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"And lo! The inspired one emerged from the wilderness of Wisconsin to seek his fortune as a Hollywood filmmaker. And verily this man among men didst flourish in his new garden of creativity, inspired by a vision: make it bigger."
That's the optimistic view.
Bert Ira Gordon was one of several rogue producers and directors who in 1953 and '54 scraped together some cash to make monster movies on less than a shoestring. Even if the movies cost only 30, 40 or 50 thousand dollars, those sums were in no way chicken feed; in 1955 a modest house in a reasonable location might go for as little as $15,000. The enterprising Roger Corman and Herman Cohen made cheapies that actually received releases and recouped their expenditures. Corman was possibly exaggerating but his Monster from the Ocean Floor, if one figures in deals he made for free services and defrayed lab work, might really have been filmed with only a $12,000 outlay. These microscopic numbers did not escape industry attention, even as the big studios turned their noses up at such undignified filmic subject matter. Why, if audiences really stopped wanting bloated dramas and musicals with big stars, it would mean the end of their livelihood.
The legal breakup of the distribution-exhibition monopoly allowed independent distributors to hawk their wares without being elbowed out of theaters by the big studios. Distributors willing to gamble on this new kind of independent film were Lippert, Allied Artists and later, American-International. Bert I. Gordon's first effort with future writer-director Tom Gries was called Serpent Island; it was reportedly made in Gordon's garage and may have seen most of its screenings on television. They followed that up with the first "real" Bert I. Gordon epic, which he directed and Gries wrote, 1955's King Dinosaur. Barely more than an hour even after an endless stock footage montage, this triple-Z movie used fairly terrible effects to matte lizards into shots of Hollywood's Bronson Caverns location. Six or seven basic effects setups and a stock-footage V-2 rocket and atom explosion courtesy of a stock footage library, and Gordon called it a feature. King Dinosaur received a real release. Variety called it "a mild science-fiction yarn okay for smaller double billing," which in this particular case is glowing praise.
Gordon's next effort, the subject of this new Warner Archive Collection DVD-R release, is The Cyclops, a film finished soon after Dinosaur but not released until just after the 1957 debut of Gordon's next picture, the much bigger-budgeted Beginning of the End. 1 Allied Artists double-billed Cyclops with Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, by the acclaimed King of the B's, Edgar G. Ulmer. And Gordon's show took the top slot on the bill.
Gordon wrote and directed The Cyclops on his own, and it's said that he took over much of the cinematography as well. Although the movie lacks professional polish, it's not a backyard production like Gordon's first two efforts. His cast of four is well chosen, especially for such a small film. Ex- MGM contractee Tom Drake had played Judy Garland's boyfriend in Meet Me in St. Louis. Top-billed James Craig was another MGM actor of talent (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Human Comedy, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) set adrift in the post-studio contract wilderness. By the time the show was released, Lon Chaney Jr. was the one cast member known to potential kid audiences, thanks to the recently released Shock Theater TV syndication package of his older Universal horror films. Surprisingly, the Chaney name wasn't even used on the posters, a distinction offered only to James Craig. The fearless heroine is played by Gloria Talbott, a real talent who made a splash in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and kept busy in TV shows while taking any feature work she could get. Talbott is also in The Cyclops' second feature Daughter of Dr. Jekyll but is best known for her excellent starring turn in the next year's I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
Gordon's direction is unremarkable, but his story isn't at all bad for movies made at this level of production. Beautiful Susan Winter (Talbott) hires a plane to travel with three men into central Mexico, hoping to find her fiancé Bruce Barton, who disappeared in the 'forbidden territory' the previous year. Disobeying the local governor and overpowering a guard dispatched to see them back to the U.S. border, the foursome flies directly into the off-limits airspace. Susan's pilot Lee Brand (Drake) is an alcoholic who has lost his license to fly. Russ Bradford (Craig) was Bruce's best friend and now hopes that Susan will accept the fact that Bruce is most likely dead. Marty (Chaney) has bankrolled the flight; he's brought along a Geiger counter device he calls a scintillator to search for Uranium in the forbidden jungle.
