She Devil (1957)

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The fruitfly serum transforms her into a femme fatale!
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US / 78 minutes / bw / Regal, TCF Dir & Pr: Kurt Neumann Scr: Carroll Young, Kurt Neumann Story: “The Adaptive Ultimate” (1935 Astounding) by John Jessel (i.e., Stanley G. Weinbaum) Cine: Karl Struss Cast: Mari Blanchard, Jack Kelly, Albert Dekker, John Archer, Fay Baker, Blossom Rock (i.e., Marie Blake), Paul Cavanagh, Helen Jay.

Dr. Richard Bach (Dekker)—who appears to be both a brilliant surgeon and president of Grand Mercy Hospital—arrives home from a foreign business trip to discover that his protege, close friend and housemate, medical researcher Dr. Dan Scott (Kelly), has developed a new serum, one that in animal tests has effected miraculous cures for what should have been terminal illnesses/injuries.

Hannah Blossom Rock (i.e., Marie Blake) welcomes Richard (Albert Dekker) home.

The theoretical underpinning of Dan’s work could be regarded as a sort of bastard offspring of various pseudo-Lamarckian theories of evolution:

Dan: “. . . the new research I mentioned before you left. It’s a project designed to prove that the cure of any disease or injury is essentially a product of adaptation.”
Richard: “Oh, yes. You were proceeding on the theory that all living organisms possess the ability, in more or less degree, to heal themselves.”
Dan: “By adapting themselves to any harmful change in their environment. A lizard, for example, will shed an injured tail—grow a new one. A chameleon will change its color for self-protection.”
Richard: “And you hope to develop a cure-all serum from insects, since they are the most adaptive of all living organisms?”
Dan: “Exactly. So I have developed a serum from the most highly evolved and most adaptive of all insects—the fruitfly. It’s the one insect that’s known to produce a higher percentage of mutants—or changelings—than any other.”

A fruitfly (uncredited).

Incidentally, that sentence of Dan’s—“It’s a project designed to prove that the cure of any disease or injury is essentially a product of adaptation”—contains multiple misunderstandings of the way that science works. First, unlike mathematics, science doesn’t deal in proofs. Second, any project that decides its desired result from the outset is profoundly unscientific, for reasons enlarged upon in my book Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science (2007; new, revised and vastly expanded edition expected *koff koff plug plug* in March/April 2018 from See Sharp Press).

Dan (Jack Kelly) explains his breakthrough to Richard (Albert Dekker).

Likewise, fruitflies are not at all “the most highly evolved of all insects” (it’s precisely because they’re so rudimentary that insecticides are so ineffective against them) and I don’t think it’s the case that they’re especially adaptive: it’s just that individuals have short lifespans and thus there are more generations within any particular period of time; more generations per (say) month means more mutations per month, making fruitflies a good experimental subject for students of heredity.

But I digress.

Returning to the plot: As noted, Dan’s experiments on animals have been highly successful, the only oddity being that the leopard he cured has now turned black. He’s keen to experiment on a human subject. Despite initial concerns about the ethics, Richard agrees to set him up with a patient who, while facing imminent, inescapable death, is yet compos mentis enough to give consent to the experiment.

Kyra (Mari Blanchard) was on the brink of death . . .

. . .  but now look at her!

That patient proves to be Kyra Zelas (Blanchard), at death’s door because of tuberculosis. Within hours she’s not just cured but radiantly healthy, to the amazement of her nurse (Jay):

Nurse: “I’ve never seen anything like that, Doctor. Why, it’s like a miracle. What caused it?”
Richard: “One never knows about these new antibiotic wonderdrugs.”
Nurse: “But I’ve never seen them work so swiftly and in such a hopeless case . . .”

—unsurprisingly, since of course the serum isn’t an antibiotic: it’s Essence of Fruitfly.TM

The nurse (Helen Jay) can’t believe the patient’s improvement, as she explains to Richard (Albert Dekker) and Dan (Jack Kelly).

The two doctors tell Kyra she can stay with them and their housekeeper Hannah (Rock) until she’s ready to make her own way in the world, and Richard gives her the cab fare to the house. Instead, though, she sets off on foot.

Kyra (Mari Blanchard) and a mannequin in the dress shop.

Lured by the window display of a swanky boutique, she goes in, clobbers a rich man with a glass ashtray, seizes the $700 with which he was about to buy his ladyfriend a bunch of clothing, and hides in a changing room. There, as the search for the “black-haired girl” closes in, she wills her hair to change from black to blonde . . . and as a blonde she’s able not just to go free but also to buy herself a wardrobe’s worth of fancy duds with the stolen money.

It’s transformation time for Kyra (Mari Blanchard).

Her new blondeness (“Your hair is simply beautiful. It fascinates me,” says Dan in a triumph of seductive subtlety) she explains as the result of a trip to the hair salon. But Richard, suspicious, steals a few strands of hair from her comb, sticks them under the microscope, and finds no trace of artificial coloration: the blonde pigmentation is all-natural.

