|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Nov 09, 2004)
THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK
RT: 70 mins
Pro Co: Paramount Pictures Co/William Alland Productions
Dir: Eugene Lourie;
Pro: William Alland;
Wr: Thelma Schnee; st: Willis Goldbeck.
Phot: John F. Warren;
Film Ed: Floyd Knudtson;
Mus: Van Cleave;
Art Dirs: Hal Pereir, John Goodman.
Spec Photo FX: John P. Fulton;
Process Phot: Farciot Edouart;
Make-Up Sup: Wally Westmore.
Cast: John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger, Robert Hutton, Ross Martin, Charles Herbert; Ed Wolff (uncred), Roy Engel (uncred).
William Alland, one of the key figures in cinematic science fiction, is best known for his collaborations with director Jack Arnold at Universal-International during the 1950s, where they produced such notable works as It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Tarantula (1955). However, his contributions to the genre extend beyond his Arnold-directed projects to include popular titles like Joseph M. Newman’s This Island Earth (1955), Virgil W. Vogel’s The Mole People (1956) and Nathan Juran’s The Deadly Mantis (1957).
In 1958, Alland parted company with Universal and set up an independent production unit at Paramount Pictures, where he produced four features. Of these, two are in the science fiction genre, Jack Arnold’s The Space Children (1958) and its companion piece as a double bill, The Colossus of New York.
Together with his son, Billy, and brother Henry, brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser is watching a promotional film about a new manufacturing process created by his sibling, an expert on automation, but which he had a hand in conceiving. Jerry’s wife, Anne, interrupts the showing with a newspaper front page article announcing that he has just won the highly prestigious International Peace Prize for his work with the World Food Organisation, helping turn large areas of the Arctic into agricultural land. The modest scientist protests about all the fuss, but when questioned by his brother he is hopeful that it will go some way to bringing some stability to the world. Anne announces that she has already made plans for him and his family to travel to Stockholm to receive his award, even though Jerry is very reluctant to go. After attending the ceremony, Jerry, Anne and Billy return to the United States where his brother, father and family friend John Carrington, along with the press corps, are waiting for him at New York airport. Jerry’s father is considered a brilliant brain surgeon and is asked by a reporter about the difference between the brains of a genius and others. He tells the journalist that physically there is very little difference between the brains, apart from some minor features. What is really important is how genius is used, and he is proud to say that his son belongs to the highest group of intellectuals who work for the benefit of all mankind, not just their selves of their own communities. As Jerry and the entourage leave the airport, a gust of wind blows away Billy’s toy aeroplane and his father makes off in pursuit of it, only to be hit by a truck in the attempt. Although he is pronounced dead at the scene, his father demands that an ambulance still be summoned. His son’s body is taken to private medical facility just outside New York. There, the brain surgeon takes Jerry’s body into a laboratory, leaving his wife and brother, as well as Carrington, standing outside in a confused state. The father begins to operate on his son. Some hours later he emerges from the laboratory to announce that the attempt to save Jerry have ended in failure. At the funeral, Carrington delivers a eulogy in which he says that although the loss of such a brilliant mind with so much potential may seen a pointless act, there may in fact be a purpose behind Jerry’s demise in the wider scheme of things, during which the dead man’s father runs out of the service in disgust. Later, Carrington has a furious row with the man over what is more important, the soul and human experience, or the intellect as represented by the brain, with the surgeon eventually calling him an idiot before leaving. After leaving, Carrington tells Henry that his father will now need looking after for a time since he is obviously taking Jeremy’s death so badly. Henry replies that that will make a change since in the past, his father had always relied on his brother. He agrees, however, to stay on at his father’s estate, to tend to the surgeon, along with Jerry’s wife and child, who are now staying there. Some months pass and Anne has never left the house, so Henry talks her into going into New York with for dinner and a show. Just then, his father appears and asks him to come to the laboratory, which he does, apologising to his sister-in-law and promising to make another date. In the laboratory, his father presents him with a human brain in a glass tank, connected through a myriad of wires to a number of electronic instruments. It appears that the brain is actually asleep and Henry’s father believes that as such it can be woken. To this end, the brain surgeon issues a complex mathematical problem via a microphone to the brain. Readings from the instruments indicate that the brain is now fully awake and functioning. The correct answer to the question is printed out on an electric typewriter. To his horror, Henry comes to the realisation that the brain belongs to Jeremy. His father argues that his son’s intellect must be preserved at all costs since his work had such importance for mankind and should be allowed to continue. To achieve this, he will require Henry’s skill in the field of automation…
Initially, The Colossus of New York can be seen as a creative reworking of two sporadically recurring cycles of sci-fi cinema of the 1950s. Most prominent of these is that featuring errant robots, seen in the likes of Lee Sholem’s Tobor the Great (1954) and Herman Hoffan’s The Invisible Boy (1957), while the fact that the robot in this film can shoot rays from its eyes seems to have been lifted from Robert Wise’s landmark work The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The other cycle appropriated seems to be films featuring disembodied, malign brains like those turning up in Felix Feist’s Donovan’s Brain (1953) and Arthur Crabtree’s Fiend Without a Face (1957).