Treacherous winds force the plane to make an emergency landing a valley or two away from where they think Bruce crashed. Marty is both a coward and a cheat. Detecting a strong uranium-like signal on his machine, he tries to talk Lee into flying back without the others so he can launch yet another crooked stock offering. Russ and Susan are shocked when giant animals -- a hawk, a rodent, a lizard -- cross their path. She talks the group into pressing on, and they eventually locate some wreckage from Bruce's plane and evidence that he crawled into a large cave (Guess where?). That's when they're confronted by a horrifying sight, a thirty-foot bald giant with a grotesquely disfigured face. The giant roars and growls and traps them in the cave. Seemingly mentally impaired, the giant wails even louder as it gesticulates at Susan, who seems to have some significance for him.
On its own tawdry terms, The Cyclops works. Bert I. Gordon was no director of actors, but this group is more than professional. The actors play their stereotypes well considering that they mostly just stand around and argue. Lon Chaney's avaricious securities crook isn't particularly convincing, but he's certainly animated. The other three are never caught staring blankly or smiling when they shouldn't, which happens in too many of these pictures. Your standard "radiation" excuse accounts for the giant animals. The giant man's face has been deformed because the area's (rather exotic) radiation acts differently on scar tissue -- the man had a wound over his eye when he entered the 'forbidden valley'.
The direction displays few niceties. One exception is an effective giant's-eye view of Susan as she stumbles upon the wrecked plane, only to look up toward the camera and scream her lungs out. And this Cyclops is something to remember. He tends to scare the bejeesus out of small kids. Makeup man Jack H. Young outfits stuntman Dean Parkin with a beautifully-designed facial appliance that gives half of his face a "melted" look, with a single staring, bloodshot pop-eye. Young's most clever trick is the illusion that half of the Cyclops' upper lip is gone, exposing the teeth beneath. It's a truly surreal Tromp-l'ioeil effect. 2 The makeup will startle most anyone on a first viewing. Dean Parkin's extreme facial contortions add greatly to the effect. When the Cyclops suddenly rises into the frame and roars (he always seems to be contorting his mouth, as if in a perpetual howl), it's difficult not to flinch. Crude, perhaps, but the monster really grabs impressionable kids.
The show's second unsung hero is the ubiquitous voice talent Paul Frees, who must provide at least twelve full minutes of Cyclops vocal effects. The monster is constantly crying, growling, breathing heavily, whining and yowling like a tortured cat, all of which is played at an exaggerated volume. Yes, the "character" really isn't developed, but the Cyclops can't be ignored -- he's a walking, groaning horror and I'll bet that he's inspired a nightmare or two in his time.
The movie ends much the same as Odysseus's fabled encounter with Polyphemus. By now the entire cult film world knows that early copies of the Warner Archive's The Cyclops were abridged by a few seconds. I know a couple of people associated with WB's archives, and they want to see things like this fixed as much as anyone. When they can, they do. (The title is now fixed, read this.) The giant takes a large spear in his one remaining eye (not something to wish on anyone), and it's been shown that someone cut the Allied Artists negative to remove a subsequent bit of bloody trauma when he yanks the spear out. As of December 9, 2010, this bit of mayhem has been restored.
