Dr Cyclops (1940)

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack

Dr Cyclops opens in the depths of the Peruvian jungle. Dr Mendoza (Paul Fix), arrives to question Dr Thorkel (Albert Dekker) about his experiments. But when he challenges Thorkel and tells him that he is meddling with ‘powers reserved for God’ and must be stopped, Thorkel has little hesitation in killing him. Unfortunately, having murdered his assistant, Thorkel is left to rely on his failing eyesight, until eventually he is forced to contact others, to help him in his scientific endeavours.

Dr Rupert Bulfinch (Charles Halton) is the one to receive Thorkel’s request for help and he in turn recruits Dr Mary Robinson (Janice Logan) and Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley). After a long time travelling, they all arrive at Thorkel’s camp, accompanied by Steve Baker (Victor Kilian) who owns the mules they have hired. Before they even have a chance to rest, Dr Thorkel asks them to examine some slides. To their surprise, once they have given their assessment, Thorkel politely thanks them for their help and tells them their work is down and that they must now return home.

Angry and frustrated that they have been called into the jungle to simply look down a microscope, the group refuse to leave. Instead they discover that Thorkel is sitting on top of a Radium mine. A fact they immediately want to exploit, both for the benefit of science and their own personal gain.

Driven to find out exactly what Thorkel is up to and why he requires the Radium, the group break into Thorkel’s hut where he catches them reading his scientific journals. After an angry outburst, Thorkel apologises and decides to show them his work. He gathers them all into his experimental chamber, including Pedro (Frank Yaconelli) his local dogsbody, and shrinks them to one tenth their normal size. Thorkel’s aim is to both study them and stop them from returning to civilisation and reporting on his work. But, once shrunk it does not take long for the group to escape and, from then on, the film becomes a game of cat and mouse as Thorkel tries to hunt them down. A game given all the more urgency when Thorkel realises the shrinking effects are wearing off.

Visually the film is rich and vibrant, yet it is the opening scene which has the most impact, as it appears to have been photographed in a style deliberately reminiscent of the two colour Technicolor process, used to such great effect in Doctor X (1932). The ominous palette of blues and greens (which are repeated whenever Dr Thorkel is working), is striking, both in how it highlights the horror of Dr Mendoza’s murder, as well as seeking to offer a direct juxtaposition with the lush Peruvian jungle.

Although Dr Cyclops is neither the first nor the last film in which the lead protagonists are shrunk, the actual special effects are remarkable given that the film was made in 1940. The use of rear projection in conjunction with over sized props, all helped Dr Cyclops to a deserved Academy Award nomination, only to lose out to the astounding effects work on The Thief of Bagdad (1940). However, you cannot watch Dr Thorkel grabbing Bulfinch and examining him, without thinking back to probably Schoedsack’s most famous work, the original King Kong (1933), which he co-directed with Merian C. Cooper. In that film Fay Wray was the one being grabbed by the huge articulated hand instead of Charles Halton, but visually, it is strikingly familiar.

The performances themselves are solid if unremarkable, except, that is for Albert Dekker as Dr Thorkel. Dekker plays the scientist with a quiet yet deliberate intensity, which makes his murder of Bulfinch seem all the more callous and brutal. Yet he also manages to elicit a degree of sympathy for Thorkel due to the scientist’s constant air of exhaustion and ever decaying eye sight. Although, this sympathy is driven in no small part by the fact that those who are shrunk (excluding Pedro), bring their fate down upon themselves.

Before Dr Bulfinch even leaves the comfort of the United States, he is warned that Thorkel is unstable, ‘and now that for years he has buried himself in the Amazon jungle, who knows what his mental state may be.’ But Bulfinch chooses to ignore the warning. He has been called to help the great Thorkel and his pride will not allow him to resist such an opportunity. So with the assistance of Dr Robinson, he recruits the slothful Stockton and leads them into the jungle. Only for his pride to come into play a second time, when he decides to ignore Thorkel’s instructions to leave, even after being insulted by Thorkel’s initial treatment of him, “I will not be treated like an errand boy,” Bulfinch states to the rest of the group. However, after receiving a thinly veiled threat from Thorkel the following day, and witnessing apparent evidence of Thorkel’s madness, Bulfinch changes his mind, that is until they all discover the presence of the Radium mine. At which point, pride and greed combine to drive them all into Thorkel’s cabin, for which they are duly punished.

That is not to excuse Thorkel for his actions. From the very start of the film he is shown to be a cold blooded killer, destroying anyone who gets in his way, but to what end? He states during the film’s opening minutes that he has in his hands the “… cosmic force of creation itself..we can shape life, take it apart, put it together again, mould it like putty.” Yet, what does he do? He makes things smaller, but it is never explained why or for what purpose. Instead, it is simply an empty device, conjured up by the writers, about a man with fading eyesight who is obsessed with miniaturisation.

Despite the film’s apparent emptiness, it is certainly entertaining, chugging along at a frenetic pace, leaping from murder to peril to threat’s thwarted. It never outstays its welcome and nor should it, after all it is simply a boy’s own adventure coated in an Atomic veneer. However, what it does do in a minor way, is reflect the attitudes and anxieties of the time. Dekker’s make-up can easily be seen as a reflection of the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment experienced by America, only a few years before Pearl Harbour. And the Radium mine is indicative of how nuclear power was perceived, as something which offered great benefits yet did so with the threat of disastrous consequences. Janice Logan’s character suffers the expected burden of the inherent sexism of the time, she may be a biologist but when moccasins need stitching she is the woman for the job. However the more overt sexism against her character appears to be reserved for the publicity shots and posters for the film, with her either writhing in Dr Thorkel’s hand as a beam of light shoots from his eye or about to be stamped on by a giant boot (a shot which unfortunately is not in the film). As for Pedro, his treatment displays a casual racism, so undoubtedly prevalent during the 1930’s and ’40’s. He is shown to be lazy and ignorant and yet with all that said, he is ultimately heroic, sacrificing himself to save the rest of the group.

But where the true strengths of Dr Cyclops lie are in its delicious ironies, because the film is ultimately a trick, a joke played by the writers upon us, the audience. It can be argued that all films are tricks to some extent, but rarely is one filled with so many self destructive characters and such a magnificently ironic, yet empty, central idea. It is the characters own greed and pride which drives them to their fate at the hands of Dr Thorkel, a man who can barely see, yet is obsessed with shrinking everything out of sight. And the ultimate joke, the ultimate irony, is left to the end of the film as Thorkel, the scientist who never succeeded in shrinking the world and keeping it shrunk, plummets to his own, ever decreasing death, down the Radium mine, never to be seen again.

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