Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Cardboard Science: B-I-G


Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Written by Mark Hanna, George Worthing Yates, and Bert I. Gordon

Spoilers: moderate

Let us begin with a hot take: Bert I. Gordon gets a bad rap.  By no means is the rap entirely unjustified, for the position, "Bert I. Gordon is bad and spent 1954 to present (he's still alive) making bad motion pictures," can be supported very easily, particularly if you pick his worst movies, as I have little desire to defend, for example, King Dinosaur.  But by and large his movies aren't awful the way that the 50s low-budget genre filmmakers with whom he's sometimes classedyour Ed Woods, your Coleman Francisescan be.  Like them, his works were a fixture on MST3K, but that's never been dispositive; they made for very solid episodes of MST3K in part because they were (usually) already watchable.  Gordon's movies were cheap and not always good, but most were professional: if he's a step down from Roger Corman, and I would agree he is, a step down from Roger Corman still isn't that bad, and to get to "a step down from Corman," we might even have to consider their directorial careers each as a whole rather than only what they'd accomplished by the late 1950s.  We might not, but it's certainly not obvious.

We come, then, to the film that I strongly suspect must be Gordon's masterpiece.  It's Bert I. Gordon so it isn't an actual masterpiece; nevertheless, it's an earnestly good piece of 50s B-grade sci-fi, about as serious-minded as the genre got, bolstered by remarkably okay special effects, and possessed of an attention to formal elementsand not even only the visual elements, though that's remarkable enoughthat is frankly flabbergasting given the kind of movie it is, which is a movie produced, directed, and co-written by Bert I. Gordon, and titled The Amazing Colossal Man in full-throated imitation of Universal-International's resizing hit from earlier in 1957, The Incredible Shrinking Man.

American International Pictures was surely happy to be able to exploit Shrinking Man's success with their belligerent knock-off of a name, but to be fair to Gordon, The Amazing Colossal Man was not as simple as just going big in response to Universal's adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel about getting small.  The film had begun under Corman some months prior as an assignment from AIP honcho James Nicholson, who'd obtained the rights to the 1928 Homer Eon Flint novel The Nth Man (which Marvel Comics fans of a certain age will readily confuse with both an alt-historical Cold Warrior ninja and a scientist who became a living interdimensional vortex).  Accordingly, you'll sometimes see the novel referred to as "uncredited source material," though it's stupendously blatant, even from a synopsis, that Flint's giant is less a sci-fi monster than a fabulist metaphor for populism in Gilded Age politics, whereas ACM is, needless to say, not that.  At most Flint's novel was an inspiration, and it's not clear that Gordon needed inspiration.

For eventually Corman begged off from The Nth Man: Corman's and writer Charles B. Griffith's plan to make a Dick Miller comedy from the material presumably didn't sound like a good idea to AIP (it sounds like an interesting idea, but not necessarily a good one), and Gordon, having been recently invited into the AIP fold, took on the project instead.  Griffith was rapidly replaced and the film was reoriented along the lines of a follow-up to and arguably a remake of Gordon's film-before-last, The Cyclops, and in retrospect it seems impossible that anybody else besides Gordon could have made The Amazing Colossal Man.  Nobody else had the initials which made his nomme du cinema inevitable, anyway, and here the future Mr. B.I.G. definitively discovered his niche.  Given that one of the best definitions I know of for "auteur" is a person who makes the same movie over and over, I can't deny Gordon the title: size was his domain, usually largeness, sometimes smallness, and almost all of his best-remembered movies are special effects features about giant something-or-other, typically as a result of radioactivity.  Which is to say that Tormented, his noirish Tell-Tale Heart riff, might be his seventh or eighth best-remembered film.  But he made fully ten movies about beasts and men removed from their divinely-ordained scale, seven of them right in a row here in the 50s.  I suppose it depends on how you count King Dinosaur, though I prefer toI don't know if "naturally-occurring alien megafauna" are necessarily outside of God's planbut however we count them, ACM was at the very least the third, and it only takes three to make a tradition.

Re-doing The Cyclops was a good idea, inasmuch as The Cyclops is strong evidence for the argument that Gordon is a garbage z-grade filmmaker.  I dickishly gave that film to Brennan Klein last October for our annual crossover (I already apologized); we'll probably get to it one day, but presently, I'm satisfied with his disdain.  But ACM doesn't remake The Cyclops, exactly, so much as overwrite it, using the same basic idea ("man subjected to radiation tragically becomes a giant") to tell a very different and much better story.  It's a quantum leap in every way, not least that it doesn't take the entire runtime to get to the giant, though the more important part is that it's not so profoundly stupid or pointless.

