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THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

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"Date: the seventeenth of the month. Sky: cloudy, overcast. Visibility: limited. Time: thirteen thirty-two hours. A significant moment in history. The moment when an electronics engineer named Mitchell MacAfee saw something in the sky. Something that was almost the beginning of the end of life on this Earth...."
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Director: Fred F. Sears

Starring: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Robert Shayne, Louis Merrill, Edgar Barrier, Clark Howat, Ruell Shayne

Screenplay: Paul Gangelin and Samuel Newman

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Synopsis: During a flight to test out a new radar installation, electronics engineer Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) sees a UFO, which he reports to his colleagues, radar officer Major Bergen (Clark Howat) and mathematician Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday). In response, Bergen orders a squadron of interceptors into the air. When Mitch lands, Bergen chews him out for starting a false alarm, telling him that one of the planes sent out did not come back. While sorry for the loss, Mitch reiterates his claim, but is taken aback when Bergen tells him that nothing showed up on the radar. Bergen gets a phone-call: a commercial plane is also missing. Mitch and Sally board an air force plane to be flown back to New York. Mid-flight, the pilot, Pete (Ruell Shayne) sees a strange object in the sky. Reluctantly, he reports it, then calls Mitch into the cabin. The two men see nothing further, but something strikes the plane with tremendous force. Pete hits his head and is knocked unconscious. Mitch is forced to take the controls, and succeeds in making a crash landing. Mitch and Sally drag Pete from the plane as it catches fire. Once clear, they find that Pete has died from his injuries. A French-Canadian called Pierre Broussard (Louis Merrill) finds them and takes them back to his farm, where he reports the crash and calls for help. A policeman and two ambulance officers arrive; the latter take Pete’s body away. The policeman tells Mitch and Sally that seats on a commercial flight have been arranged for them. Mitch gets a phone-call from General Buskirk (Robert Shayne), who tells him that there has been no radar detection of anything strange in the sky, and suggests that Mitch is imagining things. Mitch becomes angry, and Sally intervenes to calm him down. Pierre hears his animals becoming agitated about something and goes out to check on them. Soon, Mitch and Sally hear Pierre scream in terror. They drag him back inside, where he tells them he saw "La Cacanya", a legendary bird-like beast. The policeman returns to take Mitch and Sally to the airport. He explains Pierre’s terror by telling them that, according to the locals, to see "La Cacanya" means death. On the plane, Mitch and Sally flirt until a casual remark by Sally gives Mitch an idea. On a map, he marks the places where the UFO has been seen, then connects the marks with an outward spiral. Sally objects to his argument, pointing out that nothing could cover so much ground in so little time. From Washington, a team of investigators flies out to inspect the site of Mitch and Sally’s crash-landing. Before they reach the area, however, they encounter the UFO themselves. It is an enormous bird. The team members bail out as the bird attacks the plane, destroying it and killing the pilot, but to no avail. The bird circles back, snapping up each of the men as they attempt to parachute to Earth....

"We poor, benighted actors had our own idea of what the giant bird would look like – our concept was that this was something that resembled a streamlined hawk, possibly half a mile long, flying at such speeds that we could barely see it. That was the way we envisioned it. Well, the producer, Sam Katzman, decided for economy reasons not to spend the $10-$15,000 it would take to make a really good bird – he had it made in Mexico, probably for $19.28! I went to a sneak preview in Westwood Village, and when the monster appeared on the screen it was like a huge plucked turkey, flying with these incredible squawks! And the audience went into hysterics…."

