Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday, August 21, 1971: Before I Hang (1940) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death.
Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.
At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution.
The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.  But moments before the scheduled execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every way 20 years younger.
Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: There's an interesting moment in Before I Hang that takes place in the prison warden's office.  Dr. Garth is expounding on his theory of old age.  He tells the warden that contrary to popular belief, there's no reason why human beings ought to grow old and die.  Theoretically, the human lifespan should be unlimited. He mentions the work of Dr. Alexis Carrell, who proved that individual cells can reproduce indefinitely.  It's only when those cells are at work in the human body, says Dr. Garth, that the stresses of life build up toxins that cause the body to decay.

Dr. Garth's name-check is intriguing because Carrel was a real person, a Nobel Prize winner who did groundbreaking work in the areas of vascular and open-heart surgery.

He was also interested in the science of aging. The work Dr. Garth mentions was widely known at the time the screenplay was written.  In 1912, Carrel sealed a culture taken from a chicken's heart inside a flask, giving it regular doses of nutrient.  He reported that the cells continued to divide in the flask for more than twenty years, proving that individual cells can reproduce far beyond the lifespan of the creature from which they were taken. Carrel's findings captured the popular imagination, and for decades the idea that cells can live forever outside the body was commonly believed to be true.

But Carrel's research could never be replicated by other scientists, and his claims eventually lost credibility.  In the end scientists eventually discovered what would be known as the "Hayflick limit" -- a cap on the number of times a cell can divide.  The prevailing view today is that cell division is finite because if it weren't, replication errors would eventually creep into the DNA sequence, and cancer would run wild in the organism.  It turns out that humans aren't meant to live forever - just long enough to transmit their DNA to a new generation.  Then their work is done.

Unfortunately, Carrel's interests extended into some unsavory areas.  He was an outspoken proponent of eugenics, and lavished great praise on the Nazi program of exterminating those whom society believed to be inferior. After the German invasion, Carrel used his connections with the infamous Marshall Petain to secure an important medical post in Vichy France. After the country was liberated, Carrell was arrested and charged with treason, but he died in 1944, before he could stand trial.

The Face Behind the Mask

SynopsisImmigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He's a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O'Hara (Don Beddoe). O'Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can't get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.

Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky's gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go....

Comments: Every movie is a self-contained universe, one that operates according to certain rules established by the screenwriter.  In the case of The Face Behind the Mask, this universe is surprisingly arbitrary, stocked with characters and incidents that tilt wildly between the too good to be true and the too bad to be believed.

Within minutes of arriving at the New York waterfront, Janos happens to meet Detective Jim O'Hara, a cop so kind-hearted that he buys the newly-arrived immigrant an ice cream soda (!) and gets him into a clean, reputable flat on his personal recommendation.  Before he's even seen the room, Janos gets a job as a dishwasher in the diner downstairs.  As Janos settles into bed that night, he shakes his head, unable to believe his incredible luck.

Almost instantly, his luck reverses polarity, and Janos becomes the victim of almost absurd series of misfortunes. The apartment building he is in just happens to burn down the very first night he stays there; his face is horribly disfigured and he cannot find work because of his grotesque appearance.  He runs out of money and he and his only friend, a petty thief named Dinky, are out on the street.  Then Dinky gets pneumonia, and the two huddle miserably in an abandoned car, Dinky coughing miserably and seemingly doomed to death.  An honest man, Janos is reluctant to take the safecracking job that Dinky's too sick to perform; but out of desperation he does it.

Almost overnight, Janos' fortunes shift again.  He not only succeeds in keeping himself and Dinky alive, he quickly climbs the criminal ladder, becoming an underworld kingpin.  He makes more money now than he would ever have done as a watchmaker, and he uses his money to obtain at great expense a custom-made rubber mask, one that is an identical copy of his old face.  

This may seem like a crude or trivial thing for a crook to want, but the human face is the one piece of equipment you absolutely have to have in order to be accepted in human society.  Indeed, the face is necessary even though the woman with whom he falls in love is blind.  In a sense the mask was made not for her benefit, but for his own.  It allows him to reclaim not only membership in the human race, but the human ability to love as well.  And as we reach the movie's conclusion, it allows him to act selflessly, in the best interests of Helen, even at the cost of his own life.

Interestingly, the mask we're presented with in the movie isn't a mask at all - Lorre simply had heavy makeup applied to his face, and a couple of pieces of tape were used to pull the skin taut.  It helps drive home the symbolic function of the mask as the image we project to the world. You could argue that, given a chance to custom-order your face, it should be possible to upgrade from one belonging to Peter Lorre.  On the other hand, perhaps it's better to just be yourself.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Saturday, August 14, 1971: Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Note: Because of a 12:30 start, there is only one feature on tonight's Horror Incorporated.

Synopsis: Federal agent Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) is on his first day on the job as an undercover operative.  He is told that once sent on his assignment, the agency will be unable to assist him if he gets into trouble.  He's given the code number 64, and sent to a meeting with his counterpart, agent 46. 

