Direction: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Samuel Newman and Paul Gangelin
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Special Effects: Ralph Hammeras and George Teague
Producer: Sam Katzman
Take a routine sci-fi script, toss in capable B actors, top with perhaps the most ludicrous-looking giant monster of the 1950s, and what do you get? None other than 1957's The Giant Claw.
The prize attraction (or distraction) in this modest American production is, of course, the infamous avian monster of the title. Leonard Maltin's video book quips, "Big bird is laughable." SF film scholar Bill Warren has likened the airborne critter to Beaky Buzzard. Indeed, as perhaps the most maligned giant monster of the twentieth century, the movie's behemoth bird has been roasted more times than a battalion of Thanksgiving Day turkeys.
Here's what I wonder -- What were the creators of the bird monster thinking when they concocted this literal and figurative monstrosity? Did they have any illusions that what they were creating might inspire fear in the filmgoer? Did they believe their winged wonder would hold its own against more convincing fifties giant monsters? Did they realize how pitiful their creation appeared? Or did they just not care?
As with the mystery of Toho Kong's sub-par appearance, we may never have (or want) the answer to this query. On with the review.
Way back when -- 1977, actually -- I saw The Giant Claw for the first time. However, up to seeing the movie, I had seen no stills of the big bird. All I knew was the basic plot scenario -- your standard giant-monster-on-the-loose story -- and the ad for the 8mm home movie version of the movie found in the back pages of Famous Monsters. Said ad depicted a gigantic eagle's claw snapping off the top of the Empire State Building. Cool! thought I. So, being an avowed giant monster fan, I eagerly awaited the Claw's appearance.
When first seen, it is only a big blur. A giant bird-print it has left behind whetted my anticipation. But when the movie finally unveils the extraterrestrial (and prehistoric) avian menace in all its homely glory, I was dumbstruck. I suspect a still photo of my face beholding the Giant Claw for the first time would radiate far more horror than anything in the movie.
Star Jeff Morrow apparently experienced a similar reaction. According to Bill Warren's Keep Watching the Skies!, when The Giant Claw debuted in Morrow's neighborhood movie theatre, the bird-beast's appearance and the wild audience laughter it evoked so embarrassed Morrow that he snuck out of the theatre before the film ended. Who could blame him?
And then there are the Claw's incessant shrieks. They become more aggravating than even the most obnoxious dubbing for the most offputting Japanese monster movie kid you can imagine. You keep wishing someone would just put the bird beast out of its misery, but there's this force-field, y'see, that makes the Claw impervious to military bombardment. Needless to say, scientist-hero Jeff Morrow figures out a way to disrupt the force-field so that the Claw can be blown out of the sky. Which essentially it is. The last scene, of the bird's grasping claw still bobbing above the water line, is probably the most convincing shot of the entire movie.
But that's not to say the film is a total loss. The actors are okay, and aside from the atrocious special effects, the production values are perfunctory but there. Even the Claw does a few interesting things, such as snatching up a moving train and lifting it as though it were an enormous segmented worm. Later, it attacks New York City, wrecking part of the U.N. Building. The minor scenes of destruction aren't bad -- though granted, several of them involve stock footage from Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and the 1953 War of the Worlds. The scene of the bird smashing across the top of a skyscraper and sending debris into the streets below is nice.
In fact, conceptually, there's nothing wrong with the monster scenes. If a better-designed and executed bird beast had been used, The Giant Claw would probably even be considered a moderately diverting entry in the 1950's giant monster movie canon. Imagine if producer Sam Katzman had used Ray Harryhausen to helm the effects, not much of a stretch considering that Katzman had executive produced Harryhausen's previous two efforts, It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) and Earthvs. The Flying Saucers (1956). Presumably, Katzman decided to go on the cheap for The Giant Claw; Bill Warren speculates that perhaps Katzman didn't care if the effects were any good or not, as long as they could be plugged into the movie.
But imagine if you will a streamlined, stop-motion Harryhausen eagle winging its way over New York City, attacking the UN Building, knocking fighter jets out of the sky. Now that would have really been something! But as with all other giant monster movie "wish fantasies," it was not to be.
Instead, we're left with the only contemporary American giant monster movie of the fifties featuring a winged menace, and it is so inferior to Toho's Rodan that comparisons would not only be superfluous, but even cruel. It's ample testimony that American monster movies of the fifties could sometimes be inferior to their Japanese counterparts, popular wisdom notwithstanding. Even Toho Kong would laugh this shoddy Western kaiju off the screen.
Like Paris Hilton, The Giant Claw is famous for all the wrong reasons. Let's just hope the pitiful bird is never revived for a sequel.