Jeff Morrow*

For the most part, The Giant Claw is a run-of-the-mill little film, indistinguishable from most of its low-budget contemporaries. It has all the usual features: the Earth threatened with destruction, an initially antagonistic couple who fall in love, a fair mix of scientists and the military, pages of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook posing as dialogue, stock footage and stock music in about equal quantities, and footage lifted from other, usually better, movies. For the first twenty-five minutes of the movie, a casual viewer might be lulled into suspecting that The Giant Claw is nothing more than a time-waster, no sooner watched than forgotten. But then we hit the twenty-sixth minute, and then - ah, my brethren, then--- It is then that we realise that The Giant Claw has something that lifts it out of the realm of the merely mediocre and into the rarefied atmosphere of the truly, unforgettably awful: its monster may well be, without exception the silliest monster in all fifties science-fiction, and a sure finalist in any all-time-silliest list. Now, I realise that’s a big statement. This was, after all, the decade that gave the world Ro-Man the robotic gorilla in Robot Monster, Gor the Evil Alien Brain in The Brain From Planet Arous and Tabonga the Walking Killer Tree in From Hell It Came, among others. Still, I stand by my words. I defy you to show this creature to anyone and not elicit from him or her an instant guffaw of incredulous laughter. Picture if you can (or if you can’t, scroll to the bottom of the page) a scrawny, tatty bird puppet with a neck like a vulture’s (or at least, a Muppet vulture’s); a tuft of hair on the top of its head; oversized eyes that roll from side to side; and a beak equipped not just with actual nostrils (they flare! Really!), but with teeth. Further conjure up a pair of stiff, immobile wings and feathers that look like they were reclaimed from a duster of the same name. Add in one of the most annoying monster cries in all filmdom, and you’ll have a good idea of the creature that is supposed to be threatening "life on this Earth" and driving the various characters into fits of terror. And when you’ve finished with that particular mental exercise, spare a thought for poor Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday, emoting away for all they’re worth – and finding out too late that they’ve been terrified of that. But first things first.

The Giant Claw opens with what is considered around here to be one of the sure signs of a crap film: stock footage, and plenty of it. We do cut away from this briefly, to meet our main characters: Mitch MacAfee, electronics engineer, and Sally Caldwell, mathematician and systems analyst. Mitch is doing test flights to calibrate a new Air Force radar installation. Left unanswered are two obvious questions: why a civilian is doing test flights for the Air Force; and why the civilian in question is an electronics engineer rather than, say, a pilot. Mitch and Sally are sniping at each other in that way that’s meant to indicate they’re falling in lurv – although why two people fighting constantly is meant to suggest a life-long passion has always rather puzzled me. Perhaps it puzzled the screenwriters too, as they add in a much more believable basis for a long-term relationship by having Mitch invite Sally to spank him. But that’s enough live action! Our story was introduced by a narrator. We’ve heard a lot from him already, and we’re about to hear a whole lot more. This narration, by the way, is delivered in staccato bursts that, along with the extensive use of stock footage, is meant to give a documentary-like verisimilitude to the proceedings. Unfortunately, what it actually suggests is that, al la The Creeping Terror, the film crew lost the soundtrack and had to improvise. This impression is strengthened by having the narrator tell us what the characters are doing in the actual footage. We don’t hear Mitch reporting his encounter with the UFO, or Bergen objecting that nothing showed up on the radar, or Mitch telling Bergen he doesn’t care. Instead, we get a second-hand account of what we can see perfectly well for ourselves. The most significant moment in this sequence is when the narrator tells us that what Mitch saw was [*drumroll*] "as big as a battleship". I sure hope you like that phrase, because in the course of The Giant Claw you get to hear it a lot. Writers Paul Gangelin and Samuel Newman obviously realised that they needed a simile as big as....well, as big as a battleship to convey the sheer awesomeness of The Bird. Unfortunately, the pair of them were so enamoured of the first one they came up with that they didn’t bother thinking of any others.

Their jobs done, Mitch and Sally are flown from the Air Force base. As the two compare professional notes in the body of the plane, Pete the pilot sees a UFO, just like Mitch did – which, given the kind of movie we’re in, should be indication enough that Pete is Not Long For This World. Pete calls Mitch into the cockpit. They don’t see anything more, but something collides with the plane. Pete is knocked out, and Mitch has to leap into the pilot’s seat. We then see exactly why the Air Force would prefer a civilian electronics engineer to any of their own men: Mitch is truly a fly-boy extraordinaire. An outside shot of the plane shows it plummeting to ground in a direct vertical line. The next instant it’s nearly on the horizontal. And if that isn’t enough, this out-of-control vessel not only slows down as it approaches its crash landing, it backs up a bit as well. The landing is, therefore, gentler than anticipated, but still makes the plane catch fire. Mitch and Sally drag Pete out and away just as it blows up. (This is an incredible moment. Real flaming debris lands only inches from Morrow, Corday and Ruell Shayne in this scene. There is a very abrupt cut here, and I’m not surprised. My guess is that filming was interrupted while the three actors kicked the tar out of whichever idiot was responsible for that brilliant piece of "special effects" work.) Sadly, it transpires that Mitch and Sally’s heroism was in vain, as Pete (having seen The Bird) has naturally snuffed it.

