Sunday, October 24, 2010

DR. SHOCK'S HALLOWEENIE MOVIE OF THE DAY: THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939). Columbia made a trilogy of mad doctor movies starring the ever-reliable Boris Karloff beginning in 1939. Strictly B-productions, these films are usually little regarded; thought of by most as rather minor, bland and cookie-cutter concoctions utilizing basically the same plot and requiring quite a bit of patience and indulgence on the part of the impatient viewer. On the whole this is probably not too unfair of a definition. However, when it comes to the first of the three films, I think a little re-evaluation is in order. THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG was the first and best of the three. Crisply directed by Nick Grinde, the film finds Karloff playing Dr. Henryk Savaard who has developed an artificial heart of glass which can actually revive the dead. In order to prove the mechanism's worth, Savaard convinces a young man (Stanley Brown) to allow himself to die in order to be revived by Dr. Savaard. Once Savaard and his assistant Lang (played by coke-bottle-lensed Byron Foulger) have stopped the young man's heart his fiancee Betty Crawford (Ann Doran) calls the cops. The police arrive and arrest Dr. Savaard for murder; not allowing the doctor the hour he requests to revive the young man thus assuring that it all amounts to murder by default. The boneheadedness of the authorities is deliberately played up; in fact, every authority figure in the film is shown in an unflattering light. After all, what would the police have to lose if they allow Dr. Savaard the opportunity to revive the young man? He's already dead anyway and I'm sure it would save them on a lot of paperwork if there was no murder to investigate. But Savaard's pleas are ignored. The doctor is tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Savaard is not worried, however, as he has arranged for Lang to take possession of his body after death in order for it to be revived. Which, of course, it is. Reminiscent (if monumentally less grim and creepy) of the revived "Rollo" scene in MAD LOVE, the scene in which Lang revives the broken-necked Savaard is played without a hint of the supernatural implications one might expect in such a scenario. The scene is played fairly scientifically matter-of-fact with Dr. Savaard (understandably hoarse) congratulating Lang on his skill. The focus of the scientific reasonableness of Savaard's revivification rather than any occult mumbo-jumbo underlines the reasonableness of the Doctor's theories and accentuates the hysterical unreasonableness of the authorities in this matter. Savaard's glass heart apparatus works without even the slightest hitch causing the powers that be who question the doctor to be seen as genuine obstacles to progress. Soon enough, six of the jurors who convicted Savaard "commit suicide"; if "air quotes" had been invented back in 1939 I'm sure some of the characters would have used them at this juncture. Obviously these hapless jurors "committed suicide" with more than a little help from the "legally dead" Dr. Savaard. The remaining jury members (minus those who fought for a not guilty verdict) as well as the judge and district attorney in the trial are lured to Savaard's mansion along with Betty Crawford. Intrepid reporter Scoop Foley (Robert Wilcox) manages to sneak in just as the place is locked down with boiler plates over the windows and doors. The "dead" Dr. Savaard makes his entrance and escorts the group into the dining room where he reveals each guest's place card stating the order and time they will be killed tonight. The first to get it is the judge (Charles Trowbridge) who is zapped by an electrified grill. Fifteen minutes later, snivelling coward Mr. Kearney (played by the snivelling unlikeable Dick Curtis) gets a poison needle in his brain from a telephone earpiece. The sequence of events inside Savaard's house in which each person awaits his death is in fact the best part of the movie; fairly gripping in a deliciously nail-biting way. How are they gonna get it and how is Savaard going to manage to get each victim while they are on their guard? This part of the film owes little to the horror genre and more to Agatha Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. While THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG doesn't come close to the classic film version of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE several years later, it does provide a nicely sinister yet multi-layered role for Karloff and a strong supporting cast -- plus it moves along at quite a brisk pace. Karloff is given more to do than one might expect; as he is one moment sinisterly evil seeking revenge on those who condemned him and the next moment believeably tender in a reunion scene with his daughter Janet (Lorna Gray). This scene is particularly fine and offers a nice contrast with the mayhem preceding it. Immediately after the offing of Kearney, Janet arrives unexpectedly at the mansion. The terrified victims-to-be behind the electrified grill plead with Janet to help them. Stunned that her father is alive, Janet goes upstairs to find her father levelling a gun at her. "What brought you here?!?" Karloff demands at once conveying Savaard's sense of anger, shame and affection at seeing his daughter again. Janet tentatively steps forward in disbelief. As she closes the distance, Karloff slowly lowers his gun and father embraces daughter. This scene of tenderness amidst violence is very effective. Janet sobs with joy but soon realizes what her father has done. "Dad, why did you do it?" she demands, "Are you going to throw this miracle away only for a cheap revenge?" "Not revenge, " Savaard insists, "Retribution!" Janet insists that Savaard's mere presence alive again is enough to prove his naysayers were wrong (and she is, in fact, correct). "You only have to show yourself and the world will beg your forgiveness." "Not this world of savage cruelty." Karloff intones in perhaps the finest speech in the film; delivered with a believable gravitas which compels audience sympathy for the doctor's now understandably soured opinion of humanity: "We gave them wings to fly and they rained death on us. We gave them a voice to be heard around the world and they preach hatred to poison the minds of nations. Even the medicine we gave them to ease their pain is turned into a vice to enslave half mankind for the profit of a few. Oh, Janet dear, don't you see? Every gift that science has given them has been twisted into a thing of hate and greed." By the time Karloff is finished with this speech, we as viewers want to stomp downstairs with him and bump them all off. All this also on the very eve of the outbreak of the Second World War; pretty valid stuff for a little B-horror picture. However, no matter how much we understand and sympathize with Dr. Savaard, two wrongs still don't make a right and we are thrilled when Janet goes down to the high voltage grill and informs her father that she is reaching out to unlock it; it is up to Savaard whether he cuts the power and lets her free them or watches her electrocute herself. Janet remains altruistic in spite of her father's jaundiced outlook. It is thus through his daughter's actions that Savaard regains the humanity he has lost in a wash of vengeance. Unfortunately, he is too slow to turn off the current and Janet is electrocuted. Running to her now still form, Savaard is shot by one of the jurors. Before he dies, he is able to restore her to life with the help of his former prisoners and his glass heart device. As Janet comes back to life, Savaard blasts his mechanical glass heart to smithereens with his final breath. THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG is really a super little film which deserves a much better reputation than it generally has. I must admit to not expecting much when I watched the film for the first time but I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it. The horror elements are admittedly very slight but the movie stands up as a whole and shapes up to be one of Karloff's best B-pictures of the era. If you've avoided the film up to now, give it an honest try. I think you'll find yourself rewarded by a cracking little mad doctor picture.

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