Director: Arthur Lubin
Writers: Kurt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
It’s 1940 and Boris and Bela face the worst horror of their careers: camping outside Walmart the day after Thanksgiving to bag one of them there big screen TVs! Well, not quite. This isn’t that Black Friday, it’s just another Friday the 13th which looms heavy on a calendar behind the opening credits. Once they’re done, we visit Boris Karloff in his prison cell as he readies to start his procession to the electric chair. He’s Dr. Ernest Sovac, though most of the characters seem to call him Ernst, and he appears to be a pleasant old man. It’s surely telling that he’s dressed in white and everyone else is in black. Even the guards seem to respect him and allow him to hand his notes to one of the journalists present; the only one who was fair to him, he explains. And, as he walks off screen to his death, that journalist opens them to read and we launch into a feature length flashback to explain why the good doctor is about to be executed. And, whether it’s Friday the 13th in the prison or not, it certainly is when we leap into the flashback.
Dr. Sovac’s notes are titled Notes on the Case of George Kingsley and it’s Prof. Kingsley teaching poetry at the University of Newcastle. It happens to be the end of the semester and he explains to his avid students that he may not return the next year, though that has precisely nothing to do with the doggerel he quotes from Sir Joshua Peachtree, who I believe was invented for this film. ‘Thou who breakest glass will find Fate can be, oh, most unkind: under ladder walkest thee, most unlucky thou wilt be; each dread Friday do take care, else thou fallest down the stair.’ It’s supposed to be because a ‘very large university in the east’ is interested in him, but we can’t ignore all these superstitions, right? It’s Friday the 13th and Kingsley is tempting fate with poetry in a movie called Black Friday. We shouldn’t forget that it’s Karloff the Uncanny who’s going to drop him at the train station because he doesn’t drive; the Sovacs are family friends; Dr. Sovac’s daughter, Jean, is even one of Kingsley’s students.
I liked all these little hints that something’s going to go horribly wrong, only for everything to be perfectly fine. The best is when Margaret Kingsley warns her husband to watch the traffic; halfway across the road, he drops his umbrella, bends down to retrieve it, turns round to wave at her through the passing cars but still makes it safely over. I also liked the stuntwork when he gets his, as we knew he always would. There’s a gun battle between two cars, barrelling along together, and one knocks Dr. Kingsley over as it ploughs into the building behind him. It’s very capable stuff indeed. And, with that relatively fast disaster done with, we promptly set up the next, much slower one, which regular viewers of Universal horror movies will find to be rather odd in its approach and for two reasons: one because of how the central idea affects the story and the other because of whose story this is. While the stars are Karloff and Lugosi, almost a decade into their horror careers, all this really revolves around Stanley Ridges.
Who is Stanley Ridges, you might ask? Well, he was a British actor, like Karloff, who had taken his career to the States. Beginning on Broadway as a song and dance man, he became a capable romantic lead but struggled to translate a stage career to the screen. He found his place as a character actor in the late thirties, knocking out eight films in Hollywood’s golden year of 1939, including Union Pacific, Each Dawn I Die and Espionage Agent. He’d do even better in the forties, with memorable roles in Sergeant York, To Be or Not to Be and The Suspect, not to mention the 1943 B-movie, False Faces, in which he played what may be his one and only lead role, but, arguably, the two parts for which he’ll be best remembered are the two that he plays in this movie: absent-minded professor, George Kingsley, and vicious gangster, Red Cannon. How come he gets two roles? Well, Dr. Sovac is a brain surgeon and he’s eager to save his friend’s life; he does so by transplanting the brain of the gangster who ploughed into him into Kingsley’s body.
Of course, the oddest thing here is the casting. According to Glenn Erickson’s review for DVD Savant, Karloff was supposed to play the double role of Kingsley and Cannon, while Lugosi was to be Dr. Sovac. I can see that, and it would have made more sense at the time than bringing in someone like Stanley Ridges who wasn’t known for the horror genre in the slightest. However, Karloff was unconvinced that he could do justice to two quintessentially American characters, a small town professor and a fiery gangster, and so decided to play the doctor instead. He’s great as Dr. Sovac, of course, but it’s hardly a stretch for him and Lugosi, even less likely to be believable in that prominent double role, was relegated to the much smaller and less important one of Eric Marnay, who had worked for Cannon but then orchestrated his murder so he could take over his gang instead. We’re never given a reason why this New York gangster should have an eastern European accent, but then Lugosi ran into that problem in at least half of his films!
You see, this is really an unwitting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, with Prof. Kingsley playing a much loved Jekyll and Red Cannon taking the villainous Hyde half of that personality. The two battle for dominance, of course, with Cannon taking firm advantage of his new disguise to get revenge on those who attempted to murder him; Kingsley just gets more and more confused at the whole thing, because he keeps losing time and can’t figure out why. The why of it all is Dr. Sovac, of course, because he’s dazzled enough by the prospect of a fortune to further his work to put his friend at serious risk. When he realises that Kingsley is exhibiting signs of Cannon coming through, he pushes that hard. He takes his friend to New York and books them into Cannon’s regular rooms at the Midtown Hotel, where he throws pointed questions at him as Kingsley falls into sleep, so that he’ll wake up with the gangster in control, whom he believes he can blackmail into sharing the location of that money. So his downfall is greed, not playing God.
And, frankly, Ridges steals the film, which is no small feat for someone tasked with acting with both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; it has to be mentioned that the latter two don’t share a single scene. I utterly bought into Ridges’ confidence as Cannon; there are some wonderful scenes where he visits his old flame, a singer called Sunny Rogers, and carries on with her as if nothing had ever changed, even though he’s literally in a completely new body that she fails to recognise. Siodmak handles all the little details that confirm him as Cannon superbly. I also utterly bought into Ridges’ absent-minded act as Kingsley, who’s well established with the audience before Ridges ever becomes Cannon. The best scenes are ones where he blurs the boundaries between the two. Cannon has a favourite bellhop at the Midtown, for instance, who uses the distinctive knock he’s mandated. When Kingsley uses it too, he starts to leave, realises what happened, pauses, starts again and almost walks into Boris Karloff. That’s an awesome combination!
Happy Friday the 13th, folks! And, remember, there are two Friday the 13ths in 2017, so come on back for another one in October which also doesn’t feature Jason Voorhees.