Manfish – 1956

Film Review

MANFISH poster Lon Chaney and Victor Jory with Tessa Prendergast

Manfish – 1956

Scuba movies were popular in the 1950's (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Underwater, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, Boy on A Dolphin, etc.,) and Manfish looks like a low budget competitor in this field, though with slight horror-movie overtones (both in the poster art claiming the film is an adaptation of two Edgar Allan Poe stories and in having Lon Chaney, Jr. in the cast), but the story itself, while true to Poe in it's own peculiar way, is really something like Greed moved onto a boat. Two obsessed treasure hunters (John Bromfield and Victor Jory) are continually at each others throats as they piece together coded rings and old maps and then travel to a Caribbean island to dig up a chest of gold.

Lon Chaney, Jr. (as "Swede") is aboard in another "Lennie" type of role as a veteran sailor who is in love with the boat called "Manfish." Swede is an honest man observing the increasingly crazed behavior of the two treasure hunters who not only have to share the map information, but the often-switching loyalties of gold-"interested" Alita (Tessa Prendergast) who is trying to figure out which man is going to come out at the end with all the money. Meanwhile, Swede only cares about the boat, something highlighted when Bromfield's character (Captain Brannigan) foolishly spits on the deck, resulting in Swede's huge hands around his neck, shouting that he better "clean it up" if he wants to live.

Barbara Nichols appears in her first acting role as an island entertainer named Mimi. Though the pretty girls and calypso music, along with a lot of location shooting, helps keep this movie fleshed out like an adventure story with a mean streak, the story eventually narrows into a test of wills between the two treasure hunters and then becoming even tighter as sanity begins slipping away, courtesy of the script by Myles Wilder and Joel Murcott.

Manfish is a unique movie that avoids the predictable third act of a typical treasure-hunting tale, in fact it veers into things that allows Bromfield and Jory to assume duelling roles in an actor's showcase aboard a boat. This doesn't necessarily block out the fact we're watching a film that is in some ways under-funded* (presumably) and poorly-crafted, but it gives the two principals and their situation an exploration that would be at home in a far better-honed film, with fine work by Chaney in support doing the type of role he excelled in despite his limited screen time (and dialogue) but provided with significant moments when his merely looking around and registering an expression of thinking about what's happening, or what may have happened, communicates more than another run of I'm-a-bit-mentally-challenged dialogue could have ever done.

Coming on like an exploitation genre movie, Manfish instead gets to be that unusual kind of film that (in it's own limited, flawed way) gets to have its cake and eat it, too, full of the activity of a "thriller," but with a mental acuity that is simpatico with it's Edgar Allan Poe roots, and without being a horror film.

*Manfish was originally shot in color, but the battered, low-definition prints on the internet are all black and white, but there is a color DVD. [*Commission earned on sales*]

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Original Page April 19, 2022