However, a major factor in the existence of William Alland’s production was likely to have been the international success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), directed by Terence Fisher, and which led to a revival in surgical and horror and science fiction, featuring titles like Howard Koch’s Frankenstein 1970, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, as well as Fisher’s sequel to his own work, The Revenge of Frankenstein (all 1958). In a departure from the premise of the Hammer production and its successors, and perhaps inspired by a generation of pulp SF magazines and dime novels, the brain of Jeremy Spensser is not housed in the body of another person, or a reanimated cadaver, but rather into a man-made artificial shell.
It is when Jeremy’s brain is finally inserted in the metal body and activated that much of the film’s true can inspiration can be seen. With its immense stature, cement-spreader boots, and the detachable skull plate, the robot is to a large extent based on Jack Pierce’s design for the creature in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), along with its subsequent sequels and spin-offs.
The relationship with Frankenstein’s monster in the Universal pictures is underlined in a number of scenes in Lourie’s movie. These include where the robot (Ed Wolff, The Phantom Creeps 1939) stumbles awkwardly around the laboratory just after being revived, his disgusted reaction to his own reflection in a mirror, and the very iconic image of the cyborg carrying an unconscious woman in his outstretched arms. It perhaps comes as little surprise to learn that the special effects designer for The Colossus of New York was involved with the earlier works. In fact, from 1931 until 1944, John P. Fulton ran Universal’s world-renowned special effects facility, his credits including major works like Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray (1936), as well as Goerge Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941).
Another probable influence on how the Eugene Lourie/William Alland picture turned out may have been the legend of the Golem. This has been filmed many times over the decades, but the definitive version is considered to be the 1920 version, made by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese under the title Der Golem – Wie Er in die Welt Kam. The allusion to that picture is emphasised by the robot’s solid inorganic body, expressionless features and the fact that a small child plays a part in its destruction, together with his climactic assault on those he considers unworthy of his genius. Wegener and Boese can also be seen to have had a major bearing on Universal’s Frankenstein creaton.
While owing a fair amount to both the Universal and Hammer productions, in terms of overall concept, the screenplay by Thelma Schnee introduces some novel twists of its own. In the other pictures, a damaged brain is placed in the skull of a far from suitable body, with devastating results for both the recipient of the transplant, and those responsible for it. The situation in The Colossus of New York is that the brain is perfectly normal as it is placed into the robotic body. It is not until that it is aware of its situation that things begin to go wrong. Deprived of any sort of sensory experience, outside of electronically induced audio and video, the personality that exists within the brain eventually becomes totally and terribly dehumanised.
In common with most of William Alland’s genre output at Universal-International, in terms of concepts and themes, Eugene Lourie’s film is refreshingly ambitious for what is a rather modest venture.
