Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Colossus of New York (1958)

Say what you will about the 1950s (and I know a lot of folks today love to bemoan how repressed and repressive it was underneath a false veneer of happiness; I personally love watching films from that time because the filmmakers had to be extremely sneaky and creative in order to discuss more subversive/unpopular topics), but that era had a tremendous amount of style to burn.  The future was still being sold as a predominantly positive thing back then, with everyone soon to receive their own personal jet packs and live in utopian cities comprised of fully automated houses that would take care of people’s every need and whim (and have a look at Tex Avery’s World of Tomorrow cartoons for some great parodying of notions like these, even though I believe they may have been produced in the Forties).  The future was sculpted in glass and metal, and it was a glorious interweaving of smooth curves and jagged angles.  It felt like the future should feel.  Fast forward to today, where the future lives.  It is still carved largely from metal and glass, but no one is buying its promises any longer.  People have become cynical to the point that no matter how good looking the future may be on a surface level, it’s not to be trusted.  There is an undercurrent of grime that just makes it all feel ugly and worthless, no matter how attractively designed.  We’re not encouraged to think about a positive future anymore, and when we do, we’re deemed naïve, unrealistic.  I know this because it has happened to me.  Further, I’ve become the cynic I used to think was holding me back.  I tend to criticize the negatives before I laud the positives.  Despite this, there is an ember of hope that still burns within me.  The odds on it being fanned into a flame are slim (there’s that cynic again), but it exists, and it is this sliver of light on which Eugene Lourie’s The Colossus of New York turns, even while journeying to some dark places.

Dr. Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) applauds his brother Henry’s (John Baragrey) innovations in automation, while he himself is gearing up (no pun intended) to accept a Peace Prize (I don’t recall the actual name “Nobel” being bandied about) for his work in fighting world hunger.  After Jeremy is killed in an accident, his neurosurgeon father, William (Otto Kruger), suddenly has a stroke of genius(-ish): with Henry’s assistance, he transplants Jeremy’s brain into a robot body.  Meanwhile, Henry starts to make time with Jeremy’s widow(-ish), Ann (Mala Powers), and surely all of this will work out splendidly, right?

When people think of Science Fiction from the 50s, most automatically conjure films of the Atom Age Monster ilk like Them! and The Deadly Mantis or Space Adventure films like Fantastic Planet and Queen of Outer Space.  But there were more toned down, slightly grittier movies to be found as well, and The Colossus of New York is one of those.  The film doesn’t fit snugly into a single category, and if anything it may be described as a Robot Gothic Melodrama.  It largely takes place at the Spensser family manse, and it’s all about the secrets and twisted inter-relationships among a family that appears happy so long as everything is going along smoothly (read: “a false veneer of happiness”) .  The chief antagonist is patriarch William.  He is obsessed with his son Jeremy and the idea of continuing his work to the point of monomania.  In contrast is Henry, who, even though he is well-regarded in his field and is essential to William’s scheme, is judged as the lesser brother by his father.  Henry’s pursuit of Ann, while a genuine expression of long held emotions, has an air of bitter revenge to it as well.  What better way to get back at his dismissive father than by taking something that meant so much to his favored sibling?  Ann and son, Billy (Charles Herbert, whom you’ll recognize from that same year’s The Fly), are the emotional lynchpin of the film, although even in that respect, the filmmakers are more concerned with the men of the family.  The relationship between the Colossus and Billy is far more important to the film and its characters than the relationship between Ann and pretty much everybody, except in how that motivates the deranged actions of the robot.  Billy is the Spensser male untouched by madness or poor decision-making skills.  He, above them all, recognizes good from evil instantly, and he doesn’t allow appearances to deceive him (he does, after all, trust a giant, metal man with a creepy voice within moments of meeting him).  It’s Billy who most deserves to be saved from this family, and it’s he who can deliver salvation to them (especially his dad), because he’s innocent (cynics might argue that he’s naïve).

The film also touches on ideas of identity, and it does so in several interesting ways.  The first and most obvious deals with the concept of the relationship between the mind and the physical, human body.  This is even brought up directly in a conversation between William and family friend John Carrington (Robert Hutton).  William scoffs at John’s idea that a person’s soul is the synthesis between their body and mind.  William believes that a person’s mind can exist and continue on without a flesh-and-blood body.  John espouses that the human mind removed from the human body is removed from humanity.  And of course, he is ultimately proved correct.  Once Jeremy’s brain is encased in the Colossus’ body, it’s a swift progression into inhumanity and insanity.  This is displayed in the Colossus’ visual perception and communication ability.  When he is first activated, Lourie provides the audience with shots from the robot’s perspective.  The screen is filled with static and television scan lines.  He is (and we are) instantly lost to the real world (of the film), a watcher from within his new body.  His voice, likewise, is unearthly.  It warbles and crackles, and many times it elevates into piercing screams that can unsettle even the hardiest of wills.  His face is inexpressive, and his voice is frightening.  Unable to articulate his “soul,” Jeremy’s mind descends into madness that much quicker.  There is a theory that the process of transforming Jeremy into a cyborg is flawed and may, in fact, have caused his derangement.  The implication is that, because this new body was made by men and not by nature/God/what have you, it is even more imperfect, more distant from the natural world, and therefore more impersonal/evil.  Nevertheless, this same detachment from humanity grants Jeremy a sense of ESP, as well as the power to (mechanically) hypnotize mere human minds.  With the granting of these new, formidable powers comes the classic corruption we’re perennially warned about, yet only the physically weakest of the characters is powerful enough to triumph in this spiritual conflict.

The Blu-ray of The Colossus of New York from Olive Films is pretty darned nice, despite its lack of extras.  The picture quality is exquisite, with deep pools of black accentuating the Noir-esque lighting and compositions.  The Mono audio is enhanced for DTS-HD, and it really brings out the sound effects as well as Van Cleave’s spare, stirring piano score.  I think it would be very difficult to top this release in the presentation department.  Check it out.

MVT:  The Colossus is one of those iconic, yet still somehow rarely spoken of monstrous creations that just works, especially for its budget constraints.  Charles Gemora and Ralph Jester’s design elegantly gives the character a sense of massive power without showing you every last rivet.

Make or Break:  You can see some influence of this film on Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop in the scene where the Colossus first awakens, and it’s an astonishing scene that feels offbeat for its time.  If the Dutch director never saw this film, I would be surprised, but then again, great minds do think alike.  Or so I’m told.

Score:  6.75/10        

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