AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
Strikes Back /
The Reel World /
It's A Disaster! /
Etc., Etc., Etc.... /
Dialogue / Links
CHELOVEK-AMFIBIYA (AMPHIBIAN MAN) (1962)
"I will lead the poor to a land of abundance, where no-one will oppress
"Where? Heaven? The moon?"
"No. To the ocean...."
Director: Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Zazansky
Starring: Vladimir Korenev, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Mikhail Kozakov, Vladlen Davydov, Georgi Tusuzov, Nikolai Simonov
Screenplay: Aleksai Kapler, based upon the novel by Aleksandr Belyayev
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, Gutiere (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 Gutiere’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 Gutiere, the “Sea-Devil” has also seen the shark. He draws a knife and swims to the rescue, just as Gutiere 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 Gutiere 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 Gutiere 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 Salvetore (Nikolai Simonov), questioning him about the Sea-Devil, which Salvetore 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 Salvetore discuss the state of society. The scientist reveals to Olsen his own scheme for saving mankind, taking him to his laboratory where at one end a huge glass wall holds back the sea. Salvetore calls into a speaker, and the “Sea-Devil” appears. It takes off its strange headgear, revealing itself as an ordinary young man. Salvetore 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, Salvetore reveals his plan for “an underwater republic”. That night, Salvetore 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 Salvetore 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 and lose his ability to live on the land. However, unable to stop thinking about Gutiere, 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 Salvetore’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, Salvetore 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….
Which, to this viewer’s infinite amusement, is pretty much how the discussion of this, uh, revolutionary scheme goes in Amphibian Man, too - if not in those precise words, certainly in intent. 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.
(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, Salvetore would have ended up agreeing with Olsen, although not in a good way. Even by the standards of movie scientists, Salvetore 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 Salvetore 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. We find that Salvetore does have some reason for his anti-social behaviour: early in his career, his laboratory was raided and burned, and he himself shot at; clearly, this incident has since poisoned his attitude towards humanity in general, for whom he toils out of a kind of theoretical obligation, but with no love in his heart. Questioned by Olsen, Salvetore 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 with the passing years, all lived in self-absorbed isolation, Salvetore, 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.
During his conversation with Olsen, as he begins to reveal his extraordinary plan for rescuing those in need, Salvetore expresses the conviction that “the unfortunate” should be helped, but that it is not politicians or newspapermen who have the power to do it, only scientists - and more specifically, himself. “I will lead the poor to a land of abundance,” he announces. Clearly, such arrogance and egocentricity can only end in disaster; and sadly, inevitably, it is not Salvetore himself upon whom these sins are visited, but poor Ichthyander.
Salvetore’s transgressions against his son are many and varied. We can, perhaps, forgive the experimental surgery, given Ichthyander’s terminal illness; but having saved the boy’s life, Salvetore proceeds to take it away from him in another sense: by convincing him he is a freak. There seems no cogent reason why Ichthyander should be kept such a desperate secret. Beyond the nine days’ wonder that would certainly result from the news of Salvetore’s incredible surgical breakthrough, the outcome would surely be of interest only to the medical world, and to other families with members suffering the same condition as Ichthyander - those whom Salvetore has loftily told us it is his duty to serve. After the initial reaction to the news, there would surely have been a reasonable opportunity for Ichthyander to live something resembling a normal life.
But this isn’t what Salvetore wants for himself. so it isn’t what Ichythyander gets. The boy becomes a victim of his father’s egotism and misanthropy. He is kept in isolation from the world at large and taught to be ashamed of himself; and while he loves the beautiful underwater world that is his home half of the time, Ichythyander is desperately lonely. Salvetore, content with his own company, gives no thought to his son’s needs, denying him human contact and berating him angrily for “being too conspicuous” when tales of the Sea-Devil begin to make their way into the newspapers.
Mind you, Ichthyander would be a lot less conspicuous if his father hadn’t provided him with a most remarkable wardrobe: a body-suit of silver sequins accessorised with silver flippers, fake fins, a pointy head-piece, and large bug-like goggles. All in all, Ichthyander looks remarkably like a camp version of the creature in War Gods Of The Deep. No explanation for this extraordinary attire is ever forthcoming. Meanwhile, even on land Ichythyander’s choice of attire has its talking points: he goes through the entire film either with his collar turned up, or sporting one of a huge collection of snazzy cravats; the upshot of these sartorial choices being that we never do get a look at the results of Salvetore’s surgical handiwork....
