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The Colossus of New York

This odd but haunting 1958 film is much in the news these days, having just received – after all these years – a legitimate DVD release through Olive Films. Directed by Eugène Lourié [1903 - 1991], who was, among other things, an art director for Jean Renoir on Grand Illusion in 1937 and The Rules of the Game in 1939, as well as other directors, and the author of an intriguing memoir, My Work in Films, The Colossus of New York is a barebones science fiction film that nevertheless possesses a curious resonance long after its 70 minute running time is over.

The film has no money to speak of, but Lourié, an expert at using lighting, production design, and minimalistic props to maximum effect, really doesn’t need anything more than he has; the stripped-down look of the film perfectly matches the seriousness of its concerns. Produced by William Alland [1916 - 1997] who started out his career working with Orson Welles (he’s the reporter searching for the secret of “Rosebud” in Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941]), The Colossus of New York is a modest, thoughtful film, miles away from typical 50s “creature on the loose” sci-fi.

The film’s plot is relatively simple; a young, brilliant scientist (Jeremy Spensser, played by veteran character actor Ross Martin [1920 - 1981]) is the victim of an accident, and his father (William Spensser, imperiously portrayed by Otto Kruger [1885- 1974] in one of his least sympathetic roles), also a scientist, sees to it that his son’s brain lives on, imprisoned within the body of a gigantic, metallic robot. Needless to say, nothing good comes of any of this, and in the end, the man/machine goes on a rampage at the United Nations, killing numerous diplomats and officials before his young son, Billy (Charles Herbert [1948 -        ]) intervenes, and hits the self-destruct switch which his now-androidal father can’t reach.

Graced with an ominous solo piano score, the only one I can think of in any film off hand, by Van Cleave (1910–1970), Colossus is a deeply felt meditation on mortality, sibling rivalry, father / son relationships, and the limits of science; how long, exactly, are we going to keep the dead — for that is what Jeremy really is – artificially alive? Now that you can get a decent copy, it’s worth 70 minutes of your time to check it out; it’s one of the more curious artifacts of late 1950s American science-fiction, and a film that will leave – as witness its many adherents – a lasting, if unsettling, impression.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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