother” the prime minister to authorize more extreme measures. The ending, though, is not a military solution.


Gorgo is camp on par with cult films like Plan 9 from Outer Space. The special effects reflect the film’s budget. The monsters were done via “suitmation,” meaning actors were placed in scaly, clawed, gape-mouthed rubber suits and sets were built around them. When London falls it’s pretty obvious that it’s a model built of Styrofoam, balsa wood, plastic, and other such materials. Is there a point beyond cheap thrill? Call its morals very Cold War: Don’t seek to destroy what you don’t understand, don’t assume big guns will save you, and don’t screw with Mother Nature. Oddly, though, the bargain basement effects leave more room for imagination than today’s CGI f/x. (Gorgo is better than the sandworm in Dune!)


If you can believe it, chums and I used to argue over who would win a fight between Gorgo and Godzilla. (Director John Carpenter made such a short film, but he’s never allowed it to be seen!) I held out for Gorgo. After all, all Godzilla had was burning atomic breath, but if you can’t stop Gorgo with an army of flamethrowers or four million volts of electricity, Godzilla should take a breath mint and get out of the ring!


Rob Weir 







Black Widow: For Fanboys Only



Directed by Cate Shortland

Marvel/Disney, 134 minutes, PG-13




In some circles, there’s been an angry backlash against the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences because Black Widow was blanked in Oscar nominations. If you hadn’t noticed, it’s probably because you’re neither a teenaged fanboy nor an adult suffering from delayed development. Heaven knows there are plenty of reasons to be critical of the Oscars but for once its snub was a good call.


Black Widow is the 24th edition of the Marvel Universe and that train ran out of creative steam long ago. It should tell you everything you need to know that this film is distributed by Disney. Read into this that all subversive edges have been filed to rounded corners to accommodate values that don’t push the envelope much further than presenting an unorthodox nuclear family.


Black Widow is at heart a Cold War movie that’s set in the years 1995-2016. Umm…. the Cold War ended in 1991. Okay, it’s a comic book but this is a glaring misstep even for Marvel, which loves alternative timelines and parallel universes. The opening sequences are set in Ohio (Georgia, actually), where a family living undercover makes a mad dash to an airport with police and intelligence officers in hot pursuit. See police cars go flying through the air. Hear loud explosions. Watch paterfamilias Alexi Shostakov (David Barbour) hurl himself onto the wing of a small plane and trade assault rifle fire with members of S.H.I.E.L.D. (an intelligence agency) who couldn’t hit a target with a bazooka from 3 feet away, though Alexi is capable of shooting his gun and hang on after takeoff. They land in Cuba where the wounded fake mom, Melina Vostokov (Rachel Weisz) is rushed into surgery, and her two young “daughters,” Natasha and Yelena are separated. We learn later that, against their will, they are transported to the Red Room to be trained as Black Widows, assassins under the control–vials of red chemical gasses factor into this–of Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a Russian general with his own agenda.


When we pick up the tale years later, Alexi is in a Russian prison, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) has defected to S.H.I.E.L.D., has allied with the Avengers, and hasn’t seen Yelena (Florence Pugh) since Cuba. Natasha thinks she has killed Dreykov and his daughter, but that’s not the case. Too bad; we could have ended the movie right there. Instead, we have to reunite our Disney family, blow up a lot of things, watch ScarJo run from many, many bullets, always in a straight line–the better to see her tight-fitting outfit–but not get shot when she busts Alexi out of a maximum-security facility. (Isn’t the point of automatic weapons that you can’t miss?)


After that it’s track Dreykov who is, in turn, tracking Alexi, Natasha, and Yelena with Melina’s help (or not). Can they save the world? Can Alexi fit into the uniform that makes him look like he washed out of Human Cannonball school? Did I mention that lots of things blow up? Can Natasha’s lovelorn admirer Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle) get a rise out of her? What is the Lycra tension of ScarJo’s white uniform? Do you care?


Black Widow was a classic summer movie–loud, high on thrills, and low in logic, character depth, or background development. It presumes that viewers have faithfully followed the Avengers series and its various offshoots; if you’ve not, you might well wonder what in the name of red chemicals is going on. You’ll probably assume, though, that the world will be saved and that the titular character will live to save it again in the future.


