Sunday, May 18, 2014

Saturday, February 26, 1972 (Midnight): The Mask of Diijon (1942) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

Synopsis: A successful stage magician named Diijon (Erich Von Stroheim) has retired his lucrative act in order to study the mysterious art of hypnotism.  He feels he is on to something big, but his obsessive devotion to his studies is troubling to his wife Vicki and their friends.  His lack of income is putting a strain on their marriage, but all attempts by Vicki's friends to help are rebuffed by the proud and arrogant Diijon.

About this time, Tom Holliday arrives in town.  He is an old flame of Vicki's and he too is concerned that she is being neglected.  In an attempt to help her, he offers Diijon a gig at the club where he works as a bandleader.  After much convincing, Diijon finally agrees;  but because he is long out of practice he botches the act and is fired.  Diijon is furious, and accuses Tom of trying to humiliate him in front of his wife.

On his way home, Diijon stops at a diner for a cup of coffee.  A shady character enters and tries to hold the place up – but Diijon manages to hypnotize the man, forcing him to give up his gun and return the money to the owner.  Intrigued by his success, Diijon hypnotizes the man selling papers at a newsstand  -- getting him to shout for all to hear that he is selling the evening edition, when he is in fact selling the morning edition.
It becomes clear to him that he can hypnotize anyone, and his subjects will do whatever he orders them to do.  But how far does his control go?  As something of an experiment, he hypnotizes family friend Danton, forcing him to write a suicide note and then throw himself off a bridge.  

Now that he has established a means to kill through hypnotism, Diijon decides to take revenge on Tom and Vicki – by hypnotizing his now-estranged wife, and forcing her to kill Tom at the club, in front of hundreds of witnesses….

Comments: Right from the opening scene, Lew Landers' The Mask of Diijon paints the title character as an arrogant and thoughtless man, who is openly rude to his wife and her friends.  Quickly establishing a list of grievances against Diijon makes it easier for us to accept that Vicki will, later in the film, leave him for another man.  Even so, it's a little hard to accept that Diijon becomes a cold-blooded murderer so quickly.

Maybe this is because the screenplay is in such a hurry to raise the stakes. With his newly-developed power of hypnotism, Diijon first chooses to play a prank - he gets the man at the newsstand to shout that he's selling the evening edition when he is in fact selling the morning edition. Having succeeded at this, he then decides to commit a murder.  It would have been more convincing if Diijon had gradually ventured into more and more dangerous stunts, and only then stepped over the line to murder. 

Well, we can't expect too much from a PRC programmer, can we?  The movie clocks in at 73 minutes so it has to keep things moving; and Eric Von Stroheim glowers and murmurs so ominously that it's easy to believe he is up to no good. All the same, I think the movie would have worked better in dramatic terms in Diijon had been given a stronger motivation to begin a series of murders.

In some ways the deck is stacked against Diijon in the same way it was stacked against Wilfred in Werewolf of London. Diijon's motive for revenge is an unfaithful wife, but we're expected to blame Diijon himself for pushing her into the arms of her old flame Tom Holliday. 

It seems to me that The Mask of Diijon would have worked better if Diijon himself had been a bit more sympathetic -  an antihero we can empathize with, even if we don't approve of his actions. 

The Man With Nine Lives

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body's immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity that Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal's last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island. The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the specialized techniques he's developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. He's astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams' nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor's office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man's cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor's hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams' frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone -- including himself -- in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.

When Jasper Adams' loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs....

Comments: This is one of four mad scientist pictures that Boris Karloff did for Columbia Pictures between 1939 and 1940.  It is by far the weakest of the bunch, so jam-packed with plot contrivances that the film is creaking and groaning even before Karloff appears on the screen -- which, by the way, happens fairly late in the game. By the time we get to the central conflict of the movie -- Kravaal holding a group of people hostage so that he can use them as guinea pigs for his experiments -- the wheels have already come off and it's almost impossible to muster any interest in the outcome.

As in The Man They Could Not Hang we're asked to believe that a good, selfless man will turn evil if society turns its back on him.  Both movies deal with cryogenics, which makes me think that they are basically variations on the same story.  But the revenge plot in The Man They Could Not Hang made a good deal more sense (at least Karloff seeking revenge on people who believed they had sent him to his death) and Mason's oh-so-scientific method of reviving the people in hibernation (putting blankets on them and giving them hot coffee) doesn't seem very convincing.

The best thing the movie has going for it is the presence of Karloff himself, who is in a class by himself. No actor could pivot between gentle, grandfatherly type and remorseless killer more easily or more convincingly.  The Columbia Karloff thrillers tried to take advantage of that duality, but they missed the mark with this one.


kochillt said...

Been quite a few years, but I still remember THE MASK OF DIIJON, particularly as it was the genre farewell for both Erich Von Stroheim (THE CRIME OF DOCTOR CRESPI, THE LADY AND THE MONSTER) and Edward Van Sloan (DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY). THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES offers a longer wait for Karloff's entrance, but I still enjoyed it. Just can't take Roger Pryor, so effectively smarmy in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, as a great humanitarian. Bruce Bennett would graduate from a bit part here to co-starring opposite Boris in BEFORE I HANG.

JigsawX said...

Hey, nice to see you speak on The Mask of Diijon, even if not everything you say is positive. Actually, as it so happens, that film was the first full length film I reviewed. We're much in the same mind about it, from what I can tell. Hope this finds you well.

Post a Comment