Marian Carr & The Indestructible Man
Deconstructing The Indestructible Man
First of all, the “indestructible” man of the title gets destroyed in the end. So he’s not really indestructible at all, but “The Somewhat Destructible Man” wouldn’t really make it as a movie title. As in most 1950s sci-fi pictures, the beastie—be it Martian, teenage, atomic, insect, or slime—gets destroyed in the last reel, and the indestructible man is no different. It is a sci-fi story, because it’s got a mad scientist of sorts and lots of electrical sparks. It’s a horror picture, because it features Lon Chaney, Jr. as a guy coming back from the dead. It’s a film noir, because the black tones are inky black, the women are dames, and the cops are all burnt out. It is a grindhouse matinee piece, because the central dame of the story just happens to work in a strip show, and the camera lingers longingly on the fishnet showgirls sashaying past its lens. It’s a Fifties movie, because no one actually gets lucky, at least not on the screen. It’s a revenge western (see HANG ‘EM HIGH or NEVADA SMITH), because the whole thing is about a guy coming back to kill everybody who ever screwed him. But he’s not really indestructible.
Charles “Butcher” Benton (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is on death row in a stock footage San Quentin. His two accomplices and his lawyer have crossed him up and got him convicted for a $600,000 armored car payroll robbery, because he wouldn’t tell them where he hid the money. It makes no sense, but that’s where the story begins. The State of California drops a pill on our boy in the gas chamber, and he’s history. Meanwhile, our hero and DRAGNET-style narrator, the dedicated LAPD Detective Lieutenant Richard Chasen (Casey Adams), suspects Butcher Benton’s lawyer is behind the whole thing. Chasen (Chasing?) begs his supervisor, Captain John Lauder (Stuart Randall), to let him work on his hunch in his spare time. Only detective lieutenants and detective captains seem to be able to string two clues together; street cops are mere meatheads here. Captain Lauder and Lieutenant Chasen seem to have nothing but spare time, as they devote every waking moment to the case. Chasen’s first move is to grill the late Butcher’s girlfriend.
Eva Martin (Marion Carr AKA Marian Carr), of course, works in a burlesque dive, and all the showgirls are naturally just standing around, straightening their seams, when the dick arrives. Chasen conducts his interview in Eva’s dressing room and discovers she’s a real dish. He knows she was The Butcher’s girl, so he pumps her for information about the shyster lawyer and the payroll robbery. Soon they are out on a date, eating burgers in his car. They exchange inane life stories, as if Ed Wood, Jr. was feeding them their lines from the darkness. Eva, it turns out, is not just some blonde stripper slut with a heart of ice, but really just a nice small-town girl who entered a beauty contest, won a screen test in Hollywood, and landed in strip joint. She once roomed with a girl that The Butcher dated. And starring in a burlesque house is just something she’s doing until she can find a real job, like waiting tables, starring in a movie, or marrying a police detective. Eva tells Chasen that you can find trouble in any job if you go looking for trouble; it is apparently her motto in life. The Lieutenant thinks she’s swell. They are just like a couple of goofy Fifties teenagers at a Los Angeles drive-in, not a street-hardened cop and a soulless tramp in a dark automobile with Ed Wood in the trunk. (In the early Fifties, Ed Wood, Jr. was renting office space in the old Monogram studio building where Allied Artists, the production company of THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, was housed. The site at Sunset Boulevard and Hillhurst is now home to KCET studios.)
Meanwhile, back in the Bay Area, Professor Bradshaw (Robert Shayne) and his bespeckled assistant (Joe Flynn) are working on a cancer cure. They naturally need a deceased human subject on which to test their formula. The assistant, a benign Igor, somehow gets his hands on the corpse of Charles Benton. The two men of science inject the body with their formula, electrocute it in a barrage of stock footage voltmeters and dials, and find themselves with an irritable Butcher stomping around their laboratory. Hypodermic needles won’t puncture him, and bullets bounce off. As if to explain why actor Lon Chaney, Jr. will not be reciting lines for the rest of the movie, Professor “Bring me a syringe” Bradshaw announces, “The electricity must have burned out his vocal cords but left his brain unharmed.” Thus, The Butcher springs back to demented life and heads out for Southern California with some killings in mind.
With an insane mime on the loose, the whole California law enforcement community rolls into action with stock footage radio operators dispatching stock footage black and white prowl cars with stock soundtrack sirens blaring. When The Butcher comes upon a couple stranded with a flat, he acts as a human hoist while the tire is changed. He bashes the man and ignores the horrified sweater girl (a poor man’s Gloria Grahame in the bullet bra), then steals their car. Miming and murdering his way down the length of California, he runs roadblocks and kills coppers all the way to LA. The newspaper insert shots scream with “Indestructible Killer” headlines.
The Butcher’s favorite California Bar Association member, Paul Lowe (Ross Elliott), has gotten his paws on a letter that Benton mailed to showgirl Eva. The letter contains a crude map of the Los Angeles sewer system and shows the location of the missing payroll loot. Spare time Lieutenant Chasen has been shadowing one of the hold-up men, a drunken cripple named Joe Marcella (Ken Terrell). When the alky meets the mastermind, Lowe, at a sleazeball tavern to discuss a caper, the detective knows he’s on to something. When The Butcher suddenly arrives at Eva’s dressing room, he pantomimes his tale of woe to her, demonstrating to her that scissors can’t puncture him and showing her his bullet-riddled shirt. When he finds out that Lowe has the sewer map, he stomps off to find another victim. Good girl Eva phones the cops, then warns the third hold-up man, Squeamy Ellis (Marvin Ellis). The name “Squeamy Ellis” has to rank up there in the world of loser monikers, like “Pappy Glue,” “Willie Peanuts,” “Oliver Patch,” or any number of Elisha Cook, Jr. characters.