The movie’s main concern is the argument represented by Robert Hutton’s Carrington and Otto Kruger’s brain surgeon, the father of Jeremy Spensser, over which is the most important, human experience or the power of the intellect. Although sometimes couched in religious terminology, Carrington’s case for the former is still presented in a rational, scientific manner, while that for the latter, somewhat ironically, is presented in an emotionally charged, almost hysterical fashion. It becomes apparent early on that screenwriter Thelma Schnee favours Carrington’s line of reasoning, with Ross Martin’s Jeremy continuing his research project by effectively performing as an ambulatory mainframe computer, with the physical work involved in realising the results of the work being carried out by his father and brother. With no way to experience the product of his efforts, or to relate to how others react to it, indeed completely unable to experience any of the simples sensations that humans take for granted, day to day, Spensser develops a monstrous intellect, eventually becoming literally a monster.
The Colossus of New York also stands out from many of its contemporaries in the field of science fiction due to a greater attention to character detail than was normally the case. An important element in the screenplay is the relationship between the brain surgeon (Otto Kruger, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm 1962) and his two sons, Henry (John Baragrey, Gamera 1965) and the late Jeremy (Ross Martin, The Conquest of Space 1955). Over the years, the father has developed a strong favouritism toward Jeremy, due to a form of intellectual snobbery on the parent’s part. While he sees Henry’s achievements in the field of automation as merely having a commercial function, Jeremy’s work on the World Food Organisation’s agricultural project is seen by him as of great social value to the world, and therefore superior in every way to his brother’s activities.
As a result of this, Henry has always tended to live in his brother’s shadow, with even his own work bearing his sibling’s involvement. Even in death, Jeremy’s presence lives on, albeit in a somewhat distorted form, and so the rivalry remains and intensifies, since Henry is not allowed to replace his brother in their father’s affections. He is also unable to begin a new life with the supposedly widowed sister-in-law Anne and her son, since the spectre of Jeremy is literally waiting in the wings. When he does try to physically show his love for her, she completely misunderstands his advances, and rejects him, thereby incurring the full force of one of the few emotions that that his brother retains, rage.
Schnee is well served by an excellent cast, particularly Mala Powers (The Unknown Terror 1957), as the sensitive Anne who slowly unravels psychologically as the movie progresses, traumatised by the death of her husband, experiencing visions of a giant mechanical man, befriended by her son (Charles Herbert, The Fly 1958), and who refers to him as “daddy”, all the while its existence denied by Henry and his father. Powers nicely underplays the emotional turmoil of the character that succeeds in making her plight all the more affecting. Also impressive is Otto Kruger as the driven, obsessive intellectual fascist father, notably in his verbal confrontation with Robert Hutton (Invisible Invaders 1959) after the burial of his son’s body, and where he cajoles Jeremy into accepting his new situation and carrying on with his research.
The screenwriter also introduces some interesting pulp concepts in to the proceedings. Among these are the fact that since Jeremy no longer relies on his conventional senses to make sense of the world, he has developed fledgling ESP abilities which allow him to predict the collision between two ships in the Hudson River. He is also apparently able to track people electronically through the telephone network, thus allowing him to locate his brother who has fled after the robot caught him kissing his wife. Another interesting idea is that even at such an early stage, sightings of the cyborg roaming the countryside, as well as being glimpsed in New York, have ensured that a contemporary mythology has already built itself around it. It is a pity that some of these were not more fully developed in terms of subplot, although it would have meant extending the film’s running time beyond that of a support feature. In a further neat twist, after witnessing his father using a flashlight to determine whether the brain in the robotic shell has suffered any permanent damage, Jeremy determines that using the correct rate of flashes emanating from his eyes, he can place people under a trance, and thus control them, effectively turning the table on his creator.
Alland’s production does, however, have its shortcomings.
