The Colossus of New York

I would like to pay tribute to a film for which nobody has ever made any claims, but which has given me much pleasure on repeated viewings: Eugene Lourié’s The Colossus of New York (1958). It is a modest work, and a simple enumeration of its points of interest may be more appropriate than vindication or exegesis, as it lacks both the perfection that would force its details into integrated significance, and the imperfection for which one could compensate with comprehensive theories.

Lourié has virtually nothing to say about The Colossus of New York in his autobiography (1). He mentions it precisely once (p. 290), as one of several films using matte shots. Elsewhere (p. 241) he writes of the many “unbelievably bad” scripts that passed his way; one wonders if he would have included The Colossus. However, his reticence is not necessarily significant, as his book is largely an account of his achievements in design: he was an excellent art director, working with Renoir (on La Règle du jeu, La Grande Illusion, and The River, among others), Ophüls, Clair, Becker, L’Herbier, Chaplin, Fuller, and Eastwood, as well as on such spectaculars as Krakatoa – East of Java (Bernard Kowalski, 1968). It was Lourié’s general competence and skill with effects that led to his first directorial appointment, The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms (1953), on which he collaborated with special effects master Ray Harryhausen. After this, Lourié’s other films were, with the exception of The Colossus, limited to variations on The Beast The Giant Behemoth (1959) and Gorgo (1961), both films which cover the same territory (dinosaur attacks city, in these cases London), with less successful results. Each film has some impressive effects, but in my view The Colossus attains far richer and more consistent value.

To summarize The Colossus (scripted by Thelma Schnee from a story by Willis Goldbeck) may reveal more of its implausibilities than its achievements. Briefly, prodigiously gifted scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is awarded the “International Peace Prize” for his work to end hunger. At the airport upon his return, he attempts to retrieve his son Billy’s (Charles Herbert) toy airplane from a gust of wind, and is hit by a truck and killed. Jeremy’s father, a great brain surgeon (Otto Kruger), orders the body brought to his laboratory; after several hours, he emerges, apparently defeated. Jeremy is buried, and a heated exchange ensues between Dr. Spensser and Jeremy’s friend Dr. Carrington (Robert Hutton). Carrington claims that the mind must be connected to the body via the soul if it is not to become monstrous; Dr. Spensser dismisses him, announcing that in the brain alone is all human greatness. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Spensser reveals to his weaker son Henry (John Baragrey) that he has preserved Jeremy’s brain, and compels Henry’s aid in building a giant robot to house it. Horrified by his new life, “Jeremy” at first demands death, but agrees to live when his father reminds him that his unfinished work can benefit mankind. Meanwhile, the insistent lab work interferes with Henry’s courtship of Jeremy’s widow Anne (Mala Powers), and intensifies his resentment. “Jeremy” works on its research, and discovers that he now has telepathic powers. On the first anniversary of his death, he hypnotizes his father and visits Billy, with whom he develops a friendship. Henry, after having dismissed Anne’s suspicions, now tries to convince her to run away with him: they are confronted by the robot, and Henry abandons Anne, whose experience with the robot is later dismissed as hallucination, particularly by Carrington. Taking refuge in New York, Henry asks his father for help; however, now completely under the robot’s hypnotic power, the father sets Henry up to be destroyed by its death-ray eyes. In accord with Carrington’s conjectures, “Jeremy” has grown evil, destroying his work and insisting that all humanitarians be destroyed. To this end he appears at the UN and kills numerous people before interrupted by his angry son. His humanity touched, “Jeremy” asks the boy to stop him since he cannot stop himself: the boy switches a lever and the robot crashes dead to the floor.

It would be easy to list all that tests suspension of disbelief: why would the robot be built with death-ray eyes, for instance? However, it is more charitable to shift attention to the film’s thematic level, which is richer and more interesting. The crux of the film lies in the debate between Carrington and Dr. Spensser about the relation of genius to the soul. Earlier Dr. Spensser has proudly asserted that his son’s genius is of the third and highest type. Unlike the first and most primitive type (concerned only with their own preservation; his dubious examples are Machiavelli and Napoleon) or the second (concerned with family and immediate community), Jeremy’s type uses his genius for the betterment of all mankind. With Jeremy’s “stupid and pointless” death the world has been deprived of much needed “true genius.” Carrington holds that the death cannot have been accidental, but must be part of a divine plan, with some “profound meaning” that he fails to articulate; besides, nature, he claims inanely, has a way of creating even several geniuses in times of need.

