Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Heavenly Creature from the Blue Lagoon

"Work all day, work all night
drink black rum, get real tight
me go home, fight with wife
never had such a happy life."

-Hubert Smith and his Coral Islanders

Lost Lagoon is an interesting little black-and-white oddity from 1958 about a middle-aged man who has a chance to get away from his failed career and loveless marriage and start anew in the Bahamas. What's distinctive about the film is the seriousness in which it treats the subject matter and characters despite being mostly an escapist fantasy. Initially, I expected the protagonist, Charlie Walker (Jeffrey Lynn), to be a bumbling, lovable loser type who meets up with some ethereal, fantastical female ala Mr Peabody and the Mermaid. But the script keeps it real and never veers toward lighter or supernatural aspects and plays out the story in dramatic fashion. Charlie Walker, although not lovable, is a likable enough everyman and the tale, while not whimsical, is definitely a middle-aged male's escape fantasy. 

The film plunges in quickly, thanks to some efficient script writing from Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky, and sets up the Charlie Walker character's disappointing life in two quick dialogue scenes with his obnoxious brother-in-law, Millard. Charlie has come on a fishing trip to beg a loan from Millard to pay an expensive life insurance premium that his wife insists on since her first husband died and left her penniless with two children. Just as Charlie is about to receive the money, an unexpected storm capsizes the boat and Charlie is presumed drowned but actually washes up on Clarion Cay in the Bahamas along with his brother-in-law's cash. He's found and aided by the young, pretty, limping, island resort owner, Liz (Liela Barry), and promptly falls in love with the place.
I fell for the film for all the same reasons Charlie fell for Clarion Cay. First and foremost, Hubert Smith's calypso numbers are the highlight of the movie. Not only do they provide a lively Greek chorus at times, but add some much needed flavor and light fun. As happy as I was to see the film take the story and characters seriously, I really enjoyed it whenever the band showed up. In addition, Smith isn't just set dressing but an actual character with some pivotal scenes with Charlie aside from the musical merrymaking. I particularly liked the exchange between Charlie and Hubert when they discuss the disadvantages of being young versus old. It's one of the more potent, identifiable and character defining scenes in the film.

The island setting is another strength especially when a real beach and ocean is used as a backdrop. All too often in these low budget affairs, the audience is subjected to some painfully fake backdrops or mismatched stock footage, but that's not the case here. When a cast member goes into the ocean, it's actually the real ocean and a walk on the beach looks like an authentic walk on the beach. I only wish the exterior locations had been utilized even more as they tended to work the best at establishing the island paradise feel.

Finally, much like Charley, I fell a little in love with Liz myself. Leila Barry's first and last film role doesn't bring the house down, but she certainly has a photogenic quality, decent screen presence and an Audrey Hepburn-like look that makes her very appealing as the love interest. Giving her character a minor physical flaw in the form of a mild limp was a smart move on the filmmaker's part that made her seem that much more sympathetic and accessible. In a rare stylistic flourish, the director also shoots her framed against the clouds on several occasions to accentuate her ethereal, angelic qualities and beauty.

This may also be a rare instance of an actor's lack of experience and confidence creating a natural, naive, uncertain quality in the character that is actually engaging. This juxtaposed quite well with lead Jeffrey Lynn's mature, experienced but world-weary characterization. Lynn is easily the best actor in the film and although he's fairly average in most respects, he does a decent job eliciting sympathy for the character. In an early scene that's very on-the-nose but effective nonetheless, Charley comes back home to let everyone know that he didn't die only to find that his passing isn't being grieved too much. Faced with resuming his unsatisfying life at home and returning to the island where he has found happiness, he contemplates with himself in a mirror. It's not the most original cinematic convention but Lynn sells it well here.

Lost Lagoon was director John Rawlins last film. He worked as an editor in the 20's and 30's before graduating to directing where he worked on programmers and low budget B films with his best known being Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror in 1942. Coming from this background, it's understandable that his style is a pretty perfunctory mix of masters and close-ups with only the occasional camera movement in the form of a slow pan. This utilitarian aspect of his work is definitely on display in Lost Lagoon with the two notable style exceptions already mentioned. However, this is still one of Rawlins' better efforts and feels to me as if his heart may have been in it given that he adapted the screenplay himself and would likely identify very much with the Charley Walker character with whom he would share same age bracket. In the end, I think that's what differentiates the film from so many lighter efforts in the same vein, the fact that Rawlin's seems to feel sympathy for the character as he seriously contemplates the questions of self-fulfillment, happiness and responsibility. 

Score - 6.5/10

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