Am I being too hard on this movie? Maybe, but you need not take my word for it. It’s made a lot of money–there are a lot of fanboys out there–and it’s good that it did rake it in because it costs a lot of lucre to destroy things. If you check out other critics, though, you’ll see that many of them were underwhelmed. Black Widow’s weighted score is 67%. In the Grade Inflation Alt-Universe, that’s like passing someone with a D-. Fanboys gave it an A-. Make of that what you will.


Rob Weir




The Asphalt Jungle: John Huston Goes Noir




Directed by John Huston

Loew’s, 112 minutes, not-rated



You can count on the fact that any film in the Criterion Collection or directed by John Huston will be worthwhile. That’s certainly the case of Asphalt Jungle, which ticks both boxes.


It’s a classic crime drama from the tail end of an era in which crime wasn’t allowed to pay. At its heart is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a guy with more brawn than brain. He’s a down-on-his-heels tough guy trying to get his life in order, but his major virtue is his girlfriend “Doll” Conovan (Jean Hagen). Her biggest problem is that she puts up with Dix’s antics, his silent treatment, and his explosive temper. Yeah, that’s another trope, though one (sadly) borrowed from real life: the gal who thinks she can save her bad-boy man.


Another trope is the criminal mastermind who takes the harebrained scheme of local thugs and makes them “foolproof.” In this case, that role falls upon “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who assembles a team to tunnel under and into a building, blow a safe, and pull off a jewel heist. Dix needs money, as he dreams of getting out of Chicago and buying back the Kentucky horse farm that once belonged to his family. He’s the muscle, with Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) the safecracker, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) the getaway driver, bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) the guy who cooked up the scheme, and sleazy lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) getting a cut for serving as legal backup if any suspicion should befall the den of thieves. Still another trope: In movies such as this it’s rare for anyone to wonder why a “mastermind” like Doc has just gotten out of jail!


You can bet that not everything will go as planned, or otherwise you’ve got a mighty short movie. Plans are laid, rehearsed, and there’s an alternative workaround for every contingency that comes to mind. Of course, it’s the ones that don’t come to mind that’s the problem. The Asphalt Jungle is filled with double crosses, corruption on both sides of the law, broken hearts, and broken people. It literally stumbles to a tragic ending.


As I intimated, this is not a film in which the bad guys are allowed to prosper. The open questions are who the good guys are and whether one or more of the bad guys can be redeemed. It’s gritty, if predictable, but is carried by superb performances. Hayden excels as a big, dumb lug who suspects he’s out of his depth but can’t think of any other way to get back to Kentucky. Whitmore has a lesser role, but you get to see him play a hunchback, and Jaffe puts on a very convincing German accent as Doc Riedenschneider. Why is he German? The film was made just five years after the end of World War II. Although he’s not depicted as an ex-Nazi, there remained a whiff of anti-German sentiment in 1950, which made him a perfect villain, albeit a mild-mannered one. 


NOT a Marilyn Monroe Movie


Don’t be fooled by posters that prominently plaster Marilyn Monroe’s body across a color backdrop. First of all, The Asphalt Jungle is in black and white. Secondly, she has only a bit role and is not central to the plot. She got some notice for this film­–she plays Emmerich’s mistress–and was on the cusp of stardom, but hadn’t yet arrived. Several films from the late 1940s through 1953 were given a second life by studios implying Monroe had a bigger role than she did. Huston initially wanted to dump Monroe, as he wasn’t impressed. She only got the part because his first choice was unavailable.


The Asphalt Jungle is considered a mature film noir picture. It is also tagged as a neorealist film, which in this case meant that Huston, an art fan, preferred stillness to non-stop motion and turmoil. Huston gave cinematographer Harold Rosson the greenlight to linger in places where other directors would edit for quick cross cuts to maximize lurid action. A lot happens in the film, but Huston Asphalt Jungle to play out in a more naturalistic fashion. It’s dated, but it works.


Rob Weir