Thursday, March 21, 2013

Trailer Park :: The Ballad of Glenn Manning :: Bert I. Gordon's Amazing Colossal Man (1957)

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"I'm not growing. You're shrinking!" 
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While observing the field test of a new Plutonium Bomb, tragedy strikes when a Colonel Manning (Langan) leaves the safety of the trench as he tries to rescue a civilian who accidentally wandered onto ground zero. Alas, the device detonates and Manning, caught in the open, is severely injured in the resulting atomic blast. Taken to the hospital, with over 90-percent of his body burned beyond recognition, his chances of survival are almost zero but his fiance's prayers are answered when Manning seemingly and inexplicably recovers overnight. However, things take a sinister turn when the patient immediately disappears without a trace, leaving the bride-to-be (Downs) to fight through the usual military red tape to find him again. And when she does, she finds out this miracle cure is really hellish curse of ever-expanding proportions...

 Video courtesy of AllThingsTrailers.

With the impending release of Universal International's The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957, Jim Nicholson, the co-head of American International, tried to secure the rights to Homer Eon Flint's The Nth Man for his studio's proposed polarity-reversed cash-in, The Amazing Colossal Man. Originally published in the Spring 1928 edition of Amazing Stories Quarterly, Flint's tale begins with strange phenomenon happening all over the world: the Sphinx's head has been removed and placed on top of the great pyramid in Egypt; in China, something has uprooted the Great Wall; and in Europe, an anarchist plot is foiled when the Deutsche bank they intended to blow up disappears without a trace. This mystery is solved when the root cause finally wades ashore near San Francisco -- a giant, nearly two miles tall, who tromps clear across the country in record time; destination, Washington, D.C., where he pulls a Jefferson Smith, demanding a certain fat-cat plutocrat named Fosburgh, who is really in charge of the country, to start playing fair with taxes and financial regulations so all may thrive. 

Given six months to make these reforms happen, the president, who is in Fosburgh's pocket, mobilizes the military to repel the giant. Alas, the army's electromagnetic artillery prove no match for this colossus, and, since his demands weren't met, Fosburgh and all of his cronies must surrender themselves to be publicly eaten. But before this happens, it's revealed the whole scenario is actually less about preserving democracy and more of a personal vendetta. Seems the giant's father married Fosburgh's daughter. And since being the family chauffeur made him unfit, medical student or not, Fosburgh, at his wife's insistence, did everything in his power to destroy the marriage; a little too well, apparently, as the daughter was driven to suicide after her husband is blackballed from every medical school in the country. Taking their son to the Galapagos islands, in a bid for revenge, the bitter father experimented on his offspring with the glandular secretions of some sea turtles, which, somehow, turned him into this amphibious, hate-filled Gargantua. However, due to some female intuiting, this bloody crusade is brought to a more peaceful resolution. And with his enemy's empire in ruin, the giant returns to the sea. 

When Nicholson failed to get the story, the project was turned over to AIP's head filmmaker, Roger Corman, to come up with an original angle. At the time, remember, Corman and his chief scriptwriter, Chuck Griffith, were just starting to tongue their own cheeks with dashes of absurdity and anarchy in their sci-fi and horror output. In Griffith's original commissioned treatment, with Dick Miller in mind for the lead, the protagonist was a hard-drinking, hen-pecked schlub, who, while taking his physical at the local army induction center, absconds with a bottle of mystery liquid that, later, thanks to his wife, winds up in his latest boilermaker. When the liquid is digested, Miller would grow into the "Amazing Colossal Pain in the Ass of all Humanity." And like the Nth Man, he stormed the U.N. Building with a list of global demands, ate smoked whale, boiled over a live volcano, gets nuked by the Russians, and flattens Moscow in retaliation before the serum eventually wears off.

Meantime, while Griffith hashed out his script, Nicholson also scored a coup for AIP by signing producer, director and traveling-matte artiste extraordinaire, Bert I. Gordon, to a three picture deal. And with the like-minded Beginning of the End and The Cyclops already on his resume, Gordon quickly put on his producer's hat, slid into the director's chair, and basically scotched most of Griffith's proposed script, citing budget concerns -- but, really, Gordon was looking for something less farcical that yielded a lot more property damage, dubious pathology, and a little pathos scattered hither and yon. Enter Mark Hanna, who, with Gordon, and an uncredited assist to George Worthing Yates (-- the undisputed king of irradiated giants gone amok), hammered out the scenario we eventually saw onscreen.

I honestly wish the whole movie lived up to that fantastic opening sequence, when the Plutonium bomb stubbornly refuses to detonate. And as the devices steadily and menacingly bleets away, the men in the trench ratchet up the tension even more, especially a jittery sergeant whose heard one too many stories about the castrating effects of radiation. From there, after the bomb finally blows, the film settles into a familiar groove of mystery solving, first with Carol trying to find out what happened to Manning, which then turns into a race against the clock to find a cure before this colossal man finally loses it and runs amok. 

