The Monster and the Girl directed by Stuart Heisler
I suppose that I owe director John Landis a huge debt of thanks, as he was the one who first introduced me to the movie in question, The Monster and the Girl … a film that I may very well have never heard of, without his knowledgeable guidance. As the TCM guest programmer one evening recently, Landis — himself the director of one of the truly great modern-day horror films, An American Werewolf in London — told host Ben Mankiewicz that he had selected the 1941 film because he found it to be totally unique, and indeed, a viewing of the picture will surely leave the viewer thinking that this highly effective little “B picture” really is a sui generis experience. Conflating as it does the gangster film, the courtroom drama, and the mad scientist movie, The Monster and the Girl manages to surprise at every turn, and as Mankiewicz noted, the actors in the uniformly impressive cast manage to keep straight faces throughout and play things completely straight. A Paramount film released in February 1941, the picture is surely a relatively obscure one today, but as the TCM screening showed so revealingly, it is one that assuredly deserves to be brought back into the public spotlight for the modern audience.
The film cleaves fairly evenly into two discrete halves. In the first section of the film (a rather fast-moving film, by the way, that clocks in at a remarkably concise 65 minutes), the viewer learns the facts, via multiple flashbacks, concerning the trial of Scot Webster (Phillip Terry, who had recently impressed me via his work in the 1960 film The Leech Woman). Webster had been wrongly accused of the murder of a minor gangster who had been in the employ of a major underworld figure named Bruhl (Paul Lukas, here two years prior to winning the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Watch on the Rhine). Webster had come to the big city looking for his newly married sister, Susan (Ellen Drew, who many will remember from her role as Thea in the superb 1945 horror film Isle of the Dead), who had wearied of the small-town life, gone to the big city, gotten married, and had innocently been drawn into a life of prostitution in Bruhl’s orbit. Webster is found guilty of the crime, however, and is summarily put to death by electrocution. But before he is led to the hot seat, he is visited by a scientist named Dr. Parry (the great George Zucco), who asks the condemned man for permission to use his brain after the electrocution in one of his experiments. Thus, the film smoothly and stunningly segues into its second, more horror-intensive section, and we soon see Parry and his assistant placing the dead man’s gray matter into the noggin of an oversized gorilla, which beast soon escapes from his confinement and goes on a mission of vengeance, not only on the prosecuting attorney who had gotten him convicted, but also on Bruhl and all his underlings as well…
The Monster and the Girl, it strikes one in retrospect, is a somewhat sensational title for a film that is actually quite restrained, highly atmospheric and surprisingly well done. Director Stuart Heisler — who would go on to direct, six years later, one of this viewer’s all-time favorite films, Smash-up, The Story of a Woman, and later still the lesser Humphrey Bogart films Tokyo Joe and Chain Lightning — helms his film with style to spare, incorporating any number of unusual camera placements (I love the overhead shot of our avenger gorilla stalking his prey from the rooftops). Heisler’s work here is shown to beautiful effect by the lensing of cinematographer Victor Milner, some of whose B&W shots (such as the outside view of Parry’s forbidding home, as well as the low-angle glimpses of his formidable laboratory) are things of genuine beauty. Besides the fine players already mentioned, the film showcases the talents of a number of lesser-known character actors, here playing Bruhl gang members … actors such as the perpetually slimy Marc Lawrence, not to mention Joseph Calleia and Gerald Mohr. (You may not recognize these names, but trust me, if you have seen a number of movies from the 1940s, you have probably seen their faces!)
In addition to the Homo sapiens actors, the film also offers up two “animal performances” that are simply wonderful. The first is the remarkable canine support given by Skippy the dog, who is touchingly able to recognize Scot, his old master — even though Scot is now encased in the body of a gorilla — and who abets him in his mission of vengeance. And the second is by Charles Gemora, the man in the gorilla outfit … a Filipino makeup artist and a veteran specialist in portraying these simian brutes (he appeared in any number of films in a gorilla suit, including such well-known pictures as Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Sign of the Cross, Island of Lost Souls, Road to Zanzibar and Africa Screams), and who here makes the hulkingly brutish avenger quite credible, right down to the emotion evident in its simian eyes. And the homicide sequences in the film, in which our sympathetic ape crushes the gang members to death one by one, are invariably well shot and suspenseful. Again, the film is never risible, and never descends to the level of camp. Viewers who decide to sit down with this wonderful film expecting a laugh fest, on the order of Robot Monster or some other picture of that ilk, will surely be disappointed at what a levelheaded and serious outing this one actually is. And thus, my thanks again to John Landis. This is a film that will surely catch viewers off guard with its combination of mixed genres, its streamlined script, its abundance of fine performances, its beautiful lensing, and its almost tear-jerking finale. To my delighted surprise, this one is a genuine winner, indeed!