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N Entries
Noel Neill
Kurt Neumann
John Newland
Julie Newmar
Nichelle Nichols
Jack Nicholson
Leonard Nimoy
 
NEUMANN, KURT
(1908-1958). German director.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Directed: The Secret of the Blue Room (1933); The Return of the Vampire (and story idea) (uncredited, with Lew LANDERS 1944); Son of Ali Baba (1952); Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953); Watusi (1959).

Directed and produced: Rocketship X-M (and co-wrote with Orville H. Hampton and, uncredited, Dalton Trumbo) (1950); She Devil (and co-wrote with Carroll Young) (1957); Kronos (1957); The Fly (1958).

Directed and associate producer: Tarzan and the Amazons (1945); Tarzan and the Leopard Women (1946); Tarzan and the Huntress (1947).

Associate producer: Tarzan's Desert Mystery (Wilhelm Thiele 1943).

Wrote: Dracula's Daughter (story, uncredited, with John BALDERSTON; idea, David O. Selznick; screenplay Garrett Fort) (Lambert Hillyer 1936).

 
The facts of the matter are clear: in 1958, director Kurt Neumann attended the first screening of his latest film, The Fly, and then he committed suicide. Now, there are many reasons why a man might choose to end his own life, but the suspicion inevitably arises that watching that film in some way contributed to the decision. Specifically, one might speculate, he was either deeply depressed because he thought the film would be a tremendous flop, or deeply depressed because he thought the film would be a huge hit.

One might further theorize that that strange, sedate, fascinating film had autobiographical resonances for Neumann; for it is, after all, the story of a brilliant and talented man who makes one little mistake and is consequently doomed to a life so horrific as to finally drive him to instruct his wife to kill him. But what would Neumann have identified as the mistake that ruined his life? The initial decision to leave Germany in the 1930s and come to Hollywood to make German-language versions of American films? His inability to keep the promised job of directing The Bride of Frankenstein (reassigned to original Frankenstein director James WHALE), which might have been an important boost to his career? His consistent willingness to accept directing jobs which he knew would result in awful films? And in 1958, what seemed so horrific about Neumann's life as to motivate his suicide? Did he worry that the failure of The Fly would drive him back to boring westerns and crime dramas, or even lead to unemployment? Did he fear that the success of The Fly would permanently doom him to a life of directing low-budget horror and science fiction films?

Perhaps, then, Neumann's life story might turn out to be as fascinating as the story of George REEVES, whose 1959 suicide has sparked ongoing research and controversy and even an uneven biopic, Holywoodland (2006). But nobody knows or cares about Neumann, so the biographical record will probably never be complete. And while critics can indulge in idle ruminations, eventually one must turn to the task of assessing his contributions to science fiction film, which are a matter of public record.

Neumann might have had a better career if, from the start, he had been allowed to specialize in horror films; as is, one can only imagine how he might have handled The Bride of Frankenstein and note that he made uncredited contributions to the two best vampire movies of the era, Dracula's Daughter and The Return of the Vampire (and yes, I am remembering the original Dracula when I make that statement). All in all, he probably would have done a little bit better than Curt SIODMAK if he had inherited the task of keeping the Universal horror franchises alive during the 1940s. Instead, he was given the chore of overseeing another durable property—Tarzan—during its period of steady decline, and he did so about as well as could be expected.

Yet Neumann will forever be most famous for the four science-fiction movies he directed in the 1950s. Rocketship X-M, as everyone concedes, was far more exciting and adventurous than the more ponderous film it was imitating and exploiting, Destination Moon, and its surprising unhappy ending—the entire crew is killed—again suggests an unhappy director at work. Critics regularly eviscerate She Devil, but based on my one viewing of the film, many years ago, I think it is better than published reports would suggest, and is in fact reasonable faithful in story and spirit to its source material, Stanley G. Weinbaum's story "The Adaptive Ultimate" (1935). But understandably more prominent is Kronos, featuring a unique, energy-absorbing, ever-expanding robot rampaging across the countryside as well as (while it not saying much) Jeff MORROW's best acting performance. It is the sort of film that is literally unforgettable; indeed, I recently fielded a query from a reader who, decades after watching the film, vividly remembered its metallic menace even if he could not recall its name.

Still, Neumann's masterpiece is unquestionably The Fly, which shrewdly recruited the perpetually unpersuasive Vincent PRICE to lure in audiences and then forcefully shoved him to the sidelines to focus on an actor who could at least intermittently convey a sense of conviction, David HEDISON. And its simultaneously ludicrous and poignant conclusion—the tiny, human-headed fly screaming "HELP ME" before it is killed—has to qualify as one of the most striking images in the history of science fiction film. (It is yet another sign of Price's inadequacies as a horror film icon that, as he reports, the filming of this scene required numerous takes because he couldn't stop himself from laughing.) Was this, then, how Neumann ultimately visualized himself? A tiny, helpless figure in Hollywood, a talent destined to always be overlooked while trapped in marginalized films, his cries for help forever unheard? One likes to imagine that a genuinely tragic tale, a rarity in science fiction films, must stem from a genuinely tragic life. But I guess we will never know for sure.

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