An article in the newspaper soon alerts the two doctors to the truth of what happened at the boutique.

Dan: “But, if she can change her appearance, the serum must have stimulated her adaptive powers to a fantastic degree!”

Kyra, who up until now has maintained a fairly demure persona in front of her saviors, finally shows her new, steelier self:

Kyra: “Never mind that scientific double-talk. I did what I wanted to do and I’m going to keep right on doing it. And I’d like to see you stop me!”

Take that, elitist medical scientists!

The doctors are worried, and make a botched attempt to anesthetize her in hopes of countering the effects of the serum. And their worries only intensify when, in front of Dan, she allows the black leopard to claw her arm: she clearly experiences little pain, and the gashes cure almost immediately.

Kyra destroys Dan’s experiment to find an antidote.

Richard throws a party for the hospital’s rich donors. One of the guests is philandering plutocrat Barton “Bart” Kendall (Archer); Kyra has little difficulty, her eyes shining with mercenary zeal, in maneuvering him out onto the patio and into a clinch. Bart’s wife Evelyn (Baker) comes across them, calls Kyra a trollop and slaps her. Soon after, Evelyn is found strangled, the only clue being that a black-haired woman was seen running away.

Evelyn (Fay Baker) and Bart (John Archer) at Richard’s swanky binge.

Our two doctors know who that black-haired woman must have been. But what to do?

Building speculation upon ungrounded supposition and some estimably wild conjecture, all backed up by a good solid dose of complete guesswork, Richard declares himself “reasonably certain” that the serum must have spurred Kyra’s pineal gland into hypertrophy. A quick surgical extraction of the pineal gland ought to do the trick, yet how could they persuade her to submit to such an operation?

So they’re actually pretty relieved—and Hannah is rejoicing—when Kyra runs off to hook up with ol’ octopus-hands Bart. She even sends from the happy couple’s Italian honeymoon a painting of herself for the wistfully yearning Dan to treasure. (There seems here to be some half-hearted attempt to nod to Otto Preminger’s LAURA [1944], but the fact that the portrait is truly dire—it has the air of having been the item left over at the end of someone’s yard sale—punctures that ambition before it’s even halfway inflated.)

An idyllic honeymoon for Bart (John Archer) and Kyra (Mari Blanchard).

You might think that Hannah (Blossom Rock) doesn’t much like the painting . . . or its subject.

No prizes for guessing what happens to Bart once the honeymoon’s done and Kyra wearies of finding the drunken lecher’s paws on her at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Yep, the by now less than happy couple have a car “accident” that kills him but from which she miraculously walks clear unscarred.

The two doctors welcome the wealthy widow back to their house. But, when she tries to seduce out of Dan a promise that together they can bump off Richard, the sole obstacle to their future life of freedom and luxury, it’s too much even for his poignant yearning and back into the doctors’ heads comes that notion of a pineotomy, or whatever the relevant surgical procedure might be called. But how to anesthetize her?

Will this attempt to neutralize the She Devil work? Dan (Jack Kelly) and Richard (Albert Dekker) can only hope . . .

Richard, cunning biological theorist that he is, has an idea:

“It’s so simple, so incredibly simple. No wonder it escaped us. . . . The simple, basic, fundamental biological law that must be her weakness. . . . No organism can live in its own waste products. Its own waste is poison to any living thing. . . . It would be impossible for her to adapt herself to an atmosphere containing carbon dioxide. It could be used to anesthetize her.”

That Kyra—like all the rest of us, because we do it with every breath we take—is perfectly capable of functioning in “an atmosphere containing carbon dioxide” doesn’t seem to have occurred to the scriptwriters. To be fair, the two men’s implementation of the idea is a lot less foolish than Richard’s enunciation of it . . .

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From time to time Richard guffs about how, in saving Kyra from certain death, he and Dan might have been going against the will of “the supernatural power.” It’s essentially the same moral dilemma as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)—that to presume upon matters that are properly the territory of God is sure to lead to disaster—but here rather poorly thought-through. After all, if physicians thought this way they’d never save a human life, because doing so might be contrary to God’s design. (Say, maybe that’s the rationale behind the attempts to repeal Obamacare?)

Clearly it’s inadvisable to try to read too much into She Devil’s screenplay. In the same way that I concluded Richard’s theological philosophizing doesn’t really hold water, I got nowhere when I tried to construct a feminist—or anti-feminist—interpretation. Because of the serum, the submissive Kyra becomes a strong, independent woman, but the price she has to pay for that is to become a sociopath—a price that, say, Valerie Solanas’s Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM) might have deemed well worth it but that most of us would regard as a tad high. To be true, the two doctors are constantly telling Kyra things like “we know what’s best for you,” remarks that might well stir a soupçon of sociopathy in the mildest of women, but that doesn’t alter the fact that she’s knocked off Evelyn and Bart and declared an intention to continue the practice whenever it might suit her. She’s a femme fatale with the conscience of a fruitfly, not a feminist paradigm.

