Directed by Eugene Lourié
John Baragrey – Dr. Henry Spensser
Mala Powers – Anne Spensser
Otto Kruger – Dr. William Spensser
Ross Martin – Dr. Jeremy Spensser
Charles Herbert – Billy Spensser
Ed Wolff – The Colossus“Cogito ergo sum, (I think, therefore I am)” wrote Rene Descartes in Principals of Philosophy, summing up the theory of Cartesian Dualism. Simply put, the theory holds that the brain is the seat of the soul, housing everything man is. The body, according to the theory, is completely separate from the brain, useful only as a vessel of life and means of mobility.Many film-makers have found the 17th century, French philosopher’s theory irresistible. Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), taken from Mary Shelley is the best known cinematic exploration, but other notable treatments include Donovan’s Brain (Felix Feist, 1953), The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962), and RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987). The most interesting and direct exploration of Descartes’ philosophy, however, is Eugene Lourié’s vastly underappreciated The Colossus of New York (1957).
The lever is thrown, and at first nothing dramatic happens; then Jeremy’s large eye slots blink and then shine with a white brilliance. “Jeremy,” says William. “You can see.” Our perceptive changes to Jeremy, his brain linking with the machine and we see and hear from inside the newly born creature. The screen is a flickering of white noise and streaks – rolling once or twice like a broken television – the sound comes as though from a poor signal, scorched with static. The father continues to speak. You can hear Jeremy. You can see and move. You’ve been very Ill, but you are going to be all right. Finally we see a dim, hazy outline of the father. We change perspectives to see the robot again, its architecture striving to sync with the soft, small brain. Its eyes are brilliant slashes. Its mouth moves and works as if in terrible pain or perhaps struggling to swallow or cry. It begins to make sounds.The sounds it makes are electronic squeals and deep, scathing catches of sounds and crackles – some sizzling warbles begin to repeat as the subtle brain tries to control the course engine of steel and cable. One can imagine speakers trying to harness the soft edges of speech. It makes a high trilling sound that might be a strangled shout of pain. It is looking at the father. You can move! demands the father, barking orders as if at a stumbling, crying child. Move! Walk! Right Now! The thing makes a strangled bleating sound – then emits a high-pitched, even hum. The monster straightens, towering now to full height. The effect is such that both father and brother straighten themselves, unprepared for the naked strength that radiates from the new creation. A second phase of synchronization has occurred, the fine filaments of nerve tendrils fusing with the hard elements of the body.The New Jeremy flexes his hands; he begins to move out of the heavy scaffolding that keeps his new body propped upright. He takes steps, but, clearly, the brain is unable to control the sheer mass of the monolith that houses its fragile tissue. The steps sound as though a sledgehammer were thumping and dragging across a wooden floor. The arms are out stretched, the hands like bowling balls – the fingers working. Tables are being knocked over, glass is shattered.“Henry!” shouts father, his eyes desperate. “Turn off the control!”But Henry will do nothing of the sort. He is sitting on a stool with his hands folded in his lap, watching his brother’s confused torment with an expression of hooded-eyed joy. The sight of his brother - the chosen son, the families’ shining light - struggling and suffering like a lost and terrified child in this torture chamber of a body, is not a pleasure he will deny himself.Jeremy stumbles to stand by chance in front of a mirror. He straightens, sees his reflection. His eyes become brighter, and an electrical sound is heard, like multiple circuits overloading and crackling in surges of discharge. The “face”, of course, has no expression. Yet, somehow we now. There is something in the frantic workings of the open mouth - the white-hot blinking of the eyes – that suggest the bottomless depths of shock and revulsion. Finally, by some electrical impulse surging over wires, moving speakers set somewhere in the creature’s head, it makes a shrill emission of air waves.And, certainly, there is no mistaking this sound. Anything living, anything with a soul, would recognize the high-pitched squalling as an expression of searing, psychic agony. It is a very reddish and even sound, a shrill keening without great volume; as if the sufferer were horse - nearly voiceless - in this place of numbing horror. The sound of it fills the still air and the dark halls of Spensser Mansion, faint yet unmistakable in its suffering.The first words that Jeremy speaks after learning to approximate word sounds, via his body’s complex electronics, will be ones begging for death.
