Once upon a time there used to be something known as “Project: Terror” (“where the Scientific and the Terrifying emerge!”). It was a program which KENS-TV channel 5 in San Antonio ran on Friday nights at 10:30. For many people (including Your Humble Commentator) this was where the first exposure to the classic horror, fantasy and science-fiction films was experienced. A year’s worth of viewing would make a person as knowledgeable in the works of Jack Arnold, Kurt Neumann, Ishiro Honda, William Castle and others as they would be in the geography of their own neighborhood.
As with so many television outlets for movies, “Project: Terror” had its particular quirks. For example: CBS Television had a fondness during the 1960s for “The Glass-Bottom Boat” and “A Dandy in Aspic” . . . TNT used to be madly in love with “Red Dawn” and “The War Wagon” . . . AMC only knew two monster movies in its formative years: “Dr. Cyclops” and “Beginning of the End”.
For “Project: Terror” it was a 1961 Italian film entitled “Il gigante di Metropolis” (or, as American audiences came to know it, “The Giant of Metropolis”). I do not have the official figures in front of me, but when I was growing up in Austin (and getting San Antonio stations via cable), I would have sworn this film was run at least four times a year. Four. Times. A. Year.
OK, and this was in the days before home video and downloads and such. Also in the days before there were dedicated SF/horror channels. It wasn’t as if any of us could change the channel and find something else (unless, perhaps we wanted to see something like “The Redhead from Wyoming” or “Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch” . . . or, Heaven help us, “The Tonight Show”). I sat through “The Killer Shrews”, “From Hell it Came” and “The Monster That Challenged the World”, and I learned to like them!
Call yourself a Tough Guy, huh? Huh?
OK . . . “The Giant of Metropolis”.
Two things in particular drew me to this movie. The first was that, noting the word “Metropolis” in the title, I thought it was perhaps a sequel to the classic 1927 Fritz Lang film (which I hadn’t seen but had heard about even at a tender age). The second was that there’d been an extensive write-up of the movie in Forrest Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. If Forry could write about it, then I could durn well see it.
Thus I received my introduction to Italian cinema.
“The Giant of Metropolis” was directed by Umberto Scarpelli (“The Secret Conclave”, “Gran premio”, “Sant’Elena piccola isola” . . . let’s just go ahead and say that you’re forgiven for not being too familiar with his work as a director and leave it at that. To be fair, though, he received far more recognition as a second-unit director for people such as Vittorio De Sica). The story is a rather thin re-telling of the legend of Atlantis which was written by six people (including Scarpelli who took care of the dialogue . . . and admitted it). You know you’re in trouble when you have six people writing a screenplay.
Metropolis is a super-scientific community where the men wear the sort of costumes you see on classic episodes of “Dr. Who”, and the women try to wear as little as possible. It’s ruled by the evil Yotar (after all, if it were ruled by the nice Yotar we really wouldn’t have a story). Yotar is played with menacing calm by Roldano Lupi, and how evil is he? Well, he has a young son named Elmos (Marietto), and his scheme is to make Elmos immortal by transplanting the brain of a aged but brilliant scientist into Elmos’ head. Let me go over that again. Yotar wants to make his son immortal by giving the kid a completely different brain which carries someone else’s personality and memories and such.
Did I mention it took six people to write the screenplay?
A lot of people think Yotar’s plan stinks, including his wife Texen (Liana Orfei) and his daughter Mercede (Bella Cortez). His advisors all tell him that the stars are not in a favorable alignment for a successful brain transplant (run that through your head the next time you complain about the state of today’s health care). But Yotar has the population of Metropolis under his domination and he just glares at them and declares that the experiment will continue.
Meanwhile . . . a delegation of people from other villages has arrived to tell Yotar that his evil experiments will result in widespread destruction (six people to write this screenplay. Count ’em!). The delegation is led by Gordon Mitchell as Obro. Mitchell was one of a small coterie of American actors with real good bods who migrated to Italy in the 50s and 60s to find work in what was then known as “sword-and-sandal” films (e.g. “Hercules”, “Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops”, etc.). I could spend quite a bit of time on this subject, but let me just say that such roles as a rule didn’t require too much thespian effort. All an actor really had to do was flex his pectorals quite a bit and whup the bad guys (something which Mitchell managed to do rather successfully, finding quite a bit of jobs in Italy).
So most of the delegation decide to go home rather than upset Yotar, and Obro’s brothers are killed leaving Obro on his own to handle Metropolis. Oh, and Obro is large and muscular, so he is the “Giant” in the title. Everyone taking notes?
Yotar sees how rugged Obro’s body is (especially after torturing it . . . he’s not only evil but thorough as well) and comes up with the brilliant idea of using Obro’s “vitality” to help Elmos withstand the shock of the brain transplant (Elmos’ brain, of course, is scheduled to be thrown out anyway, but why quibble?). But Queen Texen decides enough is enough and, with the aid of a helpful advisor, arranges for Obro to be freed so that he can scuttle about the secret passageways in Metropolis and wage a one-man war of terror againt Yotar and his troops. During the course of this Obro also manages to kidnap Mercede and hide her down in the passageways where he plans to teach her about Love. And get that look off your face right now.
Admittedly the whole production sounds like cheese. And it is. The dialogue is nothing to write home about (even if you’ve got five other people helping you). The acting is mainly a matter of sudden close-ups of eyes. The action scenes are typical of other “sword-and-sandal” films of the period, with the emphasis being on close-ups of various muscles rather than anything in the way of choreographed combat. There’s a lot of pectoral flexing and grunting about which, if that’s your cup of cocoa, I say Go For It! For the rest of us . . .
“The Giant of Metropolis” also has one of the surest signs of a cheesy genre film: an erotic dance. Or rather, what it tries to pass off as an erotic dance. Early on in the film Yotar presides over a ceremony where men and women will dance about in filmy costumes, after which they will be “joined together in the physical union”. Don’t you believe it. There’s a lot of arms waved about . . . some weaving and pointing of hands as Bella Cortez proves she threw away the money her parents gave her for dancing lessons . . . and the whole scene carries as much sexual excitement as the dumpster at an auto parts store. I mean, if there was actually a dance routine that could get a person hot and bothered, don’t you think there’d be movies by the ton devoted to it?
(And remind me to tell you someday about lambada movies.)
As for the soundtrack, I refer you to the attached trailer. Like the music? You’d better because, for the 98 minutes that the movie runs, that’s about all you’re going to hear. The prolific Armando Trovajoli developed a scant handful of leitmotifs for this film, and boy did he run with them.
But “The Giant of Metropolis” does have a few things in its favor. The production design by Giorgio Giovaninni (“The Last Man on Earth”, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, “The Name of the Rose”) and the set decoration by Giuseppe Ranieri are really marvelous. I mean, the exterior long shots of Metropolis clearly show it to be a model. On the other hand the interior sets are rather distinctive and look as if they were meant for a much more expensive production. The instruments used by the scientists of Metropolis look as if they were either grown organically, or carved from stone. And the weapons used by both Obro and the guards are perhaps the wickedest looking items outside of a Shaw Brothers film.
Obviously set design and props aren’t everything. And “The Giant of Metropolis” isn’t going to be confused for great cinema by any stretch of the imagination. But if you approach it as a casual excuse for popcorn then it has the potential to satisfy. As for myself, whereas my tastes may have grown more sophisticated (whatever that really means), “The Giant of Metropolis” is a bridge to those times when I hunkered down in front of a black-and-white television set late on Friday nights, and rewarded myself for having made it through yet another week.
I Enjoyed the Movie.