As something of an appendix to our Shoot the WISB discussion of the new Godzilla (where we were joined by Rachael Acks), I thought I’d talk a bit about something that I’ve always found very striking about It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955): the portrayal of Faith Domergue’s character, Professor Lesley Joyce. She is, on the one hand, part of a mini-trend in 50s monster movies where women are scientists (Them!, Creature from the Black Lagoon), roles that were virtually non-existent in the films of the preceding decades.* What makes It stand out, though, is that the narrative is at least as concerned with Joyce’s struggles to be taken seriously in a male-dominated world as it is about Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent octopus.
Joyce is, unsurprisingly, the only female character of any importance in the film. What is unusual, however, is that we are meant to notice her position, repeatedly pointed out in her interactions with submarine commander Peter Mathews. The latter is played by Kenneth Tobey, doing very much the same self-confident officer as in The Thing (1951). He keeps refusing to take her seriously, and the body language in the (colourized) still below is pretty telling:
When Mathews is finally convinced that there is a giant octopus out there, he wants Joyce relegated to the sidelines. She objects, with a speech that might as well be the film’s thesis:
a) You’d want me to miss the opportunity to see this specimen, one that may never come again; b) you’d be making up my mind for me; and c) I not only don’t like being pushed around but you underestimate my ability to help in a crisis.
She does more than help. She deduces the nature of the monster, gets the confirming evidence from a witness when no one else can , locates the beast, and designs the specialized torpedo that puts an end to the threat. And while Matthews gets to play the traditional action hero and put her plan into effect, he is knocked unconscious by a flailing tentacle and has to be rescued by John Carter (Donald Curtis). Carter, his eyebrow-raising name notwithstanding, functions primarily as Joyce’s lone male ally and is very much not in the action hero mold.
Joyce’s struggle, then, is not only to stop the threat, but to fight for the right to do so. The scene where she provides a briefing is a striking one. The camera puts the viewers in her shoes while she speaks surrounded by male authority figures. The way they are shot puts them uncomfortably close — they are invading our space, as they are hers.
As for the octopus itself, its symbolic nature is significant, given the centrality of Joyce’s struggle. There is, certainly, a tradition of the octopus as a misogynistic representation of the monstrous feminine. The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula is as clear an example as we might wish:
But the octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea has a decidedly more phallic representation:
I would submit that the octopus here is, at least partly, symbolic of the tangling, suffocating grip of patriarchy from which Joyce seeks to free herself. And she is triumphant several times over. Her torpedo kills the monster, and when Matthews proposes marriage, trying one last time to domesticate the independent woman, she turns him down flat, and counter-proposes that he collaborate with her on a book. The final line of the film is his abashed surrender.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is radical, it is striking how much it foregrounds the tension over gender roles, particularly for 1955. And, let’s be honest, we have no shortage of films 60 years later that are far-less forward-looking.
*There is a rare exception in Frieda Inescort’s Lady Jane Ainsley, the doctor who takes on the Van Helsing role in the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Return of the Vampire (1944). To the above list, in which we consider films where the female lead has a non-traditional role, we can add The Giant Claw, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The Black Scorpion.