(And just to wrap up the subject of Salvetore’s sins against his son--- I wonder at what point in his life the boy acquired his distinctly piscine moniker?)
Salvetore is due for a harsh lesson, and he gets it. In his contempt for human nature, the scientist has overlooked the truth of that old line about not being able to fight it. Already chafing at the restrictions of his life, above all his enforced isolation, Ichthyander’s rescue of Gutiere 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 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.
In the very best fairytale tradition, Ichthyander no sooner lays eyes on Gutiere 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, leaving his underwater home and venturing into the depths of a frightening foreign land: The City.
As he searches, in his innocence expecting every woman he meets to be Gutiere, 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 and failing bar, talking to Olsen – who is, by the bye, also in love with her.
We've been following Olsen's story in subplot. He's the lead - perhaps the only - reporter for a small liberal publication which is constantly getting itself sued for criticising the wrong people, and struggling to find the funds to stay afloat. As we, with Ichthyander, now overhear, it’s been closed down again, and Olsen is out of work. (He did try, during his conversation with Salvatore, to borrow the necessary money, but was refused on the grounds that, as a matter of principle, Salvetore does not concern himself with politics.)
Here we observe an intriguing manoeuvre on the part of Gutiere. Although her attitude to Olsen simply screams just good friends, she is obviously fond of him, and in sympathy with his cause. Beyond that, however, as her father’s selfishness drags her ever closer to a mercenary marriage with Don Pedro, Gutiere is - like Ichthyander - on the verge of rebellion. She finds the means here, promising Olsen the loan of her one possession of value, her pearl necklace, so that he may pawn it and re-open his paper, and redeem the loan when he can. We learn in passing that this necklace is all Gutiere has by way of a dowry; and although Don Pedro would certainly be indifferent to its monetary value, the significance of Gutiere handing it to another man is unmistakable.
Olsen is desperate enough on behalf of his paper to accept Gutiere’s offer, and they agree to meet later on at “the Black Rock”, by which time Gutiere will have found an opportunity to raid her father’s safe. Ichthyander, still watching and listening, waits until Olsen has gone and then follows Gutiere into the bar, where she works. Without loss of time, Ichthyander declares his love. Half-charmed, half-frightened by this ardent stranger, Gutiere tries to deflect his declaration by turning it off as a joke. “So it’s love at first sight?” she replies laughingly. “Is there any other kind of love?” responds Ichthyander, and bam!! – Gutiere’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, Ichthyander’s ain’t a bad effort.)
Unfortunately, Don Pedro chooses this of all moments to enter the scene, and understandably doesn’t care for what he sees. He instantly displays an ugly proprietary attitude towards Gutiere, and when Ichthyander intervenes - “She doesn't want to go with you - can’t you see?” he objects, to Don Pedro’s infinite rage - the result is a violent clash, with Don Pedro calling in the law. A desperate chase across roof-tops and through the narrow streets ensues. Ichthyander evades this initial pursuit, courtesy of a convenient street-cleaning truck, but the damage has been done – on all counts.
The next day, Gutiere heads out to keep her appointment with Olsen. The Black Rock turns out to be a rocky promontory over the sea, where the local workers gather in their best clothes to play music and dance; Gutiere is obviously a regular there, and the young men clamour for her company. Ichthyander then appears from nowhere, and Gutiere expresses her relief at his evasion of Don Pedro and his goons, before leading him out dance. Ichthyander is hesitant and awkward (and how nice to see a film that doesn’t think dancing is instinctive, even if you are in love!), but Gutiere has confidence enough for both, circling him expertly in a way that leaves very little to be said in words.
Something like disaster follows, however, when one of Ichthyander’s competitors knocks Gutiere's purse - containing the pearl necklace - off the rocky shelf on which she is sitting and into the sea below. Instantly, Ichythyander dives in after it - which sets off a chain-reaction of machismo, as all the young men present follow his lead, each hoping to be the one to find the prize. One by one they dive, and one by one they are driven back to the surface, out of breath - all but Ichthyander, the first to submerge. Gutiere looks on in growing fear....until suddenly, Ichthyander reappears, the purse in one hand and a bouquet of soft coral in the other, to the cheers of the crowd.