So: on one of America's ubiquitous atomic test ranges, we find Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan), huddled against the wall of a trench along with his subordinates, apparently subjects of an experiment to determine if said trench will protect human bodies from an atomic blast.  The results are positive on the trench, at least, but Glenn wouldn't know, for a problem jams the bomb into an armed state, preventing the test from being delayed when a civilian aircraft crashes onto the range, and Glenn, without thought to his safety, dares the danger to try to rescue the pilot.  The bomb goes off, searing him so badly that his skin no longer exists, and his doctors assume that if the injuries don't kill him, infection will.  His fianceĆ© Carol Forrest rushes to his side, and tries to maintain hope, though neither Glenn's outside burns specialist Dr. Paul Lindstrom (William Hudson) nor Army doctor Eric Coulter (Larry Thor) ever tell her anything that should give her hope.

And yet Glenn does miraculously survive, regrowing an entire sheet of skin overnight (less his head of hair, but in truth this might be improvement: Langan looks great bald, and retains an expressive set of arched angular eyebrows).  He remains comatose, however, and in dangercalling on Glenn the next night, Carol is baffled to find he's gone and the hospital staff won't even admit he was ever there.  But she tracks him down to a deactivated Army rehabilitation hospital out in the desert, and there receives a shock: Glenn's colossal, man, subject to uncontrolled and indefinite growth at the rate of a good eight feet a day.  And when he wakes up he does not take this well.

I wouldn't mind seeing the movie where Glenn comes to terms with his mortality and strides off with Carol into the desert to meet the last sunset he'll ever see, but this isn't that movie, and when Glenn strides off, he's lost his senses due to his physical changeshis circulatory system is incapable of keeping up with his growthand, obviously (it's a giant monster movie), he's going to wind up in Vegas.  It's not a brutal or even that exciting a rampage, as far as these things go.  It's patterned on King Kong because it has to be, but it lacks the ferocity of a terrified animal lost in a new world and, if we're being cynical, lacks anything like the budget or technical skill to pull off that level of spectacle.  Some of the film's nicer touches are to be found here for precisely that reason anywayGlenn's assassination of the Vegas Vic sign is probably the most famous image of the film, but mostly he seems perplexed by his own inability to understand anything anymore, occasionally lashing out in fear or anger, and this state is broken only by a sort of childlike curiosity, whereupon some of the other giant items atop Vegas landmarks manage to make him briefly happy by allowing temporary respite from his lost sense of proportion.

And before that, it sort of is Glenn-and-Carol-coming-to-terms, although by the time each one might have been ready, Glenn's already been lost to hypoxic derangement; I implied calling it an Incredible Shrinking Man knock-off wasn't fair, but it's not unfair, and I have to wonder if that film must've impressed itself upon Gordon, or (again, more cynically) given him and his co-writers Mark Hanna and George Worthing Yates a template their more marginal talents could follow.  At least, Gordon's films could be cod-serious in a stolid 50s sci-fi way, but this specifically tragic tone isn't one he usually struck.

Glenn becomes the protagonist, or even just an actual character, only belatedly, but Langan is awfully good once we meet himobviously not given a particularly complex character to play, but still awarded some genuinely meaty scenes, alternating between agonized confusion and rage-prone self-pity, with an occasional note of even-angrier humor.  The film gets its title drop by way of Langan, presently housed in a big army tent, who accuses some terrified random orderly of gawking at the circus freak.  His read makes the words, "the Amazing Colossal Man," downright uncomfortable, considering that gawking at the giant is, in fact, why we're here.  And that is indeed paid off better than "special technical effects by Bert I. Gordon" suggests.  Unavoidably, there are considerable not-especially-credible double-exposures used to indicate a colossal man in an adjustable sarong out in the desert, or scowling down at a crowd on a Vegas street, but even these lo-fi effects are still done with less carelessness than you might expect, Gordon mostly getting the in-camera conditions right so that even if Glenn is often a ghostly bright figure, he's not so noticeably intangible that you can't go along with it.

It's more convincing when Gordon can accomplish what he's after with matte shots and surprisingly well-done rear-projection and just-plain editinghe liked the white-flash mediated jump-cut from Glenn desperately shielding his face to a broiled figure in a burning, tattered uniform so much he used it two and a half times, but it is a very solid piece of cinema.  (The second is some dead air during a scientific conference expositing things we already knowthis is not a perfect moviebut I'm surprised he had the discipline to not use the entire sequence in Glenn's flashback, instead ending where Glenn's conscious awareness does.)  There are even bits in the hospital and tent that are borderline-persuasive, particularly if graded on a Gordonian curve, supplemented by some reverse-Shrinking Man out-of-scale sets and props (ironically, bigger allowing ACM to be much cheaper, doll furniture being easier to acquire than giant mouse traps and the like).  One of those tiny props, anyway, affords the film its single best piece of starkly economical storytelling, when Glenn attempts to read a miniscule Bible and discovers the text is an unreadable blur no matter how hard he tries.

