Thursday, June 20, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Everyone knows, or thinks that they know, about Nathan Juran’s 1958 ATTACK OF THE FIFTY-FOOT WOMAN. Though the film wasn’t the last of the “giant menace” films of the 1950s, the title alone has been used for very specific parodies (as opposed to generic parodies with names like “the Thing That Ate Cincinnati”). One particular movie-poster, showing the gigantic bikini-clad woman looming over a turnpike, has been recycled by pop culture far more than most movie-posters of the era, certainly more than ATTACK’s spiritual predecessor THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957). ATTACK’s final ten minutes is often all that most people remember about the flick: the sequence in which a spurned wife turned into a giantess rampages into a small California town looking for her cheating husband and his mistress. For good measure, ATTACK’s superimposition-FX, used to create the titular giantess, were so poorly done that director Juran cited those dodgy effects as the reason he used a false name, Nathan Hertz, on the film’s release.

At best, ATTACK is celebrated as a “trash classic,” if only for its one iconic image. I won’t try to claim it deserves a much higher status: that it can measure up (so to speak) to a genre-classic like THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (also 1957). But there are some aspects of ATTACK that deserve more attention.

Immediately before Mark Hanna wrote ATTACK, he also penned THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, which was an original script, unlike the novel-derived SHRINKING MAN. COLOSSAL MAN, though, does not have any of SHRINKING MAN’s naturalistic dialogue or characterization, but depends largely on stock formula character-types. Hanna’s conceptual follow-up to COLOSSAL MAN, though, is closer in tone to that of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, in which the main character’s SF-mutation is made a vehicle to describe that character’s psychological weaknesses.

 In addition, ATTACK has a much more sordid, downbeat quality to its species of melodrama than the majority of fifties “creature features.” The story of Nancy Archer, an heiress with psychological baggage and a husband whom she calls a “gigolo,” resembles other SF-films of the time than the same period’s premiere anthology-serials: ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. From 1955 to 1965, the show constantly featured tales of misplaced love and the illicit desire for filthy lucre, possibly playing to the national tastes exemplified by the lurid paperbacks of the postwar era.

ATTACK begins with Nancy, our poor little rich girl, fleeing her small California town in her car, drag-racing into the desert out of pique at her husband Harry. Juran establishes that Nancy didn’t exactly catch Harry cheating: he was merely making eyes at a local bar-girl, Honey Parker (a name loosely reminiscent of Nancy’s own). Nancy’s rapid exit, in fact, gives the audience the chance to see what a rotter Harry is. Once Nancy’s gone, he and Honey get as hot-and-heavy as anyone can in a public place. Harry makes clear that he only married Nancy for her money, and Honey suggests that, thanks to Nancy’s past history of drinking and psychological tests, she's a prime candidate for the “booby hatch.”

What happens to Nancy out in the desert seems made to order for Honey and Harry. A white sphere, always described as a “satellite” rather than a spaceship, lands in front of Nancy’s car, which immediately stalls out. Nancy then meets the pilot of the ship, a giant male who doesn’t seem to wearing many, if any, clothes. He reaches for Nancy, though like Harry what he really wants is her money, or rather, its objective correlative in the form of her diamond necklace. Nancy flees her Close Encounter of the Kong Kind, hotfooting it back to the town.

Local sheriff Dubbitt and his goofy deputy Charlie don’t belief Nancy's story about the big white satellite and its occupant, but they do think the rich lady might’ve encountered some avaricious drifter after that fabulous diamond, which could “tempt the devil himself.” When Harry hears about the story, he hurries to Nancy’s ritzy estate, to console his poor wife and to learn if she’s ripe for the funny farm.

Scripter Hanna never says much about the source of Nancy’s wealth. Since she doesn’t work, it’s probable that her riches are a paternal bequest, given that women couldn’t be CEOs in those days. Apparently both of Nancy’s parents are deceased, though there’s an old butler, Jess, who seems like a father-substitute, since he genuinely cares for Nancy and “has known her since she was a little girl.” Harry and Jess clearly don’t like each other, and one of Harry’s first sardonic remarks is to suggest that maybe he ought to be the butler and Jess ought to be her husband. Since Harry feels no jealousy of Nancy, Harry’s sarcasm may reflect his consciousness of his status in terms of social class, though to be sure Hanna also never tells us what Harry was doing before he latched on to his current meal ticket. The first conversation between the couple establishes that Nancy did try to kick her Harry-habit at one point, but she called him back to her because she’s madly in love with his worthless hide. (A later sequence establishes that another male confidante, Nancy’s family doctor, rather unwisely advised Nancy to mend fences with her hubby.) Harry doesn’t believe the story about the giant alien, but he plays a waiting game, hoping Nancy will condemn herself out of her own mouth.