46 tells him that a man named Stephen Danel is running a slavery operation on the appropriately-named Dead Man's Island.  The island is owned by Danel but it falls within U.S. jurisdiction.  Up until now Danel's activities have attracted little notice from the government, because no one who goes there ever returns.  Neverthless, 46 says that Danel is running a slave-labor operation on the island. "Lincoln freed the slaves," 46 says. "Mr. Danel is back in the trade and doing very well at it."

It's clear that 46 wants Sheldon to do something about all this, but before we find out the details, 46's briefing is cut short by a bullet fired through the window by an unseen assailant.  46 is mortally wounded.  Knowing he will be blamed for the crime, Sheldon runs for it, but he's caught by the police.  He stoically refuses to answer any questions about the shooting, merely stating that he didn't commit the crime.  He also gives the obviously phony name of "John Smith" to his interrogators.

Meanwhile, we learn that Stephen Danel (Peter Lorre) was very near the scene of the crime, and it was he who dispatched the gunman that killed 46.

"Smith" is convicted of murder, and the judge -- sensing that there is more to the story -- expresses sympathy to his plight.  Nevertheless he has no choice but to sentence Smith to life in prison.

There follows a montage of prison life.  Smith spends a year breakin' up rocks in the hot sun, yet he is still determined to complete his task and find out the secrets of the mysterious Dead Man's Island.

Help comes to Smith from an unexpected source.  It turns out that Danel gets his slave labor from the ranks of prison parolees; and because he is uncertain as to how much Smith knows, he convinces the parole board to remand Smith to his own custody.  His island, he tells the board, is the perfect place to rehabilitate ex-convicts, what with all the fresh air and honest work.

Soon Smith and a half-dozen other prisoners are being transported to Dead Man's Island.  The men quickly learn that conditions here are far worse than the prison they just left.  They are forced to work long, grueling days in the open-pit mine, and are chained to their bunks at night.  Men are whipped mercilessly for the slightest offenses, and shot if they should attempt to get through the electrified fences that surround the mining camp.

The men are miserable, but just as unhappy is Danel's long-suffering wife Lorraine.  It seems that she had been dazzled by Danel's money and promises of the good life, but has since discovered that she's now living in a gilded cage - Danel won't allow her to visit the mainland, and she is just as much a prisoner as the parolees working in the mines.

When Lorraine learns that Sheldon might be a federal agent, she is determined to meet with him -- even though a meeting may come at the cost of her own life ....

Comments: Agent Mark Sheldon is ostensibly the protagonist of this modest Columbia thriller, but everyone knows this movie really belongs to Peter Lorre.  He's so deliciously evil in this picture that the only other actor you could imagine playing the part would be Vincent Price, who in 1940 would still have been too callow for the role.  The script would have to be tailored to fit Price's oily, ironic charm anyway - and could Price have so effectively strolled around a tropical island in a pith helmet and a white linen suit, gently ordering 20 lashes for insubordination?  It's hard to imagine. What we have in Island of Doomed Men is the laconic Danel behaving like a coiled snake, seeing everything and striking quickly when the moment is right, taking everyone around him off guard.

That's the sort of thing Lorre excelled at, and it's delightful to watch him work.  Lorre's Danel is tightly wound, quiet and controlled right up until the moment his volcanic temper gets the better of him.  It works for the most part, though Lorre's bulgy-eyed outbursts sometimes veer toward self-parody ("Keep that monkey away from me!" he shrieks at one point) and he is not physically large enough to be imposing -- he seems quite small even in comparison with his wife Lorraine, a thinly-written part thinly played by Rochelle Hudson.

In spite of  Lorre's brilliant performance, Island of Doomed Men is another example of Columbia's squeamishness as a studio.  The exploitative intent of the material is clear (WOMEN SHUDDERING AT HIS CRUEL CARESS! the one-sheet screams. MEN DYING UNDER HIS TORTURING LASH!) yet there isn't a lot of exploitation to be found; the camera doesn't linger on the scenes of torture or on Danel's psychological domination of Lorraine.  It all seems quite tame and perfunctory, even by the standards of 1940. One can only imagine how eagerly Universal would have seized the more lurid aspects of this material, as they did with Tower of London. 

Director Charles Barton soft-pedals the privations -- both physical and psychological -- that men in such a place suffer, and he seems reluctant to demonstrate the sadism that is ascribed to Danel himself.   Sadism, after all, is what we're led to believe motivates him - but his actions don't really suggest a sadist.  In fact he doesn't even stick around for the punishments he orders his subordinates to carry out.  By the end of the picture it seems more like a control freak with an eye toward enhanced productivity from his staff.  He just wants more of what he's already got, hardly a novel motivation for any villain. "Everything on this island belongs to me," he mutters during his (inevitable) death scene

It wasn't until the end of World War II that Americans first saw the films brought back from  liberated death camps, and perhaps for the first time in history civilians got a good hard look at the drepavity that had been heretofore witnessed only by soldiers at the front lines. If Island of Doomed Men seems timid, perhaps it's only because Barton wouldn't -- or couldn't -- imagine the true potential of human cruelty.  He wouldn't be  the first to have failed in that department.