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Monday, 6 March 2017

THE MAN WITH TWO LIVES (1942)

On the same day that The Ghost of Frankenstein opened in March 1942 came Monogram’s The Man with Two Lives, a body-swap crime thriller hinging on what was now a horror movie staple: a virtuous man revived from a fatality into possessing the mind of a killer. The premise had first been used in 1934’s hugely controversial Life Returns (see review dated 5/7/2016) and was then developed twice for example in Boris Karloff projects such as The Man who Changed his Mind (1936) and 1940’s Black Friday (also reviewed here).

As expected, in the hands of Poverty Row studio Monogram the idea was simply a convenient nail on which to hang a very cheap gangster suit of plotting, directed by B-picture reliable and helmer of Spooks Run Wild Phil Rosen, albeit saved by an excellent central performance. Edward Norris is highly convincing in essentially a dual role beginning with Philip Bennett, the less notable of two sons to wealthy banker Hobart Bennett (Frederick Burton), the other being Reg (Tom Seidel). Reg is the protégé of Dr Clark (Edward Keane) a workaholic scientist experimenting successfully on animals to revive them using artificial hearts.

One night, the affable Philip pulls them both away to help celebrate his engagement to Louise (Eleanor Lawson) during which Clark good-naturedly debates medical ethics with his friend Professor Toller (Hugh Sothern), a renowned psychotherapist.“Work to ease the pain of the living, not to bring back the dead”, counsels Toller. He specialises in repression and on the basis of his wooden acting that includes emotion. The two eminent men briefly discuss the concept of the transmigration of the human soul from one body to another. Clark is distracted though by the imminent midnight date with the electric chair for gangster Wolf Panino whom he unsuccessfully tried to get a donor heart from.

This preamble soon becomes when relevant when Philip is killed in a fatal kerbside car-crash that is not only inexplicable but manages to happen right outside the Bennett mansion to save screen time. It is too late to save him, however Bennett senior implores Clark to use his pioneering methods to attempt a first human revival of his son on the operating table. This is where Joseph Hoffman’s artless script operates its own bypass of any medical veracity by suggesting a paranormal transmigration of Panino’s soul into Philip’s body by a simple insert shot of a clock showing the onset of midnight. (Monogram saw no need to go to the expense of filming Panino’s execution, or in fact ever showing him at all).

From here, the recovered Norris’s personality credibly transforms into a grim hood demeanour driven by new instincts he can’t understand. With a cigarette hanging from his mouth in surly Mitchum style, he’s bad to go - and entertaining to watch. He heads for a seedy mobster dive where he is drawn to Panino’s former moll Helen, a lovely and streetwise Marlo Dwyer. She may be nursing the loss of her man, yet it doesn’t take her long to be swept off her feet by his masculine charm strangely reminiscent of her “burned” beau. He also barges his way into a back room meeting of a gangster crew, shooting mob boss Mitch and immediately earning the switched allegiance of his men. Listen out for the introductions given to him for each member: one has the distinctly soft-boiled gangster name of Tim.

Meanwhile, Clark, the elder Bennett and Toller have been pretending to the rest of the family that Philip hadn’t died, that his memory loss was a direct result of the car accident. This becomes increasingly hard to pass off when back at the family home Philip grabs Louise roughly and socks his brother for walking in on them. Toller and Clark debate the ethics of medical mind-tinkering further, trying to comprehend how Panini could have transmitted himself in a no-budget way into innocent Philip: “We do not possess the souls. The souls possess us”. This kind of osmosis is beyond anyone’s understanding.

Later, the three secret-keepers slum it on Philip’s trail to the gangster joint where he rudely spurns their help. Recognising Daddy Bank-Bucks tips off Helen as to Philip’s real identity; she protests her innocence from any intended blackmailing but, just in case, Philip literally puts the squeeze on his squeeze by hand.

The only other performance worthy of note is a beguilingly relaxed one by Addison Richards as police Lt. Bradley. After one of the gang informs him about their next robbery, he goes to interview the family on Philip’s birthday in hot pursuit of the ringleader. Bradley drops casual, accusatory Columbo-like remarks at the birthday boy until the seemingly unruffled Philip cracks and has to be shot dead by Clark. “He wasn’t my son. My son died two months ago”, mourns Mr Bennett. We almost end on a too-late piece of artistry, a montage depicting the odd no-man’s-land of Philip’s confused soul until suddenly it is revealed to all be a nightmare experienced by Philip during a four-day post-crash coma. 

It’s unfortunate that a talent like Norris did not similarly awake from his own bad dream situation in real-life. He was positioned to be M-G-M’s great find as a leading man back in the Thirties until he was eclipsed by Louis B. Mayer’s promotion of Robert Taylor instead. Norris was an unsung example of a very good actor who never recaptured his initial wave of success and was forced to settle for lesser opportunities to shine.

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