With that, let us commence with the Good Stuff:Good Stuff Pt. I: Cain – Soft-Spoken in Suit and Tie.Before we go further, a word must be said for Dr. Henry Spensser, the thin, stoic brother of genius.John Baragrey plays Dr. Henry Spenser, brother of brilliant Jeremy; and his performance is a study in cool reserve and elegant control. His words are gentle and never hurried; his manner is one of grace and style - his lean body a thin cool, column sheathed in a perfectly pressed suit. When he speaks to his brother in the early going, the smile is always present: “Don’t be so magnanimous, Jerry. You know that heat sensor was your idea.” He may even be a brilliant man, in his way - very good at automation and electronics. He just isn’t going to save the world. Like his brother, Jeremy. He just doesn’t bring glory to the Spensser name or, far more importantly, glory to the father, William. Like his brother Jeremy.Baragrey’s performance, like the character he portrays, is all about dignified control. Baragrey’s Henry will always say the right thing, offer congratulations to his brother at every proper moment, yet Baragrey makes it subtly clear, as the picture moves along, that Henry is a man giving away a small piece of his hidden heart with every smile; his sweet, flat voice a scream of pain too modulated to hear. The actor captures the tone perfectly, and one can’t help but feel something for this unloved brother. Pity? Something more, perhaps? Empathy. Yes. Empathy, for so few of us will save the world, and so many of us know the workings of Henry’s quiet pain. Henry is not the man he wishes to be; does not inspire the passion in others he longs for. To make matters worse, his above-average gifts are forced to dwell in the dimly lit corners of the brilliant illumination that is Jeremy.Pain is the word for Henry. It is painful to watch Henry trying to make things better for his sister-in-law and nephew after his brother’s death. “Billy?” he calls, entering the house soon after the funeral. “Billy, I have something for you.” Billy is sitting on the floor, dourly playing with a toy carrousel, solemn and still as children are in grief.“Billy!” says his mother, standing beside Henry with her arms crossed. “You should answer when spoken to.” Billy shuffles over with his eyes down.“Billy, want to look in my pockets and see what I found for you?” says Henry, holding up his arms. Billy begins to go through Henry’s topcoat dutifully. “Ah you’re pretty cold there. Colder. Warmer.” Eventually Billy pulls out a toy boat from a pocket. All has gone according to Henry’s plan: He has gone to a toy store and selected an appropriate gift, perhaps taking his time. He has made a fun game of his nephew finding this gift, as beloved uncles often do. He has even placed his hand on the boys head. Yet something essential hasn’t clicked. “Thank you, Uncle Henry,” says Billy. “It’s very nice.”Inevitably, Henry falls in love with Anne, his brother’s widow; his polite hand-holding overturns, though, are met with cool reserve and obvious boredom. It’s a mute point, anyway, as suave Dr. Carrington, with his natty little mustache and flowery talk of the soul, has beaten him easily to the punch without even trying. Henry just isn’t a man that can inspire passion or love; the genius brother has seen to that – all through their lives, any love or powerful feeling that came near the brothers’ orbit was completely drawn into the frightful gravity – the black hole -- of Jeremy’s charisma; the atmosphere around Henry growing colder by degrees .Henry hates is brother, Jeremy. But, of course, sibling hate is never a simple thing, skittering as in does on the indistinct borders of love. When Jeremy’s father shows Henry the brain, Henry’s cool reserve is broken; and he is horrified for his brother. When Jeremy stirs to consciousness, birthed in electronic shrieks, it is Henry that wants to spare his brother the horror of the monster shell; touching, for just a brief moment of compassion, the bond brothers share. “No. No . . . It’s inhuman,” he says, his voice choked, staring around the lab while the tank bubbles methodically, his face somehow youthful in his moment of terrible understanding, his expression raw with compassion for his brother.Yet, as Blake has said, “the human face a furnace seal’d.” This compassion from Henry is something primal – a brother’s bond; but this center will not hold. As Jeremy’s soul is ruined by the cold metal, and his mind encased in steel becomes nothing more than a savage calculating machine, Henry grins at the metal features of the colossus in naked glee at his little brother’s horrible torment.John Baragrey gives us a performance strong enough to make us believe both sides of Henry’s tortured feelings for his own blood.The Good Stuff Pt. II: Saint Jeremy and the Calculation of GenocideAfter being born into his titanic shell, it takes Jeremy a bit to master his body armor. Quickly though, standing stock still, he can communicate in a rough, electronic imitation of his human voice. His first order of business?