The general silliness quotient of The Giant Claw is then kicked up a notch or two with the arrival on the scene of a French Canadian farmer named – aw, go on, take a stab at it! – "Pierre". Sporting an accent straight out of Monty Python And The Holy Grail (he doesn’t quite say, "’Ello? Ooo iz eet?" when he sees Our Heroes, but almost….), Pierre takes the pair back to his farm, where he calls for help and fills them full of his home-brewed "applejack". Mitch and Sally then renew their vaguely antagonistic flirting - apparently, there’s nothing like having the dead body of a friend nearby to put you in a romantic mood - until Mitch gets a call from General Buskirk (I was most disappointed, when checking the IMDb, to learn that his name was spelled B-U-S - it’s certainly pronounced B-U-Z-Z), and is chewed out yet again for starting a false alarm. As the storm outside intensifies, the farm animals begin to kick up a ruckus. Pierre goes outside to check on them (unwisely leaving Mitch and Sally with the applejack - boy, have those two got hollow legs or what!?), and a moment later screams in terror. The other two drag him inside, and he collapses in a chair, whimpering about "La Cacanya" [sp.?], a legendary beast with "the face of the wolf and the body of the woman – with wings, bigger than I can tell!" (Pierre’s delivery in this scene calls to mind the old Woody Allen routine about the Great Roe, "a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head of a lion - although not the same lion....") The policeman returns to take Mitch and Sally to the airport, where a commercial flight is being held for them. Sally is reluctant to leave Pierre, whose state of mind is not helped one little bit by having the policeman helpfully remind him that to see "La Cacanya" means you’re going to die. This piece of community service accomplished, the cop ushers the other two from the farm. As they drive away, we see what they do not: a huge, claw-shaped footprint scored into the land; a shot that might have been more impressive were it not so clearly a drawing on a photograph.

On the plane, Mitch sizes up a dozing Sally, then plants a kiss on her. This being the fifties and all, she is naturally delighted by this uninvited caress. However, she pretends otherwise and starts playing hard to get - this being the fifties and all. Mitch and Sally then indulge in one of the most excruciatingly awful sets of dialogue it’s ever been my misfortune to sit through; so bad I couldn’t even bring myself to transcribe it for "Immortal Dialogue". Briefly, it’s a flirtation peppered with baseball references - kind of a Z-grade version of the "horse-racing" exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep - and its entire purpose seems to be to get Sally to say "follow the pattern". This clunky phrase sets off alarms in Mitch’s head, and grabbing a map, he marks on it all the places where the UFO has been sighted. "Don’t you see?" he demands. When Sally, reasonably, says no, he traces a spiral through the marks. "See - a perfect pattern!" he announces, conveniently ignoring the fact that you could draw a spiral through any such marks. Sally objects, not on this ground, but because nothing could travel fast enough to cover that amount of territory. The two then engage in a verbal altercation until the unfortunate passenger behind them asks them could they please shut up. This is a remarkable moment for two reasons: (i) it expresses the audience’s sentiments exactly; and (ii) it is one of the very few occasions I’ve ever seen in a film where someone reacts to the behaviour of the main characters in this sort of situation (the convention being that no-one else in the same plane/train/bus will be talking, and no-one will overhear what the main characters say). Suitably abashed, Mitch and Sally do shut up. Mitch tries kissing Sally again and since her earlier protest was sufficient to establish that she isn’t "that kind of girl", she lets him.

