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DVD SAVANT

The Bela Lugosi Collection


The Bela Lugosi Collection
Universal
Street Date September 6, 2005
26.98
B&W
1:37 flat full frame

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Universal adds to its growing number of classic horror sets with a five-title Bela Lugosi Collection composed of films ranging from 1932 to 1940. The individual titles in this grouping are not really united in either theme or casting. One show is a proto-Science Fiction mad doctor movie and in at least two of them Boris Karloff has the dominant role. Not long after their respective breakthrough appearances in Dracula and Frankenstein, Lugosi and Karloff became a marquee pairing, almost always with Karloff in a superior position both in billing and salary. Horror fans have been debating the relative merits of the two actors ever since. Lugosi critics maintain that the Hungarian stage actor's range is so narrow that he really can't act at all, while Lugosi defenders point to the actor's bad luck and Karloff's condescending attitude.

Savant has no great opinion on this matter except to say that both actors are entertaining. If John Wayne or Greta Garbo can get away with playing the same kind of character most of the time, why can't Bela Lugosi? And as far as limited range goes, one of the movies in this series was badly hampered by Boris Karloff's fear (or self-knowledge) that he couldn't play a convincing American.

Lugosi dominates only two out of five features in this set, but there's another possible reason for the films not being billed a 'Boris Karloff' collection. As with Fred Astaire over at Turner, Karloff's heirs vigorously defend the trademarked Karloff likeness and name, and the legal departments may have no choice but to 'leave his name off the marquee' in promotions and collections of this kind.

The five Depression-Era fright shows here are in excellent shape, which may surprise viewers who only knew them from blurry 16mm prints with muffled sound on old Saturday afternoon TV monster shows. After listening to Bela for five hours, you too will be able to imitate his halting, oddly accented speech patterns!



Murders in the Rue Morgue
1932 / 61 min.
Starring Sidney Fox, Bela Lugosi, Leon Waycoff (Ames), Noble Johnson, Arlene Francis
Cinematography Karl Freund
Art Direction Charles D. Hall
Film Editor Milton Carruth
Written by Robert Florey, Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, John Huston from the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by Robert Florey

This macabre trifle was the first Universal follow-up to the initial blockbusters Dracula and Frankenstein. Those fans tired of fighting the Lugosi/Karloff wars sometimes debate the merits of director Robert Florey, a creative fellow who helped develop the Frankenstein concept but got shoved aside when star director James Whale came into the picture. The visually-oriented Florey (well-known for his experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra) was reportedly given this spooky assignment as a consolation prize.

Synopsis:

Sideshow lecturer Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) and his 'ape with a human brain' Erik (Charles Gemora) take an unhealthy interest in Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox). Mirakle uses his servant Janos (Noble Johnson) to find out where Camille lives. When a woman he kidnaps off the streets (Arlene Francis) fails a blood compatibility test, he murders her. She's just one of several victims who end up dumped into the Seine. Mirakle is intent on subjecting Camille to his weird experiments --- but what exactly is he trying to achieve?

Murders in the Rue Morgue is a hugely enjoyable mess, often derided for its awkward acting and logic-challenged story. Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle is a total nut-job whose carnival sideshow is little more than a display of an ape named Erik and a distorted lecture on evolution. It emphasizes evolution as a (still-potent) threat to religious beliefs and mocks the idea that a special divinity sets man apart from the rest of creation. (If my name's Erick's-son, then ... hey!) Mirakle 'translates' Erik's babble and alienates most of his audience, as much through his accent and stumbling cadence as by what he says.

Mirakle immediately draws plans to subject the beautiful visitor Camille to a scheme that even a pre-code movie could not directly describe. He's kidnapping and murdering women of the street in search of one worthy of becoming Erik's "bride." We see him carving away at the arm of one pitiful victim hung on a torture-rack, and hear that he's injected her with some ape blood. But the women all have 'impurities' -- venereal diseases? -- that make them useless. Mirakle's scurvy assistant Janos (Noble Johnson of King Kong in whiteface) dumps their bodies into the river.

