The Indestructible Man - 1956
Released March 25, 1956 [filmed in 1954]
"The tremendous electrical voltage Professor Bradshaw had given the Butcher had increased his cellular structure to the point that he was no longer a man..."
Despite a pretty good cast with Lon Chaney Jr., Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter) and Marian Carr (listed as Marion Carr in the screen credits) and even Joe Flynn (who gets no screen credit at all), Indestructible Man suffers from a lot of low budget movie problems. The most obvious is the voice-over narration that tries to keep the story straight and moving forward but intrudes far more often than needed.
Even as simple as this monster-on-the-loose story is, narration is important because our star Chaney only has one scene with speaking parts (early on in Indestructible Man 287,000 volts have "burned out his vocal chords"), and afterward the resurrected Lon is a mute assassin lumbering from one place to another looking for his former criminal pals who set him up to be executed. The problem with Chaney Jr., as a "silent star" is that he now has no involvement in the movie's dialogue, and this is a film that uses talking, cars speeding and guns to advance the tale, and Chaney has none of these. Since somebody has got to explain what the 'Butcher's' motivations are and why he is showing up at various places around the city, the task falls on Police Lt. Dick Chasen (Showalter) who is piecing together the tale for us out loud in the narration.
Made super-strong and impervious to bullets by his revival from death at the laboratory of "distinguished biochemist" Professor Bradshaw (Robert Shayne), Lon as 'Butcher' Benton shows off his enhanced science-gone-mad abilities while moving south from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a mission to find his ex-compatriots and then to retrieve hidden loot in a storm tunnel under the streets. He's extremely rude, can lift cars, survive gunfire, and only when the police show up with a bazooka and a flame-thrower does any real impact against him get made, causing 'the Butcher' to flee to an electrical power-substation, which turns out to be an ironic mistake.
In many ways this film ca be seen as a semi-remake of Man-Made Monster (which also starred Chaney Jr.) but instead of a straight-up horror film about accidentally reviving the wrong person from the dead, Indestructible Man is actually an odd little police procedural. On top of that is a side-trip into romance between burlesque showgirl Eva Martin (Carr) and the inquisitive Dick Chasen (Max) who starts off the film telling us "I was dictating the wrap-up on the Butcher Benton package. I'm Lt Dick Chasen, this hasn't been a routine case..." With the 'Butcher' executed at San Quentin prison and the case officially closed, Chasen uses his off-hours to continue private research, and right away that means investigating Eva Martin, the 'Butcher's' girlfriend (who seems to have barely known her boyfriend, completely unaware of his criminal activities). In a typical film featuring a showgirl girlfriend, that'd mean we would switch to a stage-show scene to prove the girl in question is a performer. But Indestructible Man man can't afford this and we have burlesque outfits to wear in and out of a dressing room with "Frankie and Johnnie" blasting away in the background indicating a burlesque theater is out there somewhere.
Another low budget trademark within Indestructible Man is the padded footage of our star Chaney staring into the camera and grimacing in a couple of long takes that are at times inscrutable as they have nothing to do with a scene and come across as weird selfies randomly inserted (this is a case where the omnipresent Dick Chasen providing some narration would have been helpful). In a different scene the 'Butcher' confronts one of his ex-pals, but it appears to have been shot piece-meal at different locales such that while we're looking at an oncoming Chaney Jr., bent upon murder, when we see the hapless victim firing off his pistol he appears to be in a totally different location altogether.
Between the burden of the anemic-budget filmmaking (which yields unintentional laughs probably in direct relation to the audiences ability to keep engaged with the film at all) and the over-bearing narration (more than once I thought "you're already showing us, don't tell us, too!" An example being the narrator introducing new characters by telling us "two men are sitting in a diner," and sure enough on the screen are two men sitting in a diner...) All the same, the tale unexpectedly springs to life and has some stretches of enterprising, interesting ersatz-noir storytelling, with Marian Carr and Max Showalter filling in the huge gaps left by the non-speaking Chaney Jr., occupied with relentlessly looking for the next person to murder while the showgirl and the cop get more and more personal.
One of the best parts of Indestructible Man are the side-trips into new batches of minor characters. The menagerie of side characters is interesting; petty criminals, carnival barkers, shoe-shine men, along with plenty of actual Los Angeles location footage throughout the story, embellishing the simplicity of the tale with a visual detail belonging to a much better film with a much better budget. Some of the stunt work is very good, too, for example the frightening, violent frenzy when 'the Butcher' corners an ex-friend in a steel-cage elevator. It is like the movie dwells in a childlike sense of how the world works and then suddenly jerks into a nightmare of semi-reality.
The special effects sometimes meet the challenge of Indestructible Man, but otherwise look dated and may very well have looked dated in 1956 when the film first came out. But it is the small details which trip up the story the most: when the 'Butcher' reaches his treasure trunk (that's what it looks like) hidden underground amid some trash, and he wrestles with getting the top off, though the top moves around like it isn't attached at all, Lon then quickly tries to take out all the bundles of cash and uses the large coat he's been wearing as a makeshift bag to carry the money away before the police reach him. Why is he bothering? We know he's incredibly strong, he could have just grabbed the little chest and toted it away without wasting anytime at all. These failings in simple logic mar Indestructible Man the most.
But maybe it doesn't matter. The problem with these sub-budget old films and doing an autopsy on their elements is that it gets hard to pinpoint why amid the failure in presentation they can contain such a charming sense of phantasy and why Lon Chaney Jr., though playing a merciless and one-dimensional killer, still elicits audience sympathy. Is it because we're not just looking at the thinly-sketched out character of "Butcher Benton," but also Lennie Small, Dynamo Dan and Lawrence Talbot, and all the other tragic and misguided characters from Chaney's busy career (197 credits listed at IMDB)?
Without Chaney, Showalter and Carr this movie would be much easier to dismiss as pure junk, but somehow these on screen activities of familiar, effective actors in a story that is also rather familiar (though churned up with disparate genres in a unique way) in the end sets Indestructible Man apart and makes it hard for me, at least, to not find it fascinating.
More Lon Chaney Jr.:
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- Touch of Evil
- The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown – 1957
- Man-Made Monster - 1941
- The Indestructible Man - 1956
- Cyclotrode X – 1966
- Lady in a Jam 1942
- Showgirl in Hollywood 1930
- Anne of the Indies – 1951
- Don Juan Quilligan – 1945
- My Gal Sal - 1942
- Harvey – 1950
- L'emmerdeur (aka A Pain in the Ass) – 1973
- Robot Monster – 1953
Original Page December 1, 2021