Let’s Talk About–Edward L. Cahn

Edward L. Cahn was one of those fellows for whom Hollywood seems to have invented the “B-movie.” Rather than excelling as a genre-specialist, Cahn was a production-specialist. He understood “B-movies”–how to make them quickly, cheaply, efficiently–so they must all be crap, right? Wrong.

At the start of his career Cahn actually helmed some respectable lesser-A budget productions, chief among them, the marvelous “Law and Order,” a prose-saga precursor to Ford’s poetic “My Darling Clementine.” From there he devolved into a specialist in “shorts,” so when he finally got back to making B-movies in the 1940s, it was something of a step up for him.

In the 1940s Cahn spent a lot of time exploring the crime genre and he contributed a couple of notable examples–“Main Street After Dark” with a young Audrey Totter and Dan Duryea preying upon servicemen as workers in the clip-joint racket and “Destination–Murder,” with brutal Albert Dekker fronting for smoothie “assistant” Hurd Hatfield in a nightclub set up. Cahn continued making crime films right into the 1960s, his “Inside the Mafia” offering a fanciful recreation of the Mob’s Apalachin Meeting. He also delved into the sub-genre of the juvenile delinquency film.

But what I really want to focus on is Cahn’s contribution to the science-fiction genre. Cahn entered the field when it was still fairly novel. “Destination Moon” and “The Thing from Another World” had kicked off the cycle a mere five years before Cahn’s 1956 debut with “The Creature with the Atom Brain.” This film has been justly kidded for throwing in everything but the kitchen sink–atomic power, zombies, the Mob, Nazi scientists–but it’s good fast 70-minute entertainment and the climactic cops vs zombie-killers shoot-out was fairly violent for its day. “The She Creature” also takes its share of ribbing, but here I think the carping is unjustified. Cahn made a good, punchy 70-minute monster flick. Knowing that designer Paul Blaisdell’s prehistoric fish-woman wouldn’t hold up under prolonged exposure, Cahn first introduces it only as a ghostly outline. By the time we can see that the “monster” is Paul Blaisdell in a suit, the film is practically over and, hopefully, we’re more caught up in the villainy of Chester Morris’ hypnotist/clairvoyant and more concerned with whether of not his pretty assistant will escape his baleful stare. To take a movie like “The Sea Creature” and carp because it lacks Merchant-Ivory production values is not unjust, it’s stupid. The film can only be judged for what it is and how well or poorly is stacks up against other films of its type. And for a 70-minute, B&W, guy-in-a-suit monster flick, it’s not that bad. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s pretty good.
Cahn’s “It–the Terror from Beyond Space” has gotten a good deal of play ever since the appearance of Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” There is a similarity of plot–a murderous alien stows aboard an earth-bound spaceship and begins to pick off its crew members–but Cahn’s film, in keeping with the time in which it was made (1958) is altogether more optimistic with its handful of space travelers–servicemen and -women, not teamsters–pluckily holding their own against a blood-sucking lizard-like humanoid from Mars (not “from beyond Space” at all!). It was yet another stuntman-in-a-rubber-suit, but by showing him discreetly via shadows, off-screen growls and saving “The Big Reveal” until the film is well-underway, Cahn milked the concept for maximum suspense as the largely-unseen creature makes its way slowly but relentlessly toward the nose of the ship where the surviving humans are clustered.
The 1959 film “Invisible Invaders” is another Cahn title that has come into its own, this time thanks to George A. Romero and his zombie films. Unlike the lobotomized zombies of Cahn’s “Creature with the Atom Brain,” the undead ones in this film–slain earthmen whose bodies have been possessed by invisible alien entities–look more like the losers at a big close-out-sale riot at Robert Hall clothiers. Shuffling about aimlessly, they aren’t even after brains. This is another example of an under-90-minutes Fun Film. Perfect material for a Saturday matinee Double-Feature bill. Cahn wasn’t out to make Art, but he was out to make Entertainment, and by my lights he succeeded.

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