Forget for a moment that the nomadic Mirakle unaccountably has a waterfront lair with customized hidden trap doors and secure enough to hide screaming females from the rest of the city. The mad doctor's intention is to let Erik rape these captive women for some unspoken, unspeakable purpose. It's as sick as the concept in the old fright-show Alraune, where artificial insemination between degenerates produces a woman without a soul. In this instance, the horror suggests societal taboos and bugaboos that anyone this side of Tod Browning would shrink from presenting on a screen: 1) Rape; 2) Bestiality; and 3) The possibility that Mirakle might be arranging an unholy coupling of woman and beast in order to produce the AntiChrist.

That last idea is only a guess, and the first two are of course only suggested. Mirakle's nasty obsession with twisted evolutionary ideas plays to the monkey-trial fears of the time -- detractors of the theory of evolution believe that the goal of science is to smash religious ideas, and often made their case back in the 20s and 30s by outrageously exaggerating Darwinian ideas. Thus pulpits preached that science believes that apes were our grandfathers, that there is no difference between apes and humans. The obscene Dr. Mirakle wants Erik to mate with Camille to debase humanity. Take that one step further to associate the ape Erik with commonly-held prejudices against blacks, and the underlying story logic of Murders in the Rue Morgue tells us that Mirakle's aim is also to defile Camille's racial purity. Although all of this is buried two layers into the text of the film, the clues are there.

In other words, underneath the turgid storyline and clunky comic relief is a deliriously blasphemous movie full of dangerous ideas: 'Dogs 'n cats living together' with plenty of perverse details. And Murders in the Rue Morgue was often shown on kiddie monster matinee programs.

Savant hadn't seen the movie since the 1960s and was surprised by Florey's interesting scene designs photographed by the great Karl Freund. Moody mattes of the Paris skyline resemble the charcoal artwork of The Golem. The circus visit and subsequent nocturnal kidnappings pretty much copy the style and format of the uber-classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Not helping the basic believability of the story are the cuts between wide shots of Charles Gemora in an ape suit and a real monkey for close-ups. Erik follows Mirakle's instructions in both English and monkey-speak, but for the life of us we don't know why he suddenly turns on the Doctor at the end. Some shots in the nightmarish rooftop scene either use a deeply-flawed traveling matte process, or the mattes are hand-animated.

The acting is pretty flat throughout, with Lugosi's overstatement contributing to a feeling of dreamlike unreality. Depending on the disposition of the individual viewer, the "feeling of dreamlike unreality" can go either way, to describe an 'oneiric masterpiece' or just plain incompetence. Leon Ames (Meet Me in St. Louis, Testament) and Sidney Fox are the only actors who shouldn't be hiding their faces after being in this picture; Ames didn't have to worry as he was still using his original last name Waycoff at the time. The tragic torture victim is Arlene Francis. Her stardom on television quiz shows is fading with the years but we'll always remember her as James Cagney's feisty wife ("Yes, Mein Fuehrer!") in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, 29 years later!

The esteemed Tom Weaver  1 reports that Murders in the Rue Morgue was editorially reorganized after shooting (Savant Opinion: probably to introduce the romantic characters sooner). Weaver's research information was that the picture was originally meant to open with the atmospheric midnight knife fight on the riverbank. Tim Lucas in his Video Watchdog (#111) followed up on the idea and editorially reshuffled scenes to approximate what the original sequence might have been, in the process discovering a more likely opening (the naked victim being fished out of he Seine) along with a new set of transitional felicities and thematic harmonies. Lucas also discovered that the altered sequencing clears up some major continuity stumblings in the finished film. The mismatch Savant notices (and which sticks out for most viewers) is when the 'woman of the streets' enters Mirakle's coach ... we expect Erik to already be inside.


Murders in the Rue Morgue looks great on DVD, like a German Expressionist film that escaped to Universal City. The sound is exceptionally clear, a big help while figuring out Lugosi's less decipherable speeches.



