Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Entering the Water and Escaping...


“What was the Unspeakable Secret of the SEA OF LOST SHIPS?”
                                    *Poster for Creature from the Haunted Sea

It’s common knowledge that Houdini planned to reach out 
after death and contact this world of the living again. 
But did Bogart plan the same escape? And did he succeed, 
channeled into the part of a way-below B-movie actor in 
a film entitled Creature from the Haunted Sea?

“If it’s possible for anyone to get through after 
death, that person will be me.” This was the vow 
of showman/magician/ultraman Harry Houdini. 
Time after time, across the country, around the world, 
he defeated death by out-smarting it. Whether locking 
himself underwater in a safe, enduring The Water 
Torture Cell, or throwing himself bound in chains 
into an icy river, he came out alive again. 
Water was his favorite element to challenge, 
though he was known to hang tied upside-down 
in the air, or while staging another feat in California, 
he confessed, “I tried out ‘Buried Alive’ in Hollywood, 
and nearly did it. Very dangerous; the weight of the 
earth is killing.” (1) Then in 1919, he ventured into 
the early life of motion pictures, which he saw as 
realizing “the American ideal of speed and 
activity.” (2) 
His movie The Man from Beyond promised, “A man 
Entombed in a Massive Casket of Ice 100 Years 
Comes Back to Life. The Weirdest and Most 
Sensational Love Story Ever Screened” and 
featured his famous dethawing act from vaudeville. 
His experience conquering water even allowed him 
to share his Promethean knowledge, patenting a 
new and improved deep sea diving suit “arranged 
to permit the diver, in case of danger for any cause 
whatever, to quickly divest himself of the suit 
while being submerged and to safely escape 
and reach the surface of the water.” (3) 
But when he died in Detroit on the Halloween 
of 1926, contact was lost. “The ordinary people 
of Europe and America mourned the death of 
Houdini, but they knew of his promise to 
come back. It was said that in the manner 
of his return he would demonstrate immortality 
so vividly that no one would ever be able to 
disbelieve again and all the world would be 
converted.” (4) For ten years his wife Bess 
worked the air in séances (the very thing Houdini 
crusaded against, the spotlight of fraud mediums 
and phony spiritualists), reaching for the ten word 
code she would know him by, finding  nothing 
before she finally let him go. Where are you? 
What more could she do? This mystery of 
human existence seemed to baffle her. 
Winds blew, curtains fell, magic stopped, 
things were laid to rest.

            Is life after death possible, probable, 
more than the mystical, or the ravings of B-movies 
and pulp dreamers? Time. Reception reaches. 
Across the continent, over an ocean, up mountains 
to Tibet where life and death have been the hum of 
meditation for well over a thousand passing years. 
“In nature an embodiment of the ocean of buddhas/ 
With concentrated attention I call to you:/Send out 
waves of your compassionate energy.” (5) In 1933, 
after the 13th Dalai Lama wrote these verses, he 
passed away and the search was on to find him 
            Reincarnation is the path he follows. 
In the words of the Buddha of Compassion: 
“Both mind and body must have immediate 
sources…the immediate source of a body is 
that of its parents. But physical matter cannot 
produce mind, nor mind matter. The immediate 
source of a mind must, therefore, be a mind 
which existed before the conception took place; 
the mind must have a continuity from a previous 
mind. This we hold to prove the existence of 
a past life.” (6)
            So how could anyone discover, or 
rediscover this great man who returned to life? 
Lake Lhamo Lhatso held the answer. “The people 
of Tibet believe that visions of the future can be 
seen in the waters of this lake…Sometimes the 
visions are said to appear in the form of letters, 
and sometimes as pictures of places and future 
events.” (7) Houdini’s ten word code come to life. 
The blue sky on water revealed the clues and 
in 1937, after four years out of sight, the 14th 
Dalai Lama was found, a two year old boy 
under a turquoise roof, who knew who he was.