“You want to help me?” he asks, forming his words very carefully. “Then destroy me.”The father cannot do this, of course. After a conversation in which Father William has taken advantage of every possible avenue of manipulation, Jeremy agrees to try to continue his noble work providing that his mechanical afterlife is kept a secret from the world. “I . . .will try.” He says, his flat voice communicating tremendous suffering.Very quickly though, as Dr. Carrington has predicted, a mind divorced from the human stimulus of a physical body becomes something terribly cold and analytical – a thing devoid of the lush pleasures and the shades of sensitive concern which mesh in the soul. Slowly, inexorably, Jeremy forgets the pleasures - and loves - of the flesh. To make things even more terrible, his runaway mind, no longer hampered by the limitations of a physical being, becomes clairvoyant – capable of seeing the world’s horrible events before they happen (the Jeremy Robot, improving his body as will befit the dreadful formulations of his mind, will soon develop his optics to include the ability to hypnotize as well as shoot out curtains of death rays). Jeremy’s mind begins to twist and gnarl blackly in the horrid wind of his ever-increasing, godlike power.One afternoon Henry finds himself alone with his brother in the laboratory. Henry is sitting behind a desk, regarding his brother, who has hung himself in his frame of heavy scaffolding to rest. Suddenly Henry smiles, then laughs unpleasantly. “What is it you find so amusing?” says Jeremy, his metallic voice registering an obvious warning.“Not amusing,” says Henry, his eyes mean slits, “Ironic. It occurred to me how ironic it is that your grave should lay just a few hundred yards form here, and yet all this time you continue to so brilliantly exist.”“Bril-liant-ly,” says Jeremy, his temper flaring, making his words break and crackle. The air is filled with the sound of circuits starting to sputter. “AHM AHM AHM AHM - I warn you. Henry.” Jeremy lifts himself from his resting frame, towering now, eyes white. He holds his hands out. “These are powerful, Henry. You know how powerful, because you made them.” The creature takes a step toward Henry. “Do not goad me, Henry. I warn yooouuaaahhh na na na! “Henry’s expression has instantly gone from vindictive satyr to scared-shitless weenie and, quick like a bunny, he scrambles for the control box and switches Jeremy off. As Jeremy’s eyes go dark and he slumps back into his resting frame, Henry sits gulping for a moment or two amid the scorched ozone; understanding for the first time that his brother truly is dead and gone; and that what remains is a killing monster with 7 pound hands.Perhaps because of his brother’s viscous taunts, Jeremy Robot begins to visit his mortal grave in secret, clumping heavily through the Estate grounds. It is at his own gravesite that monster Jeremy befriends his son, Billy, in some of the movie’s most saccharine and false moments. The stilted, wince-producing dialogue of the son-with-mechanical-father scenes, of which where are gratefully few, are totally incongruous to a script that is otherwise clean and hard. It is the perfunctory, contrived nature of this relationship which will mar the picture - give its conclusion a slight false ring, and reduce its grade to “gem” from a possible ranking of “masterpiece.”Yet this tender relationship with his son proves only a brief respite from the coming gale of a corrupted intellect. No human feeling can begin to halt Jeremy’s rapid slide into the crystalline light of rampant madness. As Jeremy struggles to hold onto the last, bitter dregs of his sanity, as well as his darkening humanity, he explains himself thus to his father:“Shall I tell you what you have given me? Shall I show you? This, Father--” Jeremy, now able to stand and walk without support from his rest braces (like a child learning to fully control its body), picks up a long letter opener off a table and calmly plunges it to the hilt into his chest. It makes a sound like an oil can being slowly and methodically crushed. “You’ve given me this body. This flesh that cannot feel. Cannot feel—“ Jeremy begins to approach his father, who makes a crab for the control box. “No!” shouts Jeremy, smashing it onto the ground. As the pieces of the box tinkle and rattle around, Jeremy and his father stare at one another, both realizing the Rubicon has been crossed; and that this mammoth, terrible infant has entered some freakish version of manhood, beyond the manipulation of the father.Then, as Jeremy descends fully into the awful logic of his electrified brain, he finds the bottom of his mind to be as cold and sterile as the edge of a razor. There is nothing in the pit with him but icy light. The correct course of action becomes very simple and blindingly clear to him: Step one of Jeremy’s final solution is to kill his brother, whom he has come to see as an enemy (not to mention Jeremy, with his powers of clairvoyance, realizes that Henry is in love with he wife). Jeremy, by the latter half of the movie, has become a sweaty, terrified mess and on the run for his life; his once smooth voice a shaking tremor of fear and desperation. “Can’t you understand,” he pleads his father from a phone booth in Manhattan, begging him for getaway money; “He can see me. Where ever I am, he can see me!” This proves to be true and Henry, the doomed lesser light, dies in a shower of death rays spraying out from the eyes of his brother. Henry dies alone on the rain-black streets of a Manhattan night; and it is the killing of his brother that seems to unleash the Pandora’s box of Jeremy’s destruction.One evening, Dr. William comes running to the sound of destruction coming from the lab. He rushes in to discover the Jeremy combine smashing the place to atoms, pounding his metal fists through the tanks holding the vegetable and fruit plants of his research, smashing the tables and beakers to bits.Jeremy pauses to explain the logic of his final solution to his father.