Four Films Showcase Nature’s Most Charismatic Co-Star
By Don Stradley
While shooting ocean scenery for Netflix's Our Planet II, a documentary team near the Hawaiian Islands was horrified when their inflatable boat was torn apart by tiger sharks. As the show’s producer, Toby Nowlan, explained to the Los Angeles Times, "The whole boat exploded.” Fortunately, the crew survived.
While plenty of jokes could be made here about the rising cost of Netflix, the recent incident reminds us that the ocean has always offered challenges for movie crews. While filming Moby Dick (1956), director John Huston scoffed at the idea of studio tanks. Instead, he brought his crew to such authentic locations as the Canary Islands and the Azores. The result was that many of his actors grew seasick and were injured on the constantly lurching facsimile of the Pequod. According to Hollywood lore, one of the enormous rubber whales constructed for the movie was lost at sea near the Irish coast. Huston claimed two of his fake whales vanished. Regardless, the sea continues to be a breathtaking supporting performer for any filmmaker.
Why not? It’s more beautiful than Hedy Lamarr, more secretive than Greta Garbo, and more rugged than John Wayne. The ocean is also an accomplished scene-stealer. When Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were kissing on the beach in From Here to Eternity (1953), it would’ve been strange if Frank Sinatra or Montgomery Cliff joined them. But the tide at Halono Beach Cove rolled in and made the scene even more memorable. No actor can match the ocean’s natural ease before the camera, nor its majestic presence and quiet strength. From Here To Eternity won eight Oscars. The ocean deserved, at least, a nomination.
A quartet of sea-themed features is now available on Film Masters' YouTube channel. Each offers the best way to use the sea in a film – not as a backdrop for adventure, but as a ghostly presence. One is Night Tide (1961), a dreamlike story that features Dennis Hopper as a doe-eyed sailor. He falls for a young woman who works as a mermaid in a carnival. When he learns that her day job may not be a mere act and that she lures men to watery graves, Hopper's dreamy flirtation turns nightmarish. Filmed along Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica as well as in Malibu, writer-director Curtis Harrington and cinematographer Vilis Lapenieks (fresh off of The Hideous Sun Demon and The Little Shop of Horrors) use the misty seaside atmosphere to great advantage. When Mora, the descendant of the "sea people" played by Linda Lawson, gazes out from her waterfront apartment, the seagulls may as well be angels calling her home. True, it's all a bit like Cat People with jazz flute and tiki torches, but as far as pale knockoffs go, this is a fine one.
The ocean is used again as a catalyst for weird romance in Tormented (1960), a campy but spooky feature from Bert I. Gordon. Temporarily abandoning his usual colossal men, puppet people and giant spiders, Gordon was out to give us a traditional spook story with a seaside gimmick. It worked. Gordon was helped by the king of B-movie scores, the prolific Albert Glasser, and ace cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on another movie with an ocean view, Ship of Fools (1965).
With nods to William Castle’s haunted house epics, E.C. horror comics, and Arch Oboler’s Lights Out radio series, Tormented was already a bit stale at the time it was released; yet it remains highly watchable. Richard Carlson stars as a soon-to-be-married pianist who stands by and watches as an ex-girlfriend falls to her death from a lighthouse. Like a guilt-ridden character in a Tales from the Crypt story, he is soon seeing the vengeful spirit of his ex everywhere. We’re never certain if he’s hallucinating or not, but as the wedding draws near, the encounters grow more intense. “Go away!” he screams. “You’re dead! Leave me alone!” It’s not Hamlet, but how else could he respond to the constant badgering of his unforgiving ex? As played by Juli Redding, the malevolent “Vi” lives up to the trailer’s billing as “The sexiest ghost who ever haunted a man.” And all the while, Lazlo’s camera captures the strangely overcast atmosphere of the Channel Islands, the gloomy ocean churning like one of J.M.W. Turner’s seascapes.
Even in such a silly feature as Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955), an American Releasing Corp rehash of a half-dozen other movies, the ocean is so photogenic that you'll almost forgive its cheap monster in a rubber suit. Cinematographer Bryden Baker and director Dan Milner frame the hackneyed story with gorgeous ocean scenery filmed off of Malibu's Paradise Cove, Santa Monica State Beach, and Hollywood's old standby, Santa Catalina Island. Milner and his brother Jack, along with those twin mavens of menace, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, produced this bargain-basement quickie. The latter two used the same Paradise Cove location for a much better film, The She-Creature (1956). But even if Phantom feels a bit cut-rate, there are shots of the Pacific that still work exceedingly well. Many independent filmmakers probably chose coastline settings because, like any real movie star, the ocean always rises above weak material.
All four of the seaside features offered by Film Masters are shot in black and white; all the better to capture the ocean’s eerie, otherworldly feel. The best of the lot is The Amazing Mr. X (1948) an independent production that looks far better than other films made on the same budget. It’s a classy thriller from director Bernard Vorhaus from a smart, if old-fashioned story partly written by that old theatrical warhorse, Crane Wilbur. It stars Turhan Bey as Alexis, an oily psychic who inserts himself into the life of a recently widowed woman. What lifts the movie out of its conventional roots into a hardy splash of period eye-candy is cinematographer John Alton, who shoots this sideshow tale like he's working for Fritz Lang. It helps that the wayward characters ponder their problems while taking nighttime walks on the beach (in this case, Pirates Cove, a secluded spot on the west side of Malibu’s Point Dume, where Charlton Heston wept at the end of Planet of the Apes). These nocturnal wanderings allow Alton to film the sea like it’s an angry spirit, restless in anticipation of swallowing these doomed souls.
Alexis is a slithery serpent of a man, and Bey, in what may be his best performance, plays him as a remorseless charlatan. Bey is so good that we almost feel bad for his intended victims, so gullible are they in front of his charm and psychic blather. But Alexis slowly reveals his humanity, and as the story sweeps to its bleak conclusion, we wonder what sort of life this character might've had if he'd developed some compassion a bit earlier. Bey enjoyed the role so much that he took to driving around Los Angeles wearing a turban, and attending Hollywood parties where he'd give psychic readings and host séances. He was having fun, but Bey couldn’t recreate the atmosphere of the movie without his real co-star, the haunting and brutal sea.