In themselves these arguments are simplistic and banal. However, this is true of most sci-fi premises: what is appealing is their ramifications, and the way these ideas resonate throughout The Colossus is part of its attraction. The question, for example, is left open as to what type of genius Dr. Spensser represents: to what extent does his tyranny over his sons represent his feelings for humanity, and to what extent is it a selfish assertion of power? How much of his cruelty is already latent in him, quite apart from the hypnotic projections of the robot? Certainly his hypnotized character as a martinet merely extends his normal behavior. And this question leads to another: to what extent is Jeremy’s capacity for evil latent in him, or in his science?

Jeremy is represented from the start as a great humanitarian. However, the opening scene of the film takes on interesting undertones in retrospect. We watch the industrial movie about “Henry Spensser’s revolutionary heat-sensing device” and its role in the automation of food production; we also learn that this device is ultimately Jeremy’s invention (incidentally establishing Henry’s latent resentment). Further, the beneficence of this invention is put subtly into question by Jeremy’s admiring remark to Henry, “You go on like this, and you’ll put the human race out of business.” Later, Billy asks for the interrupted film to continue: “I want to see the machine that works like a man”-a machine that prefigures the robot, and which underscores the connection of apparently benevolent automation and dehumanization. Thus, Jeremy is already implicated in an ambivalent technology, the instrumentalization of nature for both artificial abundance and monstrosity.

The nature of Jeremy’s death gives further resonance to this ambiguity. We have just seen the Spenssers return from Stockholm on a jet when Jeremy is killed retrieving the toy plane of his son. Is the rhyme of planes significant, and, if so, how? May one see the fatality brought about by the toy as an enormous enlargement and distortion of Jeremy’s prestige and achievement, as emblematized by the Stockholm jet? One is concerned here not with grand symbolism, but with subliminal association. When the robot gives the same toy to Billy as a gift late in the film, I would suggest that this action is not merely poignant or a means of deepening Anne’s suspicions, but a reinforcement of the resonance between Jeremy’s achievement and destruction. If his death is not after all a “stupid and senseless accident,” we may glimpse in the apparently incidental rhyme of planes the “profound meaning” of which Carrington spoke.

Such subtleties stand in sharp contrast to apparent ineptitudes; but ineptitudes may themselves conceal subtleties. I am thinking especially of the film’s opening, which abandons the elaborate subterfuges necessary to narrative construction in “good cinema.” Rather than cleverly camouflaging exposition, introducing necessary information through situations that “reveal” rather than assert, almost the first dialogue in the film contains the recitation of a newspaper text that simply tells us what we have to know. “International Peace Prize awarded to Jeremy Spensser. Jeremy Spensser, 34, .” This is obviously “uncinematic” in the extreme, but, besides happily prefiguring the undigested blocks of text in Godard, it also underlines the other “documentary” presence in the film, namely its opening sequence-an industrial movie about Henry Spensser’s heat-sensing device and how it has accelerated automation. This choice shows a rudimentary sense of the critical power of reflexivity: just as the characters are watching a documentary about the supplantation of the role of humans by machines, so we will watch a fiction about the same potential on a distorted and individual scale. The status of filmmaking itself as a technology is not directly addressed, but hovers inarticulately in the background: it might be too much to suggest that the flickering light with which the Colossus can hypnotize his father represents the hypnotic flickering of the cinematic image, but there remains a kinship to which an audience can attribute as much significance as it chooses. Incidentally, Billy’s interest in the functioning of the projector may also be significant: it may foretell his ability to control the wayward robot, purveyor of malevolent fascination, just as his curiosity about the “machine that works like a man” indicates both the lack of prejudice that will allow him to befriend the robot as well as the curiosity about the inhuman that, magnified, is at the root of the tragic experiments to come. Billy is not just an identification figure for a kiddie matinee audience, but a constellation of implications-both the (indirect) agent of his father’s tragic death, and the direct cause of his second; and the one link to goodness persisting in his deteriorating father.

Of some sociological interest is the shabby treatment of Anne by the other (male) leads. For example, Henry’s evasions of her suspicions are to be expected; but that he gives her sedatives-and she accepts them- indicates a troublingly casual capacity for control on his part and subservience on hers. Less obviously but more deeply alarming is Carrington’s wholesale dismissal of her claim to have seen the robot. We do not expect Henry to act as a hero; but Carrington, stuffed shirt though he is, seems to occupy the place that generic conventions would dictate for a hero. Instead, although sympathetic to Anne, and the film’s apparent moral center, Carrington fails to lend any credence to her story, instead reinforcing Dr. Spensser’s obviously repressive authority. The film does not represent Carrington as making good his condescension: he escorts Anne and the family to the UN at the close, but fulfills no heroic role, allowed by the film merely to observe and hear Dr. Spensser’s penance. In retrospect, this intensifies our recollection of Carrington’s funeral address as distinctly insensitive, especially to Anne, who had been shocked to new and surprised tears by his words.

