Writers: Thelma Schnee, Willis Goldbeck Cinematography: John F. Warren Music: Van Cleave
Cast: John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger, Robert Hutton, Ross Martin, Charles Herbert, Ed Wolff
When altruistic scientific genius Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is run over by a truck – which is the sort of thing that can happen when you’re running onto a street chasing your son’s toy plane – his father, genius brain surgeon William (Otto Kruger) takes the personal loss and the loss to humanity extremely badly. Once I had spent some on-screen time with his surviving son, the semi-genius electronics scientist Henry (John Baragrey), I could understand the old man’s feelings quite well, for his father’s very pronounced preference for Jeremy has turned Henry into a giant prick.
So disturbed by Jeremy’s loss is William that he uses his own scientific talents to steal and save his son’s brain. It’s all for the best of humanity, you see, and certainly hasn’t anything at all to do with William’s inability to face the death of his son. After some SCIENCE(!) using water tanks, electrodes and other very scientific implements, the brain is as good as new. Now it’s time to build a new body for Jeremy’s brain, and who better to help out there than Henry? Henry has spent the months in between trying to take his brother’s place with Jeremy’s wife Anne (Mala Powers) and son Billy (Charles Herbert), but has been met with a polite indifference he has been unable to parse or wear down; Anne is drawn to the (comparatively) least prickish man in the film, Jeremy’s former partner in science John Carrington (Robert Hutton), but that’s not something Henry realizes. Do I even need to mention the Spenssers don’t find it necessary to tell Anne they’re playing with her dead husband’s brain?
So William and Henry build a huge, lumbering robot body with a face like an expressionist sculpture for Jeremy, because we couldn’t have the man look into a mirror and not have a breakdown, right?
Given how his brand new body looks, and that his dear family tells him his wife and son are dead, the newly mechanized Jeremy takes quite well to the whole situation. Sure, he has a complete breakdown and asks his father to destroy him until the old arse convinces him otherwise, but afterwards he starts on his new experiments that are supposed to make the poles usable for food growth, or something of that sort. Science(!), I dare say. All this does obviously take place in William’s lab right in the cellar of the house Anne and Billy live in, too, but hey, when Anne hears something like the horrible screams of her husband when he first sees what he’s been turned into, the charming Spenssers can just tell her she’s hallucinating because of the strain she has been under, right?
But then, in a development nobody could have seen coming, Robo-Jerry develops fantastic ESP powers, like random precognition, hypnosis and later on the ability to shoot death rays out of his eyes, as you do. I’m sure he won’t put the mind whammy on his father to be able to visit his own grave on the first anniversary of his death where he surely won’t repeat a scene from a Frankenstein movie with his son.
And surely, the knowledge that his father and brother not only haven’t bothered to build him a decent robot body but have also lied to him about his wife and kid won’t turn our Jerry a wee bit mad! Man, this transplanting brains into robot bodies business really is pretty difficult.
As you know, Jim, art director and production designer Eugene Lourie did occasionally – and quite successfully – dabble in the direction of 50s giant monster movies. The “monster” in The Colossus of New York is, despite what the film’s title and marketing tagline (“Towering above the skyline – an indestructible creature whose eyes rain death and destruction!”) might suggest, not one of the giant kind trampling New York into tiny pieces, but rather a brother to the misunderstood creature Frankenstein created. Interestingly, Jeremy, with his ability to speak and think coherently and his planned acts of destruction late in the film is closer to the creature of Mary Shelley’s novel than the more childlike creature of the Universal movies, something that I have difficulty seeing as an accident in a script as clearly literary as that Thelma Schnee delivered for the movie.
Schnee’s script is a very interesting effort, managing to surround the silly parts and the plot holes you’d expect (and demand) of a film like The Colossus with more complex characters than you’d generally find in a 50s SF/horror film and some pretty poignant scenes concerning the most dysfunctional family I’ve seen in a genre movie from the 50s. Quite contrary to the traditions of the time, where acting the dick usually makes you the hero of the piece, The Colossus actually seems to realize how dysfunctional and horrific its characters actually are, and makes their flaws the true reason for the minor catastrophe the film’s plot culminates in. Sure, there’s a short discussion (acted with great gusto by Kruger, who seems to have quite a bit of fun with his mad scientist role throughout the film) about the soul early on in the film, and some of the mandatory “tampering in god’s domain” speechifying at its end, but it’s also clear that the film’s heart isn’t in these explanations. Everything bad that happens here comes from the characters’ inability to treat each other like actual, complete human beings.
Of course, a complex, yet heavily flawed (and a bit too short), script like this could be easily ruined by the wrong direction style. I’m pretty happy to report that the script at hand wasn’t adapted by a poverty row point and shoot director like – say – William Beaudine, but the clearly more art conscious Lourie, who had no problem recognizing a Freudianized version of Frankenstein when he saw it and used the opportunity to turn his film into as much of a visual homage to early Universal horror movies as a film set in the New York of the 50s (not that we get to see much of it – most of the film takes place in three rooms and a graveyard) can be. For my tastes, Lourie is very successful at it too – at least so successful that most of his film’s theoretical silliness turned out to not feel silly at all while I was watching, because the film’s finely developed atmosphere turned most of what it surrounded into something serious and riveting.