In a long exterior sequence, we see The Butcher ascend the Angel’s Flight railway car as it climbs the steep side of LA’s Bunker Hill from the intersection of Third and Hill Street below to Olive Street above. The Butcher rides up, looking for Squeamy Ellis. Eva shows up and spots The Butcher out for blood. When Joe Marcella shows up on crutches on the street below, Eva rides the Angel’s Flight car down to warn him. Inexplicably, the cripple takes the stairs. Eva runs to warn Marcella that an undead mime is after him, but it is too late. The whole scene is a brilliant, if unintentional, cinematic preservation of the Angel’s Flight cable car apparatus and downtown 1950s LA, adding a gritty noir taste to the picture. With Marcella dispatched and another dead patrolmen to his credit, Butcher Benton goes in search of lawyer Lowe. He can’t locate the shyster in his high rise office, but catches Squeamy Ellis in an open-shaft elevator cage (see fight scene from James Bond’s DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER). Ellis does the ungraceful high-dive thing into the building’s lobby, and the Eva arrives to behold the grease spot on the floor.
The cops are Paul Lowe’s only protection from the relentless killing machine, not a promising future for an attorney. He slugs a Sergeant (Roy Engel) in hopes of getting locked up. The clever Lt. Chasen and his understanding Captain come up with a diabolically simple plan: they will release the lawyer to be killed on the streets by the Indestructible Man, if he doesn’t tell them where the missing payroll robbery money is hidden. There is a brief “prurient interest” break here, where leggy Eva snaps off one of her spiked heels. When the good Sergeant brings her a pair of shoes from the lock-up, Eva looks at them forlornly and says, “Low heels?” Indeed! The shyster has no choice but to confess to the armored car heist and tells the cops about the sewer map. The Butcher, meanwhile, has disappeared down a storm drain into the bowels of LA. The chase is on with LA’s Finest sporting a new bazooka and flame-thrower. Many of the storm drain shots look like scenes from Richard Basehart’s sewer escape in HE WALKED BY NIGHT, but without the good cast, crew, soundtrack, and script. The precedence of fighting beasties with flame-throwers in the sewers of Los Angeles had already been set in 1954 with the giant ant battle in THEM! The bazooka only wounds our indestructible fugitive. The flame-thrower fries his face while leaving his shirt unsinged. The mute, watery-eyed Chaney emerges into an industrial yard, his face caked with oatmeal, for a final silly death scene. In the end, the LAPD stows its artillery and gets the girl.
Lon Chaney, Jr. was between films like HIGH NOON and I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES and dreck like MANFISH, CYCLOPS, and FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF. In THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, we are treated to numerous close-ups of an unshaven, bleary-eyed, hungover nightmare of a face, some of it no doubt acting and some of it obviously related to a lifetime of alcohol poisoning. Newspaperman turned writer-director Jack Pollexfen had made CAPTIVE WOMEN (1952) and PORT SINISTER (1953) before this outing. The script was provided by Vy Russell (wife of the film’s cinematographer, John L. Russell) and (Bradford Dillman’s mom) Sue Bradford, the team that also penned Pollexfen’s THE ATOMIC BRAIN (1964). Casey Adams, who plays Lieutenant Chasen, was actually actor Max Showalter, who died in the summer of 2000. Bombshell Marian Carr (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS) had already appeared in the California prison movie SAN QUENTIN (1946). The year before THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, she had played a ripe tomato named “Friday” (TGIF) in KISS ME DEADLY with Ralph Meeker, which also features shots of the Angel’s Flight cable line.
THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, while not an archetype of cinema anti-heroes, has its parallels in other films. Like THE TERMINATOR, The Butcher trudges relentlessly onward, forward, and never stops. Almost never. And when these two are stopped, it is a machine that kills them. When the lame alcoholic Joe Marcella first appears with crutches, the reason isn’t readily apparent. The Butcher finally catches up to the crippled man, who tries to use his crutches to defend himself. When the Indestructible Man lifts the screaming cripple over his head and plunges him down a steep concrete stairway, he has all the heart of Richard Witmark’s character pushing a wheelchair-bound woman down a stairwell in KISS OF DEATH. Chaney spends much of the movie in a Carhartt-style work coat, looking unloved and desperate. With hands in pockets, he hunches his shoulders against the cold, much like Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. Both Bickle and The Butcher are “God’s Lonely Men,” being swallowed up by their coats, hiding from a world they do not feel a part of and escaping their desolate slow deaths.
With its shades of noir, Jack Webbish narration, back-from-the-dead story line, and cheesecake snacks, The Indestructible Man is a cheap and cheesy thrill. The Lon Chaney, Jr. completists and Allied Artists/Monogram completists have much worse to suffer through than this flawed little gem. Disciples of Ed Wood and students of the zombie film will find moments to treasure. While Butcher Benton and Lon Chaney, Jr. have proven to be destructible, THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN lives on.
You can watch it online or download the whole movie at the Internet Archive.