CHELOVEK-AMFIBIYA aka Amphibian Man (1961)

Synopsis: A Mexican fishing community is rife with rumours of a mysterious undersea figure dubbed the "Sea-Devil". One of a team of pearl divers encounters this creature, which has silvery skin, fins, and huge eyes. The divers rush back to their boat, where their employer, Don Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov), berates them for their cowardice, abusing one man and pushing him off the boat. Unfortunately for Don Pedro, Gutierre (Anastasiya Vertinskaya), the young girl he hopes to marry, witnesses this act of bad temper. She turns from him in disgust. Don Pedro complains about Gutierre’s coldness to her father, Balthazar (Georgi Tusuzov), the boat’s captain. He then tries to kiss the girl by force, but she breaks from him and dives into the water, swimming hurriedly away. Watching, the horrified men see a shark in her vicinity. Don Pedro leaps into a row-boat and goes after her. Fortunately for Gutierre, the "Sea-Devil" has also seen the shark. He draws a knife and swims to the rescue, just as Gutierre is attacked. He struggles with and kills the shark, while the unconscious girl drifts slowly to the bottom of the bay. The Sea-Devil gathers her gently into its arms and swims with her to the surface, lifting her into the boat of the astonished Don Pedro before vanishing. Back on the ship, Don Pedro claims that he killed the shark and saved the girl. That night, Balthazar tries to talk Gutierre into marrying Don Pedro, on the grounds that he saved her life – and that he, Balthazar, is heavily in debt to him. The harassed girl finally agrees. Later, as the miserable Gutierre stands alone on deck, someone speaks to her. A silvery creature is clinging to the ship’s anchor-line. The startled girl screams, and the men come running. Don Pedro orders them to the nets, but in superstitious terror, they refuse. Don Pedro looks out to sea, and sees his quarry diving from a reef. The Sea-Devil swims to an underwater cave covered by a metal grill, which moves aside as he approaches…. A journalist, Olsen (Vladlen Davydov), visits the cliff-top home of his friend, the world-famous scientist, Dr Salvetor (Nikolai Simonov), questioning him about the Sea-Devil, which Salvetor dismisses as a myth. Don Pedro and Balthazar search the waters, finally entering an inlet at the base of the cliffs. Balthazar goes diving, and finds the grill-covered cave which, he tells Don Pedro, leads to land. Over lunch, Olsen and Salvetor discuss the state of society. The scientist reveals to Olsen his own scheme for saving mankind, taking him to his laboratory. At one end is a huge glass wall, which holds back the sea. Salvetor calls into a speaker, and the "Sea-Devil" appears. It takes off its strange headgear, revealing itself as an ordinary young man. Salvetor introduces him as Ichthyander (Vladimir Korenev), his son. He then explains to the stunned Olsen that, as a child, the boy suffered from a serious lung disease, which he treated by giving him a transplant of shark gills. Sending Ichthyander away, Salvetor reveals his plan for "an underwater republic". That night, Salvetor scolds Ichthyander for his behaviour, telling him that he is attracting too much attention. The boy tries to tell his father about the beautiful girl whose life he saved, but Salvetor brusquely changes the subject, ordering his son to bed. When Ichthyander asks to sleep in the sea, his father warns him that too much time underwater will destroy his lungs. Unable to stop thinking about Gutierre, Ichthyander defies his father, heading not just for land, but into the heart of the city….