Gutiere rushes down to the beach below to meet him, thanking him and finally thinking to ask who he is? Ichthyander hesitates for a moment, then replies, “I musn’t say - I’m sorry.” There is a cry from the rocks above. It is Olsen. Gutiere invites Ichthyander to be introduced - not knowing they already have been, of course - but he shrinks back.
“He’s in love with you - it’s obvious from the way he looks at you,” says Ichthyander who, for all his naivety about the world in general, is rather good at reading people. He disappears around the next point on the beach and, stopping only to rescue a stranded fish, slides back into the water....
That night, the solitary Ichthyander indulges a fantasy of Gutiere living and frolicking with him under the sea, under the sea. This is one of the film’s most beautifully shot and romantic sequences - again, think The Creature From The Black Lagoon, if Julie Adams had been a willing participant in the underwater pas de deux. But it is only a fantasy....
And so the next day, the driven boy again ventures onto land, to meet with Gutiere in her world. This time, however, is once too often to the well: the insanely jealous Don Pedro is on the watch, using the “disappearance” of Gutiere’s necklace as an excuse to bring the full force of the law down upon Ichthyander. As Gutiere struggles with Don Pedro and protests Ichthyander’s innovence, the accused stares down in bewilderment at the handcuffs binding his wrists before breaking from his captors and hurling himself into the sea - and this time he does not come up....
This seeming tragedy is too much for Gutiere, who gives up her struggle for freedom. Like an automaton, she goes through with wedding. The ceremony over, Don Pedro - who has put up with quite a lot from his potential in-laws to this point - writes Balthazar a big, fat cheque intended partly to cover his debts, and partly to fund the rest of their so-far abortive efforts to capture “the Sea-Devil”. He then tells him bluntly to stay the hell away in future; and as the distraught Olsen looks on helplessly, Don Pedro carries his near-catatonic bride off to their luxurious villa.
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 Gutiere 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. Confronted by the reality of her situation, Gutiere snaps out of her funk, literally barricading herself into her bedroom by 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! (Her sleeping arrangements would suggest housekeeper; the relish with which she casts aspersions upon Don Pedro’s manhood, or the lack thereof, suggests mother.)
And having forced his daughter into a loveless marriage in order to clear his debts, Balthazar proceeds to use his new wealth not to do so - but to get blind, stinking drunk and more in debt than ever. Several nights after the wedding he comes staggering into the villa, announcing that he’s blown all the money Don Pedro gave him on booze, and adding insult to injury by accusing his new son-in-law of keeping Gutiere locked up. And if we needed any more proof that Don Pedro loves Gutiere, we have it in the fact that he’s willing to put up with having this appalling individual 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, having seen the news of the wedding in the newspaper, has tracked the new bride down, and that he and Gutiere have been playing Romeo and Juliet at her bedroom window. Ichthyander here explains himself to Gutiere, who belatedly learns to her dismay that it was he who saved her life, and not Don Pedro. “If only you had said so! Oh, what have you done?”
Inevitably, it is Don Pedro’s evil genius who makes the discovery of the secret meeting. “Her door may be closed to you, but her window is open to another man!” she reports to Don Pedro. He and his spy sneak up on the young couple and listen to their conversation - and the penny drops. This is the Sea-Devil!
Understandably, Don Pedro’s thoughts then turn to revenge – and it is quite in character that 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. Once again, Ichthyander finds himself a captive, chained about the waist and forced to dive for pearls - his ability to breathe underwater making the harvest simple and rapid.
At this point, Amphibian Man’s science fiction / fantasy elements kick in again, as Olsen and Salvetore come charging to the rescue in the latter’s private submarine. At their approach, Don Pedro has Ichthyander chained to his boats anchor and tossed overboard in an effort to conceal him, but when Salvetore climbs onboard, Gutiere - locked up below decks, but still defiant - shouts out his whereabouts. It is Olsen who brings about Ichthyander’s release, however, staging an elaborate bluff involving the submarine’s “cannon”. (It’s actually just a small harpoon, but Don Pedro doesn't know that.) Ichthyander is rescued and taken away, but Salvetore ignores his son’s desperate pleas for Gutiere, refusing to interfere between husband and wife.
But if anyone thinks they've heard the last of Don Pedro, they’re very much mistaken. He may be a wash-out as a husband, but he’s still the wealthiest man in town, with the law in his back pocket. As Salvetore, Olsen and Ichthyander de-brief after the rescue, the police arrive with warrants. Olsen briefly masquerades as Ichthyander, giving the boy a chance to make his escape via his underwater passage....but at long last, Don Pedro and Balthazar manage to spring their trap.