“Why produce food for the lame and the sick? Why should we work to preserve slum people of the world? Isn’t it 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. Do you understand? We must eliminate the idealists.” Here, Jeremy steps over to his father, a hulking gargantua casting his father in shadow. Jeremy leans close, his flashing, hypnotic eyes casting strobes over his father’s white face. “You will help me,” he says.The Good Stuff, Pt. IV: The Slaughter of the WorldJeremy hypnotically instructs his father to attend the World Food Convention at the United Nations Building, in which Jeremy was to have been given an award for his work in world hunger (Dr. Carrington is to accept the award in his place as the world thinks he is dead). Jeremy has instructed his father to be there, along with his wife and son, promptly at 8:30.The United Nations Building will symbolize the entire globe, with people from many nations milled about at the convention. It is here, amid the cries and screams of the world, that Jeremy will begin his genocide of the human trash including, for good measure, his entire family.To make the convention at the UN Building, Jeremy crosses the East River by walking long the bottom of it, emerging on the Manhattan side undetected (the shots of the mechanical Jeremy, walking under water accompanied by Van Cleave’s elegant piano score, are strangely beautiful and frightening). Jeremy then crashes into the convention through one of the United Nations Building’s huge glass panels. As the shrieking begins, Jeremy marches to a balcony, and turns to face the population of the globe.“Though shall beat their swords into plowshares, hook their spears into pruning-hooks. Nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” are the words carved into the marble wall behind Jeremy, who stands over the populace with his hands at his sides. Suddenly, wave after wave, curtain after shimmering curtain of eye death-rays are spread over humanity – as represented by the screaming men and woman in evening wear engulfed in the lethal light. Jeremy, in his ultimate way, is making the scribe of ancient Isaiah absolutely true: Nations will never learn war again. As Stalin believes, so believes Jeremy: “No man – No problem.”Nations of men and women fall, howling in agony as their lives are seared from their bodies; dropping one after another to the tile-checkerboard floor of the world, curling so as to appear fetal and birthed into death.Again we recall the words of Isaiah, as it is Billy, the little child, that will lead them and save the world form holocaust: Amid the howls of the dying, Billy dashes up the stairs of the balcony to his Father. His enormous, mechanized father lifts him, and for one glorious moment – er, I mean for one dreadful moment - we imagine that he is going to crush the sweet child to pulp; but no. Jeremy holds his son to his chest while Billy beats his metallic breastplate with his fists, screaming his hatred.“I cannot stop myself,” says Jeremy, having a rather sudden and tardy flash of humanity. “Billy, I want you to stop me.” Unable to reach the suicide, fail-safe lever that is attached to his side, Jeremy instructs his son to throw it. “Harder, Billy. Harder,” says the father in is flat, mechanized voice.Finally, after several annoyingly feeble attempts (don’t be a puss Billy! Put some ass into it, Goddammit!), Billy is finally able to throw the death lever, and Jeremy tumbles over the balcony railing to the floor with a crash (we see a reaction shot of Jeremy’s fall to earth via Dr. William, who flinches at the smashing sounds offscreen as though watching a server drop a tray of dishes).We are given a final shot of family exiting the building; and Dr. William Spensser grimly admitting to Dr. Carrington that he was right all along, that an intellect separated from the human impulses of a mortal body will invariably lead to monstrousness. The End.In conclusion, we have to admit that Dr. Carrington was certainly correct as far as his theory goes: It is the mind/body connection which creates the possibility for a sensitive humanity; but it is the deeds of the father, Dr. William Spensser, which demonstrate that a mind need not be divorced from a body to become monstrous. The good doctor’s life provides a fine example, as do so many in our race's bloody history, that a mind and body can combine to form a monster just fine. Dr. William Spenser, after all, as had quite a busy time of it. He has pulled the brain of one son from the mouth of the grave, not out of love but out of a desperate need to sustain his own vicarious glory. He has brought the brain, and the son, back to a hideous aberration of life wherein said son will destroy his own noble legacy. Further, he has sent another son screaming with fear into the night, only to die at the huge hands of the resurrected bother. And, not for nothing, his created Jeremy - this clairvoyant, extermination machine - has symbolically eliminated a fair share of the world’s population before coercing his son to help him commit suicide.Dr. William has shown us, as though a refresher course were actually required, that monsters aren’t really robots or spacemen; they don’t have fangs or change into wolves when clouds pass before the face of a full moon. No. They often have advanced degrees, large studies full of books; well pressed suits and pleasant manners - have large dogs as pets.The real monsters of the world don’t die by silver bullets or wooden stakes. They aren’t blasted from the sky with ray guns. Hell, they seldom die at all. Often the real monsters of the earth simply shrug their shoulders at the carnage, brush off a trouser leg, and go home to a nice fire and a glass of sherry.