 “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”
                                    *John Keats’ tombstone

            In the meantime, America continued. 
Only 18, while Harry Houdini was making his 
first movies, Seaman Humphrey Bogart floated 
the ocean aboard the Leviathan. The U-Boats let 
him pass back and forth unsunk and after the war 
he drifted, closer to where he would become. 
Trying his hand at directing a film called Life 
was the opening door for him to act. Parts in 
plays and early pictures followed, then it happened: 
from the stage production of The Petrified Forest 
his gangster character was projected over theater 
screens in 1936. Going rough through the 
Depression into the next war years, reflecting 
the time-culture in the roles that made him bright, 
Bogart was created. “To his cynicism, his own 
code of ethics, his hatred of the phoniness in all 
human behavior, he now added the softening trait 
of tenderness and compassion and a feeling of 
heroic commitment to a cause.” (8)

            Like Houdini’s water shows, Bogart 
seemed to truly glow when he was filmed on 
the ocean. To Have and Have Not (1945), 
Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951) 
put Bogart on the waves and it’s real, he’s in 
control, steering the careening boat around 
danger. It’s that vision of him that is timeless. 
At his funeral services in 1957, a glass display 
case holding the model of his yacht The Santana 
took the place of a coffin and the whistle from 
To Have and Have Not was interred with his 
ashes. Director John Huston decided, “He is 
quite unreplaceable. There will never be anybody 
like him.” Sealing Bogart’s memorial was 
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing the Bar,’ 
tolling Time and sea: “But such a tide as moving 
seems asleep,/Too full for sound and foam,/
When that which drew from out the boundless 
deep/Turns again home.”
“Everything is wrong…strange…We can’t be 
sure of any direction. Even the ocean doesn’t 
look as it should.”

        *Flight Leader, Flight 19, gone in 1945.

            Roger Corman was born in 1926, 
the year Houdini died. After he served in the navy, 
he made his first film The Monster from the 
Ocean Floor in 1954. Fiendishly, he returned 
again and again to explore the power from water. 
There was The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues 
(1956): “SHEER HORROR as a living nightmare 
stalks the ocean floor!” “See! The battle for life 
at the bottom of the sea!” and Attack of the Crab 
Monsters (1957): “From the depths of the sea…
A TIDAL WAVE OF TERROR!” So it was only 
natural that he would be drawn to The Hoodoo Sea.

            “The Bermuda Triangle is a stretch of 
the Atlantic Ocean bordered by a line from Florida 
to the islands of Bermuda, to Puerto Rico and then 
back to Florida.” (9) However, disappearances of 
ships and aircraft have strayed well beyond this 
anomalous area, to include the Caribbean island 
Martinique, location of To Have and Have Not
One year after that film was shot, in the winter 
of 1945, the five Avengers of Flight 19, a 
Flight Leader and 13 other men, were lost off 
the Florida Keys. Bogart and Bacall would return 
to this very place in three years for the making 
of Key Largo.
            What brought Roger Corman to The 
Bermuda Triangle were the tax incentives. 
Arriving in Puerto Rico in 1961, he quickly 
directed The Last Woman on Earth and produced 
Battle of Blood Island. Then, with a week before 
the crew had to return to America, he decided, 
why not direct one more film?
            Whereas Bogart had script writers like 
Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, 
William Faulkner and Truman Capote, 
Roger Corman had Charles B. Griffith, a man 
who had set new standards in black-comedy 
with his screenplays Bucket of Blood (1954) 
and Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Corman 
remembered telephoning the States, “‘Chuck, 
I need another comedy-horror film and you’ve 
got a week to write it…There’s no time for 
rewrites. I’ve got a small cast so write for them’…
He was very sleepy and I wasn’t certain he 
understood completely the story line we 
discussed, but he agreed.” (10)
            The result, Corman confessed was 
“truly insane.” Inspired by the nearby revolution 
of Fidel Castro, Creature from the Haunted Sea 
“was a story about a band of Batista’s generals 
making off with a treasure chest of gold from 
Cuba. The man they hire to captain their boat 
is a mobster. He murders the generals and 
covers up the crimes by inventing a story 
about an undersea monster who devours people. 
But there is an undersea monster.” (11)