Anne not only has to deal with Jeremy’s death, Henry’s unwanted affections (which she staves off adroitly with a martini), lies and abandonment and Carrington’s tactlessness and condescension but also Dr. Spensser, who apparently under the robot’s orders, pressures her into not spending time with her son, and also intimidates her into not assisting the police after Henry’s death. Although his actions are not inconsistent with his character, Dr. Spensser is not responsible for them; and, obviously, that Jeremy is now a crazed robot, justifiably shy about revealing himself as Jeremy to his wife, means that he is not wholly responsible either. However, Jeremy’s growing cruelty never touches his relationship with his son, but is directed against his wife, of whom, however, he seems to remain jealous-witness his interruption of Henry’s last attempt to get Anne to leave with him (is the robot’s restoration of Anne to her bed tender or proprietary?).

What emerges, however incidentally, is a depiction of the 1950’s woman oppressed by capricious and demeaning patriarchy, more effectively critical than many more explicit films, and compatible with the obviously deeper and more detailed contemporary films of Sirk and Ray. One can only speculate how much this was Schnee’s or Goldbeck’s or Lourié’s intention, but it is clear that the film does not share the men’s attitudes. Mala Powers’ performance is one factor in this, maintaining one’s sympathy with Anne through her trials, encouraging admiration at her tactful handling with Henry until pushed too far by worry. However, the filmic enunciation itself keeps her reactions to the machinations around her in view. We know, for instance, that Anne’s claims and suspicions are absolutely valid, and our sympathy with her grows; whereas the demotion of Carrington from hero to bystander, without even the opportunity to offer a wise word of observation at the end, undermines him and any residual identification with him.

To be sure, this is made easier by Robert Hutton-neither here nor in other performances I have seen is he a particularly dynamic actor. More positively, John Baragrey radiates weakness vividly and precisely: in the craven immediacy of his filial subordination as it interrupts his attempts at seduction, even in the structure of his face, how his near-handsomeness grows slack or bovine under pressure. But the most enjoyable performance is Otto Kruger’s: his vehemence in the argument over the sovereignty of the brain is not only a delight in itself, but enriches the whole film. The aggression (“Can you measure a soul? Can you? Huh?”) with which he goads the imperturbably bland Hutton seems to validate his obviously lopsided position against Hutton’s pious moderation, and his energy propels his misguided experiments until they can carry the film on their own.

Another memorable element in the film is Van Cleave’s music. Virtually the entire score is for piano, sometimes four hands (or overdubbed); there are also occasional passages involving electronic effects (principally echo) and others for celesta. Cleave draws upon well-worn rhetoric-the opening gesture of the piece is almost identical to that of Liszt’s St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots, for example, and hints of Rachmaninoff et al abound. If Cleave’s idiom is not original, neither is the relation of music to image: he accompanies the industrial film at the beginning with mechanistic music, the interludes with Billy with wistfully lilting celesta, etc. Still, much of the music is remarkably effective, even haunting. Partially this is due to the intrinsic interest of chromatic tonality, ambiguously poised between reinforcing and undermining stability; partially it is due to the piano itself, capable of grandeur, yet intimate and subjective. Further, it seems appealingly economical, and quaintly reminiscent of silent cinema-especially as compared to the orchestral bombast typical of its period, or to its own tentative use of technological elaboration, which, in turn, echoes the film’s central theme. In addition, Cleave has fashioned his score largely out of variations of a few motifs: the celesta melody, for instance, closes the film, now transformed into emphatic piano chords; and both are close variants of the opening (in their chromatic motion, the predominance of the interval of the fourth). Such subliminal associations are not unique to this film, but contribute to its strength.

The film’s visuals (cinematography by John F. Warren, art direction by Hal Pereira and John Goodman) can be perfunctory, but are often attractive: one might mention the cunning use of diagonals (for instance, the ceiling beams over Kruger’s asymmetrically placed head in his phone conversations), which energize the image and effect fluent movement between shots. But one’s most vivid memories are not of such elusive principles as the relation of shot composition and montage, but of the robot: moving jerkily (at accelerated speed) through the day-for-night garden, or flashing his eyes hypnotically, or, most beautiful of all, striding beneath the East River, his cape flowing behind him, the light streaming in shafts through the water. One also remembers his stuttering into existence, the marvelous and wrenching amalgam of human voice and machine bursting into a scream upon regarding himself in the mirror. In these moments the bare adequacy of the filmmakers’ means flowers into real beauty.


  1. Eugene Lourié, My Work in Films, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985

About The Author

Erik Ulman is a composer and writer currently teaching music at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.