In front of the camera, Glenn Langan was plucked off Broadway by Daryl F. Zanuck himself to help fill 20th Century Fox's depleted stable of noteable leading men, who'd all enlisted in the service after the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of Lagan's first credited roles was playing the cad Linda Darnell is really in love with, pushing Laird Cregar over the homicidal edge, in John Brahm's Hangover Square (1945); and his most prestigious part came a year later as the sqaure-jaw trying to save Gene Tierney from the dastardly Vincent Price in Dragonwyck. Alas, when the war ended and all those stars came back, Langan kinda got lost in the shuffle and filtered down to episodic television and this brief stop at AIP before chucking acting all together for a moderately successful career in real estate and wedded bliss with fellow acting cast-off, Adele Jurgens.

As Glenn Manning, Langan definitely has the ability to pull off the Shakespearean anguish of this Plutonium curse, trying hard to bring the same "biblical nobility" to the character that Grant Williams had so successfully achieved as Scott Carey shrank out of this known existence. Langan also brought a tinge of menace, giving some of his speeches a sinister spin as he slowly cracks up with each foot gained. Unfortunately, the thrust of Colossal Man was far less interested in the existential and more in tune with the catastrophic. Thus and so, all of Manning's self-righteous anger and woe, with that bald noggin, expandable diaper, and surrounded by all those playpen props, gives these proceedings a fairly hilarious taint, making him less a martyr to the atom and more of a L'enfant terrible as he grinds his way through the grief process, especially when the brunt of this takes form in the constant shellacking of his fiance, who is only making things worse while trying to help. 

Cathy Downs had a similar career arc that started as the girl in question for John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946), and then slid into several B-Oaters for the majors before going blonde and adding some clout to the marquee for the upstart American International's first wave (Oklahoma Woman, Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, The She Creature). After the opening coda, this tale is really told more from Carol's perspective than Manning's. She's the one who unravels the mysterious disappearance of her fiance from the hospital, and then serves as both a whipping post for her ever-growing beau and a sounding board for the doctors as they try to explain away Manning's condition with the usual quackery and scientific gobbledygook, which is sold as dumbing it down for the layman. Luckily, Downs sincerity grounds the character reasonably well and leaves out the hysterics and focuses on the general concern, almost motherly, over trying to find a cure for what ails her man as she simply nods along whether she understands or not in hopes it will help speed up the process as William Hudson's Dr. Linstrom drones on and on and on. (Hudson was another AIP regular who would go on to torment Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50ft Woman for Allied Artists.)

Our culprit, radiation, is a strange thing. Too much, and it will kill you. But a controlled dose might cure you. And though the majority of the biology and science expounded upon in this film is pure bullshit (-- one cell? Really?), one of the first signs of congestive heart failure is a hacking cough as the lungs fill up with fluid. All of Glenn's acute chest pains are announced by a huge coughing fit, making this a nice touch. Another interesting point is how these attacks intesify whenever Carol is arround, reinforcing the notion that one probably shouldn't take Viagra if you have a heart condition. And Manning's eventual rampage is due more to the confusion and cognitive breakdown over the lack of blood flow in the brain than smashing those who think he's a freak. 

Behind the camera, from the harsh lighting and the deep shadows it causes, to the explosions of gruesome violence, coupled with several nightmarish dream sequences and flashbacks, and then topped off with a doomed love triangle between a man, a woman, and a Plutonium bomb-shaped femme fatale who comes between them, The Amazing Colossal Man really has a nice Poverty Row noir flare to it that really kicks it up a couple notches over its like-minded (similarly-irradiated?) brethren. Cinematographer Joe Biroc brought out the same hard and defined edges he'd shown in It's A Wonderful Life (-- remember George Bailey's trip through the nightmare version of Bedford Falls?), the procedural docudrama feel of his film noir classics The Killer that Stalked New York and Cry Danger, and the brutality of the later neo-noirs of Frank Sinatra (The Detective, Tony Rome) that really gels with the production design and art direction of Bill Glasgow, who would do the same for Robert Aldrich's atomo-paranoia-noir Kiss Me Deadly and his decadently ghoulish Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? 


Also, as far as I know, Albert Glasser scored all of Gordon's movies. And, as usual, he does his best to sell and glue it all together with mucho bombasity to accent the action (-- I love it when the score mimics the giant's stomping gait), and then lathers on the schmaltzie syrup during the romantic interludes. However, it doesn't take a sharp ear to hear where the score delves into Carl W. Stalling territory as it openly mocks some of the dialogue in spots (-- mostly when Manning is snarking lamely on his size), where all that's missing is a final rim-shot to play the giant off the stage. 