The Allied Artists negative in Warners' posssession wasn't made for television. This is indicated by the fact that it doesn't have the interminable prologue and epilogue text scrolls added to pad the film out to minimum length for a 90-minute time slot. If the timing given by the IMDB represents the TV print, the scrolls add nine minutes to the running time. Is this possible? I don't think that The Cyclops on TV bore any of those awful step-printed sequences that stretched out scenes in shows like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. But it might have been given a pre-title prologue, a pre-repeat of the scene of Gloria Talbott finding the wreckage of the plane, and then screaming up at the camera. My memory is vague on this; I'm sure one of Savant's correspondents knows for sure. 4
The Cyclops may be a monster show for "undiscriminating audiences", but it has a tawdry grandeur all its own. A perfect example of a drive-in thriller made with more ambition than resources, it transports us back to a year when any reasonably competent stab at filmic entertainment could be rewarded with a national release. Freebooters like Bert I. Gordon were following their version of the American dream -- making their own movies and selling them in a film market that could accommodate crazy independents. Humble as his films may be, Bert I. Gordon is a notable '50s trendsetter, a "prophet from the wilderness". In today's failing market plenty of costly films starring big names have difficulty even finding a video release. In the tender words of Paul Frees, "ARRwerRAOWurghamOORAHgraaWAHWAH hrombhORGH!"
After decades of fuzzy and dark video copies, the Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Cyclops is a beautiful thing to see, enhanced in widescreen and looking like it was filmed yesterday. Bert I. Gordon's mattes and bi-pack camera tricks (complete with occasional see-through monsters) are easily examined, as is the terrific monster makeup job. When one character is plucked out of frame by a giant monster hand, the whole image around the man comes with him ... you'll have to see this cheesy effect to believe it.
There are no extras. The keep case cover is graced with original release artwork that includes an image of what looks like soldiers attacking a giant iguana. That scene must have been playing in the theater next door.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cyclops rates:
1. There's an explanation behind the delay of The Cyclops. Gordon sold the distribution rights to RKO, which planned to release it with the Hammer film X- the Unknown. RKO then dropped out of the distribution business and sold off its inventory. X- the Unknown went to Warners, The Mysterians to MGM and The Cyclops to Allied Artists. Some release prints reportedly retained an RKO logo!
2. Jack H. Young would create an even more impressive makeup for Gordon's later giant man movie, War of the Colossal Beast. It also stars Dean Parkin and replays some of this movie's plot points.
This news blurb from Tom Weaver, posted on the Classic Horror Film Board:
"If, prior to December 1, you ordered The Cyclops from the WB Shop -- and of course received a DVD where the extracting-the-spear-from-the-eye shot is missing -- here's some good news:
Call Customer Service at (866) 373-4389, and they'll find your order in their system and verify that you got it from them -- and then they'll mail you a brand-new, hot-off-the-presses uncut DVD of The Cyclops. Free of charge. Keep your old one, use it a coaster, whatever.
This news will appear later today (or tomorrow, or whenever) on the WB Archive's Facebook page, but they recognize this site as Monster Fan Central and wanted the news to break here.
If you got a cut The Cyclops from anywhere other than the WB Shop ... move along, citizen, nothing to see here."
Operators are standing by!
Well, this is a pleasant outcome ... and it says positive things about the Warner Archive Collection's desire to please its customers. It's unclear when the original The Cyclops cut happened. I believe Tim Lucas was the first to report the bloody eyeball gap on his Video WatchBlog, as seen on an HD cable showing in 2006.
When it was still known as Monogram, Allied Artists performed a similar act of vandalism on the original negative to the eccentric film noir Decoy. When a perfect original print screened at the American Cinematheque, femme fatale Jean Gillie is seen to run over a victim with her car, and then for good measure, run him over again. The literal overkill is the grabber, as the car bumps over the body a second time. Warners' otherwise flawless & amazing DVD is made from the original negative, which Monogram or AA trimmed slightly -- the automobile homicide is reduced to a much less outrageous one-pass rollover. In a perfect world the owner of the Cinematheque print and WB would get together and fix the Decoy master. I'm happy to promote such a thing, but being a rational adult, I'm not holding my breath or starting a protest movement.
The Allied Artists TV print does indeed begin with that scene (Talbott finding the plane wreckage). I think it also has some step-printed stuff during the jungle-trek sequences. Those interminable crawls at the beginning and end were at least good for fans of composers like Al Glasser and Ronald Stein, whose scores were looped to fill.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.