Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Colossus of New York

(1958) Directed by Eugène Lourié; Written by Thelma Schnee; Based on a story by Willis Goldbeck; Starring: John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger and Ross Martin;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“…any brain divorced from human experience must become dehumanized to the point of monstrousness.” – Dr. John Robert Carrington (Robert Hutton)

I’m not entirely sure when I first watched The Colossus of New York on TV, but it left a huge impact on my impressionable young mind.  I was fascinated and terrified by images of a lumbering robot with a human brain, which continued to resonate decades later.  Based on my childhood memories, I came to regard the film as an obscure classic, despite the fact that I was unable to see it for many years afterward.  Thanks to the film’s recent release on DVD, I was able to experience it again.  Knowing that it was impossible to duplicate the impact that it once had, would still hold up after all these years?

When gifted scientist/inventor Dr. Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin of Wild, Wild West fame) dies in a tragic accident, his father, Dr. William Spensser (Otto Kruger), does what any grieving parent (okay, maybe not every grieving parent) would do, and endeavors to keep the brain alive.  He enlists the aid of Jeremy’s brother Henry (John Baragrey) to design a robot body to house the brain.  As Jeremy regains consciousness, he isn’t too pleased with his new corporeal arrangements.  Bereft of the ability to smell, taste or feel, he’s a prisoner in his artificial body.  His father convinces him to continue his experiments in secret, for the benefit of humankind.  It’s an uneasy arrangement that works for a time, until Jeremy decides that humanity isn’t worth saving.

Makeup supervisor Wally Westmore’s imposing robotic creation is the true star of The Colossus of New York.  While it evokes comparison to Paul Wegener’s Golem and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, Westmore’s robot is a truly original piece of work.  In fact, the results are so intimidating that they beg the question why anyone would want to create an oversized and immensely powerful body for a potentially unstable brain.  Of course, the real answer is so the robot can go berserk and embark on a rampage through the streets of Manhattan.  Unable to experience physical love, isolated from his wife and son, and confined to a small private laboratory (back in the days when every aspiring scientist had one built into their home), it’s only a matter of time before Jeremy flips his lid.  Thankfully, for the purpose of plot convenience, he’s equipped with a handy shut-off switch on his side.

Sadly, the human characters in the film are much less effective.  William comes across as self-righteous, while Henry just seems smug.  Jeremy’s widow Anne (Mala Powers) plays the stereotypical helpless female protagonist, thwarting Henry’s clumsy advances, while failing to ask the most basic questions about experiments being conducted right under her nose.  Even when she suspects something is awry, she fails to press the issue, even when William admonishes her not to see her son Billy in the daytime (conveniently enabling Jeremy to meet with Billy in secret). The filmmakers seem hell-bent on presenting the Jeremy robot as a monster, but William is the true antagonist.  (Spoiler Alert) His half-assed little speech at the end of the movie about the brain not containing a soul ignores the tenderness that Jeremy displays for his son.  His expression of remorse does little to absolve his poor decisions throughout the film, nor does he receive the comeuppance his character deserves (usually a 50s sci-fi staple).

Despite the film’s problematic elements, there’s a lot that clicks.  Lourié, who worked predominantly as an art director, imbues an atmospheric, pseudo-gothic feel to the movie.     Shots of the errant robot lurking in the shadows recall German expressionism, and scenes involving Jeremy walking underwater possess a dreamlike quality.  Van Cleave’s subdued piano-based score contributes to an overwhelming sense of dread.  I also can’t forget the robot’s plaintive, screeching wail, which follows his initial activation.  It’s nothing short of nightmare fuel.

The Colossus of New York may not have been the lost classic I had anticipated, but it’s still a moderately effective take on the Frankenstein formula.  Westmore’s unforgettable creation and a dark, pervasive atmosphere mostly offset the poor characterizations and uninspired story.  It’s interesting to note that many of the themes presented in the film (such as where man ends and machine begins) would be explored thirty years later, albeit more successfully, with Robocop. Although The Colossus of New York may not have followed through with the more provocative issues it raises, it remains a worthwhile attempt.   

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