Its reputation preceding it, I’ve never been in too big a hurry to see The Giant Claw (1957). However, after doing so recently, it turns out to be one of those movies that I regret not watching sooner. Let’s get this out of the way: yes, the giant bird marionette looks silly. But I never once laughed at it; instead, I smiled with it, as well as with the entire movie. I really enjoyed it.
Who’s to say what this “flying battleship” should look like, anyway? Has anyone ever seen one? The civil aeronautical engineer, Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) and mathematician, Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday), studying it call it, “Extraterrestrial.” (“There’s no other explanation possible.”) A piece of feather contains no substance known to man.
It seems that this “nightmare on wings” radiates an antimatter screen, which causes “radars” to fail to locate it. It opens this energy screen to use its beak, claws and wings as weapons, but it takes our heroes, oh… about 75 minutes to learn this and to formulate a plan to disable it and to destroy this monster that has created a worldwide panic. That’s a pretty impressive enemy. It could have been just a plain old giant bird.
The screenplay by Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin is smarter than most mid-50s drive-in B-movies. There’s a lot of science talk about atoms, nuclei and electrons, but it’s also smart with its humor. Morrow and Corday have good chemistry and their inevitable romance is fun and believable, not forced. While she’s sleeping on an airplane, he kisses her and says, “The kiss you take is better than the one you give.”
The imagery generated when describing the bird is so creative that it doesn’t really matter what it ultimately looks like. A French-Canadian farmer, Pierre Broussard (Lou Merrill) spots it and calls it “la Carcagne,” a legendary creature with the face of a wolf and the body of a woman with wings. If you see this “big bird,” “it’s a sign you’re going to die real soon.”
The big bird first appears as a dark, indistinguishable cloud as it speeds through the air, building suspense for its reveal. Then, when a camera from inside a weather balloon snaps some shots, it’s goofy visage becomes clear for the first time across four pictures as it flies closer. Say what you will about it being a puppet... it has a semi-animated face with nostrils that flare and a brow that realistically furrows.
If its creature looks less than horrific, The Giant Claw makes up for it with its “fantastic orgy of destruction.” Scenes of the bird grabbing a plane out of the air, then chomping on the men who parachute from it, are truly nice special effects, although that may be due to the added sound of bones crunching. Scenes where the bird lifts an entire train of its track or sits atop the Empire State Building are not bad, either.
It’s all very entertaining. Don’t judge a book by its cover; or, in this case, a movie by its monster. Director Fred F. Sears keeps it moving along at a brisk pace with a surprising amount of suspense. For example, just as the bird flies closer and closer, there’s one last bolt to tighten before the good guys can fire their weapon. It’s honestly possible to have fun with it, and you don’t have to make fun of it to do so.
Written by Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin
Directed by Fred F. Sears
Starring Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Louis Merrill
Released June, 1957
RT 75 min.
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