Comments: Sometime in the past – and there must have been a precise moment, although I’m yet to pinpoint it – science fiction screenwriters became self-conscious. Oh, sure, they were still willing to churn out crappy, derivative films, with cardboard cutout characters and denouements you could see coming eighty-nine minutes and thirty seconds before the end credits. But nevertheless, all of a sudden, something was missing. And that "something", to my endless regret, was Truly Pointless Science. You know the kind I mean. The kind that flourished from the thirties through the fifties; the kind that turned grown scientists into drivelling, wild-eyed obsessives; the kind that inevitably provoked an incredulous gasp of, "Why – you’re insane!" from the individual privileged enough to have The Big Picture explained to them. (Their next line was almost always, "I’m calling the police!" Unsurprisingly, it was also almost always their last line.) For several glorious decades, movie scientists were happy to toil away on bat re-bigulators, tissue enphosphorators, animal humanifiers and romantic triangle disentangulators; until one day, some interfering little creep (probably the same one who pointed out the design flaw in the Emperor’s snazzy new outfit) felt compelled to ask, "Yes, but what’s the point?" And then it all stopped. Movie Science had its feelings hurt. And it reacted by becoming sensible. And, all too often, let’s face it - dull. So, although a large part of me yearns to see science depicted accurately on the screen, there’s another part of me – small, but surprisingly vocal – that mourns for the days of Seriously Silly Science. This is why a film like Bats – otherwise, a depressingly predictable little effort – can send me into a swoon of giddy delight, by producing a Mad Scientist who, when someone has the temerity to question his plan for creating giant, omnivorous, killer Chiroptera, simply raises his eyebrows in a puzzled way and says, "I’m a scientist. That’s what we do." And – to cut an extremely long and digressive introduction short – it’s why one (only one) of my responses to Amphibian Man is a fit of helpless, joyful giggling, brought on by "world-famous scientist" Dr Salvetor’s plan to rescue humanity from itself by – giving everyone in the world a transplant of shark gills and making them live underwater. As the understandably gob-smacked Olsen listens in stunned silence, Salvetor goes all starry-eyed, dreaming of "an underwater republic", where there are "no rich and no poor", where mankind will be "freed from oppression" and able to "pursue happiness". And to make all of this happen, all that everyone has to do is….is….

[Uhhh….nnnno….must….fight….urge to….quote Simpsons….uhhuhhh….nnnno….impulse….too strong----]
Homer: Under the sea, under the sea/There’ll be no accusations/Just friendly crustaceans/Under the sea!!
Marge: Oh, Homer, that’s your answer to everything! To move under the sea! It’s not gunna happen!
Homer: Not with that attitude.

Which, to this viewer’s infinite amusement, is pretty much how the discussion of this, uh, revolutionary scheme goes in Amphibian Man, too. Rather than take exception to the scheme on the most obvious level, i.e. it is utterly freaking ludicrous, political agitator Olsen takes the higher ground, arguing that wherever you have mankind, you will have mankind’s problems, and conflicts, and attitudes. Olsen does express his admiration for Salvetor’s "miraculous hands" (I’ll say! We never do get to see the results of Salvetor’s handiwork, by the way: Ichthyander spends the whole film with either his collar turned up, or sporting one of a huge collection of snazzy cravats), but fails to follow the thought through to its logical conclusion – just who is going to perform surgery on the entire human race!? (And there’s another fundamental objection that no-one in the film bothers to make, so it looks like I’ll have to do it myself: what about a little compassion all the poor sharks??) The two men are interrupted at this point in their discussion, but you feel that had the conversation gone further, Salvetor would have ended up agreeing with Olsen, although not in a good way. Even by the standards of movie scientists, Salvetor is, uh, one odd fish. When Don Pedro and Balthazar pursue their "Sea-Devil" to the base of the cliffs, Don Pedro asks who lives in the house perched on their summit. "God," replies Balthazar simply, going on to explain that the man who lives there "heals the lame and the blind". Olsen, too, praises Salvetor for his work in "finding cures" (unspecified), and generally the man is lauded as a benefactor of mankind. Yet clearly, it is not love of mankind that drives him. On the contrary. Questioned by Olsen, Salvetor says only of his work, "I am a scientist. It is my duty." But there is more to it than that. There is a distinct sense that Salvetor, too, has come to see himself as "God", loftily dispensing favours to the swarming masses with whom he nevertheless refuses to have any personal contact. Clearly, such arrogance and egocentricity can only end in disaster; and sadly, inevitably, it is not Salvetor himself upon whom his