Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Colossus of New York (1958)

An under-rated, admirable and well-crafted sci-fi film that explores concepts that are relevant to modern audiences.

Directed by Eugène Lourié
Story written by Willis Goldbeck
Screenplay: Thelma Schnee
Music by Van Cleave
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date: 1958
Running time: 70 minutes


John Baragrey: Dr. Henry Spensser
Mala Powers: Anne Spensser
Otto Kruger: Dr. William Spensser
Robert Hutton: Dr. John Robert Carrington
Ross Martin: Dr. Jeremy 'Jerry' Spensser
Charles Herbert: Billy Spensser

There’s something about The Colossus Of New York that I still find to be eerie and disturbing. It is one of the lesser known vintage sci fi films from the 1950s that I believe deserves much greater attention. While watching the film once again recently, I was reminded of the Cybermen characters from the Doctor Who series in which hapless human beings are forced to undergo an “upgrade” by having their humanity and their very emotions stripped away as they are turned into cybernetically augmented humanoids. There have been instances though when the essential humanity of an “upgraded’ individual has managed to break through the impassive impenetrable façade of a Cyberman.

So, what is this technological Frankenstein movie all about?

Following an accident in which he was killed, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jeremy Spensser has his brain transplanted into the body of a huge cyborg by his scientist father, William Spensser. William wishes to save his genius son's mind so that it can continue to serve mankind, BUT……
What will be the effect on Jeremy Spensser’s brain?

Will there be irreversible changes to his personality?
Will the very essence of his humanity be at stake?

Read on for more.....

Spoilers follow below.....


Following the titles and credits and a view of the that (in theory!) bastion of diplomacy and peace, the United Nations General Assembly Building, we see brothers, Dr. Henry Spensser and Dr. Jeremy Spensser viewing a film about factory automation. It seems that the future is not only coming – it is already here in all its mechanized glory.

Automation – the process that economically churns out stuff for us to consume with such great efficiency and precision. With just a press of a button, the work of hundreds and thousands can be tirelessly performed in a fraction of the time it would take humans to do. In return for freeing us from a life of repetitious and monotonous drudgery and toil, all we have to do is become obsolete or under and unemployed. What need for skilled artisans and the pride and soul of craftsmen when a machine can turn out countless uniform mass-produced objects with templated computer-coded souls and stamped with, “Made in China?”


We learn that it was actually Jeremy who was largely responsible for inventing and improving a heat-sensing device that has improved efficiency in automation. We also learn from a newspaper headline that….

"International Peace Prize Awarded to
Jeremy Spensser."

Somewhat idealistically, Jeremy is of the opinion that if, "People of the world get enough to eat, war might just become obsolete." Certainly, it cannot be denied that it is the case (both then and now) that the basis of much of the conflict around the world is the inequitable distribution and access to resources.  

 We have now been introduced to Jeremy as one who is a great humanitarian. However, there is some question as to the consequences for humanity in the kind of technology that the Spensser brothers have been championing: a machine “that works like a man” and one that could “put the human race out of business.”

After returning to New York from Stockholm where he collected his prize, Jeremy is killed in an accident when he is struck by a truck as he tried to retrieve his son’s toy plane.

An ambulance unexpectedly takes Jeremy’s body to his father’s home where Dr. William Spensser locks himself in his lab. Despite Jeremy having been “dead within five seconds," his father has decided to perform an operation on him. After three hours, Dr. Spensser opens the lab door and tells his family, "I did, I did all I could."

At Jeremy's funeral service, while the eulogy is being presented, Dr. Spensser, hurriedly exits in anger and frustration. Shortly after, in a “theoretical” discussion with Jeremy’s friend, Dr. John Carrington, he ponders whether great brains in human history could have continued their work to better the condition of humanity if they were unencumbered by their bodies. John considers that both the brain and the body are necessary constituents of the soul. Without a body, a brain would regress into something monstrous. It’s as if Dr. Spensser were sounding out John about the dreadful secret he is keeping regarding Jeremy.


What is the “soul?” Does the “soul” exist? Does each of us have a “soul?” After all, you can’t point to a soul and say, “Look here, there’s a soul!”

Many Hollywood films over the years would tritely have us believe that there is such a thing as a soul. Established religions and their institutions tell us that we have souls and if we do doubt it then we are told that all we need is a bit of faith. Many of us just simply and unquestioningly accept the existence of a soul as received wisdom and as a fact.

Could the idea of human beings having this thing called a “soul’ merely be an expression of human arrogance. “Hey! Look at us, we’re different, we’re special! None of you other creatures have souls, but we do ‘cause we’re better than you! God says so, so there! Nya, nya, nya, nya, nya!”

