Dr. Cyclops (1940) **Ĺ
Seven years after wowing the world with King Kong, producer Merrian C. Cooper and director Ernest Schoedsack got back together to play the size card from the other direction. Dr. Cyclops isnít anywhere near as good as Kong, but it is one of the most fascinating overlooked artifacts of 40ís horror/sci-fi cinema. For one thing, itís extremely odd to see a clunky little B-movie from 1940 being presented in luridly saturated Technicolor. But beyond that, Dr. Cyclops plays like a movie from fifteen or more years later, with a mad scientist using his radiation-harnessing machine to shrink people and animals to a fraction of their natural size.
That mad scientist is Dr. Thorkel (She-Devilís Albert Dekker, who was later edited into AIP-TVís version of Gamera), who, as the writers of this movie will never tire of reminding us, is the worldís foremost biologist. For the past two years, Thorkel has been living and working in an isolated spot in the mountains of Peru in company with a Peruvian scientist named Mendoza (Paul Fix, from Black Friday and The Bad Seed). Itís hard to say just what the two of them are working on at this early phase of the movie, but it certainly involves radium, and whatever it is, Dr. Thorkel has just achieved results that his colleague had always considered impossible. And having now seen that whatever it is can be done after all, Mendoza switches tracks, and starts arguing instead that it shouldnít be doneó for a B-movie scientist, this guy is awfully antsy about the ramifications of Tampering in Godís Domain. Thorkel doesnít take it very well when Mendoza starts demanding that he put a halt to his experiments, and the more adamant Mendoza becomes, the less his boss likes it. Eventually, Thorkel wigs out, grabs Mendoza by the throat, and manhandles him into the beam of his radium-ray machine. So much for collaboration...
Actually, Thorkel soon comes to realize that he really does need a partner. The scientistís eyesight is extremely poor, and he can no longer reliably interpret the view from a microscope. With that in mind, Thorkel sends a cable to his old buddy, Professor Kendall (Frank Reicher, of The Mummyís Ghost and The Invisible Ray), back in the States, asking Kendall to send him three hand-picked helpers. The first of these is another biologist named Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton, from RKOís The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the pioneering anthology movie Flesh and Fantasy). The second is Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), whom Thorkel seems to want mainly for her administrative skills; somebody is going to have to figure out a way to get the new team up to the Andes in safety, after all! Thorkelís third draft pick is a mineralogist who specializes in radioactive elements, but that man backs out when he gets sick up in the mountains. Robinson ends up substituting Dr. Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley), a degenerate wastrel who just happens to be the best man in his field south of the Isthmus of Panama. Finally, the team picks up a fourth member in Peru when Steve Baker (Unknown Worldís Victor Killian), the new owner of the mules which Robinson had previously arranged to rent, refuses to let them out of his sight unless he is taken along, too. One assumes that a good team of mules is a tough thing to come by in these parts.
Youíre not going to believe Thorkelís real reason for bringing the other scientists to his lab. He literally wants nothing more than to have Bullfinch and Stockton peer through his microscope and tell him what they see in the results of his latest experiment. Having been told by Bullfinch that the cells on the slide are suffering from almost total structural disintegration, and by Stockton that the wrecked cells are full of iron crystals, Thorkel has no more use for the newcomers, and sends them all packing! Bullfinch is indescribably offended at this dismissive treatment; Stockton seems to see it only as a valid excuse for him to return home and get drunk, which is all he ever really wanted to do in the first place. But while the scientists are trying to decide on how to deal with this unexpected affront, Baker has been making some interesting discoveries. For one thing, Baker, a miner by trade, can see that somebody has been doing some mining in the vicinity of Thorkelís camp, and recently at that. Furthermore, he thinks he recognizes the odd rocks that are scattered around the entrance to the shaft as pitchblendeó that is to say, radium ore. Stockton confirms Bakerís identification, and adds that the pitchblende in question is the most radium-rich that heís ever seen; whether he realizes it or not, Thorkel is sitting on a fortune. Having heard that, Bullfinch concludes that the radium is the real motivation for Thorkelís secretiveness, and decides to force the issue. Cornered, Dr. Thorkel agrees to let Bullfinch and the others in on his big secret; as it happens, the other biologist is only half-right. Rounding up Bullfinch, Robinson, Stockton, Baker, and his own groundskeeper, Pedro (Frank Yaconelli), he takes them all into the back room of his lab to show them the machine he built for concentrating the radioactivity of the pitchblende in the earth below into an intense ray. This ray, or so says Thorkel, has the power to work all manner of nearly miraculous changes on living matter, and now that Bullfinch and Stockton have provided the last missing piece of the puzzle by analyzing the outcome of his last experiment, the scientist should be able to control its effects almost completely. Bullfinch scoffs, but when Thorkel leaves the room, locks the door behind him, and turns on the power to his radium-ray machine, the doubting scientist sees just how effective it really is. Bullfinch and his four companions come out shrunken to just over one foot in height!
Some of you are probably wondering at this point why the movie should be called Dr. Cyclops. Well part of it, predictably, is a reference to Thorkelís lousy vision, but the main reason is actually a bit more sophisticated than that. Like Odysseus and his men in Polyphemosís cave, the shrunken scientists must rely on their wits alone to overcome and escape from the clutches of an opponent who is holding all the cards when it comes to size and strength. Of course, Polyphemos wasnít also one of the worldís most accomplished scientists, so the parallel might not go as far as Dr. Bullfinch would like it to...
Itís amazing to me that Dr. Cyclops came out as early as 1940. I mean, this is basically the same idea as that behind The Incredible Shrinking Man and Attack of the Puppet People (the latter especially), right down to the part about radiation (to say nothing of the killer cat). Yet the first splitting of the atom, the event upon which it is generally agreed that the entire 50ís mad-science boom hinges, would not occur for another five years. Whatís more, technically speaking, Dr. Cyclops is a hell of a lot more accomplished than most 50ís sci-fi B-movies; a lot of the special effects would still pass muster today. Unfortunately, Dr. Cyclops is held back by the same shortcoming that afflicted most of the movies Ray Harryhausen made for Columbia during the 1960ísó with so much of the limited budget going into the effects, there wasnít much left over to pay for actors who could, say, act. The great exception is Albert Dekker, who does a more than creditable job as Dr. Thorkel, and one might argue with some persuasiveness that by putting as much focus on him as he did, screenwriter Tom Kilpatrick was playing to the castís one real strength. The trouble with doing so, however, is that Thorkel is supposed to be the bad guy, and weíre supposed to be able to at least sort of give a shit about his unwilling thirteen-inch experimental subjects. But the only one of them who comes across as a real person is Mary Robinson, and she doesnít get nearly enough to do. This is all the more noticeable because of how unlike the typical 40ís movie heroine Robinson is. She is far more competent and courageous than any of the men with whom she shares her ugly lot, and she gets the shrunken protagonists out of many more dangerous fixes than any other character. All in all, Dr. Cyclops ends up being rather disappointing, full of interesting potential that never quite gets realized.