He doesn’t have long to wait. Nancy obsesses about the fact that no one believes her,  and she’s especially set off when she hears—or imagines that she hears—a local newscaster relaying other observations of the “satellite.”  But he makes a joke of Nancy’s alleged sighting, speaking as if “the man in the moon” is another suitor for the rich lady. That night Nancy forces Harry to drive her into the desert, looking for the elusive white spacecraft. Harry, hoping for more evidence against his nutty wife, gets the shock of his life when they find both the ship and the alien. This time the giant accosts Nancy, still wanting her shiny bauble. Harry drives madly away, so freaked out by the encounter that he’s not even concerned with her fate or how it might benefit him. He stops at the estate only to grab some of his clothes, intending to flee for parts unknown. Jess tries to interrogate him and the two men fight. Harry wins but because he takes time to stop in town to pick up Honey, the law overtakes him.

However, the lawmen don’t have to go looking for Nancy. The next day she’s found atop the roof of her house, with strange scratches on her throat, no necklace, and her body full of radiation. The broad implication is that the giant returned her home after taking her necklace.  But since he never speaks or indicates any telepathic powers, the film never tells the audience how he knew where her house was (unless he has a mind-reading machine aboard his ship).

While the doctors cluck about how to treat the irradiated heiress, Harry and Honey recover their low-class priorities, and Honey suggests that Harry use the treatment as a pretext to shoot Nancy up with the wrong kind of medicine. Before he can do so, the still unconscious Nancy manifests her new kinship with her alien rendezvous: growing to a titanic size, though apparently still not quite fifty feet yet. One might think that after such an unsettling experience, Harry would renew his desire to let the devil take the hindmost. Instead, after failing to murder Nancy, he simply retreats to the bar and goes back to hanging with Honey—thus setting up the movie’s final scene.

Before that happens, the script allows the audience to find out what’s going on with the alien giant. Jess and the sheriff belatedly notice the really big footprints that the giant left from dropping off Nancy. The two of them track their owner all the way to his satellite. The humans enter the sphere and observe that the giant’s ship runs on diamonds, including the one taken from Nancy. Before they can emulate the hero of  “Jack and the Beanstalk” and re-steal the necklace, the giant shows up. The humans escape the ship, and the giant, now wearing gladiator-like clothes, follows them. Gunfire doesn’t affect the alien, though he is staggered slightly when the sheriff hits him with a grenade. The extraterrestrial vents his wrath by smashing the sheriff’s car, gets back in his ship, and takes his leave of Planet Earth.

As soon as the visitor leaves, Nancy wakes up, clothes herself in bed-sheets, and goes looking for her cheating hubby. One never knows if she even remembers her experience with the giant, but maybe she picks up some of his hypothetical telepathy, given that she’s immediately certain that Harry’s with her rival. Long story short: the despicable plotters get themselves snuffed, but the terminally unhappy heiress doesn’t fare any better (even though her metamorphosis lets her live the rest of her life as an “atomic blonde.”)

The main attraction of the iconic end-scene is that it plays like a science-fiction send-up of an old trope: the aggrieved wife hauling her mate out of the local gin-mill. Yet, to be sure, Nancy is no beleaguered hausfrau, and there’s no evidence that she cares about anyone beyond her amour fou toward Harry. And though a fifty-foot woman can’t help but take on some of the aspect of frustrated femininity, it’s significant that Honey, Nancy’s “other self,” may be of a threat to Nancy than Harry is, since Honey’s the one who comes up with ways to get rid of Nancy, either consigning her to the nuthouse or to death. At the core of ATTACK, then, is a story that neither cheesy effects nor corny jokes  can overshadow: a story of Doomed Love akin to all those articulated both by elitist entertainers like Alfred Hitchcock and by cheap paperbacks of sordid melodrama. And it seems doomed, not just because of the class-war between Nancy and Harry (or maybe between Harry and Nancy’s dead father), but because no one in the story *knows * himself or herself—except, apparently, the enigmatic giant from the big white spheroid.

(I note in passing the perhaps accidental use of vampire-imagery in ATTACK: the fact that Nancy is infected because of  “scratches on her neck.” But the appearance of this motif may be mere coincidence, on the same level as the possible influence of “Jack and the Beanstalk.’)


  1. Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman is a fun movie, Gene. I enjoyed your review, actually rate the picture higher, as I think that many of the movie's flaws, missteps, various attempts to be serious, actually work in its favor. It's compelling.

    Allison Hayes was lovely to look at; and young slut Yvette Vickers is gorgeous (that she came to an end even sadder than that of Nancy in this movie lends a poignancy to every scene she's in). The script is journeyman competent and the actors don't mess things up.