Perhaps it is too unbearable for us to contemplate complete and utter non-existence once we die. We feel something of us must continue in some form and so we conjure up the notion of an eternal soul to help allay our fears of facing the unknown.

This doesn’t bother those who might hold a rather bleak rationalist, materialistic and deterministic view of what it means to be a human being. None of this superstitious mumbo jumbo nonsense about souls. “Can you measure a soul? Can you? Huh?” If you can’t quantify it, observe it, prod and poke it, bounce it around, PROVE it with empirical evidence – then it doesn’t exist, so shut up! We are what we are by virtue of our brains and our consciousness. Once our candle flame snuffs out, it’s cold darkness for us man, with no soul or comfortable afterlife to keep us warm.

Well, all I know is that I have respect for those who have a belief in the existence of a soul on the basis of their convictions, beliefs and faith. Equally, I also have respect those who reject the notion of a soul, based on reason, careful thought and reflection. I have no time or respect, however, for those who in a reflexive knee-jerk manner accept or reject the idea of a soul without having spent any time considering the matter before coming to a glib and minimalist conclusion.

I certainly don’t know what a soul is, if I have one or not, nor what I would do with it if I did have one. Could the soul be something that transcends anything to do with our immediate existence, with our minds and bodies and what can be perceived via either one? Could the soul be something that links the past, present and future together into a limitless moment of being while being both “here” and “there” at the same time? Could everything we say and do, think and feel as individual human beings be our own way of making small incremental contributions to the eternal cosmic creative process? In that way, could the “soul” in effect live on forever both within us and without? Who knows?


When John tells William’s other son, Henry that his father will need support during the grieving process, Henry sarcastically responds with the comment, "That'll be something new. He's always needed Jeremy before." He nevertheless agrees to stay and support his father but not because it is the right thing to do. He has, in fact, less altruistic or familial motives….


Four months after Jeremy's death, it has become quite obvious that Henry is in love with his sister-in-law, Anne. As they prepare to go into the city for dinner and a show, Dr. William Spensser enters and requests that Henry accompany him to the lab. Oh, Oh! It looks like love is to be put on hold in the interests of science!

Inside the lab, Dr. Spensser shows Henry a tank containing a human brain. According to the brain wave activity, it is at present asleep. The brain is soon awakened by Dr. Spensser who asks of it a question to which he already has the answer. A teletype machine soon taps out the answer, and it corresponds to the answer that Spensser has. Henry has now managed to join the dots and exclaims in horror, "No! No, it’s inhuman." His father retorts, "It would have been inhuman to deny the world of his genius."

According to Dr. Spensser’s way of thinking, Jeremy’s genius is for the betterment of all mankind and is of the third and highest type of genius. It is not merely concerned with self-preservation; nor even with family and immediate community. Jeremy’s pointless death would have deprived the world of much needed “true genius.”

Spensser then seeks Henry’s assistance with providing a mechanical body for Jeremy's brain.

Dr. William Spensser is a complex character. We can never be quite sure how much he is motivated by benevolence toward the rest of humanity and love for his son. It seems more often than not that he is intent on trying to impose his will on others as can be seen by his almost tyrannical control of his sons and later by his assertion of power over his daughter-in-law, Anne. In makes one wonder just how much of his character and personality he might wind up being projected onto his creation.


In a later scene in the lab we see a shadow or silhouette on the wall, which gives us an impression of the body that will contain Jeremy's brain. Initial suspense is generated but the full shock is yet to come. For that to happen, more detail will need to unfold before our eyes.

With the head and top part of the mechanical man’s torso in view, Dr. Spensser makes ready to test the machine. A lever is turned to activate the mechanical man and the brain suddenly awakens in the body. 

Held upright by a support structure, the reanimated Jeremy is able to see and hear. His eyes light up and his voice activates. The mechanical Frankenstein awkwardly moves around the lab until it sees its reflection in a mirror. Jeremy suddenly emits a strange electronically synthesized spine-chilling scream of horror that reverberates around the house. This catches the attention of Anne who runs downstairs to investigate. It seems to her that the voice she heard was that of her late husband. Henry tells Anne that Dr. Spensser simply lost his temper due to a failed experiment.

Back in the lab, Jeremy is once again secure in his support structure. Henry is opposed to his father’s efforts at preserving Jeremy’s intellect and Jeremy himself begs his father to destroy him. Jeremy, however, eventually agrees to his continued existence on the proviso that, "I don't want anyone ever to see me. I will conduct all my experiments in this laboratory with you and Henry and no one else." Dr. Spensser agrees to his terms.