sins are visited, but poor Ichthyander. While we may forgive Salvetor experimenting upon his own child in order to save that child’s life, what follows puts the scientist beyond the pale. (Assuming, that is, that he wasn’t already there. We are given no reason at all to think that Salvetor’s son didn’t always bear his piscine moniker. If the poor little bugger ever had to attend public school carrying a handle like that, he was probably thrilled to bits when his father broke it to him that in the future, he’d be living under the sea, under the sea. Well – at least up until he laid eyes on what his father expected him to wear: a body-suit of silver sequins accessorised with silver flippers, fake fins, a pointy head-piece, and large bug-like goggles. [We never get an explanation for this, either.] All in all, he looks remarkably like a camp version of the creature in War Gods Of The Deep.) Not content with cutting himself off from humanity, Salvetor forces his isolationist views upon his son as well, denying him all human contact, and angrily berating him for "being too conspicuous" when tales of the "Sea-Devil" make their way into the newspapers. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his son would be a lot less conspicuous dressed in something other than body-hugging sequins.) But, as Salvetor has to learn the hard way, you can’t fight human nature. Already chafing at the restrictions of his life, and desperately lonely, Ichthyander’s rescue of Gutierre triggers a rebellion on the boy’s part, and sets in motion a chain of events that throws the lives of all of the film’s characters into chaos – and in some cases, tragedy.

And this brings us to the point at which, in truth, this review ought to have begun. My rantings and ramblings on movie science and gill transplants and the like have probably given those reading an entirely false mental image of Amphibian Man. The mad science is there, all right, and perhaps inevitably, it’s what I remember most vividly between viewings; but it’s not really what this film is all about. Simply put, Amphibian Man is a love story; and one played out with such straightfaced sincerity and conviction that it rises above its more risible aspects, and becomes a perfectly charming fairytale – Beauty And The Beast meets The Creature From The Black Lagoon. (And of course, in such a framework, Ichthyander’s gills become much easier to accept.) In the very best fairytale tradition, Ichthyander no sooner lays eyes on Gutierre than he falls irrevocably in love with her. His attempt to confide in his father brusquely curtailed, Ichthyander decides to take matters into his own hands, venturing into the depths of a frightening foreign land: The City. As he searches, innocently expecting every woman he meets to be Gutierre, Ichthyander undergoes a string of adventures, some comic, some terrifying; and in the end, he succeeds in finding the object of his desire standing outside her father’s small shop, talking to Olsen – who is, by the bye, also unavailingly in love with her. Evading his father’s friend, Ichthyander follows Gutierre into the shop, and without loss of time declares his love for her. Half-charmed, half-frightened by this ardent stranger, Gutierre tries to deflect his declaration by turning it off as a joke. "This must be love at first sight!" she replies laughingly. "Is there any other kind of love?" responds Ichthyander simply, and bam!! – Gutierre’s a goner as well. (It does not – and could not, of course – compete with "I came across time for you, Sarah", but as science fiction "lines" go, that ain’t a bad effort.) Don Pedro – whom Gutierre has been bullied and guilted into accepting – chooses this of all moments to enter the scene, and understandably doesn’t care for what he sees. The two men clash, with Don Pedro calling in the law. Ichthyander evades this initial pursuit, courtesy of a convenient street-cleaning truck, but the damage has been done – on all counts. Amphibian Man then devotes some time simply to watching its two young people as they come to terms with their feelings for one another. The solitary Ichthyander indulges a fantasy of Gutierre living with him under the sea, under the sea. This is one of the film’s most beautifully shot sequences (among many), and also contains an intriguing touch of reality: although dressed in a matching sequined body-suit, the fantasy Gutierre still swims by kicking her legs, like a "normal" person, while Ichthyander moves through the water by undulating his body, dolphin-like – the boy’s involuntary admission of the gulf between himself and his love, perhaps. Gutierre, meanwhile, is confident enough to make a public declaration of her love, meeting with Ichthyander at the local fiesta, and dancing for him before an admiring crowd. But Don Pedro and the local police – and consequently, disaster – are hot upon the heels of the young couple, and a further confrontation ends in Ichthyander’s apparent death. The distraught Gutierre gives up her struggle for freedom and marries Don Pedro – only to discover too late that Ichthyander has survived his seemingly fatal plunge from the cliffs outside the town.

