Somewhere off the coast of Argentina, a “sea devil” has been terrorizing pearl divers. When the mysterious creature (who is actually a man in a mermaid-like getup) saves Gutiere, a beautiful young girl, from being eaten by a shark, he falls in love with her. Unfortunately, she has been promised to the loathsome and coarse Don Pedro Zurita, who vows to capture the sea devil and make him dive for pearls.
To call The Amphibian Man a science fiction film is really a bit too limiting, yet most of the time that’s the category into which it’s lumped. Rather than being science fiction, the film is much more a fantasy or, even more specifically, a fairytale. Its lone nod to science fiction is that the title character, whose name is Ichthyander (and those of you who are spelling bee fans should be able to figure out what his name means–he’s, quite literally, a fishman), underwent surgery to save his life when he was very young. As his father the surgeon puts it, “I replaced part of his lung with the gills of a young shark.” So Ichthyander has both gills and lungs, making him able to live both on land and in water. But there’s a caveat (and isn’t there always, in fairytales?) — if Ichthyander stays too long in the water without breathing air, it’ll mess up his lungs somehow, and he’ll be forced to live underwater for the rest of his life.
The Amphibian Man was based on a novel by Alexander Belyaev (or Belayev, depending on who’s doing the translating from Cyrillic) which was originally published in Russia in 1928. Belyaev’s claim to fame is that he was the first Russian science-fiction writer, and he’s usually mentioned as one of the best. Not being up on my Russian science fiction (I opted not to take that class in graduate school), I couldn’t tell you if that’s true. The film itself was a pretty high-profile production in Russia, and from what I can gather on the Interweb, it was one of the biggest hits of 1961. It seems to hold roughly the same place in the hearts of Russia’s citizenry as The Wizard of Oz does in American hearts.
That success didn’t translate to America, however, as the film ended up being sold directly to television, where it ended up in a package of films from NTA (National Telefilm Associates) which included other science fiction films such as Neutron Vs. the Amazing Dr. Caronte and The Wizard of Mars. I doubt that this has shown on television in the last twenty years, but you never know. I have to wonder whether the scene where Ichthyander saves Gutiere from the shark was chopped up a little bit or darkened somewhat for television, as the top half of the swimsuit that she’s wearing goes so transparent when wet that it leaves NOTHING to the imagination. I just can’t imagine that going over too well on TV in the mid-sixties.
The film’s production values are quite handsome, the music score has some very pretty moments, and the color (at least on the DVD that I watched) is eye-popping in places. Vladimir Korenev (or William Koren, as he’s known in the TV print’s Anglicized credits), the actor who plays Ichthyander, looks as if he were chiseled into being rather than being born the old-fashioned way. Michael Weldon, in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia, gets the plot wrong in his one-sentence summary (“An evil scientist tries to kill a young man with gills.”).
While The Amphibian Man is a nice enough film, I really don’t recommend going to Amazon and blind-buying it. Although it’s not the film’s original trailer, you might try watching this trailer first, as it sums up the film pretty succinctly:
Or, you can even watch the entire film here (but it’s in its original Russian with no subtitles of any kind, so be forewarned).