As they begin conducting polar plant growth experiments, Jeremy reports that he has been seeing strange new images. One in particular keeps recurring: A ship at sea in the fog, and the collision of the S.S. Viking. The first in a series of unforeseen consequences…….


The new technologically augmented and enhanced Jeremy reminds me of how much we have become dependent on technology to support us in our day-to-day living. So much of our existence is wrapped up in a protective security blanket of technology. We constantly carry around bits of it with us in our hands, in our pockets, strapped to our arms or wrists, in our cars, throughout our homes. Soon, we will be wearing items of tech as part of our attire and eventually it will be commonplace to have tech implanted within our bodies for various purposes. Day-by-day and layer-by-layer our tech gradually encroaches on our lives, our bodies and our minds. Perhaps we need to take the time to step out from our virtual worlds and consider what the very real unintended consequences might be for us as a species and our sense of humanity….our very “souls” perhaps?


Love is once again in the air and is about to whisk Henry off to Hawaii on a vacation with Anne and nephew, Billy. Alas, once again the unforeseen consequences of science intervene when Dr. Spensser summons Henry to the study where they watch a TV news broadcast about a disaster at sea – the disaster foreseen by Jeremy! Jeremy does indeed seem to have the power of ESP!

Another disturbing unforeseen consequence of Dr. Spensser’s experiment reveals itself when Henry finds himself alone with Jeremy and begins to chuckle. This elicits an emotional response from Jeremy who threatens Henry, "I warn you, Henry. These (hands) are powerful. You know how powerful because you made them. Don't goad me. I warn you, don't!" Is this the real Jeremy talking or is it a result of the technology distorting his sense of morality and his very humanity?


The effect of technology on our sense of our own humanity can be seen clearly when it distances us from the effects and consequences of our actions on others. The “shock and awe” and “fire and fury” power is at our disposal and is there to be used, so don’t goad us. We warn you, don’t! And so, some operator sits at a monitor and half a world away a drone lets loose a missile and a flash followed by a cloud of debris fills the view on the screen where moments ago there were……


 One year after his “death,” Jeremy is determined to visit his own grave. His father tries to prevent him leaving the lab, but Jeremy hypnotizes his father by means of a flashing light emanating from his eyes. Yet another unintended and unforeseen consequence has emerged with the development of this new power of control. The creation has grown beyond the power of its creator to control it.


As suggested in the earlier documentary on automation and the more recent scene depicting the ability of the creation to control the creator, we have presented to us the possibility of human beings eventually being supplanted by machines. Will our species in the not too distant future be faced with a similar dilemma as we continue to develop artificial intelligence technology? Could we one day be faced with a “Skynet” type of scenario?


As Jeremy leaves the lab and ventures out into the garden, he comes across his own headstone and grave marker. He hides himself when he hears the sound of his wife's voice. After placing flowers on his father's grave, Billy is drawn to Jeremy when he hears the latter’s voice. 

Billy does not react to the sight of Jeremy with revulsion and horror. Instead, after an initial moment of surprise, he innocently asks, "Are you a giant? A real giant?” It is as if Billy is able to provide Jeremy the one emotional link back to his humanity.

In the lab, Jeremy is understandably upset with his father who had informed him that his son and his wife had died. 

That evening Anne suddenly wakes up feeling that something is not right. When she goes out into the garden, Henry discovers her there and accompanies her on a stroll around the garden. Henry is determined not to let Anne know of his participation in his father’s creation. He insists that they must soon leave the house. Unaware that Jeremy is close-by, Henry kisses Anne which enrages Jeremy. As he approaches, Anne faints, and Henry in a rather cowardly act runs off! Swine!

Notice that Jeremy picks up Anne and carries her back to her bed. The question is why? He chose not to leave her there. He didn’t try to exact some kind of angry or jealous retribution. Was it an act of love and tenderness? It stands in sharp contrast to Henry’s spineless act of abandonment.


Another pillar in Anne’s life is about to crumble when next morning, Dr. John Carrington arrives at the house. While visibly upset, Anne tells him about her encounter with the creature the previous night, but John is sceptical about her fanciful-sounding story. Understandably she shows him the door. The budding hero has turned out to be nothing more than a polite condescending nonentity.


Later on, Henry calls his father from a phone booth. He asks him for money so that he can get away. Jeremy cuts in to the conversation by informing Spensser that he can see where his brother is located. Jeremy then instructs his father who is now completely under the creature’s hypnotic control to set up a meeting with his brother so that Jeremy can destroy him. 

As Henry waits at the arranged meeting place, Jeremy makes his way along the bottom of the East River. While Henry awaits the arrival of the money from his father, Jeremy gradually ascends the pier and approaches him. Suddenly, by means of a ray emanating from his eyes, he kills his brother.