Back in the real world, more UFO sightings occur. Both the stock footage and the narrator make a reappearance as a team of investigators set out to inspect the site of Mitch and Sally’s crash-landing. However, they never get that far. That’s right, folks! - it’s the twenty-sixth minute of The Giant Claw and finally, we get to see The Bird! Not just in fuzzy long shots, but in beautiful, clear, detailed close-ups! HEEHEEHEEHEEHEEHEE!!!!!! Strangely, the people on the plane react to The Bird’s presence not by bursting into howls of derogatory laughter (hmm - I guess that sound’s coming from the audience....) but by screaming with terror and parachuting from the plane. The Bird disposes of the plane, which explodes, then circles back to snap up the parachuting investigators, one by one (complete with foleyed-in crunch noises). This tragedy leads to Mitch and Sally being summoned to General Buskirk’s office, where Mitch demonstrates his pretty spirals, and Sally’s own alarms go off when someone mentions "cameras". She tells the others that she was recently involved in "Earth curvature calibration work", which involved sending up cameras in observation balloons. "If those balloons are still up!" she breathes. Ah, right - so, "Earth curvature calibration work" involves sending up cameras you never retrieve? Whatever. In any case, the cameras are brought to New York and the films examined. Most of the pictures show nothing but empty sky (how exactly they’re supposed to help calibrate the Earth’s curvature is left undisclosed), which is not surprising. The odds against The Bird flying directly into the path of one of the cameras, and at a speed at which a clear picture is possible, are obviously incalculable. But, whaddya know? - turns out The Bird belongs to that puzzlingly large percentage of the Earth’s inhabitants who cannot see a camera without gawping directly into the lens. A series of shots shows The Bird flying ever closer to the camera; the final one is a full-face close-up. Yet again, derogatory laughter is strangely lacking. Au contraire, Sally gasps and cringes in terror. (Poor Mara!) General Buskirk packs up the photos and Our Heroes and heads for Washington to confer with General Considine (played by B-movie stalwart Morris Ankrum – and I still say he owned his own uniform!), and to initiate a half-hearted game of "good general, bad general" that recurs through the rest of the film.

General Considine sends a squadron of fighter planes up to blast The Bird out of the sky, switching on a radio so that he and the others can hear the "triumph". For the first time, people seem to react to The Bird in an appropriate manner, as the pilots indulge in much jocularity at its expense. But unfortunately for them, all their firepower turns out to be useless. Here The Bird displays another of its remarkable powers: the ability to turn a plane from one model of aircraft to a completely different one just by grabbing it! One by one, the pilots go the way of the crew of investigators; tragically, even turning into plastic toy soldiers can’t save them. General Considine turns out to be a really sore loser: he reaches over and flips off the radio, cutting off the final pilot in mid-scream. The resultant gloom is eventually lifted by a phone-call from Dr Karol Noymann of "The Research Lab" (gosh! - they don’t mean the world-famous Washington D.C. "The" Research Lab, do they!?). The others join Noymann at "The Lab" and he lectures them on atoms and anti-matter. This speech goes on for some time and, while not without a certain humour – mostly courtesy of Edgar Barrier’s delivery – it never reaches the heights of the "solaranite" speech in Plan 9 From Outer Space, which it somewhat resembles. Anyhoo, the upshot of this lecture is that Noymann has discovered that The Bird is not itself anti-matter, but it has the ability to create an anti-matter force-field around itself, which it can lower when it wants to use its beak or claws. The bullets and rockets did not fail to injure The Bird: they never got that far, but collided with the anti-matter screen and were destroyed. (Just how a "matter" Bird could create an "anti-matter" shield without itself being destroyed is never so much as touched upon.) Noymann further stuns his listeners by showing them a feather – "At least, we call it a feather" - recovered from the wreckage of one of the planes, and announcing that it is composed of "no element known to man. Finding that out was very expensive," he continues solemnly. "We even used electronic analysers…." At which the camera pans around to reveal that the feather [sic.] seems to possess the strange ability to dismantle an electronic analyser and leave its parts laid out with a reasonable degree of neatness along a bench. Building to a big finish, Noymann declares that, "That Bird is extra-terrestrial – no other explanation is possible!"