So whether by design or sloppiness or simply the reality of the film's brevity (it runs but 80 minutes), this script allows a lot of its story to fall into subtext, but fortunately it doesn't take much digging to get to it and recognize Glenn as Gordon's stand-in for all the American servicemen thrown into bomb-irradiated landscapes out of ignorance and indifference.  Against this is contrasted Glenn's own simple selflessness, and Glenn's coma flashback to the war underlines it.  (If Gordon's Max Fischer play version of the Korean War is also where the movie's budget makes itself most profoundly obvious, it still at least gets across a feeling of sudden, rupturing violence.)  It's a little gesture, but it recontextualizes Glenn's desperate bid to save a stranger in a wrecked airplane as just the final act in a life that had always been dedicated to throwing itself into danger for some notion of heroismnow, in fantastic allegory, that life is over.  Meanwhile, Glenn's alternative life never had the chance to begin: for never-directly-stated reasons, Glenn, a reservist who volunteered for a war now concluded for four years, and of which his most salient memories are horrible traumas, is still an active duty O-5 doing crazily risky things.  He'd promised to marry Carol on his return years ago, but if they were finally going to wed in Vegas on that fateful night, maybe that's just an additional motivation for Glenn to make his run across an atomic test range.

It winds up encompassing more than "crazy atomic mutation," anyway, and I guess Gordon must have known what movie he was making, given the frequency with which he emphasizes Glenn withdrawing from life even before he gets really sick, or the ways he visualizes the grim impersonality of the medical labyrinth Glenn's stuck in, with nearly a reel devoted to Carol wandering empty halls defined by high-contrast blocky Expressionist-tinged shadows, before she arrives at what her government's attempted to keep from her.  (Cinematographer Joseph Biroc shot all sorts of movies, but maybe most notably It's a Wonderful Life, of all things.)  In aggregate, there's surely more than a reel of bland, blithe science, courtesy Hudson.  This movie called The Amazing Colossal Man is obviously not without Silver Age whimsythat science is breezily idiotic, and no movie that features a giant syringe this prominently, rendered as a literal upscale without thought put into why the hand-sized models are built the way they are, could be accused of lacking all whimsy.  (And taking recourse to a "high-frequency" factor in its theoretical cure for gigantism, the science side of ACM's plot demonstrates this treatment via process shots of "shrunken" elephants and camels.  This would be even stupider than it is without a nice little acting beat from Thor where he glances at the reduced animals in their cages, and looks away with a disgusted frown.)  But there is an unlikely sobriety here, that I suppose must be a direct hand-me-down from Shrinking Man.

So I assume Gordon did know what he was after, and at least his soundmen Jack Solomon and Josef von Stroheim did, with a lot of attention paid to the sound design of Glenn's new world, Langan's dialogue captured as slightly loud and hollow, and Carol and the rest as increasingly tinny and small.  It's actually subtle, but pushed harder than even the literal distance between Glenn's ears and their throats would requirethey can be yelling at the top of their lungs at Glenn, but the mixing diminishes their voices anywayand along with Gordon's choice of wide-open shot scales, and especially the crane shots from Glenn's point of view, there is a constant and accelerating sense that we're getting further and further away from anything keeping Glenn here.  It's totalizing in ways few of these things ever wind up, even by accident: The Amazing Colossal Man would probably still work on some intellectual level without it, but this perpetual reinforcement of isolation in basically every single scene is what makes it one of the more honestly sad sci-fi parables of its era.

Score: 8/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • I genuinely don't know what to make of the unfamiliarity with this new-fangled "plutonium," or the curious insistence that this is the first plutonium bomb test, in a movie made in and presumably set in 1957, but the first "plutonium bomb" ever detonated was the Trinity device.
  • "Now, the reason for this is rather technical, Carol, but to give you a simplified layman's explanation, it might be explained that since the heart is made up of a single cell for all practical purposes, instead of millions of cells like the rest of the organs of the body, it's reacting in an entirely different manner to the unknown stimulus or forces behind this whole thing."  This is a line that is rightfully mocked and held up as one of the great examples of bad science in 50s sci-fiif I recall, Joel and the bots don't even riff but just guffaw, and Tom Servo eventually simply repeats "single cell."  And yet, they accidentally land on something even if it's expressed by idiots for idiots, and cardiac myocytes don't divide (or not much) after fetal developmentit's why you never hear about "heart cancer" and it's why heart damage is so debilitating in ways that damage to other muscle tissue isn'tand I suppose this would indeed pose a problem for a guy whose other cells are multiplying to turn him into a sixty foot giant.
  • The writers at least seem to be aware that his weight would grow geometrically rather than linearly.  Not to be taken for granted!
  • That Goddamn syringe is hilarious, but Glenn using it as a dart is pure joy.
The morality of the past in the future:
  • There's not really a lot here to be troubled by: it's not particularly sexist (Carol's role is "would-be wife" but that seems appropriate for the story, and nobody's a particular jerk to her except Glenn who just wants her to go away) and it has a pretty even-keeled appreciation for the military-industrial complex, recognizing that as a system it can be incredibly callous even though individuals within it can still be caring and conscientious.  Sorry, it's just not evil.
  • Surprised Gordon never sued Stan Lee, though.
  • I mean, there's wunda in the concept, sure, and in some of the better-accomplished and/or sillier visuals, but there's not even a single moment where Glenn Manning ever thinks it's cool to be big.

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