Tuesday, 25 October 2016
THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939)
“Though my life be taken, my work will not be left undone”
In August 1939 Columbia Pictures released The Man They Could Not Hang, a mad scientist movie assisted by a handful of excellent performances and a slightly less two-dimensional motive for the medical scheming. Directed by Nick Grinde who’d co-written Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland (1934), Boris Karloff plays Dr Henryk Savaard, pioneer of a mechanical heart invention. As he’s inventing this on the quiet due to the ethics of revivification of the dead, he enlists a healthy medical student to volunteer to be induced into death on the operating table and then revived with the new test heart. While Savaard assures her that every precaution is being taken and her beau is fully on-board with the plan, his girlfriend Betty (Ann Doran) has other ideas: “Don’t you realise he’s going to kill you? You’re going to die!”
Since alarmism seems to have no effect, Betty goes to the cops who raid the laboratory, causing her man to die mid-operation before life can be restored. In the ensuing trial, Savaard’s kindly bedside manner is replaced by the wrath of his denied underlying God complex. He castigates her meddling as “the treachery of a stupid woman” but saves his bitterest denouncements for the judge and jury for seeking to kill a man: “whose only offence is to bring life to darkness”. Karloff gives a strong and impassioned performance as usual, transitioning from sincere and well-meaning to full-throttle megalomania without descending into ham. We are in doubt though that the medical gloves will be off if he gets his chance to be revenged upon his executioners.
Sure enough, that opportunity comes courtesy of his assistant Lang, the immensely-busy character actor Byron Foulger who is equally as intense and convincing as Karloff. Under the radar, he is permitted to get consent from Savaard to donate his body to science, which means his mentor will become his own guinea-pig for the revolutionary surgery. Savaard goes from Death Row to escaping from Death Valley post-hanging by successfully being operated upon by Lang. His last words before execution - “Though my life be taken, my work will not be left undone” – ring true as he schemes to be revenged on those who killed him.
Scoop Foley (Robert Wilcox) is a wiley reporter who spots a connection between a rash of six suicides-by-hanging breaking out over the city. His editor misses the homicide angle, preferring to dream up sensational headlines about a Savaard curse. Foley knows better, but not quite enough to realise that a mysterious party he gate-crashes is a deliberate ploy by Savaard to gather together the judge, prosecuting District Attorney and all the jurors who sent him to the noose. Here the plot echoes 1934’s The Ninth Guest (reviewed earlier on my site) in its conceit firstly of the villain turning into a disembodied voice informing his guests of their inability to avoid being gradually killed off one by one – and the device of the electrified shutter which claims the life of the judge, his first victim.
There’s a neat reversal by Savaard’s beloved daughter Janet (Lorna Gray) who, in attempting to force her father to release the remaining guests, threatens to fry herself on the shutter – thus willingly giving her father power over her life and death against his will. Sadly, her bluff is called and she dies. In his grief, Savaard once more uses his technology to revive her. However, he is struck by a very last-minute (of the film) attack of conscience and in shooting a hooked-up flask of serum ruins his own handiwork for the last time.
By now, despite being ever-grateful for the boost to his career caused by recognition in the horror genre, the limits of the association were beginning to tell on him. He told the Los Angeles Times during the filming that although he was a gentle who loved his garden and animals: “What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.”
Karloff would go on to enjoy another three decades of longevity in Hollywood regardless of this perceived downside of his position...