Well, it’s been fun and all, but now it’s time for some more stock footage and narration. The Bird, we learn, has "revealed itself to the world", plunging humanity into a state of complete terror. To convey this, we get shots of various people (most of them clad in swimming costumes) gazing up into the sky with puzzled expressions, while a vaguely bird-shaped blur flies overhead. An old biddy in London does finally give a real scream; while mass panic is conveyed through a generous helping of clips from other films (I recognised Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Earth Vs The Flying Saucers; I’m sure there are others). Meanwhile, Sally drops in on Mitch, who’s so engrossed in paperwork he doesn’t even remember to kiss her until she reminds him. Hmm - that first flush of passion didn’t last long, did it? But we’ll have to excuse Our Hero, as he is naturally working on a device that despite being a "cockeyed concept" will undoubtedly end up saving the world. Not about to be left out of things, Sally announces her own theory: that the reason The Bird came to Earth was to lay an egg. "It’s the only thing that makes sense!" (Um – yeah. If flying "millions and millions of light years" from an anti-matter galaxy to a matter one in order to reproduce "makes sense". And I thought the panda was badly designed!) Sally further contends that the nest is near Pierre Broussard’s farm, and that his sighting of "La Cacanya" was The Bird on the ground. Mitch is so impressed with this reasoning that he calls General Buskirk and demands "a fast plane and a helicopter", impatiently insisting that the General ask no questions – such as "What makes you think you can give orders to a General?" At that moment, General Considine comes on the radio, announcing that martial law has been declared. As he speaks, The Bird itself just happens on by the windows of Mitch’s apartment. Cut to Mitch, Sally and Pierre up in a helicopter (that’s right – Mitch can fly helicopters too!) near the farm, and wouldn’t you know it, The Bird’s there too! Let’s think about this, shall we? For the most part, The Giant Claw is simply following the lead of earlier monster movies, most obviously The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, in having the first person to see the monster go on seeing it, and even being immune to attack. (Mitch’s willingness to climb into plane after plane, despite everyone else in the air meeting a gruesome end – hell, you wouldn’t get me up there for a million bucks! – seems to indicate that he watches a lot of movies….) The Giant Claw, however, stretches this convention to a ridiculous degree. Everywhere Mitch goes, there The Bird is too. It is astonishing that no-one ever suggests that he is somehow responsible for it. After all, Tippi Hedren nearly got herself stoned to death for not even half as much personal involvement. But I digress….

The helicopter carrying our intrepid band is buzzed by The Bird. (During this sequence, Jeff Morrow distinctly calls Louis Merrill "Pepe", not "Pierre" – apparently mistaking one overdrawn cinematic stereotype for another.) They manage to land and climb a hillside, where they do indeed see a nest. The Bird then lands upon it and rearranges part of it, revealing an enormous egg. Mitch grabs a gun and the not-so-intrepid Pierre, terrified that the sound of shots will draw The Bird to them, bolts. (Why was he with them in the first place?) Sally snatches up Pierre’s gun, and she and Mitch each put a bullet through the egg. Sadly, it occurs to neither of them that since The Bird is sitting on its nest, it must have its force-field down, and thus a few well-placed shots would probably do the trick. Of course, if it had occurred to them, the movie would have ended twenty minutes earlier. And we wouldn’t want that. Would we? The Bird is rightly distressed by the loss of its offspring, but vents its anger on Pierre as he hot-foots it down the nearest road. As his dying screams ring out, Sally reflects gravely that seeing "La Cacanya" did mean death for Pierre; while the audience reflects upon the strange tendency of science fiction films to vindicate folk legends. Deciding that flying’s too dangerous (why now, Mitch?), Mitch and Sally take Pierre’s car. As they drive along slowly, headlights off, they are harassed and overtaken by a group of teenagers piled into what can only be described as a jalopy. Mitch tries to warn them, but they laugh at him; one girl waves a salt-shaker, announcing they’re going "to put salt on the big Bird’s tail!" (Sign of the times: if this film had been made a year or two later, it would have been the kids saving the world, and the disbelieving adults behaving irresponsibly.) Another of the kids calls Mitch "Daddy-O" (I’m sure Richard Brooks was immensely flattered). Naturally, The Bird isn’t going to stand for any such behaviour. It swoops down and makes off with the car, depositing damaged teenagers all along the road. Sally picks up the salt-shaker and does a bit more grave reflection while Mitch starts cleaning up the mess.

