Friday, January 28, 2011

Saturday, July 11, 1970: The Man Who Lived Twice (1936)

Synopsis: Hard-boiled criminal Slick Rawley (Ralph Bellamy) has been in some tough jams before, but he's really done it this time. During a botched bank job he killed a cop, and now every badge in America is looking for him. He leaves his girlfriend Peggy Russell (Isabel Jewell) in the care of his pal Gloves (Ward Bond) and runs for it.

Hiding out in a lecture hall at a medical college, he hears Dr. Clifford Schuyler (Thurston Hall) expound on his theory of crime: career criminals, he says, are the victims of a medical defect -- namely, small tumors in a certain region of the brain. Remove the tumors, Schuyler says, and the criminal can be permanently cured.

He has tested his theory on vicious dogs and apes, and in all cases the animals become gentle and docile after the brain surgery.

But as much as Schuyler wishes to test this surgery on a human, the criminal justice system won't allow it.

Rawley follows Schuyler home and offers himself as a test subject. He convinces Schuyler that this might be his only chance to verify his theory, and he asks for only one thing in return: plastic surgery so that he can forever evade detection.

After the surgeries, Rawley (literally) looks like a new man, and he remembers nothing about his past. Dr. Schuyler tells him that his name is James Blake, that he lost his memory in a car accident, and that he has no living relatives.

Blake proves to be an honest, caring and hard-working man -- the very opposite of Slick Rawley. Seeing that Blake is inquisitive and fascinated by medical books, Schuyler enrolls the young man in college, and then medical school. Soon Dr. James Blake is a renowned physician and philanthropist, a man of sterling character, dedicated to improving the lot of America's prison population.

But when Peggy happens to meet Dr. Blake, she begins to suspect that he is her former boyfriend. A dogged police detective begins to think so too. But is Slick Rawley really dead? And if he is, how can Dr. Blake be held responsible for his crimes?

Comments: What if criminality was caused by a physical ailment, one that could be corrected with surgery? What if inside every two-bit street thug there was a potential Nobel prize-winner?

That's the premise of The Man Who Lived Twice. It's an interesting idea, and stretched out across the length of a feature film, it becomes just as weird as the vampires, werewolves, mummies and reanimated corpses we've been seeing week after week. Thanks to a tautly written script, it winds up being a damned entertaining movie too, in spite of some egregious plot contrivances.

In many ways The Man Who Lived Twice is the antithesis of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, in which brutal young hoodlum Alex undergoes experimental treatment designed to change him into a model citizen.

The difference, of course, is that The Man Who Lived Twice never questions the value of Dr. James Blake or, for that matter, the worthlessness of Slick Rawley. We are led -- by the hand -- to the conclusion that the improbably noble Blake is the "authentic" person, while the brutal Rawley is "inauthentic", merely a stunted byproduct of a physical illness. And we are invited to believe this despite the fact that our world contains a lot more Rawleys than Blakes.

By contrast, A Clockwork Orange argues that Alex ceases to be an authentic person the moment he can no longer choose for himself how to behave. Choice is the only moral certainty; to Burgess, a world of people who choose to do evil of their own free will is preferable to a world of people programmed by society to be "good".

To its credit, The Man Who Lived Twice seems to recognize that the issue of free will is a bit problematic, and so we follow two of Slick's former associates as each of them crosses paths with James Blake, and must decide for themselves how to react to the revelation that he's Rawley.

At first, Peggy sees Dr. Blake as nothing more than a bleeding heart from Park Avenue, a sucker that she can shake down for a few bucks; but once she suspects he's actually Slick, she sees an opportunity to take him for $5,000 in hush money. She feels no gratitude to Blake for his kindness and no loyalty to Rawley. In fact, she has no interest in anything except money, and perhaps petty revenge.

By contrast Gloves, who botches an attempt to rob Blake, would prefer to make an honest living but is stymied by his checkered past. He is surprised when Blake offers him a job as a chauffeur, and the moment he puts on the uniform his tattered dignity returns to him. Gloves becomes fiercely loyal to Blake, and the question of whether or not he is "really" Slick Rawley is no longer of interest to him.

Ralph Bellamy is splendid in his dual role, and in spite of minimal use of makeup he makes Slick Rawley seem utterly unlike James Blake. Ward Bond, too, is quite convincing as washed-up fighter Gloves. Isabel Jewell made a career out of playing the tough cookie from the wrong side of the tracks, and she turns in a standard performance here.

Beyond that I will only mention that the endless use of bombastic headlines to convey plot points in these Columbia flicks is driving me a little bonkers.

"Mayor Threatens Police Shakeup" warrants 42-point font? What is this, the story of the century? Wasn't there any other news to report today?

THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE is available through our old friends at Loving the Classics.


kochillt said...

THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE was another Columbia entry in the SON OF SHOCK television package, and a real change of pace for the dependable Ralph Bellamy, normally cast as investigators (Ellery Queen just on the horizon). As Slick, only his voice gives him away, and while the plot might now be more familiar, I found this film to be utterly fascinating, with superb support from Ward Bond and Marian Marsh. Broadcast just once on CHILLER THEATER (January 11 1969), paired with 1951's LOST CONTINENT, two years after the lone broadcast of its routine, by-the-numbers 1953 remake, MAN IN THE DARK, starring Edmond O'Brien (paired with X-THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, on July 22 1967).

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