Faith Domergue had a cold beauty that made her suitable as female scientist, Professor Leslie Joyce, in It Came from Beneath the Sea. It also helped that she was a brunette. The stereotype of the cold, hard scientist whose intellect does not allow itself to be swayed by mere sentiment and feeling was especially prevalent in the old science fiction movies, and thus a beautiful female scientist constituted a special challenge for a macho leading man, used to having his way with women.
In this movie, said macho leading man is Commander Pete Mathews, played by Kenneth Tobey. Tobey already had experience as Captain Patrick Hendry in The Thing from Another World (1951) breaking down the resistance of science assistant Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), who is referred to as a “pinup girl,” so you might think things would be a little easier for him in this film; but then, Faith Domergue also had experience playing the beautiful, cold scientist, Dr. Ruth Adams, resisting the charms of Rex Reason playing Dr. Cal Meacham in This Island Earth (1955), so I guess that made them even.
A lot of old movies are sexist by twenty-first century standards, but science fiction movies from the 1950s, with their inevitable beautiful female scientists, often have a feminist theme in them, pushing back against that sexism. As a result, the message tends to be mixed, with the movie expressing a sexist attitude one minute and a feminist attitude the next. For example, in Rocketship X-M (1950), Dr. Lisa Van Horn is a female scientist who is going to be part of a crew on the title spaceship. Much is made of her qualifications. But then, when it comes time for the astronauts to strap themselves in, we see that the men can easily strap themselves in, but one of the men has to strap Lisa in. This strange combination of sexism and feminism is especially flagrant in It Came from Beneath the Sea.
Joyce’s colleague is Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis). Other than when first names are being used, he is always addressed as Dr. Carter, never as Mr. Carter, but while Joyce is frequently referred to as Professor Joyce, she is often addressed as Miss Joyce as well, presumably because her status as a nubile maiden is important enough to be emphasized. They have both been called in to investigate a hunk of mysterious substance that got caught in the diving plane of Mathews’ submarine. After an initial inspection, however, Joyce is not willing to spend any more time studying the specimen, because she has more important matters needing her attention elsewhere. In other words, she is just as hard to get as a scientist as she is as a woman. However, her expertise in marine biology makes her indispensable, and she is forced to continue with the investigation.
Of course, once Mathews has seen what Joyce looks like without her protective radiation suit on, he is especially glad she will be forced to continue on, and he wastes little time making his moves on her. He wants to know if there is anything going on between her and Carter. “Oh, you mean romance,” she says, as she picks up a foot-long test tube. While gently holding this scientific prop with phallic significance, she teases him about the lack of women aboard a submarine, but she refuses to say whether there is anything between her and Carter. Later, when Joyce definitively determines the nature of the substance, Carter kisses her on the cheek, and then she nestles in his arms as Mathews calls Naval Intelligence. If they were actually involved romantically, this would not be so strange. But they are not. As a result, we once again get that strange mixture of feminism and sexism: on the one hand, she is the expert in her field and has found the solution; on the other hand, she is a pretty girl that men just naturally kiss and hold in their arms, even when that man is a colleague in a professional setting.
Anyway, the substance turns out to be a piece from a giant octopus. The octopus has been exposed to a lot of radiation owing to tests of the hydrogen bomb. Radiation did not make the octopus big as it did the title character in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), because this octopus has always been big. However, the fish it was used to eating have natural Geiger counters in them that make them avoid the octopus, forcing it to leave its natural habitat and seek food elsewhere. It is amazing what lengths these 1950s movies would go to in order to make radiation the cause of whatever monster they had to deal with.
Joyce and Mathews are somewhat contemptuous of each other’s profession. She says to Mathews, “my mind just isn’t attuned to discuss things on your level, Commander.” Later, hearing that Joyce and Carter will be meeting in Cairo to investigate the sinking nature of the coast of the Red Sea, Mathews says to Carter, “Sounds ideal.” When Carter refers to it as mixing work with pleasure, Mathews responds, “Work? Oh yes, that is your work, isn’t it?”
On their last night in Pearl Harbor, they all decide to have dinner together at a restaurant. Mathews is bossy, practically pulling Joyce out of her chair while announcing they are going to dance and even telling Carter to order her a steak. She refuses to dance, says she does not want a steak, and sits back down. But she agrees to his suggestion of lobster and finally agrees to dance with him. While discussing the weather in Hawaii, which is always balmy, she says she likes the winter and the snow, which naturally suggest frigidity on her part. At first, we think that Mathews is going to try to kiss her, but she moves her head forward and kisses him instead, and then puts her arms around him. So, contrary to appearances, she is a sexually aggressive woman. Then they return to the table and have their meal. When Mathews realizes that Joyce still intends to go to Cairo, he is shocked. Presumably, he thought that since they kissed, she was going to give up all this foolishness about a career, marry him, and have babies. He leaves in a huff.
Their plans to go to Cairo, however, are foiled by the occurrence of another incident. It seems a tramp steamer has disappeared at sea, and Admiral Norman has rescinded their release so they can investigate to see if there is any connection to the previous one with Mathews’ submarine. Fortunately, they find a few survivors. In order to get the facts, a doctor examines them. After the first survivor tells his story, in which it is clear that the giant octopus attacked the ship, the doctor indicates that he does not believe him, starts humoring him, and tells him in an ominous manner that he is to be taken down the hall to talk to another doctor about what he thinks he has seen. The other three survivors are not fools. They realize the other doctor is a psychiatrist and that their mate is likely to be diagnosed as mentally ill. So, they deny having seen anything. They are given lie-detector tests, which show that they are lying when they deny having seen anything. And then the first survivor recants his story so that he can be released from the infirmary. Mathews and the other officers are exasperated and just don’t understand why they can’t get the truth out of these guys.
Professor Joyce rises to the occasion. Removing her coat so as to expose a little more of her soft, warm flesh, she tells the officers she will talk to the first survivor when he is released, and then contrives to be alone with him in a room. Using her womanly wiles—giving him sexy looks, touching his hand, showing a little leg—she gets the man to admit he saw the sea monster, which the officers hear through the intercom. So, you see, that’s why we need female scientists, because they have special ways of getting to the truth.
Mathews and Joyce decide to investigate reports of poor fishing along the northwest coast, because it may be that the octopus has been eating all the fish. They spot what might be called an octopus footprint on the beach and they send for Carter. Meanwhile, they decide to check out the fish population in the area, which they do by putting on the swim suits they just happened to have with them. No fish, so they do a little hot necking on the beach.
When Carter arrives with the deputy sheriff, Mathews asks Carter to help him persuade Joyce to leave and let the Navy take over the job. When Carter asks what Joyce has to say about that, Mathews responds, “What’s the difference what she says?” At that point, Carter proceeds to lecture Mathews about women: “There’s a whole new breed who feel they’re just as smart and just as courageous as men. And they are. They don’t like to be overprotected. They don’t like to have their initiative taken away from them.”
Joyce picks up the argument: “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.” Carter says that he is entirely on her side, as she nestles into the arm her puts around her. Mathews concedes to having lost the argument.
Suddenly, the octopus appears and kills the deputy, causing Joyce to scream like a girl.
The octopus starts wreaking havoc on San Francisco, Mathews and Carter take turns saving each other’s lives, during which Joyce screams again, finding solace first in Carter’s arms and then Mathews’, until at last the octopus is killed.
They have dinner again. Mathews, saying that women can change, says he wants Joyce to marry him and start a family. She says she hasn’t time for that and offers to collaborate with him on a book, How to Catch a Sea Beast, a title that lends itself to more than one meaning. Mathews tells Carter he is right about this new breed of women.