The Colossus of New York (1958)
Ukranian-born director and Renoir-protégé Eugène Lourié helmed four of the best science fiction films of the 1950’s with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Ray Harryhausen’s first spectacular stop-motion prehistorical monster-on-the-loose film; The Colossus of New York (1958), a spin on the Frankenstein monster myth; The Giant Behemoth (1959), an underrated British sea monster film featuring animation by Pete Peterson and special effects supervision by Willis O’Brien; and Gorgo (1961), one of the best man-in-a-monster suit films ever made. Of the four, Colossus is the anomaly (and maybe the best picture), not so much for lacking a prehistoric beast, but for being so unconventional —the film is like no other science fiction film of the 1950’s.
Somehow I missed seeing this film growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in northwest Indiana. I don’t think it played much on TV in the Chicago market, but I was aware of the monster. There’s a single image of the Colossus on page 43, next to an image of Maria the automaton from Metropolis (1927), in Denis Gifford’s “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies” (1973) (a book I probably checked out no less than 20 times at the Whiting Public Library). I practically memorized that book and I wondered if I would ever see the elusive Colossus.
On first viewing I was struck how Artemus Gordon of The Wild Wild West (1965-1969), actor Ross Martin (who, according to IMDb spoke seven languages), in my eyes was a huge star, could die in the opening moments of a film by getting flattened by a truck. Yet he did, and his brilliant surgeon dad (Otto Kruger) plops his head into a colossal mechanical man. This can only result in the Brooklyn Bridge getting leveled.
To me, The Colossus of New York most closely resembles Donovan’s Brain (1953), about a psycho-telepathic brain that remotely offs his enemies. Both films are dramatic with a low-key delivery. However, unlike Brain, which is melodrama with science fiction moments, TCONY is definitely sci-fi and a spin on the Frankenstein tale. We’ve seen many of the same trapping before: technology gone wrong, an evil brother, an eccentric father, brains floating in saline, a tortured protagonist, a pretty girl, and a cute kid (convention regular Charles Herbert). However, the film stands apart in having an avant-garde piano score by former big band era trumpeteer Van Cleave and an odd, preachy moral consciousness, with the Colossus speaking at odds against his conniving brother and misguided father. He misses his wife and kid, but he is a robot.
As usual, the special effects by veteran John P. Fulton (The Invisible Man, 1993; The Ten Commandments, 1956) are superb and the design of the Colossus, with golem-like stature and flowing robe, is as iconic as any robot this side of Maria, Gort or Robby. I’m not at all surprised that the robot adorns the cover of Patton Oswalt’s best seller Silver Screen Fiend (2015).
Early on, the Colossus is kept in shadows. These scenes are reminiscent of those in Frankenstein (1931), where the good doctor sizes up his partially hidden creation and we are shocked when we finally get a closeup of the monster.
Karloff’s Monster compared to the Colossus.
The Colossus was played by 7’4 former circus performer Ed Wolff, who was no stranger to the role of a giant mechanical automaton, animating the hulking heavy opposite Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps (1939). I think he does a fine job conveying pathos in such a stiff and mechanical suit. I think the Colossus’ “death ray” looks terrific (I’m sure this was added to keep the popcorn crowd happy —naturally, if Gort had one then so will the Colossus!), but isn’t necessary. I would have preferred seeing the Colossus exert power through telepathy or brute force. The gazer ray seems like a cheap add-on for an otherwise intelligent film.
The Colossus stands before Isaiah 2:4. Shortly afterward the giant meets his ending by the smallest of hands. Has anyone else noticed the final scene? Blood spills from the Colossus’ head and puddles on the tile floor. Was Eugène Lourié suggesting that the Colossus was human after all or was he presenting the notion the creation was a Christ-like being?
It’s a poignant ending to one of the finest sci-fi films of the 1950’s.
TCONY is available as a gorgeous print on Blu-ray disc through Olive Films.