Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Favorite Mad Scientist

Just as I have a favorite death trap, I also have a favorite mad scientist. There have been a lot of entertaining mad scientists brought to us through prose fiction, comic books and movies. And my favorite, just barely edging out Dr. Pretorius from 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, is Dr. Thorkel.

We're introduced to Thorkel in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops, directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Though there's sometimes a little confusion as to where Dr. Thorkel originated. There was short story adaptation of the film written by Henry Kuttner that appeared in the June 1940 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. This was later expanded into a novel with the author credited to a pseudonymous name "Will Garth," though I understand Kuttner denied he wrote the novel. Some sources identify the film as an adaptation of the short story and the story's publication DID pre-date the movie. But that issue also had stills from the upcoming film and the cover illustration of Thorkel is a dead ringer for the actor who played him.

I also ran across a 2010 blog entry that cites an editor of the magazine confirming the movie (or at least the screenplay) came first. So I'm gonna go with that.

Anyway, the movie is a great one. Schoedsack was one of the co-directors of King Kong and his experience with that film serves him well here. Thorkel has developed a way of shrinking down people to action figure size and the special effects still hold up today. Schoedsack uses rear projection, matte shots, giant prop hands and appropriately sized props to give a truly eerie illusion that Thorkel is interacting with tiny human beings.

Thorkel is a brilliant scientist, but he's also nuttier than a Snickers bar and is obsessed with secrecy. He's based in a remote location in South America, where he's mining the radium he needs for his experiments. When a small group of visitors stumble onto what he's doing, he shrinks them down. When he realizes they are slowly growing again, he decides to kill them.

Albert Dekker's performance as Thorkel is fantastic. Much of the time, he plays the scientist with a polite but ruthless air of efficiency, something that makes him even creepier than if he were ranting or hamming it up. When he does lose his temper, this is unusual enough to make him seem even more dangerous.

Also, Thorkel has very poor eyesight (an important plot point) and Dekker gives him mannerisms that constantly remind us of this without being overly obvious.

By the way, the movie's title actually isn't a reference to Thorkel's eyesight, but a reference to the Iliad--the part where Polyphemus is holding Ulysses and his men hostage. I enjoy the fact that the movie simply expects its audience to get that reference when its made in the dialogue.

Thorkel's miniaturized victims are pretty much one-note characters, but the actors play them well. Most notable is Charles Halton as the egotistical but still ethical Dr. Bullfinch, who insists on conducting himself with dignity even when he's only a foot tall and dressed in a pocket handkerchief.

The straightforward screenplay is another strength of the film. The story moves along briskly and it allows the good guys to act with intelligence and cleverness in their efforts to first escape and then turn the tables on their giant captive.

Finally, this was the first American science fiction film shot in Technicolor. As much as I love and usually prefer black-and-white, I will cite this as one of the exceptions to that rule. The film looks magnificent and the color design is effectively used to give the right mood to the story.

So there you have it. My favorite mad scientist is Dr. Thorkel as played by Albert Dekker. Dr. Pretorius is probably mad at me, but I guess I really can't do anything about that.

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