(1958)1.5Bruce EderNathan Juran's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is an astonishingly enduring piece of cinema from the low-budget end of its genre and decade. Shot in less than two weeks, on a budget of under $100,000, the movie has been laughed at as a title and ridiculed as a film for more than 40 years, and not even the made-for-cable remake in 1993, starring Darryl Hannah, has done much to raise the reputation of the original. Yet Juran's movie, with all of its flaws, has managed to keep its place in the hearts of cineastes and 1950s pop-culture enthusiasts for close to a half-century. The reason may lie in the currents that run through the fabric of its script and images, revealing aspects of the era in which it was produced that give it a power over viewers far greater than the cheap special effects. Those seeking an explanation must arrive at the conclusion -- unfathomable at the outset -- that Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a far more thoughtful film on a subliminal level than its script or plot summary would lead one to believe.
Its script is steeped in concerns that were the stuff of article and newspaper headlines in 1958: unfair divorce laws in a hypocritically puritanical 1950s United States; a fascination with unidentified flying objects and the early phase of the "space race" ("Everybody's seeing satellites these days," William Hudson's Harry Archer remarks derisively, a reference to the real-life existence of and panic over the Soviet Union's Sputnik and its successors); and, in Harry Archer's philandering, Yvette Vickers' sluttish Honey Parker, and the sleazy tavern where their affair is carried out (with the neglectful sheriff and the admiring deputy as onlookers), an admission that there were fatal rips running through the social fabric of American life. The pitiful special effects aren't entirely as ineffective as one thinks -- the obvious use of a doll to replace William Hudson at the denouement of Nancy Archer's murderous attack on her unfaithful husband, and the inadequacy of the alien giant's one lengthy appearance, are almost made up for by former art director (and architect) Juran's effective use of smoke, metal conduit, sound effects, and a few oversized magnifiers in the brief vignette aboard the alien ship; and Ronald Stein's larger-than-life scoring patches a lot of other holes that the budget and the resulting tight shooting schedule left onscreen. As entertainment, the movie ends up being far more potent than its makers could have hoped, leavening its sci-fi and horror elements with a certain degree of humor, both as depicted on screen in the guise of the inept deputy (Frank Chase, in a role that stands midway between Dennis Weaver's Chester on Gunsmoke and Don Knotts' Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show), and arcing over the preposterous story. Allison Hayes is sympathetic as the heroine, William Hudson is convincingly smarmy as her homicidal husband, and George Douglas is believable as the sheriff. If Nancy Archer's home doesn't look like it's worthy of someone with $50 million, the tavern where much of the action takes place is nicely sleazy and realistic, down to Stein's solid rock & roll dance music. And somewhere in there is the kernel of a proto-feminist message in the overall story arc.