Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 20, 2013
The other day, while doing non-Morlock duty for Turner Classic Movies, I had occasion to write about the 1950 RKO Radio Pictures crime/trial drama HUNT THE MAN DOWN. This was Gig Young’s first starring role, after an apprenticeship serving and supporting the manly likes of Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Barbara Stanwyck. You probably have not seen the film — not many people have these days — and in fact the picture itself is not really germane to my topic today. No, it’s just the poster I’m interested in. It’s textbook noir stuff, with tense, fearful faces ringing Young (cast as a crusading defense attorney out to clear the name of presumably wrongly convicted killer James Anderson — later the quite horrible Bob Ewell of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and lots of one-sheet hyperbole — standard issue. What makes the poster of particular interest to me is that Young is shooting laserbeams out of his eyes and melting the dude in the lower right hand corner. (Beat.) Okay, so those aren’t really laserbeams coming out of Gig Young’s eyes. I guess that luminous cone is meant to evoke a flashlight or searchlight, with the idea being that the light symbolizes Young’s vigilance, his diligence, and his hardwired connection to truth and justice. Why the light is melting (or seems to be melting — not really sure what’s going on there) is a question for another day. When I posted this onesheet on my Facebook page, my friend, film critic and blogger Marty McKee, commented “Gig Young shooting death rays from his face would make this film the best ever.” Indeed, it would. But the movie isn’t called MELT THE MAN DOWN, it’s called HUNT THE MAN DOWN, and in it, you will find, Gig Young plays a regular human being lawyer without the ability to cut the ether with laser eyes. It’s a worthwhile picture, to be sure, but you should go into it with the understanding that at no point during its running time will a human being be reduced to ash. You’ll enjoy yourself more if you accept that that expectation will never be met. Still, HUNT THE MAN DOWN offers us an intriguing variation on what had been, for many years at the movies, a recurring trend in the hawking of motion pictures: the often unfulfilled promise of laser eyes.
You can blame Frankenstein for all of this. Or, rather, Frankenstein’s monster. Or, more accurately, Universal Studios, who attempted to drum up advance interest in their 1931 FRANKENSTEIN — then slated to star Bela Lugosi — by depicting the monster (who resembles, for some occult reason, Francis Lederer) as a city-smashing, subway service-disrupting, stomping the terra (and various pedestrians) titan, picking puny folks up in his giant mitt (and this two years before the advent of KING KONG) and shooting laserbeams out of his eyes. Can you imagine if James Whale had taken the film in this direction? But he didn’t, and perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks for him in considering this approach (which he never did, but play along anyway) is that the laser had not yet been invented. Oh, sure, brainiacs from all points of the compass had been tossing out ideas related to Max Planck’s law of radiation, among them Albert Einstein, Rudolph Landenberg, and Valentin Fabrikant (best name ever?), and to the theory of stimulated emission but the laserbeam as we know it lay far ahead in the future, as much true science fiction in 1931 as cellphone technology and twerking. The first laser was not operational until 1960… so how come, you’re thinking, can Frankenstein’s monster have laserbeams shooting out of his eyes? We probably have H. G. Wells to thank for that. In Wells’ seminal alien invasion tale The War of the Worlds (first published in 1898), the Martian interlopers use a “heat-ray” to make their human targets, uh… shall we say more pliable. Early illustrations from the Wells novel played up the heat-ray, chilling readers with the possibilities of mass destruction at the flip of a switch. In Paris, pioneer French filmmaker Rene Clair made THE CRAZY RAY (1925), about a madman who sets up shop atop the Eiffel Tower with a device that renders the City of Lights immobile. These were mere flights of fancy, speculative what-ifs, as madass for their day as the idea of stitching together a synthetic man from random bodyparts and animating the whole shebang with lightning.
How else is one to explain the use of lasers shooting out of Boris Karloff’s eyes (to say nothing of his giant, green, Oz-like head) in THE BLACK ROOM (1935). In this Columbia release, Karloff plays, not a supernatural entity or verdigris behemoth, but a regular dude. Actually, two regular dudes, as he plays identical twins from the 18th Century, one good, one evil. Neither twin has mesmeric abilities, let alone the power to melt stuff ocularly. So it’s just a thing, clearly, a style to which Hollywood grew accustomed and with which the America movie-going public expected.
It was the same shell game when it came time to promote DOCTOR CYCLOPS (1940), starring Albert Dekker as — a guy who can shoot lasers out from behind his Coke bottle eyeglasses? No. As a scientist who can, here we go again, shrink people to a fraction of their original size and then smother them with cottonballs (as needed). Unlike THE DEVIL DOLL, there is a laser in DOCTOR CYCLOPS, or at least a beam, but it’s purely comet-based and mechanical in its dispensation and the process is nothing like the poster suggests.
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