March 23, 2011

Giant Ambitions and Small Budgets

The Cyclops (1957)

I doubt that the critics who came up with the auteur theory of film had Bert I. Gordon in mind, but Bert is the very definition of an auteur. The Cyclops credits say it all: Written, produced, directed, and special effects by Bert I. Gordon. Movies rarely get more personal than this.

Bert earned the nickname Mr. B.I.G. for the string of giant monster movies he churned out like sausages starting in the 1950s. His list of writer-producer-director credits is somewhere between humongous and ginormous:
Note the 6 B.I.G. creature features released in the space of a couple of years!  While perhaps only Bert's psychoanalyst truly understands his fixation on gigantism, a simple explanation is that a very canny B movie entrepreneur made some quick bucks off the public's fascination with (and fear of) science run amok. Bert's giants are stand-ins for the enormous problems that a naive 1950s American populace read about in the newspapers: nuclear bombs and radiation, Communist infiltration, the Cold war, etc.

The Cyclops is not Bert's best work. The plot construction is amateurish, the acting spotty, and the technical effects are weak (more on that later). But Gordon valiantly tries to make the most of limited resources, making L.A.'s Bronson Caves and County Arboretum stand-in for the wilds of Mexico. He sprinkles in a little mythology to add some class to the proceedings. And it doesn't hurt that the movie features a cool, hideous monster that scared the heck out of me when I was a kid.

Cyclops starts out in a small Mexican town, where Susan Winters (Gloria Talbott) is trying to convince the governor to approve her trip into a remote area to look for her fiance, whose plane crashed there 3 years before. (You have to wonder why it took her so long to get the search party organized!) The governor not only tells her that there is no chance her fiance could still be alive, but the area is off-limits to everyone, and he will supply a security guard to fly back to the states with Susan and her party "just to make sure they don't go in the wrong direction." Susan, however, is undeterred, and she and her companions hatch a plan to ditch the security man and take off in their Cessna.

Susan's purpose is clear and simple: to find her fiance, Bruce Barton, who she is certain is still alive. The motivations of her companions are varied: Russ Bradford (James Craig) is a microbiologist and friend of the fiance (and, we find out later, in love with Susan); Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.) is a wealthy financier who's convinced that the wild country they plan to search is full of uranium; and the pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake) is a devil-may-care type who recently lost a bundle of money and needs the job. The tension in the first part of the movie, such as it is, grows out of the incompatible goals and motivations of the group. What makes Cyclops stand out from the typical fifties B movie fare is that from beginning to end Susan is by far the strongest member of the group, and enforces her will on the reluctant, distracted men. She WILL find her fiance, come hell or high water! She is Ulysses in this poor-man's Odyssey.

On the flight into the Mexican interior, Melville panics after a little turbulence and thrashes around the small cockpit, knocking the pilot out! Susan, sitting in the back seat, manages to revive him just in time to land the plane safely on a large, grassy field. Inexplicably, the other members of the expedition don't even seem to be perturbed that the unstable man has almost gotten them killed! Perhaps they're in shock, or they're just grateful to be alive (and Melville is supposed to be rich after all; maybe they think he'll compensate them). 

The scene and its predecessors illustrate Gordon's weaknesses in story construction. A substantial chunk of the movie is drab exposition: Susan talking to the Mexican official; the group telling their sad life stories over drinks at a cantina; Bradford spending an interminable amount of time trying to buy an American magazine from a young woman who speaks little English; and so on. I got to wondering if Bert took some money from Mexican backers in return for playing up the local color and culture. Melville's tantrum and the near crash seems like a lame, contrived way to generate a little suspense after the tedium of the first 20 minutes of so of the movie. Forget the travelogue, forget Melville -- let's get to the monsters already!

Melville has brought along a spiffy scintillator counter, and he excitedly reports that the whole area is lousy with uranium. As Susan and Russ go off to look for Bruce, he unsuccessfully tries to convince the pilot to fly him back to civilization to stake his uranium claim. In the meantime, Susan and Russ witness a twelve foot tall hawk devour a mouse the size of a large dog. Pretty soon, the group is being menaced by giant spiders, lizards, and other assorted creepy-crawlies that are scary enough normal-sized.

Russ and Susan play fetch with a giant lizard
Writing, producing, and directing on the same film is onerous enough for one person, but add technical effects on top of it all, and you can bet somewhere along the line something's going to suffer. And yes, the technical effects, especially the matte work, are subpar even for the 1950s. The monsters are washed out and differently lit than the backgrounds and the human figures. I can imagine kids at a '50s matinee getting really impatient with the pale, sleepy-looking "giant" lizards to the point of throwing popcorn at the screen and at each other (not that I did any of that).

