Doctor Cyclops (Blu-ray Review)
DirectorErnest B. Schoedsack
Release Date(s)1940 (January 7, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Doctor Cyclops, a 1940 science fiction film that uses shrunken people as its centerpiece, was the first genre picture shot in three-strip Technicolor. Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X had been photographed in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process eight years earlier. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, who co-directed 1933’s King Kong, Doctor Cyclops falls into the mad scientist sub-genre.
Like Kong, Doctor Cyclops involves a journey into the jungle. A group of scientists venture thousands of miles to find out what reclusive Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) is up to. We learn he’s been experimenting with a radioactive ore that requires him to wear a heavy, cumbersome suit. The group, headed by Dr. Bulfinch (Charles Halton), includes mineralogist Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley), biologist Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), and Steve Baker (Victor Kilian), who owns the mules needed to get through the jungle and suspects Thorkel may have found a rich mine.
Thorkel has summoned the scientists to examine a significant finding because his eyesight is too poor for him to be certain of what he has seen through the microscope. The moment he has their corroboration, he asks them to leave. Incensed at Thorkel’s brusque rudeness, Bulfinch and the others set up camp and start poking around.
Thorkel finds and imprisons them along with his own assistant, Pedro (Frank Taconelli), turns his invention on them—a radioactive ray that reduces them to 12 inches in height. The rest of the film revolves around how the shrunken folks use their ingenuity to try and outsmart and escape from their giant nemesis. One of their ploys is to break his thick glasses, but they succeed in breaking only one lens. That Thorkel can now only see with one eye gives the movie its title.
Within the first couple of minutes, a character tells Thorkel “You are tampering with powers reserved for God,” a phrase spoken endlessly in mad-scientist pictures. The script draws upon earlier films, such as The Most Dangerous Game and is a forerunner of 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Featuring a range of special effects such as rear projection, mattes, oversize props, and combining live actors with filmed backgrounds, Doctor Cyclops manages to create the illusion that the human prisoners are smaller than a dog and a well-fed cat is their adversary. Director Schoedsack allows these effects to take center stage over the weak story and poor dialogue.
Dekker embraces the role of Thorkel. Tall himself at 6 foot two and bald, he is reminiscent of Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol in Mad Love. Though he’s pretty careless about securing the shrunken visitors (he takes a lot of naps), this gives the special effects department a chance to shine as the small people try to escape. When he’s awake, Thorkel torments and taunts them. Dr. Bulfinch appears to be a particular target of Thorkel’s venom. In one beautifully crafted scene, Thorkel, holding a butterfly net, appears on a process screen behind Bulfinch. As he reaches to the left, a huge butterfly net in front of the screen moves in from the left toward Bulfinch and comes down on him as Thorkel gestures downward. The blend of live and filmed action is perfect.
Comparisons to King Kong are inevitable, since Schoedsack directed both pictures. Doctor Cyclops is well made but lacks the emotional impact of Kong and its exciting stop-motion scenes. Cyclops never explains why Thorkel is experimenting with miniaturization. Apart from Dekker, the cast is comprised of bland unknowns. A number of decisions they make in trying to outsmart their captor don’t make sense, and we never see how they regain their normal size. It’s Dekker’s show all the way as his character erases a fine line between the dedicated scientist on the verge of an amazing discovery and a crazed narcissist with a God complex.
Kino Lorber's brand new 4K restoration, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The cinematography stays at a consistent level of brightness, whether the scenes are interior or exterior. Immediately setting the tone for something out of the ordinary, the Paramount logo has a flashing green mist over it that extends into the main titles. The most striking use of Technicolor is the eerie green glow that emanates from Thorkel’s lab and illuminates his robot-like protective head gear as he watches through a window in the door. The soundstage jungle looks pretty authentic with thick, tropical plants and the bottoms of huge trees seen as the camera pans with the actors. Cinematographer Henry Sharp often shoots Thorkel from a low angle to accentuate the David and Goliath contrast between the obsessed scientist and his shrunken adversaries. The special effects are far superior to the script and easily overshadow the mostly unknown cast. Process photography is credited to Farciot Edouart and Wallace Kelley. A miniaturized horse is seen in the same frame as Pedro, a dog barks at the tiny people in tall grass, and huge props (a boot, eyeglasses, a basket, a cactus plant, wooden boxes, a table, a chair) create the illusion that normal-sized actors are a mere 12 inches tall. Costumes are routine except for a striking green suit and matching hat Dr. Robinson wears in a brief scene early in the film. After they have been reduced in size, all of Thorkel’s unwelcome visitors wear toga-like cover-ups apparently made from handkerchiefs.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English subtitles are available for the hearing impaired. Sound is sharp throughout, with particularly good reproduction of dialogue, which is clear and distinct. Actors do not overlap their dialogue, and there are stretches in which visuals carry the story, accompanied by atmospheric music. A few shotgun blasts sound like cannon fire, and a dog’s barking is sweetened to sound like a wild beast. In one scene, Thorkel attempts to flush out the small people by using a shovel to chop repeatedly at a cactus plant where they’re hiding. The voices of the shrunken people are at reduced volume, though not distorted, which makes Thorkel’s voice seem as if it is booming.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, Trailers From Hell commentary with Jesus Trevino, and 4 theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Richard Harlan Smith notes that Paramount kept Doctor Cyclops a secret while in pre-production. Thorough biographical overviews are provided for all cast members. Albert Dekker appeared as a criminal mastermind in The Killers, in the film noir Kiss Me Deadly, with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne in Seven Sinners, and as a railroad detective in The Wild Bunch. Janice Logan had made two films prior. Charles Halton was a character actor who had appeared in many films and TV shows. Thomas Coley was a stage actor discovered by Hollywood when he was in a touring company of Our Town. Victor Kilian was a seasoned professional but not well known. He was later blacklisted by the House Unamerican Activities committee. Frank Yaconelli was the son of traveling Italian musicians. The original screenplay by Tom Kilpatrick was adapted into a short story by Henry Cutler and appeared in the June 1940 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It was later novelized, with the novel being more florid, more languid. The career of cinematographer Henry Sharp went back to the silent period when he shot many of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbucklers. Exact measurements were necessary to pull off the illusion that normal people are small. Director Schoedsack insisted that the actors be unknowns. The Technicolor people were concerned that the special effects might not look good because of the intense light required for filming in color. Props five times their normal size were constructed. Dekker had to shave his head twice a day. During World War II, Schoedsack was testing a plane at high altitude and took off his protective eyewear, causing irreversible damage to both of his eyes. He was nearly blind when filming Mighty Joe Young and depended on assistants. Doctor Cyclops did well at the box office, received decent to somewhat condescending reviews, and was nominated for a special effects Academy Award.
Trailers From Hell – Jesus Trevino provides facts about the film as the trailer is shown.
Trailers – Theatrical trailers for four science fiction and horror pictures are included: Doctor Cyclops, The Undying Monster, The Land Unknown, and Cobra Woman.
– Dennis Seuling