Indestructible Man (1956)

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Is he insane, or is he just dead?
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US / 71 minutes / bw / CGK, Allied Artists Dir & Pr: Jack Pollexfen Scr: Vy Russell, Sue Bradford Cine: John Russell Jr Cast: Lon Chaney (i.e., Lon Chaney Jr), Casey Adams (i.e., Max Showalter), Marion Carr (i.e., Marian Carr), Ross Elliott, Stuart Randall, Kenneth Terrell, Robert Foulk, Marjorie Stapp, Rita Green, Robert Shayne, Roy Engle (i.e., Roy Engel), Peggy Maley, Madge Cleveland, Marvin Press, Joe Flynn, Eddie Marr.

To all intents and purposes, this is a fairly good second-tier film noir in the mold of The NAKED CITY (1948)—we keep expecting Max Showalter’s voiceover to inform us that “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them”—with the single exception that it has a daft scientific/technological premise, thanks to the presence of an idealistic maverick scientist who, in his quest of a cure for cancer, manages instead to resuscitate the dead.

First of all, the noirish setup:

After an armored-car robbery gone wrong, Charles “Butcher” Benton (Chaney) awaits execution on the morrow in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Visiting him is his shyster lawyer, Paul Lowe (Elliott), and it’s clear at once that they don’t enjoy an ordinary lawyer–client relationship.

Lowe (Ross Elliott) visits the Butcher (Lon Chaney Jr) in San Quentin.

Lowe tells the Butcher that he might as well tell him where the $600,000 proceeds of the robbery are hidden, because the Butcher’s not going to be able to spend the loot when he’s dead. But the condemned man is having none of that. He knows that his confederates in the holdup, Joe Marcelli (Terrell) and Squeamy Ellis (Press), squealed on him, which is why he is here, and he knows that Lowe betrayed him in the guise of defending him.

Joe Marcelli (Kenneth Terrell, left) and Squeamy Ellis (Marvin Press) hear on the radio the news of the Butcher’s death.

Butcher: “I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that none of you three crumbs are going to spend it.”
Lowe: “What about Eva? Don’t you owe her something? You tell me where the money is, I’ll see she gets your share.”
Butcher: “I’ve got a different idea. I’m going to kill you and Squeamy and Joe. Then I’ll take care of Eva myself.”
Lowe: “You thick-headed ape—you’re going to die tomorrow.”
Butcher: “Remember what I said. I’m gonna get ya—all three of ya.”
Lowe: “Even for you, Butcher, that’d be quite a trick. So long, dead man.”
Butcher (to Lowe’s retreating back): “Remember what I said. I’m gonna kill ya. All three of ya.”

In real life you’d laugh off a threat like that one in a debonair fashion, which is what Lowe tries to do; but in this class of movie you know the menace is all too real. The three turncoats might as well go select their preferred bank of daisies.

And now for the scientific/technological premise:

Dr. Bradshaw (Shayne), a “distinguished biochemist” working independently in the San Francisco region, has been striving to discover a cure for cancer, seemingly through some type of cell-regeneration technique which involves the use, à la Victor Frankenstein, of sweating brows, braying klaxons, berserkly whizzing dials and massive electrical discharges.

Bradshaw (Robert Shayne, left) and his assistant (Joe Flynn) watch the lights flash and the dials whirl.

Bradshaw has done animal experiments, and everything looks good. Now he needs to try the technique out on a human subject.

So he tells his unnamed assistant (Flynn) to go out and bribe a mortuary attendant to sell him a corpse, and sure enough back comes the assistant with the deceased Butcher.

“You mean you’re going to give him 287,000 volts?” says the assistant, as aghast as the rest of us.

Too right Bradshaw is. Wouldn’t want those dials to go to waste.

After everything’s quieted down afterward, Bradshaw discovers that, not only are the Butcher’s cells regenerating, his heart has started beating, his lips have started breathing . . .

In short . . .

IT’S ALIVE!

What has happened, as we learn through a quick scientific infodump courtesy Dr. Bradshaw in what he doesn’t yet realize are his latter moments, is that the Butcher’s cells have multiplied hundreds of times over, maybe even thousands, so that he’s now a chunk of protoplasm in human form so solid that, as Bradshaw promptly discovers, a hypodermic syringe won’t pierce the skin. As the voiceover explains, the Butcher

tried to talk, but the electrical voltage had burned out his vocal cords. . . . The tremendous electrical voltage that Dr. Bradshaw had given the Butcher had increased his cellular structure to the point where he was no longer a man. Dr. Bradshaw’s experiment had created a vicious brutal animal with an almost inconceivable amount of strength . . .

A heartless, soulless, inhuman monster? No wonder I keep having to fight with my fingers to stop them mistyping “Chaney” with an “e.”

After lumbering around briefly in presumably conscious imitation of Frankenstein’s Monster—whom Chaney had played in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) as well as a couple of TV outings—the Butcher strangles the two scientists and staggers off in the direction of Los Angeles to seek vengeance on the three rats who doublecrossed him: Squeamy, Marcelli and Lowe.

