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Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Man They Could Not Hang

Continuing in the theme of science and immortality, is Columbia's 1939 film, The Many They Could Not Hang (MCNH). This was the first of four similarly themed movies by Columbia, all starring Boris Karloff in roughly the same 'mad scientist' role. While there is predominant crime-drama flavor to the film, it has some science fiction as a necessary component. In this case, it is an artificial heart that can revive a recently killed person. There is more than a little bit of cross-pollination from Universal's Frankenstein series, which was up to it's third installment.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Savaard (Karloff) has developed an artificial heart machine. He has revived dead animals with smaller versions. The next step is to do it with a human. Why? So doctors can perform long complex surgeries on non-bleeding patients, then revive them. Savaard's assistant Bob volunteers to be 'killed' and revived. His fiancee, Betty, panics and tells the police. They interrupt the process and arrest Savaard before he can revive Bob. Bob then stays dead. Savaard is put on trial for Bob's death. He tries to appeal to the jury about the benefits of science, but most of them just want him dead. Savaard has arranged for his secret protege, Lang, to take his body after the hanging, "for science". Lang does so, and revives Savaard's dead body after 3 months of surgery to repair his broken neck. Once alive again, Savaard plots revenge. Six of the jurors mysteriously hang themselves. The judge, District Attorney, prosecutor, police doctor, Betty and remaining jurors are all summoned to the Savaard mansion by fake telegrams from the judge. Once everyone is there, Savaard tells them he will kill them all, one by one. The judge dies first, grabbing the electrified iron grating. The prosecutor, Mr. Kearney, is next, dead from a poison needle in the telephone earpiece. Betty is to be next, but the plan is interrupted by the arrival of Janet, Savaard's lovely adult daughter. She pleads with him no to. He rants about how all of science's gifts have been used for evil. She agrees to leave, but threatens to touch the electrified grate to let the people out. Savaard pleads with her not to. She does, and dies. The DA shoots Savaard when he rushes to fallen Janet. He says he can save her with his machine. They take dead Janet upstairs and hook her up to the machine. After awhile, she lives again. Savaard, mortally wounded, waits until everyone is out of the lab, then shoots his glass-and-tubes heart machine to bits. He then expires. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Boris Karloff is the main reason for viewing pleasure. He turns in another fine example of the fragile genius "mad scientist." The prescience of an artificial heart is a fun bit of (now) retro science fiction -- an interesting gizmo of glass flasks and rubber tubes.

Saga Connection
MCNH was not directly part of Universal's Frankenstein franchise, but it borrowed from it. In Son of Frankenstein, the year before, was the trope of a hanged man who did not die, extracting revenge on the jurors and magistrate. In this case, it was Ygor (Bela Lugosi) using the monster do this. In MCNH, it is Karloff (the former monster) who is the revenger.

First of Four -- Karloff's 1936 film with British-Gaumont, The Man Who Lived Again, got the ball rolling. Columbia pictures decided the idea "had legs" and signed up Karloff to do four more films like it over the course of 18 months or so. MCNH was the first of the four. It was shot and printed in 1939. The others are, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang, and The Devil Commands. All follow the basic pattern of a scientist with some boon for mankind, but he is rejected and turns into the stereotypic mad scientist. Apparently, audiences in the early 40s had quite an appetite for such films.

Self-fulfilling Hypocracy -- Dr. Savaard rants to his daughter that the world doesn't deserve his science gift. "We gave them wings to fly and the rain death upon us. We give them a voice to be heard around the world and they preach hatred to poison the minds of nations. Even the medicine we gave them has been used to enslave half mankind for the profit of a few. Every gift that science has given them has been twisted into a thing of hate and greed." On the one hand, this is a subtle condemnation of the Nazis, who were conquering France at this point in time. Yet, was Dr. Savaard himself really any different from the Nazis he disliked so much? He, himself, was using his science gift to rain down death, to speak hate, etc. for his own selfish ends.

Heart of Glass -- A fun, and almost steampunk, bit of propping is Savaard's mechanical heart. An elaborate "pump" of glass flasks and rubber tubes, the central two chambers tick-tock back and forth. This artificial pump forced the flow of blood which somehow was supposed to restart the dead person's heart. Curiously, the glass heart only seemed to pump clear water, not blood. Perhaps a darker fluid (this was black and white, after all) would have hidden the bubbles which were half the "animation". Or, perhaps the thought of a few gallons of blood sloshing around in beakers was thought to be a bit too much for sensitive viewers. Either way, it was a cool "machine."

Who Was First? -- The trope of a vengeful man inviting his victims to a lonely location and killing them off one by one, is probably older than this 1939 film. Some reviewers on imdb.com see the second half of MCNH as copying from other movies. One movie they say MCNH was Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" (aka "10 Little Indians). Trouble is. Her novel was released in 1939, too. Another film incorrectly deemed the original was The House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price. But this film was 1959. The trope is, no doubt, an older one, but MCNH did not copy these two more famous examples.

Bottom line? MCNH is fast paced and well shot. Karloff turns in another good performance as the brilliant-altruist-turned-'mad"-scientist. Granted, the sci-fi component is secondary to the crime-revenge story. Still, it's better entertainment than many other films with weak sci-fi that filled the decades to follow.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

I really am looking forward to seeing this one!