After the unexpected success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, Ray Harryhausen teamed up with producer Charles Schneer for the 1955 It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant radioactive octopus that storms San Francisco.
The film opens with a brief discussion (via narrator) of the brand new 55 million dollar nuclear submarine. Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are out on maneuvers not far from Pearl Harbor, when an unidentified object catches hold of their sub. They are able to break free, but a bit of the object is jammed in their dive planes and they are obliged to bring in some scientists – Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Professor Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue) – to investigate.
The scientists conclude that the object is a giant octopus that has rise from its customary habitation deep in the sea due to a lack of food. The octopus is radioactive – caused by the testing of the hydrogen bomb – and the radiation drives away its food. Now, it is aggressively hungry and indiscriminately attacking ships, people, and fish. Eventually, the octopus ends up in San Francisco, where it decides that the Golden Gate Bridge (built in 1937) is a good target.
In many ways, It Came From Beneath the Sea looks like an even cheaper film than The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. With an even smaller budget, there are a lot of rear projection shots and stock footage (not to mention a slightly puzzling romantic subplot). In addition, the octopus doesn’t seem to have the same emotional resonance as the Rhedosaurs of the previous year, possibly because it’s harder to see its face and since what we tend chiefly to notice are the tentacles.
But there is something irresistible about watching that giant octopus attack San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Or even a ship (even if it is a model of a ship). That scene so reminded me of the scene where the Kraken in Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest attacks the pirate ship (just like Harryhausen’s skeletons reminded me of the skeletons in the first Pirates of the Caribbean – in fact, there seems to be a lot of similarities between those pirate movies and the fantasy films of Harryhausen). The more classic movies I see, the more vivid it becomes to me how much films are inspired by the films that came before.
Because Harryhausen and Schneer were on such a tight budget, they were obliged to omit two legs from the octopus, so it is actually a six legged octopus instead of eight, though I confess I would not have realized it unless I had read it. They do an admiral job keeping that fact from being obvious.
The subplot involving Commander Matthews, Dr. Carter and Professor Joyce is, to say the least, unique. Mathews (played by Kenneth Tobey, who shows up as a military man in a number of 1950s sci-fi movies) is a bit of a chauvinist, a “man’s man” who is very attracted to Professor Joyce and they flirt while she’s investigating the octopus. She, on the other hand, has a warm professional relationship with Dr. Carter and the two of them respect each other’s scientific knowledge and abilities. I couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be a love triangle or not. Dr. Carter certainly doesn’t seem jealous that Joyce is attracted to Mathews. But Mathews is always trying to “protect” Joyce and Carter’s trying to explain that the “new women” want to be treated as the equal of men. By the end, Mathews suggest she quit her job and marry him, but she’s not interested.
It’s like the film was playing around with the idea that there is an incompatibility between physical attraction (Mathews and Joyce) and intellectual attraction (Joyce and Carter), and that as an academic woman you can’t have both.
It Came From Beneath the Sea is also significant for being the first film that Harryhausen would make with Charles Schneer. It was an important partnership that would provide Harryhausen the support and financial backing he needed to be able to bring his visions to life, something that Harryhausen’s idol, Willis O’Brien, always lacked. Apart from King Kong, Willis O’Brien was never given free reign. But with the support of Charles Schneer, Harryhausen was able to create some of his best work for films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, and Jason and the Argonauts.
Another thing that interested me about It Came From Beneath the Sea was the repeated attention drawn to the nuclear submarine as the new, up-to-date, shiny machine that was so efficient that at the beginning of the film the crew complain that it practically runs itself. This was indeed very new. The first nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus – was launched in 1954, just one year before the release of the movie. It was also the first submarine to navigate through the Arctic (though not punch through the ice at the North Pole – that wasn’t until 1959).
It is fascinating how the film reflects the issues of the day. The concern over the possible negative effects of the use of atomic bombs, but at the same time the super-efficient new nuclear submarine also saves the day. Not to mention the quirky exploration of women’s new roles in the workplace. But the real reason to watch the film is Ray Harryhausen’s giant octopus!