The Black Cat
1934 / B&W / 66 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells
Cinematography John J. Mescall
Art Direction Charles D. Hall
Film Editor Ray Curtiss
Written by Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

The Black Cat is the one undisputed classic in the collection, a horror movie constructed almost completely of dark themes and sick ideas. The old 'taking refuge in a haunted house' story is here but the tale is structured so weirdly that even the cast seems to wait patiently for the lame comedy relief moments to pass. Unlike other bizarro tales where motivations and logic don't always add up, an overpowering mood of morbidity keeps the show on course. Karloff and Lugosi are for once well-cast; this is surely their all-around best movie together.

Synopsis:

Freed from a Russian prison after seventeen years, ex-soldier Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) returns to his old battlefield, now a cemetery, to gain revenge against Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). The traitor Poelzig betrayed an entire army and built a modern house on the foundations of the old fortress. Werdegast can't begin to imagine what has become of his wife and his daughter Karen (Lucille Lund) - among Poelzig's other unspeakable vices, he's the leader of a bizarre Satanic cult. On his way, Werdegast's bus has an accident and the doctor shows up at Poelzig's door with his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) and two newlyweds. Peter Alison (David Manners) is a mystery writer and his slightly injured bride Joan (Jacqueline Wells) has already captured Werdegast's interest.

The Black Cat was filmed literally 'while the cat was away.' According to historian Paul Mandell,  2 young Universal director Edgar Ulmer put it together while Laemmle senior was off in Germany (importing more 'relatives?') and good pal Laemmle Jr. let Ulmer film the show without interference. The final product is so weird that many people don't pick up on Dr. Werdegast's unfathomable character inconsistencies. He's drawn to the beautiful Joan as she sleeps on the train, a moment made uncomfortable by husband Peter's awareness of Werdegast's dark feelings. Later on, Werdegast is willing to play a game of chess with Poelzig for 'possession' of Joan, a statement inconsistent with Werdegast's later insistence that he merely wants to protect her from Poelzig. Knowing both she and Peter are in great danger, Werdegast doesn't tell them to escape, yet he later risks his life to save them.

When Laemmle Jr. saw what Ulmer had made, he realized immediately that a movie with such extreme content could not be released. In the original cut Werdegast was more ambivalent and equally as crazy as Poelzig -- his fear of black cats isn't just an isolated foible. As originally shot, Werdegast wants Joan for himself and allows Poelzig's evil plans to progress only so he can take her from him at the last moment. In the unseen original cut the two men exchange leers over Joan's frequently unconscious form. Werdegast actually helps with the reception before the Black Mass. He finally goes completely berserk when he discovers what has become of his daughter Karen.

Ulmer's studio-mandated reshoots partially redeem Lugosi's character. Werdegast tells his menacing servant Thamal only to pretend to obey Poelzig, and assures Joan that he wants to help her. More specific references to what was supposed to happen at the Black Mass were dropped. Both Werdegast and the wraith-like daughter Karen originally alluded to Poelzig raping and murdering Joan at the altar, so she can be added to Poelzig's display of embalmed female corpses. If the original film were ever shown, Ulmer would have become the most famous subversive director ever: The Black Cat far outdoes Luis Buñuel's suppressed L'age d'or for sheer audaciousness. It might have caused horror film productions to be banned outright!

(Some Spoilers)

Even butchered, The Black Cat overflows with perverse ideas, all converging on the concept of death as a haunting weight of guilt and remorse. It may not be true Poe, but it's 100% morbid. Two men from opposite ends of the spectrum of suffering and cruelty meet as kinsmen; they've progressed beyond petty ideas of retribution, at least at first. Dr. Vitus Werdegast has lived a wasted life as a prisoner, knowing his wife was at the mercy of his mortal enemy. Hjalmar Poelzig has built a home on the very place where he betrayed thousands to their deaths; he has confronted his demons by literally joining them in worship of the satanic force that, in his experience, truly rules the world. He has wed and murdered Werdegast's wife and put her on display in a subterranean mausoleum, along with other victims of his Satanic cult. Here are women truly objectified: Beautiful corpses that Poelzig can appreciate forever, while reveling in his ultimate 'control' over them.

The dialogue goes overboard in stressing the theme of death, with Poelzig and Werdegast constantly turning back to the same idea: "We're the living dead" "Even the phone is dead." With John Mescall's camera creeping through corridors and shooting Karloff through shroud-like curtains, the repetition creates a mood comparable to Poe's alliterative use of the syllable '-ore' in his poetry.

