Saturday, October 02, 2010

DOCTOR SHOCK'S HALLOWEENIE MOVIE OF THE DAY: THE BODY SNATCHER! In a career that caused him to run around in an ape skin (Monogram's The Ape) and to engage in games of musical brains (Universal's House of Frankenstein or any number of poverty row mad doctor flix), Boris Karloff could well be pleased at having been cast in "The Body Snatcher". His casting, however, owed nothing to producer Val Lewton. Karloff was assigned to the film by RKO in an attempt to compel their maverick producer to make full-blooded, ticket-selling horror shows instead of the subtle, subversively thoughtful psychological mood pictures Lewton was turning out. Forcing the King of all horror actors to Lewton's next production, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's macabre short story, would seem to leave the producer with no choice but to make with the blood and thunder. The studio had yet again underestimated their producer.
No doubt Lewton was well aware of what they were trying to do and the producer was only slightly happier to be saddled with Karloff than was Michael Reeves when he got news that Vincent Price was going to be his Witchfinder General. Karloff starred in all those Universal monster romps that Lewton was deliberately rebelling against with his moody series of chillers starting with "Cat People". Kid's stuff. What was he going to do with the Baron of All Boogeymen?!?
Quite a bit, as it turned out. Karloff has gone on record as saying that Val Lewton "restored his soul". Stomping around in a fur vest in "Son of Frankenstein" wasn't exactly what Karloff would regard as a stretch. He was capable of so much more. He had demonstrated as much time and again with masterful performances in the original "Frankenstein", "Bride of Frankenstein", "The Black Cat", and many more. The actor bowed out of the neck bolts and asphalt-spreader boots after "Son of Frankenstein" because he could see he would no longer be required to "act". Karloff needed something to sink his thespic teeth into. The role of cabman Gray was cooked to order.

Karloff acts the part of Gray with what I can only describe as relish. This is not to say with dramatic scene-stealing. Boris is subtle and subdued; never reaching for a scene but still almost incendiary. Karloff's eyes spark with evil fire while at the same time chilling to the bone. Never once does one catch Karloff "acting"; he inhabits the role and becomes genuinely unsettling with equal parts charm and threat. Nowhere is the duality of Gray's Janus-like character on fuller display than when he murders Joseph (the dim-witted handyman/blackmailer played by Bela Lugosi). Joseph works for the anatomist Dr. Macfarlane (the exceptional Henry Daniell) who pays Gray to grave rob corpses for his school of dissection. Joseph knows that Gray kills some of the corpses himself and demands money to keep silent. A steeliness comes into Karloff's eyes as he ascertains that Joseph has told no one he's come to see Gray. Then Karloff turns on the wicked charm, plying Joseph with drinks and disarming him with song and story about Burke and Hare. Gray suggests that he and Joseph go into business together "Burke-ing" people to provide Dr. Macfarlane with his corpses. Joseph doesn't understand what Gray means and asks him: "Tell me plain how they did it." We've all seen the scene an hundred times but it's still impressive. "I'll show you how they did it, Joseph," Karloff smiles with firelight dancing in his eyes. Astonishingly, Boris manages to convey friendly camaraderie combined with deadly menace. He somehow allows the audience to see what's in Gray's mind without any obvious acting trick one can point to. It's the subtlest acting job I've ever seen and I can't think of another actor before or since who has matched it. Two mutually exclusive emotions are conveyed to the audience without any concrete facial changes to telegraph them. Karloff is almost like a snake charmer or a hypnotist; if we were in Joseph's place we would probably know exactly what Gray was going to do to us but we would still let him do it. So powerful and persuasive is Karloff's performance and this is just one scene in the movie. It's the most famous scene for a reason and that is in Karloff's performance. It's the perfect example of the seductive attractiveness and power of evil. Bela Lugosi is second-billed after Karloff but his role is more like a guest star. This is no disrespect to Lugosi whose performance as Joseph is excellent. However, the part is much smaller than Henry Daniell's Dr. Macfarlane and Russell Wade as his assistant Fettes. "The Body Snatcher" can in no way be called an equal co-starring picture between the two horror giants like many of their Universal partnerships in the past. However, Bela does the best he can with such a small role and the duo's final screen pairing is satisfying if brief. Speaking of Russell Wade -- his is the voice that calls over the cemetery wall to Consuela promising to fetch her a ladder in Val Lewton's "The Leopard Man". Consuela gets killed and Wade gets a bigger part from Lewton in "The Body Snatcher". Wade's Fettes is sympathetic and believable; he demonstrates a winning bedside manner (as well as a strong resemblance to Robert Taylor) with the little crippled girl played by Sharyn Moffet (who almost played the lead in "Curse of the Cat People" before losing the part to the equally talented child actor Ann Carter). Fettes constantly protests Macfarlane's shady tactics and appears altruistic; but it must be said that, however much he protests, Fettes continues to go along with it all. He's not quite the boyscout he appears to be. When Dr. Macfarlane tells Fettes that he has to keep helping him because Fettes' handwriting is in the log book accepting delivery of a murdered corpse from Gray, Fettes continues to aid and abet the doctor. However, a moment's thought should tell Fettes that a simple toss of the log book in the fire would remove any evidence of his complicity. If Fettes really wanted to stop helping Macfarlane, he could at any time. Even after Macfarlane's wife convinces him to leave the doctor's employ, Fettes jumps in a carriage and travels for miles just to tell Macfarlane that his operation on little Sharyn Moffet was a success. Talk about a flimsy excuse to see the doctor again! Fettes' secret desire to help Macfarlane is crystal clear when the doctor suggests they go dig up a body themselves. Fettes frowns and makes a sour expression but the scene cuts to Fettes frantically shovelling a grave while Macfarlane looks on. Fettes' altruistic protests are too faint to fool anyone but himself. This kind of depth of character makes Fettes more than just the typical bland hero and Wade's performance of it is solid throughout. This brings us to Henry Daniell whose typical imperiousness is perfect for the commanding Dr. Macfarlane. "Toddy" is a cold fish with a rock solid opinion of his own greatness. However, when Gray is around this granite facade crumbles and Toddy allows himself to be manipulated by Gray with only the smallest token of resistance. Daniell's performance gives the unlikely scenario believability and we catch glimpses of the vulnerable insecurity hiding behind the bullying bombast. This is probably the greatest role of his career (certainly in horror films) and Daniell rises to the occasion. After his operation on the little girl appears to have failed, Macfarlane even temporarily drops the sparring match with Gray: he invites the body snatcher to have a drink with him with obvious sincerity and tells Gray his troubles (as if they actually were the old friends Gray keeps insisting they are). This thaw doesn't last long, of course, but we do get another glimpse behind the doctor's mask.