One of the pleasures of Amphibian Man is its ability to catch the viewer off-guard. It certainly does so here when, having spent the first half of its running time setting the distinctly Mephistophelian Don Pedro up as Irredeemably Evil (he doesn’t finish each sentence he speaks with "Mwoo-ha-ha!", but he might as well), it then decides to cut him some slack. The impression left by the film’s early sequences is that the main reason Don Pedro wants Gutierre so badly is because he can’t have her. So it comes as a bit of a shock when it is borne upon the viewer that his feelings for the girl are just as sincere as Ichthyander’s – but that he is incapable of finding an appropriate way of expressing them. The marriage starts – or rather, doesn’t – on extremely rocky ground. Gutierre may have married Don Pedro but, we find, that’s as far as she’s prepared to go: her very first act on entering her new home is literally to barricade herself into her bedroom, stacking every piece of furniture she can move against the door. And Don Pedro – angry, frustrated and humiliated as he is – puts up with the situation, making no attempt to force himself upon his wife, and this in spite of the constant jeers and haranguing inflicted upon him by the middle-aged harridan who also occupies his house. (Whether she’s his mother or merely his housekeeper we never do find out, but hoo! – what a bitch!) Several nights after the wedding, Balthazar staggers in, blind drunk, announcing that he’s blown all the money intended to fund the capture of the Sea-Devil, and adds insult to injury by accusing his new son-in-law of keeping Gutierre locked up. (If we needed any more proof that Don Pedro loves Gutierre, we have it in the fact that he’s willing to put up with having the appalling Balthazar for his father-in-law.) But despite all of these mortifications, Don Pedro doggedly maintains his policy of restraint – at least until he discovers that Ichthyander has managed to contact Gutierre, and that the two of them are about to elope. Not surprisingly, Don Pedro’s thoughts then turn to revenge – and less surprisingly still, he manages to come up with a scheme that both punishes his erring wife and his successful rival, and makes himself scads of money in the process. At this point, the film’s SF/fantasy elements kick in again, as Olsen and Salvetor come charging to the rescue in the latter’s private submarine. (We also learn that Ichthyander has the ability to communicate with dolphins; and really, the longer Amphibian Man goes, the harder it is to believe that it wasn’t the direct inspiration for Marine Boy and perhaps, in time, for The Man From Atlantis.) The rescue party succeeds in freeing Ichthyander, although Salvetor refuses to interfere between Don Pedro and his wife. Don Pedro responds by sending in his tame police force, and both Salvetor and Ichthyander find themselves incarcerated. But all is not yet lost, as one of the "masses" whom Dr Salvetor has so relentlessly spurned comes unexpectedly to the rescue: a prison guard, whose son’s life was saved by Salvetor’s skill. (Tellingly, while the guard knows Salvetor well enough, the great humanitarian hasn’t the faintest idea who he is.) Chastened by his recent experiences, Salvetor begs the guard to save Ichythyander. Tragically, the "Sea-Devil" has been locked not into a cell, but into a tank of water – thus depriving him of the time on land necessary for his well-being, and threatening his very life. It is up to the selfless Olsen to try and find a way of rescuing his friends, even though he knows that freeing Ichthyander will mean surrendering his faint hopes of Gutierre forever.