For years technology has given us the means to communicate with one another in ever more efficient ways. In tandem with the improved means of communication, it has enabled the location and whereabouts of individuals to be determined with ease. It has also enabled communications between people to be intercepted in a variety of ways from the early efforts at wire-tapping through to the surveillance techniques employed by security agencies like the NSA. Should such capabilities then be allowed to be handed over to an artificial intelligence and be performed as part of an automated process?


Later a noisy commotion at the lab alerts Dr. Spensser. Jeremy has run amok in the lab destroying the polar plant terrariums. Jeremy asks his father, "Why create food for the maimed and the useless and the sick? Why should we work to preserve slum people of the world when its simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead? Unfortunately, there are so called humanitarian scientists, and I am one of them, who tried to keep human trash alive. It will be necessary to get rid of those humanitarians first. You understand?" This technological creation has indeed come to a logical Skynet-type of conclusion about humanity……

It is a conclusion that Jeremy’s father is compelled to accept when his son hypnotizes him into assisting Jeremy with his plan to rid the world of those pesky do-gooder humanitarians. I’m sure some of the red-neck rabble who ring up right wing conservative talk-back radio stations would agree with Cyborg Jeremy’s agenda!


When the police visit Dr. Spensser concerning Henry's death, the matter of stories and rumours involving a creature is brought up. When Anne is asked about such stories, she is reluctant to mention the subject or admit to any knowledge of such a thing. After the police leave, Anne tells her father-in-law that she has seen a creature, but he resorts to trying to convince her she is hallucinating and that she needs a rest.


With Anne, we have the depiction of a woman who is expected to be subservient to male control, power and dominance. It is assumed that Anne will simply be compliant when faced with Spensser’s repressive authority and Carrington’s dismissive attitude, all the while having to grieve for the loss of her beloved husband. How different is her demeanour at this point in the film compared to her self-confidence at the start of film when her husband was alive? Today’s audiences might readily identify with such a character as Anne in light of the “#MeToo” sexual harassment and misconduct revelations and movement and why it has taken so long for society to acknowledge the damage that relationships based on the misuse of power can have.

During another visit with the cyborg Jeremy in the garden, Jeremy reacts angrily when Billy’s hand accidentally gets too close to his on/off switch. Jeremy’s crazed anger, however, does not extend to his son. Jeremy then gives Billy a present: a model airplane, just like the one his father tried to retrieve and was killed while doing so. It is little wonder that later Anne became upset upon learning from Billy that it was a present from the giant creature. In just this short space of time, we have before us the means of Jeremy’s “death” at the start of the film in the form of the plane (Fate? Accident? Chance?), and the potential means of his death in the form of the lever (Choice? Will? Decision?)

Having been commanded by Jeremy to attend the United Nations building at 8.30 pm, Spensser accompanied by Anne, Billy and Carrington arrive at the site. Jeremy meanwhile approaches the venue while submerged underwater via the East River.

While assembling in the lobby area with numerous other people, Jeremy enters by crashing through a glass partition. He then proceeds to dispatch several of those assembled below him with his death ray.

Suddenly Billy runs towards the giant creature in an effort to make him stop but Jeremy continues on with his murderous actions. The truly heroic little boy, Billy confronts Jeremy who tells his son that he is unable to control himself. However, with his humanity somehow touched by the boy, Jeremy asks Bill to stop him by shutting him off.

In a very touching act of humanity, Billy throws the switch deactivating the mechanical creature. Jeremy then falls over the railing and plummets to the floor below. As Anne embraces her son, Dr. Spensser says to John, "Well, you were right Carrington, without a soul there is nothing but monstrousness. I only wish that heaven and Jeremy could forgive me for what I did." The film finally closes with a close up of the creature’s head dripping blood - human blood - on to the floor.


Full Movie


Points of Interest

Paramount released The Colossus of New York on a double-bill with The Space Children in 1958.

Nathan Van Cleave's music score is provided by a lone piano which serves to add to the film’s overall dark, fearful and melancholy atmosphere. 

The scene in which the “dead” scientist awakens to find himself in the body of a machine is eerily effective. Note the mounting terror associated with Jeremy’s gradual realization, his jerky Frankenstein monster movements and the mechanical / electronic synthesized scream emanating from the depths of his human soul.

Eugène Lourié was an excellent art director whose competence and skill with effects led to his first directorial appointment with, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), on which he collaborated with special effects genius, Ray Harryhausen. His other films included, The Giant Behemoth (1959) and Gorgo (1961).

©Chris Christopoulos 2017

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