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Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Man Without A Body

To round out this Digression Week, we go to 1957. Originally, this movie was left off the list as being horror and not sci-fi. But, as the tour of 1958 had included several outer-orbit movies, The Man Without A Body (MwoB) had just as strong (or weak) a cases for inclusion. So, here it is.
MwoB is one of those quirky low budget films which easily confounds the average viewer. It mixes some of the Frankenstein theme of medical science gone wrong, with the evils of the business world with a dose of film-noir. Like many film-noir movies, there are almost no heroic or noble characters. Just about everyone is flawed. W. Lee Wilder, who directed Phantom From Space ('53) and Killers From Space ('54) had some skill at directing low budget films, and does a fair job with MwoB.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Wealthy and rude, business tycoon Karl Brussard's medical troubles are due to an inoperable brain tumor. While getting a second option from a Dr. Merritt, Brussard learns of Merritt's experiments in brain transplants. Merritt has a process to revive long-dead tissue. Brussard, while touring Madame Tussaud's wax museum, gets the idea to use Nostradamus's head as the only one worthy of Brussard. He pays some men to steal Nosty's head, then smuggles it into England. Merritt is surprised, but sets about reviving the head with his special process. Meanwhile, Brussard's neglected paramour and Merritt's assistant, Lew, begin a romance. After 23 days, Nosty's head revives. The scientists enjoy a casual chat with Nosty about the wonders of the 20th century. Brussard tries to browbeat Nosty into becoming the new leader of the Brussard empire. Odette wants Lew to sabotage the head transplant so she'll be free from either Brussard (old and new). Nosty has his own scheme. He gives Brussard intentionally bad business advice that totally ruins him. Odette flees with her gift jewelry to Lew's apartment, but Brussard follows. Enraged, he strangles her. When Lew shows up, Brussard chases him, finally shooting him in the neck at Merritt's lab. Brussard also shoots at Nosty's head, damaging one of the hook-up tubes. Merritt, arrives, surveys the damage and decides to put Nosty's head on Lew's brain-dead, but otherwise sound body. The very heavily bandaged Nosty-Lew hybrid awakens as a moaning brute. Nosty-Lew pursues Brussard (and the other way around too) through the dark, wet, back streets of London. They end up at the top of a bell tower staircase. Brussard gets vertigo (the tumor?) and falls to his death. Nosty-Lew rings the bell a couple times, then Lew's body falls. Nosty's head remained tangled in the bell rope. Everyone leaves. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The convoluted plot keeps you guessing. Wilder's direction keeps the pace moving. There is enough of the noir side to keep things from getting shallow or trite.

Cold War Angle
There are no Cold War analogies in MwoB. It's film-noir-ish commentary on science and business and love.

Men Without Souls -- One of the driving themes in MwoB is the unscrupulous nature of both the business world, and the medical world. Brussard is almost a caricature of the greedy businessman. He ignored relationships, plundered a grave, and murdered. Dr. Merritt represented a passionless medical world. He objected only feebly to the theft of Nosty's head, then just got to work on it. No big deal. Later, he cooly takes Lew's head off his body and grafts on Nosty's. Old Dr. Alexander underscores the lack of medical morals with a matter-of-factness, "Hmm. I'd have done the same thing myself." Life is not something personal. People are just a collection of animated tissue. Mix match, add subtract, something is still alive, so the Hippocratic Oath is technically satisfied. Merritt is even "dead" to pretty Jean's romantic interest in him. Neither the medical men, nor the business men are portrayed as having any emotion or soul.

Paean to Nosty -- Nostradamus is given an almost worshipful treatment in MwoB. Through the main characters, the scriptwriters give him credit for predicting much of the wonders of the mid 20th century. Nostradamus's "Prophecies" enjoyed periodic popularity. Henry C. Roberts' book "The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus," in 1947 sparked a 50s wave of popularity. Nosty would fade again, but become popular again in the early 70s and 80s. Perhaps due to Roberts' english translation, viewers will note that Nosty's head in MowB speaks modern english. Handy for American audiences. Nosty was French. Did he even speak English? It would have been amusing if he spoke in the Tudor english of the 1550s.

Imperial Immortality -- For "Me Generation" viewers, it seems odd that Brussard is so keen to have Nosty's brain placed in his body. Brussard, as a personality, would die with his tumored brain. The writers are capturing part of the soulless man's grappling with mortality. For Brussard, his financial empire was almost synonymous with himself . As his creation, it mattered more that his empire continue and thrive. Monuments were the key to substitutional immortality. Therein is a telling little glimpse into the soulless man. Even his own mortality is taken matter-of-factly (rather like how Brussard scoffs at Odette's empty threat to slash her wrists).

Soulless Sexuality -- A recurring element in MowB is the dark side of sexuality. There is no pure and chaste romance element. Grizzled old Brussard is keeping a young tartish French girl (Odette) as a paramour. She wants Lew to sabotage the experiment so Brussard dies. Clearly no love there. She has been trading sex for jewelry. Odette, for her part, fishes for "love" anywhere -- even coming on to Brussard's chauffeur. Lew, the highly libidinous medical assistant, is all over Odette, even though she is clearly Brussard's "kept" woman. Pretty (and normal) Jane has unrecoited feelings for Dr. Merritt, but he has no feelings for her. Her love is frustrated. The Nosty-Lew hybrid monster even makes a sort of veiled rape attack on Jane. Even Nosty cannot be trusted. He's a beast within. No wholesome romance here.

Bottom line? There's nothing grand about MwoB. It's a B sci-fi / horror / film-noir movie. Yet, as "lite" as it is on the science, the rich it is in complex noir. In this, MwoB is still entertaining and might even spark some conversation.

1 comment:

Darci said...

It hadn't occurred to me that Brussard thought his immortality centered on keeping his business empire going. Instead, I thought this film used the old horror concept that the identity was distributed throughout the body and the brain was merely the organ for information processing, as in films like The Hands of Orlac.