Amphibian Man may be a love story, a fantasy and a science fiction film, but it would scarcely be a Soviet film of 1961 if there weren’t a healthy serving of politics mixed in with the romance – although it never, thankfully, intrudes upon the main story. Ultimately, each of the four male characters represents a particular doctrine, the rights and wrongs of which are examined through the film’s action. Not surprisingly, it is Don Pedro and his relentlessly grasping capitalism that come in for the most stringent criticism. This is a man incapable of leaving money out of anything – an attitude, the screenplay implies, that brings its own punishment. It is, after all, Don Pedro’s vile treatment of the workers in his employ that, above all else, repulses Gutierre. Not that he is capacity to appreciate her feelings upon the subject; and nor does he understand why, having offered the incarcerated Dr Salvetor a business deal – his freedom, and a great deal of money in return for an army (navy?) of amphibian men with which to exploit the oceans – the scientist rises up in righteous indignation and throws him out of his jail cell. The clear inference is that Don Pedro’s obsession with money is inexorably tied to an emotional and moral lack – although which of these caused the other is hard to say. And while the film champions Dr Salvetor over Don Pedro, it is no less critical of the scientist and his policy of---well, I’m not sure what you’d call it; a particularly brutal form of enforced benevolence, perhaps. By placing himself so far above the people he purports to serve, the scientist becomes so lost in his vision of himself as mankind’s saviour that he is unable to see the damage he is causing to those nearest to him. His sin, clearly, is intellectualism without heart. In contrast, Ichthyander is all heart, all impulse, all feeling. In fact, the film’s examination of Ichthyander’s "politics", if indeed you could call his instinctive generosity that, is one of its most intriguing aspects. The boy practises what might be termed emotional communism. He looks around the world, sees enough for everyone, and is unable to understand why such bounty cannot simply be shared amongst all who might need it. This view first manifests itself during his visit to the city, when a poor child is caught stealing from the basket of a fishmonger who has stopped to laugh at the man frolicking in the town fountain. Ichthyander is bewildered by the man’s anger, when clearly there are enough fish for everyone present – and so observing, he proceeds to distribute them amongst the gathered crowd. This, naturally enough, brings the police down upon him. However, fortunately Ichthyander finds a wad of bills within his coat pocket and, having only the vaguest notion of its value, hands it over to the startled fishmonger. This action forces the crowd to revise their opinion of him. Having pegged him at first as a madman, they now decide that he is a mad millionaire – which of course makes all the difference; the police simply fade away. Later, Ichthyander’s lack of understanding of money surfaces again when he gathers a handful of pearls as a present for Gutierre. She, alarmed by the value of the proffered gift, refuses to take them. Ichthyander – who has offered the pearls merely as objects of beauty, with no thought to, or indeed conception of, their monetary value – is immeasurably hurt by this rejection, and without hesitation, tosses the pearls back into the ocean.

What is interesting is that Ichthyander’s behaviour is not vindicated by the events of the story. The film may sympathise with, even admire, his conduct, but ultimately, it also dismisses it, however regretfully, as hopelessly na´ve and impractical. Out of the water and confronting reality, the boy’s sincerity, his generosity, and his sense of honour are simply not enough. There is a streak of commonsense underlying the romanticism in Amphibian Man, and in the end, it is Olsen and his personal brand of level-headed socialism that is given the big thumbs-up. The journalist may want to "save the world" as much as Dr Salvetor, but he puts his theories into practice in an infinitely more practical way, and always keeping in mind mankind’s limitations – and more importantly, his own. Without trying to force his views onto anyone else, Olsen has committed himself to fighting those battles that are within his power, struggling to improve the social conditions in his own tiny corner of the globe. It is not an easy fight, nor indeed an inexpensive one. With his constant run-ins with The Authorities, his tireless, if not always successful, efforts to keep his newspaper operational, and his rueful acceptance of a life of personal hardship, Olsen would be the last man alive not to admit that money can sometimes be – very useful indeed….

