Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Cyclops (B&H Productions/RKO, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was The Cyclops, a 1957 horror cheapie from Bert I. Gordon (as writer, director and producer, along with special-effects person, so he really had no one to blame but himself — unless you count his “assistant producer,” Flora M. Gordon, a keeping-it-in-the-family credit famously mocked on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when they showed another one of Gordon’s films: “Honey, pass me that plastic head, please”) which was actually released by RKO, back when RKO was limping along and suffering a kind of corporate post-traumatic stress disorder after its seven-year bout with absentee owner Howard Hughes that would lead to its extinction as a production and distribution company just a year later. It starts with a series of crudely printed credits and a title listing the location as “Guayjorm, Mexico” (which doesn’t look even remotely like a real Mexican place name), where American woman Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott, whose spunky but understated performance is the best in the movie) is vainly seeking permission from the local governor (Vincent Padula, who bears a striking resemblance to Paul Whiteman and speaks English with a risibly thick Frito-bandido accent) to fly her plane over the Tarahumare mountains (“Tarahumare” sounds only marginally more credible as a Mexican place name than “Guayjorm”) to see if she can locate her boyfriend, Bruce Barton (Duncan Parkin), who crashed his own plane there three years earlier. The governor refuses her permission because he doesn’t trust the motives of the other people on her crew: her pilot, Lee Brand (Tom Drake), an alcoholic who drank himself out of his pilot’s license in the U.S.; bacteriologist Russ Bradford (James Craig, top-billed); and stock manipulator Marty Melville (Lon Chaney, Jr., looking bloated and barely in control of his actions), who’s brought a “scintillator” (basically a glorified Geiger counter) to confirm his suspicion that the Tarahumare mountains are full of uranium. So she up and flies there anyway, only to find that the Tarahumares are full of huge animals, mostly really existing reptiles like lizards and snakes who have been artificially enlarged by the radiation from the virtually pure uranium of which the Tarahumares are made. The (normal) humans in the crew also meet the title character, a 25-foot-tall human (wearing, one suspects, an infinitely expandable loincloth of the same material as the infinitely expandable shorts the title character wore in Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man — virtually all of Gordon’s movies are about life forms either artificially enlarged or, less often, artificially shrunken) whose face has become distorted. Its right side looks like he was a wax-museum figure who started to melt and its left side has a crudely painted marble that’s supposed to represent his one remaining eye — unlike the original Cyclops, the one in Homer’s The Odyssey, he originally had two eyes au naturel and it was the radiation in the Tarahumares that melted half his face so he only had one left.

There are a few scenes in which the Cyclops gets visibly gentler when he recognizes Susan — as we realize well before the characters do, the Cyclops is actually her missing boyfriend, Bruce Barton (did Bert I. Gordon deliberately rip off his name from the real-life ad man of the 1920’s, co-founder of the BBD&O agency and author of the 1924 book The Man Nobody Knows, which recast Jesus Christ’s life as a case study in successful entrepreneurialism?) — until Lon Chaney, Jr. tries to shoot him just as he’s making nice and after he’s already saved Susan from being eaten by a giant snake. The monster goes after Our Lon, and he speaks in the incoherent moaning that is apparently the only sound his radiation-altered vocal cords can make, though I joked that what he was really telling Lon Chaney, Jr. was, “You have the gall to call yourself an actor? Now, your dad, he was an actor!” Eventually, with the Cyclops understandably raging against all the males in the movie, Russ Bradford remembers The Odyssey and realizes that the way they can get away from the Cyclops is by making a giant spear (actually in this version it’s a giant tiki torch — I’m not making this up, you know!) and using it to put out the Cyclops’ one remaining eye, and they do that, making their escape in the plane over the mountains and leaving the Cyclops, presumably asleep and now blind but still alive, behind them as they flee. The Cyclops — TCM’s schedule listed this without the definite article but both the actual credits and the page on the film contain it — is one of those dumb, irritating films that lasts only 66 minutes but seems longer, and it’s got some O.K. moments (the footage of actual reptiles on miniature sets is surprisingly well matched to the scenes of normal-sized humans) and the interesting contribution of Paul Frees, who had a weird career as a voice artist: he was Bullwinkle the Moose, Maurice Percy Beaucoup in Gay Purr-Ee and also dubbed the voice of Toshiro Mifune in his English-language films, and in this he supplied the vocalisms of the Cyclops as well as the breathing sound of the giant lizard and the voice of an unseen Mexican air-traffic controller who vainly tries to order the plane back from its illegal flight. But it’s mostly just silly and dull, a movie that would have made good fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but is awfully slow going au naturel.