(We learn at this point 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, indirectly, for The Man From Atlantis.)
Both Salvatore and Ichthyander end up in jail, the latter being locked in a tank of fetid water. But all is not yet lost. One of the “masses” whom Dr Salvetore has so relentlessly spurned comes unexpectedly to the rescue: a prison guard, whose son’s life was saved by Salvetore’s medical skill. Tellingly, while the guard remembers Salvetore well enough, the great humanitarian hasn’t the faintest idea who he is.
Chastened by his recent experiences, Salvetore begs the guard to save Ichythyander. To his horror, Salvatore learns too late of Ichthyander’s watery prison, which has not merely deprived him of the time on land necessary for his wellbeing, but poses a threat to 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 Gutiere forever....
Amphibian Man may be a love story, a fantasy and a science fiction film, but it would scarcely be a Soviet film of 1962 if there weren’t a healthy serving of politics mixed in with the romance – although it never, thankfully, overwhelms 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 Gutiere. Not that he has the capacity to appreciate her feelings upon the subject; and nor does he understand why, having offered the incarcerated Dr Salvetore 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 has caused the other is hard to say.
And while the film champions Dr Salvetore 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. Salvetore’s own attitude, at least until he is finally taught better by the prison guard who is willing to risk his own freedom to help his child’s benefactor, is very much a version of, I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand. By placing himself so far above those 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 foolish individual 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 Gutiere. 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, however regretfully, it also dismisses it as hopelessly naïve 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 Salvetore, but he puts his theories into practice in an infinitely more realistic way. Olsen’s love of man is mixed with the necessary tolerance of man’s shortcomings. He fights the battles within his power, both in his newspaper and personally, without trying to force his beliefs on anyone else. 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 in quest of better general conditions, 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 (although the film was actually shot in Cuba, I believe; makes sense, when you think about it), 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 beautiful and peaceful that the viewer can almost sympathise with the mad schemes of Dr Salvetore. One of the most startlingly lovely images in the film is that of the unconscious Gutiere lying on the bottom of the bay like a latter-day Ophelia, her hair tangled in the soft seaweed surrounding her and moving with it on the tide.
(Both Vladimir Korenev and Anastasiya Vertinskaya are Very Pretty People Indeed; and much is made of their matching dark-reddish hair and vivid blue eyes.)
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 Gutiere. 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.
The film’s production design is also a treat, particularly in Dr Salvetore’s “futuristic” house and laboratory. I’m particularly enamoured of the bathysphere-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 Gutiere, I wouldn’t let him in either!)
The film’s score, by Andrei Petrov, should also be mentioned. However, 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! While Ichthyander wanders the streets of the city, the viewer is given a privileged look inside a certain nightclub, where a smouldering torch-singer extols the masculine charms of – the Sea-Devil! (You’ll find the lyrics right where they belong, in Immortal Dialogue.)
All in all, Amphibian Man is a rich and rewarding experience, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny, often surprisingly moving. It requires suspension of disbelief, of course, but if you can't deal with shark-gill transplants and/or deathless love at first sight, you shouldnt be visiting this website. And really, I’d be worried about someone who said they couldn’t find anything to enjoy or be intrigued by in this story. Love, hate, dancing, swimming, corruption, self-sacrifice, politics, mad science--- This is, truly, a film with something for everyone.
Want a second opinion of Amphibian Man? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours - And Counting.
Footnote: Alas, alas, the vagaries of subtitling! The first time I saw Amphibian Man it was courtesy of SBS, back in the good old days when they showed movies like this as a matter of course, the print bearing home-grown subtitles. These days I have the official DVD release from our good friends at the Russian Cinema Council, and there are certain discrepancies between the two versions: discrepancies than mean I’ve lost my most cherished moment in the film, which comes when, having discovered Olsen’s plans for extricating Ichthyander and Gutiere from their respective predicaments, Don Pedro reacts by fuming, “He’s running away to AUSTRALIA with my wife!!” – the geographical destination of the eloping couple being, apparently, the very last straw.
And while I may just be hearing what I want to hear - and extremely limited as my Russian is - my feeling about Don Pedro’s outburst is that the subtitlers were closer to the mark the first time. We still do rate a mention in this version, but it’s just not the same....
|To which the correct response is, "Well, duh."|
|----revised and re-formatted 18/07/2011|