The joy of Amphibian Man is that it is simply never what you would expect a Soviet film of the early sixties to be. First and foremost on the list of surprises is the film’s setting. With its sun-drenched Mexican coastal town, its cliffs and sparkling seas, and its supporting cast of skimpily dressed young people, all intent on a good time, the action seems distinctly un-Russian. Excellent use is made of the film’s locations, particularly during Ichthyander’s flight through the city, when ordinary places and events suddenly become invested with terrifying or sinister meaning. Most memorable, perhaps, is when Ichthyander finds himself by the docks as a cow is being air-loaded onto a boat. As the frightened animal lows and struggles, the bewildered boy is suddenly unable to take any more, and bolts through a maze of high, cramped buildings and dry, narrow, dusty streets. These sequences are in stunning contrast with those set in Ichthyander’s garden in the sea, where lovely photography and clever, stylised art direction combine to create a fantasy world so lovely and peaceful that the viewer can almost sympathise with the mad schemes of Dr Salvetor. For the most part, the underwater scenes are very well-realised, if not entirely seamless (witness the moment when a small ray helpfully presses itself against the glass of the tank in which it is being filmed!). Unfortunately, the least successfully executed sequence is also one of the film’s most important, the shark’s attack on Gutierre. We’re given a nice clear look at the creature in question; enough to realise that it’s a harmless reef shark of no more than a foot or two long – and the trick photography used here is no help at all. (Note to film-makers: forced perspective monsters might be cost effective, but – trust me on this one – they just don’t work.) This is an unfortunate glitch, but still, the film survives it. On the plus side, Amphibian Man boasts some beautiful cinematography, wringing the most out of its locations – and its cast. Both Vladimir Korenev and Anastasiya Vertinskaya are Very Pretty People Indeed; and much is made, photographically speaking, of their matching dark hair and vivid blue eyes. The film’s production design is also a treat, particularly in Dr Salvetor’s "futuristic" house and laboratory (I’m particularly enamoured of the bathyscope-shaped elevator!). And there are some other incidental pleasures, as well – such as Don Pedro’s wardrobe, which runs the gamut from a sand-coloured suit enlivened by open brown checks and underlaid by the inevitable black roll-neck skivvy, to a thoroughly lurid black and scarlet dressing-gown – the latter his outfit of choice when prowling outside his recalcitrant bride’s bedroom. (If I were Gutierre, I wouldn’t let him in either! Speaking of Don Pedro, he’s responsible for my very favourite moment in the whole film when, having discovered Olsen’s plans for extricating both Ichthyander and Gutierre from their respective predicaments, he bellows hysterically, "He’s running away to Australia with MY WIFE!!" – the geographical destination of the eloping couple being, apparently, the very last straw.) Another of the film’s virtues is its score by Andrei Petrov, who is now in the fifth decade of his cinematic career. But this being a science fiction film of the sixties, Amphibian Man doesn’t just have a score – it has songs. The first, by a guitar-strumming street singer, is an extremely strange and depressing little number all about how everyone would be better off dead, and fisherman are the luckiest people in the world because there’s a good chance they’ll be drowned at any moment. And the second--- Ah, my friends, the second! In a jaw-dropping sequence, while Ichthyander wanders the streets of the city at night, the viewer given a privileged look inside a nightclub, where a smouldering torch-singer extols the masculine charms of – the Sea-Devil! What was it, I wonder, about the fantasy films of the sixties, that compelled their makers to include such a fabulous selection of theme songs!? "Song Of The Sea-Devil" may not displace "GREE-EE-EEN SLI-II-II-IIME" (from the film of the same name) from the top of my personal hit parade, but it does join "Tivoli Nights" from Reptilicus, "The Words Get Stuck In My Throat" from War Of The Gargantuas and the theme from Journey To The Seventh Planet in my top five. And just because I like you all so much – you’ll find the lyrics to "Song Of The Sea-Devil" in Immortal Dialogue….