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Ex- Orson Welles assistant William Alland produced almost all of Universal-International's science fiction hits of the 1950s. It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon were imaginative productions given a boost by 3D and impressive technical effects, but only a couple of years later shows like The Deadly Mantis and The Mole People weren't much better than the cut-price Poverty Row efforts of the late forties. Alland accepted a more hopeful offer from Paramount, which led to a pair of sci-fi efforts as cheap as anything he'd done at Universal, The Space Children and The Colossus of New York. At first glance this reworking of ideas from Frankenstein and The Golem would seem to have big possibilities: the director is the talented Eugène Lourié, a world-class art director and special effects consultant who directed Ray Harryhausen's breakthrough picture as well as the impressive Technicolor giant monster film Gorgo.
Produced on a small scale, The Colossus of New York is an effective monster film whose immediate appeal seems limited to children. To compensate for the lack of depth and complexity in the storyline, director Lourié imparts a fairytale-like graphic simplicity to its fairly innovative monster, an eight-foot cyborg with more than a few similarities to the sci-fi masterpiece RoboCop made thirty years later.
The brilliant, wealthy Spensser family is celebrating a Nobel Peace Prize win by the young genius Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin), for his development of plants that can be grown in cold conditions. But all are horrified when Jeremy is killed in a traffic accident upon his return from Stockholm. Jeremy's surgeon father William (Otto Kruger) takes the body to his lab, emerging several hours later to admit that his efforts to revive his son have failed. But William has removed Jeremy's brain, and with the help of his other son Dr. Henry (John Baragrey), a specialist in automation, builds an artificial body to house it. While family friend Dr. John Carrington (Robert Hutton) stays close, Henry comforts Jeremy's widow Anne and his son Billy (Mala Powers and Charles Herbert), who have moved into the Spensser mansion. William and Henry secretly help Jeremy adjust to his mechanical body, helping him to speak electronically and walk by moving his massive steel boots. But as John had predicted, Jeremy suffers a profound alienation. Feeling like a ghost in his metallic body, he must be coaxed into staying alive to continue his philanthropic-scientific work.
A year later, Jeremy-Colossus has developed extra-sensory perception to compensate for his lack of other senses. Visiting his own grave, he meets his son Billy (Charles Herbert), who mistakes him for a storybook "giant". Having been told that his wife and child are dead, Jeremy-Colossus is enraged. He then sees Henry trying to talk Anne into a romantic Hawaiian vacation. Unleashing death rays from his eyes and exercising new powers of mind control, Jeremy plans a grandiose revenge on the world, starting with a symbol of the "useless humanity" he once loved -- the United Nations.
A standard Frankenstein joke asked why, after The Monster's many murders, the Baron didn't simply make a little monster. The benign Jeremy becomes a humungous steel robot, an obvious threat. Why does his father give him such a frightening face? The Colossus retains several aspects of the original 1920 German Golem, including the monster's jealousy and a prominent "off" switch tucked under his armpit. Little Billy's secret meetings with his friendly Iron Giant set up the Golem-like finish, but they also seem more than a little perverse: "Billy! Don't ever touch me there!"
Dr. John lectures Dr. William with a variation on the antiquated notion that any human personality uprooted from its God- given and approved environment will turn evil, just as artificial life or life created by black magic is evil. Frankenstein's Monster commits crimes because he has no soul. Blaspheming scientists in stories like The Invisible Man are deranged by hubris and seek to dominate or destroy humans less worthy than themselves.
The unsubtle script charts Jeremy's trauma over his human/robot issues. Haunted by his inability to reconnect with his human family and enraged by lies and deceit, the robot runs amuck. He unaccountably develops the ability to project death rays from his electronic eyeballs, a la Gort, the interplanetary policeman of The Day the Earth Stood Still. 1
Producer Alland was tasked only with producing an inexpensive horror attraction. Yet The Colossus of New York misses the boat for not exploiting the macabre situation of a man's consciousness transplanted into another "body". Good wife Anne never comes face-to-face with the new Jeremy, a confrontation that might have made Colossus a truly memorable fantasy. RoboCop of course derived much of its power from its cyborg hero's attempt to recall his previous life as a Detroit cop. The most interesting scene in the Hammer film Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed occurs when a brain transplantee talks to his wife through a screen, so she won't be traumatized by his new face. It's possible, I suppose, that the Production Code might have discouraged a macabre meeting between robo-Jeremy and Anne, as a sick idea that might say bad things about the sanctity of life and the meaning of marriage. Letting the Colossus go berserk and kill a lot of people is much more acceptable for kiddie fare.