Approximately 40 minutes into this short 66 minute feature, Gordon finally comes through with the goods, and we (and the expedition) get to meet the titular character. So, is all the clumsy build-up worth the pay-off? At my first viewing (around the age of 10), I jumped at the first appearance of the Cyclops, and was alternately fascinated and repulsed. Jack Young's make-up is startling, imaginative, and just plain gross. A huge fold of skin covers the right eye, as if the creature's forehead had melted. The remaining eye is lidless and bloodshot, and pops out of the skull like a watery ping-pong ball. The right side of the mouth and jaw have been ripped away, displaying enormous teeth. Voice artist Paul Frees provided the monster's caveman-like grunts, groans, and screams.  Frees contributed to countless movies, cartoons and TV shows, including scads of 50s sci-fi movies where he was often featured as a portentous narrator: The Thing From Another World (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Deadly Mantis (1956), Beginning of the End (1957), etc. His talents are wasted here, as almost anyone (perhaps including Bert himself) could have grunted to similar effect.

A lot of action is packed into the movie's last 25 minutes. Amazingly, the expedition finds the wreckage of Bruce's plane (either Susan is incredibly lucky or she's psychic). A nifty p.o.v. shot has the monster staring down at Susan as she examines the wreckage (complete with a watery-looking film over the camera lens). As she becomes aware of the thing looking down on her, she slowly looks up, and screams. The monster takes her to a cave, where the rest of the group find her. Gordon cleverly makes us feel sympathy for the hideous thing. This is no unthinking, homicidal beast, but rather a bewildered, injured man stumbling about, his brain turned to mush and his body horribly mutated. In a purely physical role, Duncan "Dean" Parkin does a good job of conveying the Cyclops' confusion and frustration with gestures and facial tics, while still chilling the viewer to the bone.

The radiation, or whatever it is that's mutating all the wildlife in the area, must work very quickly on the brain as well as the body, as the expedition members seem almost as confused as the Cyclops. It takes science-wiz Russ a… very … long … time… to put two and two together: the radiation readings, and the huge animals, and the plane wreckage, and the 25 foot tall, disfigured man hanging around the wreckage... hmmmmm.... Russ doesn't seem to be the whippiest Ph.d on the block. Stoic Susan doesn't seem to get it at all -- or maybe the point is she doesn't want to get it.  At any rate, the characters are so dimwitted that the viewer is tempted to yell at the screen and/or throw popcorn.

Gloria Talbott appeared in countless TV shows in the 50s and 60s, taking time out to make a few B sci-fi and horror movies here and there:  Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957; which played on a double-bill with The Cyclops); I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958; great fun and a near-classic), and The Leech Woman (1960; a nothing role as a scientist's assistant). While certainly not a great actress, her jet-black hair and strong, attractive features make quite an impression.

By the time of Cyclops, Lon Chaney Jr. was tipping the bottle quite a bit, demonstrated by his bloated features and stumbling delivery. He is wildly miscast as a wealthy financier lusting for uranium. Rough, alcoholic cowhand I could believe -- financier… I don't think so. Adding insult to injury, his character is just plain unbelievable, doing incredibly stupid things seemingly just to get some action going.

Tom Drake as the alcoholic pilot Lee Brand lends a little comic relief to the film, joking at one point that once his bottle of hooch is done, it's time to go home. Trapped in the cave by the Cyclops, he reaches for his bottle only to find it empty. "Time to go home," he says bitterly.

So, if The Cyclops is so weak, why include it in a blog dedicated to obscure but worthwhile B movies? Let's let Gloria Talbott have the last say. In Tom Weaver's Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers (McFarland, 2006) she talks in some detail about the making of The Cyclops and the audience reception at its premiere. Her judgment:
Were you happy with the results on The Cyclops?
   I was amazed. There are parts that are corny, but considering the time involved; the amount of locations we went on; how quickly we did it; some of the not-too-reliable actors; and Bert I. Gordon's personality-- considering all that, I think it's not bad. I'm not ashamed of the film; and I'm not ashamed of Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, either.
Indeed! There's a lot to love about little movies that attempt big things on minuscule budgets that would drive mainstream filmmakers into rehab or retirement. If you're interested, a DVD-R copy is available from

"Unknown terror stalks a forbidden land!"

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