Saturday 31 October 2009

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Director: Nick Grinde
Star: Boris Karloff
This little gem from Columbia was amazingly ahead of its time. Blonde haired Boris Karloff is a scientist yet again, a very calm one called Dr Henryk Savaard, who has a strong vision of the future. 'How frail a thing to solve the riddle of death,' he says, looking at his artificial heart and wonders why nobody has come up with such a thing before. After all the heart is nothing but a pump and the veins are nothing but tubes. So he's built an artificial heart, a huge contraption, that he plans to hook up to a student volunteer called Bob Roberts. Roberts believes in his work so much that he's willing to die for his beliefs, in a controlled manner by Dr Savaard so that the experiment can be recorded scientifically. We can't help but believe him when he says that he'll be back to go on his honeymoon with Savaard's nurse, Betty Crawford.

While Savaard is obviously a highly intelligent and visionary man, he is also incredibly dumb. He knows that after gassing Roberts to death, he and his assistant have to bring him back from the dead or it'll be their deaths too, because the authorities would call it murder. He doesn't document the boy's volunteering and he trusts his nurse, obviously an emotional sort even without the personal interest she has in Roberts, not to tell anyone. Of course the first thing she actually does is to go straight to the police to report that Savaard is about to murder her fiance, thus removing every possibility of bringing him back and destining him instead to the police autopsy table.

Savaard is arrested and tried, of course, for first degree murder, something he's hardly likely to get out of given that he freely admits that he killed the boy. He does give it a try though, talking from the witness box about many concepts that have come to pass already in succeeding years. He suggests that it should be possible to keep people alive with artificial organs or with real ones transplanted from the recently deceased. He even gives the jury a great analogy: that while it's possible to fix a running motor, it's a lot easier to shut it down, take it apart and examine it, before fixing the problem, putting it back together and then switching it back on. He wants to do precisely the same thing with human beings, believing that it would make surgery far more effective.

The accuracy is amazing, even the South African name of Karloff's character being surprisingly prophetic, given that the man who ended up performing the first heart transplant, 28 years after this film was released, was a South African with a similar name, Dr Christiaan Barnard. He didn't make the same mistakes that Savaard made, picking a 54 year old man suffering from diabetes and incurable heart disease to lie on his operating table, and not killing him first. The film was written by Karl Brown, from a story by George Wallace Sayre and Leslie T White, all of them experienced writers but ones who worked firmly at the B movie level. They deserve a huge amount of credit here.
This 64 minute film is unmistakeably a B movie too, betraying itself as such in its single name star and its few sets; in some powerfully pulp dialogue and in plot contrivances necessary for the story to fully unfold in such a short running time; and in the stunning lack of equipment that such an important scientist has in his lab. Yet it's become even more relevant to us as the years have dragged on. In 1939 it probably felt like yet another take on the old Frankenstein yarn, but there's a lot more in there than just reanimating the dead. It talks about concepts and procedures that have now saved many lives and prolonged even more and it even touches on the potential for multinational pharmaceutical corporations to hold mankind in slavery for commercial gain. Sound familiar?

What's even more amazing is that the writers didn't just see forward scientifically, they saw forward cinematically too, this film acting as something of a cinematic missing link. Of course, the jury finds Savaard guilty and he's hanged by the neck until dead, but Savaard's assistant Lang takes ownership of the body and brings him back. C'mon, what did you think the title was going to mean? Well, at least he doesn't scream 'It's alive!', as I expected him to. Now Savaard, literally dead to the world, is free to wreak his vengeance on the men and women who tried him and sentenced him to death, and we can watch our story turn into a William Castle movie, four years before Castle would make his first. In 1937 Castle was an actor, landing a few uncredited roles before progressing up in turn to be a dialogue director (at Columbia no less), a writer, a director and a producer.

While rooted in the clever locked room mysteries of the late silent era and early thirties, not to mention the pulp cliffhangers, the second half of this film that contains Savaard's vengeance, is quintessential Castle. After killing off half the jury, who apparently died through suicide by hanging, he fakes invitations to the rest to bring them all to his house. He seals the house with boiler plate, disappears behind the scenes and talks to them through a loudspeaker system. By this point he's already provided them with placecards at the dinner table, clever ones that contain the order in which everyone will die this night and even the time at which it'll happen, one every fifteen minutes. No this isn't a Vincent Price movie, it's still Boris Karloff.

The methods of death are all ingenious and cleverly happen despite Savaard's warnings not to do things. Therefore he doesn't really kill them, they kill themselves, after yet again unheeding his words, just as they did during the trial. Killing people in ever ingenious ways is something of a tradition in horror movies, presumably finding its influence in the old whodunits but turning one murder into a whole set of them. One death here, where a man is killed by a poisoned needle concealed inside a telephone receiver, rings bells for me. I remember it, or at least something unmistakeably similar, from Dr Phibes Rises Again, made no less than 33 years after this film. The concept lives on today in the Saw series, which outdoes even the Phibes movies for sheer convoluted intricacies. This is a solid early entry in this genre, it's biggest flaws being that it should have received better treatment, with a higher budget and a longer running time.

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