At its core, The Colossus of New York is another brain movie, one of dozens that came out in the 1950s. There was Donovan’s Brain, and brains from other planets. There were brains in jars and tanks, and of course, brains that wouldn’t die, with the unforgettable Virginia Leith’s head on a tray, hissing at her scientist boyfriend. The message seemed to be that brains turn bad, and that’s certainly true of Colossus.
On the other hand, Eugene Lourie’s 1958 movie has a different feel to it, and not solely because it was backed by a major studio like Paramount, rather than a low budget, independent crew. It has its roots in the Frankenstein movies of the 1930s, with its lumbering, misunderstood creature brought to life in a laboratory. It’s almost touching in spots, more so than you’d expect from a movie that was probably pitched as something goofy for the kiddies at the drive-in. It’s story was by Willis Goldbeck, a writer whose career started in the silent film era and included everything from cop thrillers to medical dramas. Perhaps Goldbeck had seen the Frankenstein films in his youth and wanted to take a crack at the style.
Certainly the robotic creature, voiced by Ross Martin and played by Ed Wolff, would’ve been familiar to kid moviegoers of the day, already monster crazy from the old Universal movies that had been packaged for television as a program called Shock Theater, not to mention the stuff coming out of Japan and American International. They might have been thrown for a loop by the robot’s first decipherable words, though. “You want to help me?” it asks. “Then destroy me!”
One of the strengths of The Colossus of New York is its simplicity, which I think is partly due to Goldbeck’s coming from the silent era, when stories were more primal. There’s a basic premise: can a brain function without human contact? It asks basic questions: what would the world be like if we could’ve kept alive the brains of Einstein, Da Vinci, or Galileo? And it features one of the grand staples of all horror movies: the bringing to life of an automaton. The waking of the robot is truly chilling, and the one reason that this movie is still notable. As it begins to stir, we hear crackling and fizzing from inside its head, like a static-filled radio signal, followed by the eeriest sounds. The robot voice emerges from the atmospheric murk, unclear at first, but expressing everything from fear to confusion to anger to disbelief, until releasing a wail of unbridled anguish. How this must have spooked movie-goers in 1958!
The same sort of movie made today would be filled with slippery tech talk and faceless lab assistants pecking at their lap tops. The robot would be sexy, no doubt voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The scientists would be stylish nerds. Mark Ruffalo would come along to teach the robot how to dance and make espresso.
In the tradition of the films that influenced it, Colossus is tragic. The brain is from an award winning scientist (Martin) who was killed by a moving truck. The scientist’s father (Otto Kruger), a famous brain surgeon, saves his son’s brain and asks his other son, an electronics wizard, to create the robot where the brain can live and carry on its work. The robot exists in seclusion for a while, but eventually goes for a walk to visit the grave where his original body is buried. To his surprise, his 9-year-old son is also visiting the grave. The boy believes the robot is just a friendly giant who happened to be wandering around in the cemetery. Again, like Frankenstein, there’s a scene where the behemoth takes the child in his arms. But rather than throwing the boy in a pond, the pair disappear into the woods, mysteriously. A friendship develops. The robot says, “Call me daddy.”
The robot also happens to see that his widowed wife and his brother have started a relationship of some kind. This gives the robot a chance to destroy some lab equipment and make some more noise. The automaton develops some other traits, including the ability to hypnotize people, and a sort of extra sensory perception. Not surprisingly, he can shoot death rays from his eyes. Do you think his conniving brother is going to last long?
Visually, the robot is stunning. Press releases for the movie harped on the mechanical giant’s costume, describing it as “electronically operated (with) its own motors and batteries. All told, with flesh and machinery, the character weighs 490 pounds and stands 9 feet, with 4-foot shoulders.” The costume was actually sent out on a promotional tour, exhibited in theater lobbies around the country. Though obviously created with a nod to the old Jack Pierce monster makeup, the robot is unique. He has braces on his legs, as if he’s a gigantic but fragile child, and enormous gloved hands. The cloak he wears draped over his shoulders gives him the appearance of someone out of a Greek chorus. His movements are odd. At times he lumbers like a sleepwalker, but at others he trots jerkily forward. My bet is that Lourie’s original plan was to have the robot move slowly, but changed his mind and had certain scenes speeded up. The result, perhaps accidently, is that the robot’s movements are unpredictable, which makes him scarier and slightly surreal.
