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Dr Cyclops

Entry updated 2 July 2021. Tagged: Film.

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Film (1940). Paramount Pictures. Directed by Ernest B Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick. Cast includes Thomas Coley, Albert Dekker, Paul Fix, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Janice Logan, Frank Reicher, Frank Yaconelli. Circa 75 minutes. Colour.

The closeness by date to World War Two is deceptive, as Dr Cyclops, filmed in late 1939 for April 1940 release, may be the last sf film of that era to remain entirely innocent of any premonitions of a darker world. Its eponymous Villain might have been developing a Weapon in his remote fastness near the head of the Amazon River, but in fact was not; his vaguely ominous Oriental appearance might have been an augur of the "beastly Jap" who soon became de rigeur in America (see Race in SF; Yellow Peril), but in truth he rather resembles the detective Mr Moto as played by Peter Lorre in several films between 1937 and 1939; and even that resemblance fades when Mad Scientist Dr Alexander Thorkel (Dekker) aka Dr Cyclops takes off his glittering eyeglasses, uncovering the face of an occidental gent with a buzz-cut. With all its slapstick shifts of focus and purport, and its shrugging complacence about the occasional death, Dr Cyclops can only be thought of as having any abiding interest in the sf Cinematic canon, by the skin of its teeth, when it is understood to belong entirely to an era now almost inconceivably distant.

In the mountains of Peru, near the source of the Amazon River, Dr Mendoza (Fix), a former student of Thorkel's, has discovered an unprecedentedly rich vein of radium (see Elements), inspiring Thorkel to set up a laboratory there, and to experiment in the Miniaturization of living things. When Mendoza protests on moral grounds, Thorkel kills him, but is forced by his fading eyesight to recruit other Scientists from afar to confirm his results. The scientists – Dr Bullfinch (Halton), Dr Mary Robinson (Logan) and Bill Stockton (Coley), along with the avaricious mule-team owner Steve Baker (Kilian) – travel thousands of miles up the Amazon to Thorkel's compound, where his servant Pedro (Yaconelli), a "comic" "Mexican" "type" thousands of miles from home, introduces them. Having taken off gear which makes him initially resemble a Robot, Thorkel courteously greets the crew, has them examine his findings, but then dismisses them abruptly once they have confirmed his genius. When they indignantly refuse to depart after their long journey, Thorkel, whose megalomania now dominates the film, inveigles them into a chamber and shrinks them with radium to an average height of 12in (30cm), seemingly in order to dispose of these nuisances.

Suddenly the backlot jungleland fades into the background for a while, and something like a new film comes in view. Trapped in the chamber as Thorkel tells them what he's done to them, the four shrunken humans are for much of the rest of the action shot from high camera angles, almost always clumped together, never more intimately than mid-shot, and at least initially mute. For decency's sake, they are garbed in white peplum robes (Pedro, a breed without the law, goes almost naked), though in later scenes the robes are coloured. When both the shrunks and Thorkel are in the same shot,some trick photography is used ; but almost no special effects (with the possible exception of an implausibly portly supernumerary alligator, soon frightened off). This affective rendering of miniaturization – supervised by Farciot Edouart, one of the innovators in that area of trick photography – allows the shrunks to be seen as inherently miniature: the effect is of a mimed peep show or toy theatre, an estranging artifice intensified by Thorkel's addressing them as though they were clever performing animalcules: not inaptly while the shrunks continue to gesticulate at each other, to scamper antically out of the way of the increasingly angry Thorkel, to slide behind cupboards and through walls, almost like members of some Wainscot Society suddenly exposed to the gaze of giants (see Great and Small).

After having had enough of this buffoonery, Dr Bullfinch dignifiedly repudiates Thorkel's I-am-God justification of his behaviour, telling him that "Cyclops thought size and strength were sufficient" but was wrong; Bullfinch is then killed (to mild regret). Pedro commits suicide-by-cop to save the others (and is instantly forgotten). The three survivors having learned that they will soon regain their full size, the camera takes their POV briefly. After breaking one lens of Thorkel's spectacles – which turns him into a true one-eyed giant Cyclops – they trick him into falling into the pit where the radium dwells. This kills him. Having seemingly forgotten about the scientific implications of Thorkel's work, the shrunks, growing to full size off-screen, return to a "native" village. The male and the female scientist are now seen to fancy each other demurely, before the final credits spare our blushes.

Though Dr Cyclops is far more evocative of Carl Barks in Oz than Joseph Conrad, no tale of a journey up a river into a jungle that climaxes in a fatal encounter with an amoral bald guru can escape some echo of Heart of Darkness (1899; collected 1902); but the echo can hardly have been conscious here, or meaningful [for Barks and Oz see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Made by the uncredited co-director of King Kong (1933), Dr Cyclops begins with a sequence or two shot in tastefully couched chiaroscuro, but this caringness is immediately abandoned; the film is ultimately torpid in its execution (some trick photography aside, and the uncanny-valley surreality of the three-colour Technicolor), and allows no genuine openings for speculation.

The novelization, Dr Cyclops (1940), was published without the laughs under the House Name Will Garth, and was probably the work of Alexander Samalman. [JC]

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