Robert Wise ably directs with a sure hand; letting his actors do what they came there to do and do it extremely well. The film features several unforgettable set pieces: the pathos of the little dog refusing to leave his master's grave, Gray's savage killing of the dog with a shovel, the sudden murder of the street singer, the aforementioned Karloff-Lugosi "Burke" scene, and the final rainy carriage ride. These scenes are masterfully composed and shot. Val Lewton’s themes come across loud and clear in "The Body Snatcher". Life’s meaninglessness is demonstrated unambiguously by the cheapness with which it is held by both Gray and Macfarlane. The doctor pontificates about the progress of medical science benefiting all mankind and then refuses to cure a little girl’s paralysis because he’s too busy teaching medical school. Gray, of course, sees people only as a ten pound sale as a cadaver. He listens to the sweet voice of the street singer appreciatively and then swiftly bumps her off. In perhaps the greatest depiction of Gray’s dual nature, Karloff brutally murders Joseph and, almost in the same moment, tenderly pets his cat with the same hand he just used to kill a human being. Total disregard for the sanctity of human life co-exists paradoxically along with a strange kind of tenderness. The other perennial Lewton theme, that of each person being doomed and racing towards their own death, can be seen in virtually every character from the doomed little dog guarding his master’s grave to the unbending Dr. Macfarlane himself. The street singer is doomed simply because she’s there. Gray is doomed because he won’t ever release Macfarlane from his manipulative power. Joseph is doomed because he sees too much and attempts blackmail. Mrs. Macfarlane is doomed to watch her husband destroy himself and their life together. Even Fettes must surely give up any hopes of becoming a doctor as he is left at film’s end with a crashed carriage and two corpses to explain: one of which he obviously helped grave rob. Not the best of resumes for a general practitioner then or now. A grim hopelessness penetrates the film from beginning to end. We never for a moment expect any sort of happy ending. We can only watch, just as the characters themselves hopelessly and powerlessly watch their own lives go down in ruin. Val Lewton may not actually have saved Boris Karloff’s soul by starring him in "The Body Snatcher", but he did provide the actor with one of the greatest roles of his career. Lewton managed to do all this and still thwart RKO’s desire for a rootin’-tootin’ monster rally. Producer: 7, Studio: Nil.

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