Ed Wolff, who wore the mechanical man’s costume, was listed at 7’ 4”, and weighed around 300 pounds. He earned money by putting himself on display in amusement parks and carnivals, though he also worked as a house painter. He occasionally took roles in movies, usually playing a costumed monster. One of his first roles was in a crowd scene for the silent The Phantom of the Opera. For Colossus, he struggled with the cumbersome head piece which was wired with batteries and compressed air so it lighted up. He had to get a haircut to eliminate the friction that kept giving him shocks to the head. It’s intriguing to know that while the head was glowing, Wolff may have been suffering inside. (Several extras were also burned during the film’s climactic fire scene, when the automaton is torching the United Nations building.)
Producer William Alland, who already had a string of science fiction classics to his credit (It Came From Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth, Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis) insisted that Colossus was rooted in fact, telling the press that the film “bears out the theory that the human mind, divorced from the sense of pain and mortality, would lose all decency and compassion.” Alland had other, more altruistic plans for his sci-fi features, namely, to glamorize the American scientist. “I believe films can help show how important and exciting science can be,” he said. Despite Alland’s ambition, the movie did middling business. The Schenectady Gazette, in line with most reviewers of the day, called it “a rather standard science fiction offering.” Critic Bob Smith dismissed it as “just another Frankenstein yarn which turns out to be more of an anti-science picture.” Colossus ended up as the bottom side of double bills, usually paired with Jerry Lewis’ Rock-a-bye Baby, and King Creole, starring that other Paramount colossus, Elvis Presley.
Ultimately, despite its mechanical man, the film lacks doesn’t have the enchanting backdrops to capture the imagination. The laboratory feels more like the office of a HAM radio enthusiast, and New York is a strange place to set a movie of this type. The East River and the Brooklyn Bridge look magnificent but odd, as opposed to the swamps and alien terrain of Alland’s other great pictures. Manhattan is a breeding ground for many things, but not robots. And audiences may not have wanted to get behind this particular robot, who wasn’t exactly a misunderstood monster wishing for a friend or a bride. In fact, he’s a bit of a fascist, wishing to “eliminate the idealists,” and “do away with human trash.” Rather than use his mind to help the poor, he decides it's "simpler and wiser to get rid of them."
The robot’s assault on the United Nations building is, again, reminiscent of Frankenstein, and even King Kong, but the emotion isn’t there, not even when the robot tumbles to his doom. Kruger only shrugs and says, “Without a soul, we’re nothing but monsters.” But even this disappointing climax offers something to intrigue, namely, a small dark puddle forming under the fallen robot’s head. Is it blood? Robot fluid? Something leaking from his brain?
Alland took the brunt of blame for the film’s lack of success, though the main thing that hurt it was timing. There was a glut of horror and sci-fi titles that year, and ticket buyers may have felt saturated. Sensing the monster craze was ebbing, Alland moved on to other genres, including teen flicks and westerns. Lourie would direct two more creature features (The Giant Behemoth, and Gorgo) and eventually return to his first love, art direction, working for directors ranging from Sam Fuller to Clint Eastwood.
The Colossus of New York remains an interesting enigma, a strange hitching of genres that doesn’t quite work, yet fascinates. I haven’t even mentioned the haunting piano score by Van Cleave, or the beautiful opening credits that appear to shimmer out of New York harbor, or the fact that it was all filmed not in New York but on the Paramount lot. Many things stand out, but what I tend to remember is that gripping scene where the mechanical man comes alive, howling at the unbearable pain of being reborn.