“Yesterday’s science-fiction is today’s fact” in the Lon Chaney vehicle INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, getting a semi-classy treatment on DVD courtesy of Retromedia.
Sentenced to be executed at San Quentin for a murder during an armored car robbery, Charles “Butcher” Benton (Chaney) swears to get revenge on his lawyer Paul Lowe (Ross Elliott, THE CRAWLING HAND) – who hired him for the job – and his two accomplices Joe Marcellia (Ken Terrell, THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS) and Squeamy Ellis (Marvin Ellis) who turned state’s evidence against him when he double-crossed them by stashing the stolen $600,000. It seems like an empty threat to all involved, but Dr. Bradshaw (Robert Shayne, THE NEANDERTHAL MAN) – who has been doing experiments with cell regeneration and electricity – acquires his body after the execution for experimentation. Injecting the body with his experimental drug and blasting it with 280,000 volts, Bradshaw is shocked when Benton wakes up. Believing that the effect will only be temporary, he tries to draw blood for testing and finds that the needle bends. When he attempts to draw samples surgically, Benton kills him and his assistant (Joe Flynn of TV’s McHALE’S NAVY, who does not receive a screen credit here). Although his vocal chords have been destroyed by the two exposures to high voltage, his brain is intact and he heads back toward Los Angeles, killing a motorist for his car and cops who have set up roadblocks upon reports of a maniacal murderer. Los Angeles Lt. Dick Chasen (Max Showalter, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD) – who has been working on the closed Benton case on his free time in order to find the missing loot and put Lowe behind bars – is assigned the case of the seemingly bulletproof maniac, not suspecting his identity. Despite warnings from Benton’s burlesque show moll Eva (Marion Carr, KISS ME DEADLY) – who has been seeing Chasen casually – Lowe, Ellis, and Marcellia do not believe Benton is alive; however, they do believe that he must have hired a hitman to take them out. Chasen, on the other hand, believes Benton must have a twin when his prints are matched to ones found in the dead motorists car, and leans hopes Lowe is sufficiently frightened enough to come clean; but Benton is impervious to bullets and not about to let a bunch of cops stop him from having his revenge.
Reportedly a film made “stop and go” over the period of a year, INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN is pretty sloppy; relying heavily on Chasen’s narration – including guesses he has to make about events he did not witness – to tie things thing together. In some cases, his narration (which surely was written after the material was filmed) jars with the continuity, such as when he at one point says Benton is saving Lowe for last and then referring to Lowe as Benton’s next victim when he is in fact going after Squeamy. Director Jack Pollexfen had been a writer of B-pictures for Columbia Pictures, Twentieth-Century-Fox, and had collaborated with Albert Zugsmith (including CAPTIVE WOMAN) and Edgar G. Ulmer on THE MAN FROM PLANET X and DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL (Pollexfen had also written THE SON OF DR. JEKYLL for Columbia six years earlier) and a couple films for producer . His only other directorial credits were DRAGON GOLD (1954) and some uncredited work on MONSTROSITY aka THE ATOMIC BRAIN (1963). Stock footage from HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) is used for the scenes in the Los Angeles sewer system (reverse angles of Chaney and the other actors in the cast are shot against cave walls or anonymous brick backgrounds). Editor Fred Feisthans – father of producer Buzz Feisthans [CONAN THE BARBARIAN] and grandfather of cinematographer Buzz Feisthans IV (TV’s CHUCK and THE O.C.) – was a veteran of Universal Pictures and edited a couple films Pollexfen wrote before going on to work for AIP in the 1960s and 1970s up through FROGS and DILLINGER.
The photography is often stationary for almost the entirety of scenes (possibly because of time considerations or because of the cramped locations), and the same sinister push-in close-up of Chaney’s face (which goes out of focus for a moment) is endlessly recycled. Cinematographer John L. Russell – who presumably became involved since his wife Vy co-wrote the script (with production secretary Sue Dwiggins with whom she later wrote the aforementioned MONSTRONSITY) – moved onto better things in TV including THRILLER and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, the latter leading to his shooting PSYCHO. Even in 1956 this scenario must have seemed tired and the only person who doesn’t seem to be merely going through the motions is heroic lead Showalter (tipping the sappy ending over into full cheese). It should go without saying that Mystery Science Theater 3000 has done their version of this, but the viewer probably doesn’t need help to pick apart the original version.
A PD staple on VHS and then later DVD, INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN is presented here in an HD-mastered anamorphic widescreen (1.60:1) transfer. It was probably not projected theatrically in widescreen at all, but the 1.60:1 framing isn’t destructive at all to any credits, text inserts, or hairlines in long and medium shots. Unlike some of Retromedia's other recent titles, they seem to have drawn back on the digital sharpening, resulting in a generally attractive transfer of a minimally-damaged source (one can't help but wonder if some of the occasional scratches had more to do with cheap processing or in-camera damage rather than the preservation of the film element). Although still imperfect, I’d bet it still miles ahead of Alpha Video’s DVD or any of the multi-film box set versions from the usual suspects. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is reasonably clean.
Retromedia have outfitted the feature with a handful of Lon Chaney Jr.-related extras including the featurette “Remembering Lon Chaney” (11:17) in which late cinematographer Gary Graver recalls his collaborations with director Al Adamson as prelude to meeting Lon Chaney Jr. on DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. In fact, the featurette is more about that film than Chaney, although it gives a dispiriting picture of what the actor was like on his last film (as well as co-star J. Carrol Naish). The featurette ends with a trailer for the film, which is redundant since the same trailer is also featured in the “Lon Chaney Trailer Collection” which also includes trailers for INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN (1:33) as well as BLOOD OF THE MAN-DEVIL, ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (correctly letterboxed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically-enhanced), and Al Adamson’s DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. Another nice addition is a 1954 episode of the short-lived series THE WHISTLER guest-starring Chaney titled “Backfire” (25:48) in which he plays an ex-con hired as a chauffeur who accepts not being rich enough for his boss’ wife (Dorothy Green, THE BIG HEAT) to run away with him, but goes off the deep end when her husband tells him that she has been seen in the company of a musician and wants him to confirm his suspicions. The episode is in fair taped-from-TV condition with an overscan line at the bottom of the frame. “Lon Chaney LIVE!” is a radio interview excerpt with the actor over a handful of stills (0:48). There are cheaper ways to see the feature, but Lon Chaney fans should spend the extra six or seven bucks over the bargain bin versions. (Eric Cotenas)
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