Some things are just jokes -- like Peter's lame attempts at levity. But many odd moments add to the cumulative morbidity. The bus driver suddenly joins the thousands of dead he was telling his passengers about. Werdegast's frantic reaction to Poelzig's cat betrays his own standing as a psychologist.

(Spoilers next paragraph)

Some events still seem a bit confused. Joan's personality inexplicably changes (to that of a black cat?) when unconscious. That transformation into a momentarily seductive mode can only be explained as a supernatural phenomenon (possession by the spirit of the cat), when the movie has no other strict supernatural content. Joan faints (again) when Poelzig does something terrible to Karen in the next room, but we don't necessarily think that he might be killing her -- his only previous line of dialogue to Karen is about how precious she is. The Black Mass is interrupted by a coven member screaming for no particular reason, which unaccountably creates a distraction large enough for Joan's escape. In the script the woman was supposed to go into an orgasmic fit over the thought of Joan raped before her eyes, a scene that Paul Mandell tells us Ulmer understandably did not shoot. Werdegast is shocked to find Karen's body lying on a slab, but the direction fails to underscore the full, awful irony of the moment. And perhaps for the first time we have a house with a self-destruct lever ... Does Poelzig keep it handy just in case he might feel suicidal, like Jacqueline and her hangman's noose in The Seventh Victim?

Apparently Ulmer allowed his morbid imagination to run wild, perhaps expecting 90% of the film's excesses to be curbed by studio overseers that never intervened, at least not during filming. We're told that the script described a silhouette angle of Karloff's face being peeled away, and then shots of his skeletal, flayed body trying to reach for the auto-destruct lever while Lugosi howled with laughter. Apparently the only people who really knew what was to be filmed were Ulmer and his script people! Whatever happened, Paul Mandell's research gives us an inkling of an awesome morbid sex and gore fest that could never have been released ... if only Ulmer and Laemmle Jr. had conspired to hide the original cut somewhere!

Bela is good in The Black Cat and Boris is excellent. The flip-flop reshoots militate against Bela building a coherent Vitus Werdegast, but he's genuinely frightening when he comes unglued at the climax. Boris knows that his appearance does a large part of his work for him, and uses deliberate and stiff movements to make Hjalmar Poelzig seem like a candidate for the walking dead.


The Black Cat on DVD is of course the 'normal' version that was completed and distributed, making it one of those fascinating movies that need to be discussed in the negative subjunctive: What never was, but might have been if. Good encoding brings out most of the details in Ulmer's rich designs - Poelzig's house has a unique stylization that extends to Karloff's mannered makeup, especially his creepy hairstyle. Dialogue is all clear, enabling us to enjoy exchanges like this one:

Peter: "Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me."
Werdegast: "Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not!"



The Raven
1935 / B&W / 61 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds
Cinematography Charles Stumar
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Albert Akst
Makeup Jack P. Pierce
Written by David Boehm from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by David Diamond
Directed by Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers)

Reportedly made as a follow-up to the very successful The Black Cat (Universal's top grosser for 1934), The Raven is a hammy grab-bag of ideas thrown together as a pretext to re-team Lugosi and Karloff. Bela has the main role while Boris toils in a glorified bit, yet Karloff gets top billing and a much larger salary. The plot dispenses with complicated conflict and simply has Lugosi as a warped Poe figure (or a screenwriter's sensational idea of a Poe figure) compensating for a female he cannot possess by warming up a collection of gruesome torture machines. Bela lets his approach to character go wild, resulting in an undeniably entertaining spectacle. The vicious Dr. Vollin does everything but froth at the mouth in anticipation of delicious tortures ("Poe, you are avenged!") and the whole enterprise is so lightweight we can't help but be amused.

Synopsis:

Retired Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is both a brilliant brain surgeon and an utterly mad follower of the morbid legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Begged by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) to save his daughter Jean (Irene Ware), Vollin cures her injuries but then becomes obsessed with her as his 'lost Lenore.' Vollin also secures the domestic services of escaped criminal Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) by mutilating the man's face and then promising to repair it only if Bateman kills and tortures for him. Judge Thatcher tries to intervene before Vollin disturbs Jean's engagement to Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews), but Vollin beats him to the draw: He invites the young couple to his house, and when the Judge follows, traps all three of them in his torture dungeon built to the specifications of Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum!