    I first saw this movie when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, have watched it many times since; and like so many cheap sci-fi flicks of its era, it has an ineffable iconic quality; thus, for me, it never disappoints. There are so many others like it in this respect, whether it's crab monsters or she monsters, a colossal man or a giant spider.

    One thing I noticed a long time ago. More than thirty years and counting: there are, in my humble opinion, weird parallels between the 50 foot woman picture and the 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Blvd. Both films feature wealthy, semi- or borderline deranged women living in splendid isolation somewhere out west.

    Sunset Blvd's woman is much older, and the man in her life is a (somewhat reluctant) gigolo, and, needless to say morally challenged, though not nearly so much as the giant woman's Harry. Holden actually has a decent streak and shows flashes of real empathy. He just can't help himself.

    He also has a woman he sees outside the prison-like house he lives in; and they go to fun places where young people gather. Holden and his girlfriend are decent people, while Harry and Honey (what a name!) are not. Anyway, no need to dwell overmuch on particulars here, as there are no aliens from outer space in this one, although SB's crazy woman has, like Nancy, an older man who looks after her and takes care of her daily needs.

    Other similarities: the leading men in both movies rather vaguely resemble one another; and they even share names: William Holden and William Hudson. This occurred to me even when I was quite young. Also, both Williams possess a mature, slightly dissipated handsomeness that makes each seem like a,--I must choose my words carefully here--potential "hero" in each film, even though this never comes close to happening in either case. Hudson's Harry is a real cad, while Holden's failed screenwriter is deeply conflicted and never intentionally cruel.

    One thing I noticed the last time I watched SB: Yvette Vickers is in this one, too. For real. It's easy to spot her at a New Year's Eve party near the end of the film. She's very young, barely out of her teens. Another similarity worth commenting in passing: vampire motifs in both pictures. Gloria Swanson's aging silent movies star in SB has been compared to a vampire, even Dracula, on occasion, living in her Hollywood "castle", feeding, as it were, on a much younger male who'd rather be elsewhere; and would very much rather be with a woman of his own age.

    I admit my mini-essay above is more than a bit of a stretch, yet there are those tropes that both SB and 50FW share even as they are, to say the least, very different movies. There are no spacemen in the earlier film; nor are there any visits to Hollywood studios in the later one.

  2. I don't think comparisons "out of genre" are at all unfair, which is why I think ATTACK's scripter Hanna was tapping into the same mood of postwar malaise that I found in ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and which you've found in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

    I looked over Billy Wilder's writing credits on IMDB. I haven't seen most of his earliest stuff, but I see that he has partial credits on a couple of famous Hollywood "light comedies," NINOTCHKA and BALL OF FIRE. Despite the fact that he could do this sort of thing, once he became a director he really seemed to be in tune with the postwar malaise thing, starting with his fourth directorial effort, the classic noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY. There are some other light romances in his repertoire thereafter, not least SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, but I think what people remember best are the acidic, hard-edged stories like SUNSET, INDEMNITY, STALAG 17 and LOST WEEKEND. I believe the last one has also been strongly compared to the tonality of horror films.

    I may get around to reviewing the nineties version of ATTACK someday. I have a dim memory that it "rehabilitates" the Honey Parker character to make Nancy's vengeance upon Harry more gender-justified-- and so I'm betting that the nineties script leaves out those little details about Honey encouraging Harry to either kill or institutionalize his wife. That might be the story-trope most alien to SUNSET: I don't think there's any "scheming woman" in it, just a young woman who has her eye on Holden's character and who gets shut out by the tragedy.

  3. Truly, Gene, that postwar malaise was there. I remember it and I suppose you do, too. I think there was a postwar burnout when no soon as the old hostilities ended than did the new hostilities (the Cold War & Its Discontents) begin. The election of Eisenhower was a stroke of genius on the part of the American people,--even as a liberal I'd have voted for this strong Republican over that wimpy ladies man social butterfly Adlai Stevenson both times had I been around then, or rather a grownup (I WAS around)--but alas, I was a very young one.

    Then the liberals slipped into an "if only Adlai had been elected" funk which made middle, which is to say normal America feel shut out of the party.. Actually, the Silent Majority were better off than those depicted in such novels and movies as Peyton Place and By Love Possessed, or plays like Picnic. The so-called enlightened Americans (like my parents) finally got their wish when Jack Kennedy came along, but the dream turned into a nightmare after November, 1963.

    Little of what I wrote has much if anything to do with movies like Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman or Sunset Blvd. Each channeled the zeitgeist in its own way. Ditto the James Dean flicks and movies about crazy people, whether lurking about in The Cobweb or named Eve (of the Three Faces) or Lizzie. Roger Corman made some highly entertaining sci-fi and horror films, many of them send-ups, and his humor is almost at the level of a PG Lenny Bruce (okay for kids and family gatherings). I loved them when I was growing up.