Edward L. Cahn's career arc was a reflection of two vastly sides of filmmaking divided by 40 years. Starting as a production assistant in the teens, he became one of Hollywood's top editors, working on some of the most celebrated movies of the late '20s and early '30s; he then turned to directing and spent 30 years making his name as a specialist in B-pictures and shorts. He did his best work during the final decade of his life and he was never busier than during that final decade.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1898, Edward L. Cahn attended U.C.L.A. and entered the movie business in 1917 as an assistant director and editor, working for the celebrated actress Alla Nazimova in her capacity as a producer. He joined the editing department at Universal Pictures in the early '20s and by 1926 was the studio's top cutter. Among the highlights of his career in the cutting room, Cahn was the man charged with the last-minute re-editing of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, Universal's most prestigious release of 1930; working on a train racing from California to New York, he had to excise the footage of Zazu Pitts as the mother of the hero and replace it with footage of Beryl Mercer in the same role, all in time for the scheduled opening of the film upon his arrival. By 1931, Cahn had moved up to the director's chair, and the following year he made the best A-feature of his career, Law and Order, a retelling of the gunfight at the OK Corral, starring Walter Huston and based on a script co-authored by John Huston. Cahn left Universal in 1932 and made the rounds of most of the major Hollywood studios over the next 20 years. He lingered longest at MGM, working in their short subject department for a decade and directing many of the later Our Gang comedies as well as entries in the Crime Does Not Pay and Pete Smith Specialty film series, and several patriotic shorts released during the war.
Cahn's work during the 1940s was adequate but hardly distinguished, mostly consisting of crime films and action thrillers that showed occasional elements of cleverness. A few of them, such as Main Street After Dark and I Cheated the Law, stood out, but most were little more than solid programmers. By the 1950s, Cahn seemed to have run out his string as the major studios cut back on the kind of B-movies in which he specialized. Ironically, by that time, Cahn had developed a hyper-efficient approach to directing that allowed him to make movies in less time than almost anyone else in the business.
Cahn bounced back to the majors briefly in 1955 with the Columbia B-title Creature With the Atom Brain, a successful sci-fi thriller, but assignments like that were rare. Between 1956 and 1958, however, he directed some of the most interesting, enduring, and successful films in AIP's early output, ranging from juvenile delinquency dramas (Runaway Daughters) and crime films (Girls in Prison) to horror pictures (The She Creature) and Westerns (Flesh and the Spur), and even one of the earlier rock & roll exploitation features, Shake, Rattle and Rock, as well as a pair of automotive action thrillers, Motorcycle Gang and Dragstrip Girl. Cahn's shooting of these pictures showed intelligence and a good eye for excitement and entertainment -- the best of them pulsed with energy and sexual tension, and they were always fun to watch; and occasionally they also revealed some surprising complexities in structure. A few of his films were also groundbreaking in certain unusual ways -- Invasion of the Saucer Men might not have been the best science fiction movies of its period, but it introduced the image of bug-eyed aliens to movies.
Cahn was an imposing figure at AIP, an older man, with 40 years under his belt in the movie business, who always had a pipe with him, and was always "on," ready to move on to the next camera set-up before the take he was doing was finished. His AIP pictures were not only all successful but were also fascinating to watch, for their mixture of unusual casting, top-notch action sequences, and lively, engaging visuals. Among his other attributes, the director loved to use older performers in his films, despite the fact that the AIP productions, intended largely for drive-ins and smaller neighborhood theaters, were aimed almost exclusively at teenaged audiences. Thus, younger filmgoers drawn to Shake, Rattle and Rock by the presence of Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner were also treated to acting performances by Margaret Dumont, Raymond Hatton, and Sterling Holloway; horror film aficionados attending The She Creature got to see Chester Morris, Tom Conway, and El Brendel; and those who saw Runaway Daughters witnessed the return to acting of 1930s Goldwyn star Anna Sten. Among his AIP releases, The She Creature, an eerie tale of reincarnation and horror, may have been his best, and perhaps his best movie, overall. It benefited not only from Cahn's command of an almost dreamlike sensibility in many scenes, but also from the presence (courtesy of costume designer Paul Blaisdell) of a monster that was the "alien" of its day, nasty and super-strong, with large breasts across a chest armed with teeth and crunching jaws all its own.
In between his AIP work, Cahn also found time to return to Columbia Pictures for a one-off assignment, directing Zombies of Mora Tau (1957). In 1958, Cahn suddenly found himself in demand again from one of the majors, albeit in their B-movie unit. He began a long-term relationship with producer Robert E. Kent at United Artists, and embarked on the films that were to make his reputation. Starting with Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), he turned out a series of intriguing, diverting, and exciting genre thrillers, including It! The Terror From Beyond Space, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (where he used veteran performer Henry Daniell as the villain), and Invisible Invaders. It! The Terror From Beyond Space proved particularly memorable as a claustrophobic thriller about a deadly alien stalking members of the crew of a spaceship, but each of the four films had memorable ideas and images, that stayed with viewers long after their end credits. Although those were his last science fiction and horror vehicles, they were enough, in tandem with his work at AIP, to establish Cahn among fans of both genres. He kept working for Kent and United Artists into the early '60s, making more than two dozen more films -- teenage delinquency dramas, crime thrillers, and Westerns (11 movies in 1961 alone) -- before his health failed in 1962. He passed away on August 25, 1963, little noticed by the contemporary Hollywood community -- meanwhile, the best of his movies began building their reputations among babyboomers on the big screen and on television; by the mid-'60s, George Romero was taking a central concept behind Invisible Invaders, and some of its basic images, and turning them into Night of the Living Dead; a decade later, 20th Century Fox, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, and director Ridley Scott were transforming the idea behind It! The Terror From Beyond Space into Alien. Strangely enough, the best of Cahn's AIP films, The She Creature, has not yet been subjected to a serious remake, but since the end of the 1980s, several of his movies have been reissued on videocassette, laserdisc, and DVD, and his pictures have begun to be rediscovered and reassessed by critics and historians.