Like other genre items on a restricted budget, the “talk is cheap” philosophy of filmmaking is adopted here, with lengthy dialogue exchanges taking up a substantial amount of running time. Some of this is quite useful in establishing relationships and building characterisations, but much of it is merely mundane. Matters are not helped by Eugene Lourie’s direction. Normally employed as a highly regarded production designer (Crack in the World 1965), as a director Lourie is considered a master technician, taking a very hands on approach to areas such as special effects and action sequences. Unfortunately outside of these specialities, Lourie has often shown a marked disinterest in his project’s other material. This manifests itself in The Colossus of New York, with leadenly handled dialogue scenes which, apart from the occasionally inventive use of composition involving the placing of actors within the frame, are shot from a very limited range of angles, and at some length. Since they are a major element within the overall picture, the flow of the narrative is slowed down dramatically, making the viewing experience something of a challenge for less sympathetic modern viewers.
Surprisingly, the set-pieces at which Lourie would normally be expected to excel, are surprisingly lacklustre, including where the monster destroys the laboratory in a fit of rage, and the climax at the United Nations building in New York. Here the cyborg intends to kill all the humanitarians that he formerly considered himself to be and shoots laser beams from his eyes, much in the style of those which appeared in Byron Haskin and George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953). While the optical effects are well used, the sequence itself fails to convey the panic that the actions of the robot causes and ends too quickly, with the demise of the cyborg seeming very anti-climactic.
Although it has attracted some favourable critical attention, it must be said that the music score by Van Cleave (Robinson Crusoe on Mars 1964), featuring exclusively a grand piano, is almost ludicrously melodramatic in its presentation to the extent that it would not seem out of place accompanying a silent picture. This impression is reinforced by the fact some scenes, featuring the robot in motion were filmed at a different, slower, frame rate than the rest of the movie.
There are some compensations.
Probably the film’s one true outstanding moment occurs when Jeremy’s robotic new body is activated, and he immediately begs to be destroyed. With imaginative of a howling, alien electronic voice, use of low camera angles and reactions from Kruger and Baragrey, this is a truly harrowing piece of filmmaking which the rest of the film never really captures. An interesting feature of this scene, which looks forward to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), is the way that the robot sees the world by way of an electronic screen, represented by an optically distorted image. Greater use of this effect would have added some visual diversity to the enterprise.
If Lourie mishandles many of the production’s other dramatic moments, he does redeem himself with those featuring the growing relationship between the child Billy and his new friend, the giant robot. It is to the credit of ex-circus performer Ed Wolff, that even under the total body casing that he is required to wear for the part here, he can still convincingly convey a range of emotions.
Among other interesting scenes executed by Lourie include, in a reference back to his best-known work as a director The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the robot is seen walking along the floor of the Hudson River, before emerging from below the surface to climb onto the dockside, where he will kill his brother, this proving particularly atmospheric in the manner, surprisingly, of a film noir. The fact that the cyborg’s eyes glow in the dark also creates the occasional frisson, especially when it is seen to emerge from the shadows of a room.
Even without the burning eyes, the actual design of the man/machine is an imposing affair, particular the design of the face, which is quite unsettling and the giant steel hands, making it one of the more interesting screen threats of the 1950s.
The Colossus of New York’s production values are typical for a Paramount programmer from the period, with largely conventional, naturalistic art direction from Hal Pereira (I Married a Monster from Outer Space 1958) and John Goodman (House of Horrors 1946). Apart from some expressionist touches in the surgeon’s mansion, the only real departure from this is the bizarre set constructed for the lobby of the UN building, a strikingly minimalist affair, with an art deco chequered floor, staircase and bare white walls, with little in the way of furniture or ornamentation. The cinematography by John F. Warren (The Cosmic Man 1958) is largely functional, with the occasional use of imaginative lighting. Resources did not run to location shooting in New York itself, and the exteriors of that city are generally provided by glass shots (as in the unusual opening credits) or back projection, courtesy of Farciot Edourart (The Naked Jungle 1953).
Eugene Lourie’s next foray in genre cinema as a director saw him return to the subject of giant monsters, with the British-lensed Behemoth – The Sea Monster (1959), followed two years later by the similarly UK-produced Gorgo.
William Alland’s double-bill proved to be his last venture into science fiction, apart from the short-lived miniaturisation tele-series World of Giants, made at the end of the 1950s. Alland’s subsequent work became more sporadic, until he largely retired from the film industry in the mid-1960s.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
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