As he makes his way southward the Butcher kills a man called Carney (Marr) for the sake of his car—the astonishingly lovely young woman (Green) whom Carney uses as bait to attract passers-by has no dialogue (unless you count a scream) and mere seconds of screentime, yet gets support-star billing in the opening credits, go figure—and then he knocks off a couple of cops who try to stop him at a roadblock.

So the LAPD, in the doughty form of Lieutenant Dick Chasen (Showalter), who supplies the movie’s frequent voiceover, and Captain John I. Lauder (Randall), are waiting for him. Of course, they don’t at first realize the crazed psychopath coming their way is the Butcher, whom they quite understandably believe to be dead. But then they’re sent the fingerprints found on the steering wheel of the stolen car; these prove to be not just ingrained into the plastic as if engraved there but also identical with the ones they took from the Butcher.

Dick (Max Showalter) and Captain Lauder (Stuart Randall) examine the perplexing fingerprints.

Could the Butcher have a twin brother?

Eva Martin (Carr), however, knows better. You remember how, back in San Quentin, the Butcher said he’d look after Eva? Well, this is that Eva. She’s working as an “exotic dancer” downtown at a burlesque joint called The Follies and it’s no surprise that, even if she didn’t strip right down to her demure one-piece bathing costume, she’d still be packing the house out. For a while she roomed with a girl called Madge, who was the Butcher’s hot number, but eventually Madge dumped him and he wept on Eva’s shoulder. She went out with him a couple of times but then he “tried to get a little too friendly” and she rebuffed him. Clearly, though, he went to his death still full of affection for her.

Dick (Max Showalter) does surveillance outside The Follies.

When he turns up in her dressing room and shows her the “C.B.” tattoo on his arm, she knows it’s really him—not a twin brother. Once he leaves, off with the intention of pulverizing Squeamy, Marcelli and Lowe and retrieving the $600,000 from where he stowed it in the sewers—for, yes, there’s going to be a sewer confrontation as per The THIRD MAN (1949)—Eva, like the fine upstanding citizen she is, phones the cops, where, Dick Chasen being out, she speaks to the desk sergeant (Engel):

Eva: “Tell him Charles Benton is alive. And even bullets can’t stop him.”

She has to add: “I’m not crazy.”

Eva Martin (Marian Carr) and Lt. Chasen (Max Showalter) take a shine to each other . . .

. . . and are soon dining out together.

By now Dick and Eva are having hamburgers at drive-ins and all sorts of romantic stuff like that, so you can guess what’s going to happen in the final moments before the closing credits. (Actually, you can’t. It’s a lot more nauseating than I can rightly explain here. Even in 1956, it’s surprising Eva doesn’t sock Dick in the jaw.)

Anyway, after Joe Marcelli’s been thrown down an outdoor stairway and Squeamy Ellis has been chucked off a high balcony, Paul Lowe has the good sense to get himself arrested. Dick and the captain cleverly trick him into confessing everything—that he masterminded the armored-car robbery and with the other two conspired so the Butcher would take the rap. Then it’s off to the LA sewers to confront the Butcher as he attempts to salvage his ill gotten gains.

The Butcher ascends the famous Angels Flight to Marcelli’s hotel.

We’ve already seen various luckless cops and others pour round after round into the Butcher’s super-tough body without doing him any damage, as they’ve moments afterward discovered at cost of their lives. Fortunately Dick and Captain Lauder have taken the precaution of bringing with them into the sewers a bazooka and a flame-thrower. Even these, though, do not much beyond seriously inconveniencing their quarry. It takes more than that level of firepower—much, much more than that—finally to confront the Butcher with his nemesis.

Lauder (Stuart Randall) finds the stolen dough.

I’ve skipped quite a lot of plot elements in order to give you a reasonable flavor (I hope!) of what is in many ways, to repeat, quite a good piece of film noir; dialogue, structure and cinematography all make it quite clear where the movie’s allegiances lie. It owes debts, too, to the horror genre, not only in the person of its star but also in some later moments of grue and in particular in its frequent default to creepily lit close-ups of the Butcher’s crazed eyes.

The Butcher (Lon Chaney Jr), horribly injured, climbs from the sewers.

Max Showalter, billed here as Casey Adams—as he often was in his earlier career (I’d always assumed Adams was the real name and Showalter the screen one, but in fact it’s the other way round)—is a very familiar face from countless movie and TV appearances; for me he’s always associated with the Perry Mason TV series, in which he appeared half a dozen times in various roles, but he was also in a bunch of noirish movies, notably as Ray Cutler, the husband of the vacationing couple dragged into the thick of things in NIAGARA (1953). It could be coincidence, but I suspect one of the two-bit crooks in the Coen Brothers’ FARGO (1996), Carl Showalter, played by Steve Buscemi, is named in Max’s honor.