Lugosi's Dr. Vollin stumbles through a reading of a line or two from the poem The Raven and we're off on a thoroughly silly story. The mad doctor saves a woman's life but goes totally insane when she rebuffs his advances. He somehow decides that mass murder will square things and keep faith with the spirit of his master, Edgar A.. Nobody ever raises the point that Poe's writings were rarely if ever on the side of the torturer, so Vollin actually seems to be more tripped out on the collected wit and wisdom of the Marquis de Sade or perhaps Torquemada. This is Universal gore Horror-Lite: Some nasty things are threatened but all of the upstanding square citizens come out with a full skin. (Spoiler sentence:) ... although none of the survivors consider saving Dr. Vollin's life, if for no reason but to obtain the number of the contractor that built Vollin's complicated killing devices -- and an entire room that moves like an elevator -- into an ordinary house. The guy's an engineering genius, and discreet, too!

The story moves mechanically through the setup scenes, with Irene Ware decent as a dancer foolish enough to dedicate a performance to the crazy Vollin and Lester Matthews as a beau so vacant, The Black Cat's David Manners comes off as soulful and perceptive. It looks as if Samuel S. Hinds (Papa Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life) is the best actor in the cast until Karloff shows up in a subordinate but flashy character role as the unlucky Bateman.

Equating ugliness with evil, the story has Vollin surgically mutilate Bateman and then blackmail him to function as a murdering henchman -- when not serving drinks at parties. For some reason, Vollin invites a houseful of forgettable unfunny comic relief characters to witness his killings. He then subjects those who 'betrayed him' to the pendulum blade and a room with walls that close in to crush them (and they can't call R2D2 to shut it down, either).

Silly and predictable, The Raven is good fun and a classic of its kind. Bela Lugosi's career never really bloomed after turning down Frankenstein and he had unrealistic notions of a future as a leading man in a variety of roles. Here at least he rules the roost with his undiluted overplaying. He's screen center in a classy production, something that will never really happen for him again.



The Invisible Ray
1936 / B&W / 79 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Beulah Bondi
Cinematography George Robinson
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Bernard W. Burton
Special Effects John P. Fulton
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Howard Higgin, Douglas Hodges, John Colton
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Directed by Lambert Hillyer

The next shared billing of Karloff and Lugosi turns the tables completely. This time Boris is the main character while Bela plays second banana as a benign doctor who tries to help him. The casting works well for Lugosi, whose rational philanthopist is actually underplayed -- perhaps Lambert Hillyer convinced Bela to try taking direction and calming down. Karloff is good but predictable in a basically uninteresting mad scientist role. When altruism becomes obsessive mania, everyone ends in mincemeat, Universal horror-style.

Synopsis:

Genius scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) invents a machine that traces light from the distant Andromeda galaxy and uses it to determine that a meteorite made of 'Radium-X' struck Africa eons ago. A group of scientists, doctors and benefactors convince him to go to Africa against the wishes of his mother (Violet Kemble Cooper), who was made blind by the light from Andromeda. In Africa, Rukh ignores his wife Diana (Frances Drake) and his faithful friend Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) and goes off alone to the meteorite site. He takes samples of the amazing Radium-X - which gives off rays that have the power to both heal and destroy - but is contaminated by the new element. Glowing in the dark, he returns secretly to Benet, asking for his help in developing an antidote to the deadly rays.

The Invisible Ray is certainly an odd film out, another crazy production cobbled together from a bunch of predigested elements. There's the scientist who dares trespass on God's domain and turns into a megalomanic killer along the lines of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. Rukh hunts down and exterminates a list of expedition members he believes betrayed him, like the avenging 'curse' that wiped out the violators of King Tut's tomb. Dr Rukh's 'touch of death' is so easy to film, it became a recurring motif in thrillers about scientifically-deranged killers - Man Made Monster, The Hand of Death, the 4D Man.