Yes, but is the movie saying that mere women—women in general—should not aspire to full independence? I don’t think the writers thought it through that deeply. I think that Kyra was cast as a woman because that meant that audiences could have all the frisson of matching up a desirable blonde bombshell and an alluring superhuman lethality. Of course, in a way that’s a political statement in itself, but it’s not a conscious one.

Mari Blanchard as the She Devil.

Mari Blanchard suffered a bout of appendicitis during filming, a bout serious enough that she actually did end up in the hospital. For unrelated reasons (I assume!), her movie career never properly took off, and she abandoned it in the early 1960s. She died of cancer in 1970, aged just 43. Jack Kelly became best-known for his portrayal of Bart Maverick—the non-James Garner Maverick—in the long running TV Western Maverick (1957–62). He too died relatively young, in 1992 of a stroke, aged 65. Albert Dekker, to his very great credit, was a frank and vocal opponent of McCarthyism, and as a result found himself blacklisted; luckily for him, he’d always maintained his links with the stage and, if Hollywood didn’t want him, he found Broadway only too eager to engage his services. He died at the age of 62, apparently of autoeroticism.

Blossom Rock was the real name of the actress better known as Marie Blake; she was born (Edith Marie) Blossom MacDonald and married the actor Clarence Rock. And, mercifully, she was one member of this movie’s cast to achieve a ripe old age: she died in 1978, aged 82. Her role here as the housekeeper Hannah serves the admirable function of keeping the tale grounded, thereby aiding the suspension of our disbelief.

As you’d expect in a, um, relatively inexpensive movie, there are some odd continuity errors. Early on, Hannah puts down a supper tray for Dan in his lab that mysteriously disappears before, moments later, she puts down a tray of cocktails in the exact same place. A dog that Dan has cured with his serum is inexplicably kept in a crate rather than allowed to potter happily around; moreover, the crate is barely bigger than the dog, so that there are both humane and hygiene reasons to let the pup out. And in the scene of the car crash—borrowed from ANGEL FACE (1952)—we see Kyra (or Kyra’s dummy) thrown from the car as it plummets down a ravine, yet she climbs from the wreckage once the car reaches the bottom.

Where the movie scores is in Struss’s clever cinematography, which performs well above its pay grade. Struss, we recall, was responsible for the cinematography in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931/2), where he made adroit use of a filter to effect Fredric March’s transformations between the two personalities. He used the same technique here for the changes in Kyra’s hair color and for the disappearance of the leopard’s claw marks from her arm.

I was alerted to She Devil as an example of an sf/noir crossover, but in truth the noirish influence, while certainly present—the quicksand in which the two doctors find themselves is fairly symptomatic of the genre—is very much a side issue. At some point soon I plan to tackle the previous year’s Indestructible Man (1956), a Lon Chaney sf/horror vehicle with a comparable theme where the noirish component is more pronounced.

This wasn’t the first time Weinbaum’s story “The Adaptive Ultimate” had been adapted for the screen. It had been dramatized for television in 1949 (as “Kyra Zelas” for Studio One), in 1952 (as “The Miraculous Serum” for Tales of Tomorrow) and in 1955 (as “Beyond Return” for Science Fiction Theatre).

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This is a contribution to the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon being mounted by Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews. To find out more about the blogathon and read the numerous fine contributions, click the picture below.

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12 thoughts on “She Devil (1957)

  1. “She’s a femme fatale with the conscience of a fruitfly, not a feminist paradigm.”
    A femme fatale – using the film’s language – is a perfectly adapted parasite and incapable of functioning independently – the opposite of a feminist paradigm.

  2. Such a strange and fascinating concept for a film. I really enjoyed your description of the film, as well as the story of the actors and whether the film embraces or downgrades feminism. Thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

  3. I love how movies from this era are fond of the word “serum”, and I have a special fondness for sci-fi films with thrifty production values. I bet this film is a lot of fun, the questions about feminism notwithstanding, but I doubt it’s as much fun as your review.

    • Thanks for the generous words, Ruth, as always.

      The movie is indeed quite a lot of fun, if quite often for the wrong reasons — not that I mean it’s a “so bad it’s good” item (I dislike that reasoning anyway), although there are some giggleogenous moments, but because some of its appeal is, as you identify, its very cheapness and cheesiness. It’s also short, which I always think is a great asset in movies of this ilk.

    • Many thanks for the invitation (only just discovered, because good ol’ WordPress had stuck it in the spam folder, grr). I’ll try to submit the link by midnight, and to make a habit of submitting suitable candidates in future.

      And thanks for the kind words!

  4. Pingback: Indestructible Man (1956) | Noirish

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