Friday 13 January 2017

Black Friday (1940)

Director: Arthur Lubin
Writers: Kurt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

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.
And here we pause, because most of you are going to be questioning that. If we’ve learned anything from a hundred horror flicks built around brain transplantation, it’s that everything that makes a man is stored in his brain and that doesn’t change even if you transplant that brain into another body. When Dr. Frankenstein placed a criminal’s brain into his nascent monster, it directed the creature’s actions in an aberrant fashion. So, when Dr. Sovac moves the brain of Red Cannon into the body of George Kingsley, it must be Cannon who wakes up from the surgery? Well, not here! It’s Kingsley in control with Cannon lurking somewhere behind him, ready to come out when needed. We rail against this for most of the picture until we’re let in on the fact that only part of Red Cannon’s brain was transplanted. That’s not what it says in Dr. Sovac’s notes so I wonder if they ‘fixed’ it later and hoped nobody would notice such an obvious problem. Maybe that’s why co-writer Curt Siodmak would revisit the idea with Donovan’s Brain.

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!
What stood out most to me was that the morals are different from the norm. Usually, it’s the act of transplantation that prompts us to see a character as the bad guy because this whole subgenre of horror came from Frankenstein, a pre-Victorian gothic novel with a religious subtext that pits science against religion. Sure, many of us know people who have benefitted from kidney or even heart transplants, but back then it was surely beyond the pale because Man shouldn’t be playing God! That mentality lasted in the horror movie genre for decades and still hasn’t quite vanished, but Siodmak’s script, written with Eric Taylor, never judges Dr. Sovac for transplanting a brain. It’s illegal, that’s for sure, but we never really get into the morality of it and it’s certainly not why he’s on death row. The suggestion is that he performs this surgery for the best of reasons, to save his friend, but only later discovers that Red Cannon has half a million dollars hidden away somewhere and that discovery sets him on an inevitable path to his downfall.

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.
I enjoyed Karloff’s performance here, though Lugosi’s is far from his best. I won’t spoil his worst moment, but the man who played Count Dracula pleading in a broken voice is a pitiful thing indeed. He does try, but he can’t find his feet as a New York gangster the way that his cohorts can. William Kane is Paul Fix, the marshal from The Rifleman, who was just as good in villainous roles as he was in heroic ones; Frank Miller is Edmund MacDonald, well known for film noir roles with dark sides; even Raymond Bailey does what he needs to do as Louis Devore, even if we don’t recognise him as Milburn Drysdale a few decades later. Lugosi could look tough in his sleep, but that thick accent hurts him here and we never buy into him taking over the gang from Cannon, who Ridges plays so well that we have trouble initially believing that it’s the same actor we’ve been watching as the gentle Prof. Kingsley. Perhaps he’s aided by the make-up needs being for Kingsley rather than Cannon, but most of it his him; it’s a superb contrasting performance.

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!
Karloff and Lugosi made seven features together, eight if you count Gift of Gab, but this isn’t the double act that we know from Son of Frankenstein, The Raven or The Black Cat. It’s well worth watching for Karloff and it’s interesting for Lugosi but, of all of their films together, this is the one to watch for someone else. I wonder if Universal ever asked Stanley Ridges back for another horror; they wouldn’t cut their output until later in the decade and could easily have used someone with the skills he ably demonstrates here. From what I can tell, the only other horror movie he made was a Republic picture called The Phantom Speaks in 1945, in which he plays a doctor whose body is taken over by a murderer; it’s a different story but with obvious similarities. These old horror movies work because they were cast from quality actors who happened to be playing horror; Ridges is another Claude Rains, who could do The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, then switch to Casablanca and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Sadly he didn’t have as much opportunity.

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.


The Blue Curtain said...

There were a number of Slavic gangsters in the US from the 1920s to 1940s. Do you think that only Italians and Irish were mobsters? In New York, it would be mostly Italians, Jews, and Irish, but that wasn't everyone. Joe Saltis was a notorious Hungarian-born American gangster from the 1910s into the 1930s and he likely sounded something like Bela.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

That's a fair point. However, didn't gangs tend to revolve around ethnic lines? The Italian gangs were full of Italians, the Irish gangs were full of Irish and so on. Lugosi is the only Slavic gangster here. His accent was hardly a major problem for the picture though.