The bizarre ending carries an uncomfortable subversive charge: a philanthropic recipient of the Peace Prize commits a massacre at the United Nations. Art director John Goodman sketches the U.N. with minimal sets built around a broad checkerboard floor and a large plaque bearing a pacifist credo. Restricted camera angles lend this final scene a dreamlike quality, as does Eugène Lourié's bizarre direction: the various U.N. dignitaries stand in place, waiting patiently to be fried by the cyborg's death rays. A sound effect from The War of the Worlds is repurposed, and optical artist John P. Fulton animates the deadly ray blasts. Editor Floyd Knutson must have been left with no options for cutaways, because he's forced to use a shot out of order and continuity: before the first female victim is zapped by a death ray, we see her already lying in place on the shiny U.N. floor. Adding to the dreamlike weirdness, nobody comes to the aid of this woman or any of the other the fallen dignitaries.
Actor Otto Kruger is no stranger to horror fare, and his Doctor Frankenstein character is the kind of credibility stretch we accept in movies of this sort. But as a tragedy in a dynastic family of scientists The Colossus of New York makes little sense. At the end Kruger's Dr. William walks innocently away, with a sad look on his face. As he's directly responsible for everything bad that has happened, to have his daughter-in-law accept his monstrous deceit is just nonsense. The other actors are given fairly colorless roles. Ross Martin is most often singled out because of his subsequent TV career, and he makes a fine impression in the film's opening. We wish that the Colossus seemed more like him -- we look in vain to see "Jeremy" in the monster. Little Charles Herbert got more than his share of film work at this age, and does well considering that the script makes Billy behave in a way that seems too young for his age.
With its moody set pieces The Colossus of New York takes itself more seriously than many other monster romps from the late 1950s. It is a bit lacking in the fun department, unless kids (I was too young to see this one personally in a theater) got a good laugh from the robot's mock-paternal voice when talking to Billy, or giggled to see him striding calmly up the bottom of New York's East River. Every time I see the Colossus stepping up those stairs out of the river dripping wet, I think of James Stewart carrying Kim Novak up a set of similar waterside steps on another Paramount sound stage. Jeremy/Colossus begins as a promising monster creation, and by the end becomes just another lumbering intruder, smashing through glass walls. At least director Lourié gives him some expressive scenes along the way.
Olive Films' DVD of The Colossus of New York is an excellent enhanced transfer of a B&W Paramount show filmed with that studio's high standards of quality. Early word that the transfer would be flat was corrected by Olive FIlms, to everyone's relief. The rich blacks register best in the moody night scenes of the Colossus keeping a murder appointment on a dockside street. It's amusing that a slow-moving, eight-foot monster can come and go in the busy metropolis and remain undetected.
Of special mention is the film's music score, an effective piano duet composed by the prolific (Nathan Lang) Van Cleave. Some find the music monotonous and others feel that it's an interesting alternative to a full orchestration. But the choice wasn't an artistic one: a musicians' strike early in 1958 had studios recording film scores overseas and in some cases doing without them altogether.
The disc comes with no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Colossus of New York rates:
1. William Alland's Paramount features pinched pennies when it came to monster making. The Colossus has formidable robot hands and boots, but the flowing robe that covers most of his body makes him look like a mechanical Roman Senator. The head makes no sense at all -- why give robo-Jeremy such a tortured countenance? Our attention soon goes to the little screens under the robot's eyes that enable actor Ed Wolff's real eyes to see. Paramount's I Married a Monster from Outer Space, made the same year by producer Gene Fowler Jr., has a superb monster design. "Monster maker" Charles Gemora was involved in both projects.
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