            Corman’s monster is none other than 
the $150 creation of soundman/actor Beach 
Dickerson who shares: “I decide to get five 
helmets and make this giant head. Then we 
get a wetsuit, some moss, lots of Brillo pads. 
Then we get tennis balls for the eyes. Ping-Pong 
balls for the pupils, and pipecleaners for the 
claws. Then we cover him with black oilcloth 
to make him look slimy. I mean, we decked 
him out and he was absolutely glorious. 
And I must say, that son of a bitch, he ran on 
land and swam underwater for the whole 
shoot and when it was all over he went to 
heaven.” (12)
            The monster is telling of the production 
itself, tossed together in a rush of crazed inspiration, 
allowing what’s around to influence. It is seeing 
the movie inside someone’s head…someone 
sleeping in the shade of the Bermuda Triangle. 
What a shock when into this dream assembly 
suddenly appears an Academy Award winning 
icon. Pulled through, after four years out of 
sight, Humphrey Bogart is back.

            His first utterance in the dark under palms 
is, “I am,” followed by, “Let’s get on with it.” 
Renzo Capeto, American gambler, gangster and 
yachtsman is Bogart’s incarnation, though at 
times it seems his actor Anthony Carbone 
struggles to control the possession. The same 
posturing body language, the cigarette going, 
the sailor hat, the toughness, the smiles, his gaze, 
mannerisms and speech patterns. How could you 
possibly make a boat movie with gangsters in 
black and white and not invite Bogart? 
The plot was right, the place, the boat, 
everything agreed. It was an open door 
awaiting his reappearance.
             So, coasting with the perfect ghost, 
the boat floats right into the plot of To Have and 
Have Not. As in that earlier film, while hoping to 
look like a fishing vessel, their mission has been 
discovered by a patrol boat and The Bogart 
of both films arms his deck hands for trouble. 
“Now let’s appear casual,” he orders in 1961 
and, “Mary Belle, sing a song.” Hoagy Carmichael 
backed Lauren Bacall, but Mary Belle has an 
out-of-the-blue piano track to  make up a 
love song, as she bobs along. A shooting match 
erupts again and they escape again. Even the 
beyond-odd character Pete Peterson Jr, an 
animal mimic, is an impaired exaggeration of 
Walter Brennan’s Eddy, with his dead bee routine. 
Boat full of thieves, the cramped onboard camera 
work resembles Key Largo, while Renzo plots 
for the chance to take over their course, and 
soon does.
            But this is the Bermuda Triangle, 
a mysterious and dangerous place, unpredictable, 
as the theatrical trailer for To Have and Have Not 
already warned: “The danger zone of the 
Mid-Atlantic where strange ships slip through 
the fog with even stranger cargoes…where all 
barriers are down and the only law is the law 
of the Caribbean.”
            Prescient, in what amounts to his 
swansong, Creature’s Bogart echoes Tennyson 
in his conversation with an equally fated 
Cuban colonel, dreams of what to do, where 
to go next:
            “You can go anywhere you like. I’m 
going home.”
            “To America?”
            “America? No, I can’t go back there 
            True, his encore appearance is over, 
he’s bound for some unseen shore. The monster 
roars out of the water, there’s no place to get 
away, and The Bogart runs out of life on the 
beach, unable to move, staring at the sky.

Footnotes (Stock Footage):

(1) The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini
Ruth Brandon, Kodansha International, NY, 
1993, page 151.
(2) Ibid, page 196.
(3) Houdini U.S Patent # 1,370,316 granted 
March 1, 1921. Quoted from
(4) Death and the Magician: The Mystery of 
Houdini, Raymond Fitzsimons, Atheneum, 
NY, 1981, page 163.
(5) The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred 
Legacy of Reincarnation, Glenn H. Mullin, 
Clear Light Publishers, Sante Fe, New Mexico, 
2001, page 448.
(6) My Land and My People, His Holiness 
the Dalai Lama of Tibet, McGraw-Hill 
Book Co. Inc., NY, 1962, page 236.
(7) Ibid, page 21-22.
(8) Humphrey Bogart, Alan G. Barbour, 
Galahad Books, NY, 1973, page 96.
(10) How I Made A Hundred Movies in 
Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime
Roger Corman, Random House, NY, 1990, 
page 71.
(11) Ibid, page 237.
(12) Ibid, page 73.

Essay by Allen Frost

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