Next it’s time for science again, as Mitch demonstrates his "cockeyed concept" for General Considine and Dr Noymann. There’s a lot of blather about "mu-mesons" and "mesic atoms" (okay, I guess I shouldn’t jeer - the screenwriters clearly did a little research here), the upshot of which is that if they can work out how to fire a stream of mesic atoms at the anti-matter shield, they will fuse with the anti-matter atoms and destroy them, rendering The Bird vulnerable. Considine is delighted, telling Mitch he can have anything he needs to build the device, and announcing, "They were yours before you asked for them!" They were, too, as it turns out, since all Mitch asks for is Sally and Noymann and a lab. Jeez, you’d think with the entire resources of "The" Research Lab at your disposal…. Well, never mind. Narration kicks back in as the heroic trio makes explosion after explosion but presumably no mesic atoms. Meanwhile, The Bird takes time out to carry off a train, which hilariously manages to hang together in mid-air like a string of sausages. (This, by the way, was one of the two specific scenes that qualified The Giant Claw for inclusion in this Roundtable.) Back at the lab, while Noymann and Sally rest, a tremendous explosion comes from the work area. Mitch ends up in hospital, but regains consciousness to announce success! As the team installs their "mesic atom projector" in a plane, word comes that The Bird is attacking New York (Qualifying Scene #2). Mitch has planned to take another "calculator" on board in place of Sally, but time runs out and he is forced to accept her as one of the crew. Sally, who, to her credit, has been pretty darn professional up to this point, finally gets to do something thoroughly girly, waltzing up with a big smile and an announcement of "Coffee and sandwiches!" Next thing we know, they’re all on board, so we never do get to find out whether she makes good coffee or not. By the way, who do you think’s flying the plane? No, it isn’t Mitch – superboy has to operate the mesic atom projector, after all. So, is it a Tom Cruise/Val Kilmer-esque hot-shot pilot? Wrong again. It’s our generals: Buskirk flying, Considine manning the guns. Boy – they don’t make generals like that any more!

We cut now to scenes of The Big Bird attacking The Big Apple: more stock footage, more pilfered movie scenes. We also discover that despite the imposition of martial law, the streets are full to overflowing. Guess you just can’t tell those Noo Yorkers anything, can you? (Actually, this is pretty much the same thought that crossed my mind while watching killer bats demolish most of the population of Gallup, Texas. So I guess you can’t tell Noo Yorkers or Texans anything [and she smirked, having got in a dig at least two of her fellow B-Masters].) Finally, The Bird lands on the top of the United Nations building and starts imposing a few sanctions of its own (again, it must have its shield down!). The plane arrives and starts buzzing the bird in a scene reminiscent of the ending of King Kong - at least, in that way that bad films have of reminding you of good films. At one point it looks as if they’ve inadvertently found a way of disposing of The Bird without using the mesic atom projector: as they fly around it, it swivels its head almost in a circle to follow them (its eyes boggling in their sockets most disturbingly all the while); if they’d kept flying in a circle, the damn silly thing probably would have strangled itself to death. But what kind of triumph of science would that have been? Instead, the plane lures The Bird into flight. Mitch fires the mesic atom projector, and we learn that streams of mesic atoms look amazingly like clouds of smoke. The Bird is engulfed in this cloud, and presumably its anti-matter shield is destroyed. Considine leaps into action, firing away at The Bird until, with one final squawk! it plummets into the river below. The last we see of it is a single giant claw (hey! - great name for a movie!) raised above the surface of the water. The mission is pronounced a success. Mitch and Sally embrace. Considine and Buskirk probably would too except they’re, you know, guys. So they just do a lot of shoulder-slapping instead. As for Noymann, he doesn’t do much of anything. But he’s probably gay anyway. His hat certainly is. The End.

Footnote: As you might anticipate, The Giant Claw inspired a really big entry over at "Immortal Dialogue". In fact, it’s as big as a battleship!

*quoted in Tom Weaver’s book, "They Fought In The Creature Features". Published by McFarland Press. ( http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/ )

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"HI, MUM!"

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"OKAY, AMERICA - INSPIRE ME!"