Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saturday, June 19, 1971: The Raven (1935) / The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely never walk again. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean's father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin's rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.

Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin's talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin's growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.

Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.

The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers -- he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man's appearance, all right -- by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman's face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.

Vollin arranges for Jean's family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture -- nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside -- and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe...

Comments: What, you two troublemakers again? Prior to signing on to the Horror Incorporated Project, I didn't know that Karloff and Lugosi had appeared in so many films together. But here they are again. Really, they were kind of the Martin and Lewis of 30s horror movies.
The Raven, in fact, is a direct follow-up (though not a sequel) to The Black Cat, Universal's top money-maker for 1934.

Like the earlier Poe-inspired outing, this one boasts an extremely tenuous literary connection, a snazzy house with some nasty secrets in the cellar, a pair of young lovers, and a beautiful woman in danger. But Karloff and Lugosi trade places; this time Karloff is the decent but broken man tormented by his past, while Lugosi is the pipe organ-playing nutter.

Even by the standards of Universal horror films, Lugosi portrays an extremely gloomy fellow here (let's face it: anyone who plays a pipe organ in his living room when he's not tinkering with the torture chamber in his basement cannot be described as happy-go-lucky), and his Dr. Vollin is essentially the mad scientist character he would play again and again throughout his career.

Boris Karloff manages to make Bateman sympathetic largely through body language (he was really very good at these sort of roles) and Irene Ware was delightful as Jean. Ware's good-natured flirtiness might have looked easy enough, but remember that she had to convince the audience in a few brief scenes that she could be ground zero of a man's obsession (if you want to see a movie that doesn't pull this off, see Invisible Ray, The).

The Raven is rather slow out of the gate, which perhaps contributes to its lackluster reputation, but if you hang in there until the third act you'll be rewarded with a fairly suspenseful finish. I'm not suggesting that the movie makes a lot of sense (why would Bateman, a fugitive desperate to change his appearance, enlist the aid of a prominent neurosurgeon?)

But it does capture a certain brooding atmosphere, and much of the punch of these old-style horror flicks was in the atmosphere they created. I don't recall a single scene taking place during the day, and in spite of The Raven's thin storyline -- or perhaps because of it -- I suspect it's the sort of movie that Edgar Allan Poe would have appreciated.

The Man They Could Not Hang

Synopsis: Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant doctor as well as a great humanitarian. He has designed a machine that will keep the blood circulating in a patient's body even when the heart has stopped. This is used in tandem with a coffin-like chamber that chills the body. With the body thus in a state of suspended animation, doctors can operate on a patient at their leisure.

With the assistance of his friend Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), Savaard enlists his lab assistant Bob (Stanley Brown) to test the machine. Their plan is to stop Bob's heart, use the machine to circulate his blood for a time, then restore him to life. But the police burst in during the experiment. Finding Bob's heart not beating, the coroner declares him dead and Savaard is arrested for murder.

At his trial Savaard tries to explain his methods, but the jury is unimpressed. He is convicted and sentenced to hang. Embittered, Savaard vows to take vengeance on the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and all twelve jurors .

On death row, Savaard arranges to have his body turned over to Dr. Lang after the hanging.

The prison chaplain makes a final visit to his cell in the hours before his execution, but Savaard seems unconcerned, even haughty, about facing death. Within the hour Savaard is hanged and his body is handed over to Dr. Lang.

Months later, a reporter notices something peculiar: six of the jurors in the Savaard case have apparently committed suicide. Soon he learns that the surviving jurors -- as well as the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney -- have been invited to a mysterious house. Going to investigate, the reporter learns that he and the invitees are trapped inside. Dr. Savaard's voice comes over a hidden loudspeaker, telling his guests that they will die one by one, every fifteen minutes. Moreover, no one will ever suspect Savaard because he has the perfect alibi: he's already dead....

Comments: This week we have another Columbia offering from the Son of Shock! TV package, and don't be surprised if this one seems a bit familiar. The premise here -- a gentle doctor trying to serve mankind is unjustly sentenced to the gallows, after which he becomes a murderer -- is quite similar to that of 1940's Before I Hang, which was broadcast on Horror Incorporated on May 30.

Hmm, let's see. Aside from the studio and the premise, what else do these movies have in common?

Well, both star Boris Karloff; both have the word "hang" in the title; and both titles are misleading (Before I Hang features a man who isn't hanged; The Man They Could Not Hang features a man who actually is hanged. *

But the two movies actually diverge dramatically after the initial setup. Dr. Garth in Before I Hang becomes the unfortunate victim of a Jekyll-and-Hyde side effect hidden in his breakthrough serum. Dr. Savaard simply turns into an embittered serial killer. In fact, Savaard's angry address to the courtroom is the closest I've seen to an out-and-out "Fools! I'll destroy you all!" speech from a cinematic mad scientist.

The idea of transforming Karloff from a gentle humanitarian into a monster makes a good deal of sense, because Karloff is quite convincing at both. He's an enormously likable actor. But I didn't buy his transformation in this movie. If Savaard was as gentle and humane a man as we're led to believe, even the death of his lab assistant and his unjust conviction for murder wouldn't be enough to send him over the edge. The truth is, it isn't easy to turn a truly good man into a truly evil one. Had Savaard suffered a Job-like punishment, had everything in his life taken away, even his devoted daughter Janet, that might have been enough to do the trick.

Oh, had I forgotten to mention that Dr. Savaard had a devoted daughter named Janet? She was played by Lorna Gray, who is marvelous. I guess I didn't mention her because she isn't really germane to the plot, at least until the last couple of minutes of the picture. Gray's performance, brief as it turns out to be, is one of the truly good things about The Man They Could Not Hang. So it's a pity they didn't give her more to do.

* But let's be fair: Before My Sentence Is Commuted To Life In Prison lacks a certain dramatic punch, while The Man They Mysteriously Couldn't Kill By Hanging is a bit clunky.


kochillt said...

Irene Ware was a real honey, appearing in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, 6 HOURS TO LIVE, and RENDEZVOUS AT MIDNIGHT before retiring in 1940. At least the title character in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG actually hangs, unlike the one in BEFORE I HANG, too bad only two victims were struck down, just when I thought things were about to get better.

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