Further down the credits, and once more over-achieving for the lack of budget, Paul and Jackie Blaisdell provided the model airplane and all the miniaturized furniture and props to help give Manning more scale, including the Amazing Colossal Hypodermic Needle, which is so absurd and yet so practical given the circumstances. (That's me shrugging right now.) Unable to shoot on location for the climatic battle, the cut-outs of the casinos along Freemont Street actually work pretty well, too, as Manning lurks behind them and plays the peeping tom on an unsuspecting bather. (The crowd inserts reacting to all of this would have worked better if it weren't the exact same group of gawkers gawking as Manning makes his way down the fabled Las Vegas strip.) Blaisdell also provided the Sands marquee and the other casino props a curious and confused Manning examines and destroys. These work better because the camera is isolated on Manning or he's kept at a relative distance as opposed to the one close-up shot where the giant takes out Vegas Vic, the iconic smiling cowboy attached to the The Pioneer Club, which all too easily reveals it's cardboard and balsa-wood origins. 

But where things really break down and the films one true weakness lay right at Gordon's own feet as his traveling-matte process delivered a semi-transparent giant in most instances. And as bad as the composite shot was when Manning finally pulls a Kong and snatches up Carol, at least we weren't dealing with any rubberized hand and foot props that plagued Attack of the 50ft Woman and the director's own follow-up, Village of the Giants. However, to the director's credit, except for the helicopter sequence where Manning clumsily reaches for it, he was smart enough not to dwell on these shots and, again, for the most part, keeps the giant as far away from the camera as possible to hide these technical deficiencies during his final rampage. And before we move on and leave the F/X department behind, one definitely needs to throw a light on the work of make-up man Bob Schiffer, who provided Langan's bald noggin' and one of the most indelible images from this film -- of any radiation-fueled monster movie, really, where the audience gets a brutal, full-frontal look at a man burned alive by atomic fire and learns the folly of ducking and covering. 

Bert I. Gordon, Glenn Langan and (I think) Bob Schiffer.

As for the man in charge of it all? I've gone into greater detail in other reviews of King Dinosaur, Beginning of the End, and Village of the Giants on the life and times and film career of Bert Ira Gordon. So instead of rehashing all of that, I'll just sum up why, despite all the technical gaffes and transparency hiccups, I love his movies so much. And that reason is Gordon never cheated and always delivered -- no matter how cheap or hair-brained the results -- what the title and poster or cover art promised in his gonzoidal flicks. Audiences were truly appreciative, too, as The Amazing Colossal Man was American International's second biggest money-maker in 1957, right behind Herman Cohen's I Was a Teenage Werewolf. And it proved so popular a sequel was commissioned that isn't quite as good but a whole lot screwier so we'll call War of the Colossal Beast a wash. Anyways... 

The Amazing Colossal Man has always been a favorite Mr. BIG movie for me. Is it as good as I'm making it out to be? Of course not. But taken on it's own terms, the film is a highly entertaining romp. And on top of all that there's something else it did for which I am eternally grateful. Now, I know I'm not the first or the only person who believes this flick went a long way (subconsciously or overtly) in inspiring another tale in another medium where a member of the military industrial complex, while trying to save another civilian who wondered onto a test site, gets exposed to a massive amount of radiation during an eeriely similar experimental bomb test gone awry, which transforms him into another, incredibly powerful hulk with a penchant for massive amounts of property damage whenever he loses his temper, and who tries and mostly fails to keep his girl at arms length, and who is constantly hounded by the army as they try to cure or kill him. 

Yeah, don't make Colonel Manning angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry. Also of note, I'm sad to report that The Amazing Colossal Man is another one of those vintage American International flicks that has failed to make the digital leap due to some lingering hostility between the Nicholson and Arkoff estates from when the company split up in the late 1960's. I still hold out hopes that someday we will see a legitimate release of this, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Saucer-Men. Until then, I shall continue to cling to my old VHS tapes.

Other Points of Interest:

The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) Malibu Productions :: American International / EP: James H. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff / P: Bert I. Gordon / D: Bert I. Gordon / W: Mark Hanna, Bert I. Gordon / C: Joseph Biroc / E: Ronald Sinclair / M: Albert Glasser / S: Glenn Langan, Cathy Downs, William Hudson, Larry Thor, James Seay


JP Mac said...

Great breakdown of a 50’s classic.

Not only is Manning punished for no reason, but cursed while performing a brave deed.

Seeing this as a kid, the injustice resonated. Life could really be unfair.

I also wish someone would DVD this film, and the sooner the better. Bert I. Gordon grows no younger.

W.B. Kelso said...

A definite mean streak, yes. And one can only hope that these old AIP flicks will see the digital light of day. Thanks for commenting.

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