The Invisible Ray is a perfect example of how science was abused in ordinary thrillers before the Sci-Fi boom of the 1950s. Astronomers intuit that light from distant stars originated millions of years ago, a concept that Universal's writers use to concoct an absurd fantasy. Rukh's super-telescope doubles as a time machine/television set, enabling his guests to see views originating far out in space and long, long ago. After one perfect television view of a meteor striking Africa, a room of doubting scientificos are convinced that Rukh has made a terrific breakthrough. Never underestimate a good visual aid in group presentations.

The Invisible Ray's 'Radium-X' underscores the irony that normal radiation can both kill and cure. The curing part of ordinary radium is really the selective killing of diseased tissue, but this new alien element can be put into a simple focusing box and used to either melt solid rock (an excellent effect) or instantly cure any old thing that ails thee, like blindness. It's all so simple, the gaggle of concerned experts behind Dr. Benet's all-healing Radium-X projector must be needed to assure that the machine is set to CLG (cure the little girl) and not DB (disintegrate the boulder).

After an extended safari sequence complete with savage natives given even less respect than in Tarzan films, the story ends up as a mass murder mystery in Paris. Rukh's exposure to Radium-X turns him into a deranged paranoid like Dr. Griffin in The Invisible Man, even though he seemed unaccountably unhinged earlier - refusing to let his partners come to the meteor site, for instance. The picture plays out with Dr. Benet and eventually Rukh's own mother working to find a way to put an end to his killings. Science is simply BAD, the film says; mess around with things you shouldn't and you'll come to a sorry end.

'Radium-X' is oddly prophetic about the then-obscure idea of nuclear energy, and a good case can be made that it inspired the comic book writers of Superman to invent the concept of Kryptonite. The outer space animations of the moon, Saturn and the galaxies are rather sophisticated for 1936, when the only point of comparison would have been Flash Gordon and perhaps Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon.

Lugosi is suave and likeable as Dr. Benet, and almost convincing when he diagnoses Rukh's radiation ailment and concocts a handy liquid counteractive to keep it in check. Pretty good for a single night of work in a tent in darkest Africa. Frances Drake is excellent as Rukh's abandoned wife, holding up the film's otherwise sagging middle section. Violet Kemble Cooper and Beulah Bondi have interesting roles as an ethereal mother and a nosy expedition member.

The Invisible Ray looks fine on DVD, a splendid job all around. The fancy optical effects come off reasonably well, along with mattes that make what appears to be Bronson Canyon look like a meteor crater in deep dark Africa.



Black Friday
1940 / B&W / 70 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne
Cinematography Elwood Bredell
Art Direction Jack Otterson
Film Editor Philip Cahn
Written by Kurt Siodmak, Eric Taylor
Directed by Arthur Lubin

Yet another oddball movie, the seldom-screened Black Friday takes an unpromising idea and makes it the best-ever chiller starring that immortal horror icon Stanley Ridges. The character actor is front-and-center in a showy Jekyll-Hyde role that he pulls off with style and flair. Lugosi and Karloff? Who? Boris Karloff has yet another middling part as a supposedly benign doctor who unaccountably double-crosses his beloved colleague and commits illegal surgery in search of a fortune. Bela Lugosi is completely wasted in laughably bad casting, as a tough New York gangster with a thick Hungarian accent.

Synopsis:

Ambushed by rivals, gangster Red Cannon (?) smashes his car into kindly old English Lit professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges). Cannon's back is broken and Kingsley will soon die of a crushed skull, but Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff), hearing that Cannon has $500.000 in loot stashed somewhere, performs a brain operation. Kingsley's body ends up sharing the personalities of Kingsley and Cannon. Still after the money, Sovac takes the recovering Kingsley to Cannon's old haunts in New York. The Cannon identity reasserts itself, bringing on a spate of vengeance killings. New gang boss Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi) can't figure it out - the mystery killer is acting like Cannon - but Cannon is known to be dead.