Ross Elliott is another face familiar from countless TV appearances, including many as Sheriff Abbott in The Virginians. Marian Carr—misbilled as “Marion Carr” here and in another, far better known sf/noir crossover, KISS ME DEADLY (1955)—was an actress with quite a lot of Lizabeth Scott to her screen presence; I’m not quite sure why she languished in obscurity while Scott became, well, Scott, because she turns in a more than commendable performance here. Her noirish outings included, in addition to Kiss Me Deadly, SAN QUENTIN (1946), The DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947), WORLD FOR RANSOM (1954) and WHEN GANGLAND STRIKES (1956).

Indestructible Man offers a surprisingly rapid way to spend seventy minutes or so. Unlike the case with other sf/noir crossovers that I’ve reviewed here—see below—the science content, while patently nonsense, isn’t howler-packed and doesn’t overly offend the intelligence. If one accepts the ludicrous premise—and, after all, in sf we habitually accept time travel, which is likewise a ludicrous premise—the rest follows on fairly plausibly. Sort of. The generally fairly intelligent dialogue, including the voiceover, and the four principals make this a movie that’s certainly worth watching.

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A couple of other sf/noirish crossovers discussed on this site are:

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This is part of the fabled Movie Scientist Blogathon mounted by Christina at Christina Wehner and Ruth at Silver Screenings:

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23 thoughts on “Indestructible Man (1956)

  1. It’s nice to see the return of posts here. (I hope you’ve had a productive few weeks with your various projects.) As for the film, it sounds like an entertaining combination of the two genres. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it.

  2. There’s something especially pleasing about finding something in one’s own niche that crosses over well into another popular form without sacrificing too much either way. My precise understanding of the concepts of Noir is undoubtedly a little sketchy, but I get the impression that with a sufficiently scrupulous hand behind priceedings it can — like my own beloved GAD — be utilised extrememly well in different moulds and idioms. Great to see there’s an example of that here.

    And welcome back!

    • Yes, there are quite a few sciencefictional noirs around, and also a fair number of noir Westerns. I keep meaning to do more of these crossovers here, but of course time is always at a bit of a premium (and other cliches).

  3. First, I love that you turned the word “berserk” into an adverb.

    Secondly, I love the dialogue you posted, especially the exchange with the “three crumbs”. Great stuff!

    I think I can buy this whole film, as in suspend disbelief, with the unusual science and the rest of it. I like the idea of a mash-up of these genres, and I’d certainly would never have heard of this film if you hadn’t brought it to the blogathon. So thanks!

    • Many thanks for the kind words, Ruth. With several of the other movies in this particular crossover subgenre it’s been difficult to get away from the fact that the science is garbage: the scripters get even the most obvious basics wrong, clearly assuming the audience will be even more scientifically illiterate than they themselves are. But here there was no such problem. There was the one rank impossibility, but certainly I found it easy to, as you say, suspend my disbelief and accept the point. Thereafter, with that as its basis, the rest of the story worked just fine.

  4. This sounds like a fascinating combination of the two genres and definitely worth seeing. Would you say that horror had any influence on film noir? Since they both derive some influence from the silent German expressionist films?

    Thanks so much for bringing noir to the movie scientist party!

    • Film noir is really a genre created in hindsight; at the time the directors concerned were simply (for the most part) churning out crime B-movies on limited budgets. Since those same directors were also churning out B-feature horror movies, sf movies and Westerns as well, it’s inevitable there should be a crossover of styles and themes. In that sense, yes, clearly horror had an influence on noir . . . and vice versa.

      I’m not sure I’d call this one a film noir, by the way. It’s really an sf/horror (not very horrific) outing that borrows noirish tropes to the extent that it actually functions quite well if considered as a borderline film noir.

      And I’m not sure I’d call Bradshaw good! He’s basically Victor Frankenstein (good intentions but ridden with hubris), which makes him more in the “mad” category, for me!

  5. ” If one accepts the ludicrous premise…”
    A friend once summed up successful science fiction by saying he doesn’t care if it features something impossible. The problems come when it turns preposterous.

    • Here it is, I think, preposterous.

      I know what you mean, though. In our science fiction we happily accept things like time travel and faster-than-light starships, all while we ignore the implications of relativity (especially the temporal ones); and I actually have no problem with that.

  6. Pingback: Movie Scientist Blogathon: Day 2 Recap – The Mad! | Christina Wehner

  7. Other than that ridiculous voice over and a cop who seemed to be trying to channel Jack Webb (in my opinion), this isn’t all that bad a movie. I thought it was entertaining enough to watch it a second time, anyway. Good review.

    • Ha! I actually enjoyed the voiceover and Max Showalter’s performance as the cop: I guess they’re my kind of cheese.

      Thanks for dropping by. Like yourself, I found it entertaining enough that I may very well rack it up for another watch at some stage.

    • I think you’d really enjoy this one, Eric. Obviously it’s a matter of leaving one’s brain at the door, but, if one willingly does that, the movie has its own strength that’s much worth enjoying.

      I think.

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