Friday, 6 January 2017
BEFORE I HANG (1940)
Boris Karloff’s follow-up to The Man with Nine Lives (1940) was another in his gallery of mad scientists, completing a trio with director Nick Grinde for Columbia Pictures here from a script by radio dramatist Robert Hardy Andrews. It’s a cut above the usual fare with a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere of Noirish doom that thankfully had its original misleading title changed from the tacky The Wizard of Death.
Karloff is Dr John Garth, a scientist about to be sentenced to death but media-labelled as the ‘Mercy Killer’ for his abortive attempt to prolong the life of a patient. Compounding the back-story for sympathy, he delivers his last statement to the judge with a sincere gravitas, explaining his altruistic motives for trying to end the man’s suffering with which “old age had poisoned his body”. Indeed, made up with white hair and moustache his character is every inch a kindly, compassionate grandfather figure.
The judge is forced to rule that Garth be hanged within the next month, yet with three weeks to go he is offered the chance to continue his work by the Warden (Ben Taggart), who is fascinated by his idea of a serum extracted from life cells in a quest for possible immortality. “A race for life against death,” Garth observes lugubriously, but jumps at the chance to do as much as he can. His plaintive daughter Martha (Evelyn Keyes) and his assistant, her fiancé Dr Ames, campaign for his freedom, (a minimal role for the athletic Bruce Bennett who distinguished himself more as a silver medallist shot-putter in the 1928 Olympic Games).
Garth instead employs an interested colleague to assist him in his research, Dr Ralph Howard - a return to scholarly roles for Edward Van Sloan famous as Van Helsing in the first two Dracula films, with Karloff in Frankenstein as well as The Mummy amongst others. He is almost unrecognisable without his familiar glasses and adds academic dignity to the medical fun and games alongside Karloff. The fatal variable in the ensuing lab work comes courtesy of Garth’s decision to use the blood of an executed three-time killer for his next batch of serum. The other twist is that after persuading Howard to inject him as a guinea-pig, his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. Suddenly he is the unexpected beneficiary of extended life anyway notwithstanding a blood-stream swimming with pioneering fluid.
Dr Howard is the first to notice the side-effects apparent in his colleague: a gradual reversing of the aging process. Garth’s hair is returning subtly to grey and his eyesight has regained strength. The bad news is that he is also in possession of an unwelcome bonus tendency toward homicidal impulses. While this is the only aspect of the film that jumps the credibility gap in an otherwise sterling bid for tonal realism. It’s also where the macabre fun is to be had. Over the course of the remaining plot, whenever his work is threatened Garth unwittingly glazes over as the murderer within takes over. Karloff perspires at the brow, coils a silk handkerchief into an elegant strangler’s weapon and gravely throttles his victim with a gritty grim understatement, beginning with the unfortunate Dr Howard. His use of shiny black rubber gloves is a memorable touch of sadistic kink.
It is not only Before I Hang’s unseen killer who casts a perceptible shadow over the film. Cinematographer Benjamin Kline who had previously worked with Grinde and Karloff shooting The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) and The Man With Nine Lives (1940) aids the Film Noir mood greatly. His gloomy lighting creates a tangible brooding dread especially as Garth begins his uncontrollable descent into serial dispatching.
There’s a nice irony in the judge decreeing that without evidence implicating him in Howard’s murder, Garth is soon pardoned with the declaration: “We hope and pray that your life will be long and fruitful”. If he only knew the toxic brew coursing through the former prisoner, he may have reconsidered.
Like a walking virus, Garth is commanded from within to spread his infection with no time to waste. He bluntly tries to convince his gracefully aging friends to volunteer for inoculation. Aside from a mature acceptance of their allotted “three score and ten”, one look at his twitchy forcefulness tells them that this is not a Fountain of Youth they fancy drinking from. A one-on-one appeal though to esteemed pianist pal Victor Sondini (Pedro de Cordoba) does the trick, but before Garth can inject him his Mr Hyde persona curtails Sondini’s ivory-tinkling for ever.
Ultimately the once-good doctor has to be stopped yet it won’t be a wooden turn from Don Beddoe’s Capt. Magraw that does it. Garth himself must turn himself in. He attempts to do so in a conditional fireside confession to his friend George Wharton (Wright Kramer), scuppered however by the handkerchief handiwork of his alter-ego. Enough of Garth’s humanity is accessible for him to finally turn himself in to the safekeeping of his prison. The staging of this climax is handled effectively as he marches with purpose through the fog to the gates and an inevitable Hollywood price to be paid…
Overall, Before I Hang is a solid and surprisingly meaty horror-thriller across such a slight running time of sixty minutes.