Various writers on Black Friday have concluded that it ended up the way it did because Boris Karloff didn't think he could handle a role that required him to play two American types - a sweet college professor and a tough Manhattan mob boss. He must not have been able to picture himself in the role, because audiences would surely have accepted whatever style he might come up with to play a ruthless racketeer. Why not just stretch things and call Red Cannon an English immigrant? If Lugosi tended to be unrealistic about the roles he could handle, Karloff was perhaps no longer adventurous enough to give a double role like this a try.

So Karloff stepped back to take the complimentary doctor Sovac part, which he could do in his sleep. That meant that Lugosi got demoted to playing a truly inappropriate role - another gangster. He's not very convincing. When third-tier hood Paul Fix defers to Lugosi's orders, we just don't believe it. Is the ruthless Eric Marnay going to bite him on neck, or something? The publicity wags invented a bit of whimsy about Lugosi being hypnotized on the set for one shot; it's the lead hook in the trailer (included on this disc).

The story is schematic but at least unusual enough to be interesting. Stalwart character actor Stanley Ridges, normally seen in small roles as sober businessmen or soldiers, is given an opportunity to shine. With a little makeup, glasses and different hair, Ridges transforms from a completely harmless poetry-quoting professor into the snarling and pushy Red Cannon, feared tiger of the underworld. It works like a charm.

The plot is a little muddled. Although he now has a perfect disguise and alibi, Kingsley/Cannon immediately parades his new self around town, allowing his enemies to eventually figure out his game. We never get straight exactly why his mental transformations take place. Police sirens bring out the brutal Cannon, but other identity switches seem to happen to the convenience of the plot. Ridges does a fine job making each change convincing, and we believe him to the end.

Of course, the brain transplant idea sounds ludicrous. Kurt (Curt) Siodmak pioneered movies about brains bouncing from one cranium to another and taking on lives of their own Donovan's Brain, and this half & half brain deal becomes sort of a cerebral time-share arrangement. Sovac intends to humor the 'Cannon' part of the brain until he gets his hands on the loot, and then let the dominant Kingsley part take over. The first rule in mad scientist movies is that nothing ever works exactly as planned.

The story is told as the confessional diary of a man condemned to the electric chair, which allows for a lot of calendar montages and pace-accelerating story leaps. Arthur Lubin's direction is brisk and some of the gangster action sharply rendered. Perhaps Karloff did have a point about avoiding the role, if his character would still be required to leap onto fire escapes and scamper across rooftops, besting bruiser thugs in fistfights, etc. Just the same, the script could have been altered.


Savant missed Black Friday on TV in the 60s; since I don't remember it I probably watched for ten minutes and then gave up when it didn't seem as if a monster was going to make an appearance. The DVD looks and sounds perfect, with solid encoding.


The Bela Lugosi Collection is part two of Universal DVD's double whammy of horror collection sets. Five entire films for 26.98 is a bargain that needs no further explanation from Savant. It does raise expectations for potential future Universal collections - more W.C. Fields? Mae West? An all-inclusive Marlene Dietrich-Josef Von Sternberg collection? In the fantasy realm, there are still many minor cult Universal horrors to be mined along with a few-score Universal Science Fiction hits of the 1950s. This Island Earth needs a respectful Technicolor remaster before it's too late, and the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man needs a real widescreen transfer -- all previous video versions have been Pan-Scanned ....

Some readers have written in complaining that their copies of this collection lock up on The Raven -- the same thing reportedly happens with some copies of The Hammer Horror Series collection. If readers haven't ordered this set already, they may find it wise to buy from vendors online or local that have a flexible exchange policy, just in case.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murders in the Rue Morgue rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
The Black Cat rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

The Raven rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
The Invisible Ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer

Black Friday rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Card and Plastic folder in card sleeve
Reviewed: September 8, 2005

Help and corrections for this review came from Gary Teetzel.

Footnotes:

1. Tom Weaver's book Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films 1931-1946 with Michael Brunas and John Brunas, McFarland, North Carolina 1990, is highly recommended as a well-researched and fair-minded look at the first Universal monster cycle.
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2. The full story of The Black Cat can be read in fascinating detail in Paul Mandell's chapter in George E. Turner's highly entertaining book The Cinema of Adventure, Romance and Terror, ASC Press, Hollywood, 1989.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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