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Of remaining Hammer horror films not yet released on DVD, The Man Who Could Cheat Death has been one of the hardest to see. The Paramount release belongs to the 'classic' group of pre-1961 Hammer shows printed in Technicolor, and sports the same intense visual surface as films like The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unfortunately, a static screenplay and some weak acting neutralize most of the film's dramatic potential. Despite the presence of three top stars and director Terence Fisher, the film just sits there, refusing to come to life.
Just as they used their co-production deal with Universal to do remakes of 1930s horror classics, Hammer delved into Paramount's past to unearth the 1945 chiller The Man in Half Moon Street, which starred Nils Asther and Helen Walker. Barré Lyndon's play is about a Dr. Jekyll type who both benefits and suffers from a surgically obtained fountain of youth. The movie has plenty going for it, beginning with top Hammer talent like designer Bernard Robinson and makeup artist Roy Ashton. The color has the super-saturated look of the early Hammer films, before they began printing in Eastmancolor. 2
Unfortunately, the movie isn't half as good as it should be, starting with the overly literal title. It takes the assembled cast of The Man Who Could Cheat Death eighty minutes to discover what the audience knows going in, namely that The Man Who Could Cheat Death is indeed The Man Who Could Cheat Death. The plot never deviates from a predictable pattern, not for a minute. The bilious Dr. Bonnet has been squeaking by for about 70 years, but maintaining his little secret naturally involves the murder of beautiful women. His latest victim is actually alive and imprisoned in his secret dungeon. She emerges just long enough to spot a convenient oil lamp -- say no more, say no more.
Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster's script can only be described as lazy. We soon realize that the play has been closed down instead of opened up. The action is restricted to three or four beautiful but claustrophobic rooms. Dr. Bonnet's front doorway appears to be reused as Dr. Gerard's front doorway, with the addition of some extra fog. We get the impression that if Hazel Court took two steps to her right, she'd walk off the set. The film is under-populated and padded with hazy moral discussions. Bonnet's behavior is unbelievably suspicious. Policeman LeGris rattles off 20 facts linking Bonnet to odd disappearances, and then sighs because he hasn't any clues.
More to the point, the film lacks Hammer's distinguishing graces. Terence Fisher has a knack for animating small-scale productions, blocking scenes on small sets with great skill. Both The Mummy and Hound of the Baskervilles show him successfully paying off build-ups to horror (a mummy break-in, a tarantula attack) not with a flurry of cuts but instead static wide shots that perfectly frame the action. The Man Who Could Cheat Death has almost no action at all; people instead talk about Bonnet's mysterious activities.
Hammer films have always been praised for excellent performances but star Anton Diffring overacts terribly. He's got a great face but there's just too much of it. While Christopher Lee underplays, Diffring underscores every moment with twitches and facial contortions, as if inspired by Conrad Veidt's silent cinema. Bonnet can't seem to remember to take his 'medicine' on time, which leads to repeated displays of eye-popping anxiety; director Fisher can't do much with the situation except match it with extreme accent lighting. The result is more funny than frightening, especially when the vault holding Bonnet's secret potion is bathed in a ghostly, completely unmotivated green light. Diffring did far better in the next year's Circus of Horrors, dialing back his performance into a delicious blend of cultured villainy.
Christopher Lee's role is barely more than functional, and he's atypically unimpressive. The talented Arnold Marlé is well remembered as the High Lama in The Abominable Snowman. He's good as the old Dr. Weiss, but Weiss and Bonnet hold center stage far too long. Coming off much better is the late Hazel Court, who makes the character of 'the girlfriend', usually a throwaway, into the film's most memorable presence. The nude artistic modeling is an obvious substitute for sex, a cliché that the film gets away with mainly because Janine Dubois seems so fulfilled by the experience. There is definitely merit to the critical notion that Jimmy Sangster's Hammer scripts are really about powerful female forces seeking liberation, whether ancient deities (The Gorgon) or domestic housewives (Horror of Dracula). Georges Bonnet only thinks he's in control of life, while Janine Dubois has found an exciting way to fully experience it, even in stuffy Victorian London.
Georges Bonnet never really appreciates his artificially extended youth, so we never feel that he's achieved anything worthwhile. The youthful Bonnet and the elderly Weiss were once school chums together, but nothing in the script examines what their relationship might mean. Any depth to the premise remains unstated. His artistic urge to sculpt is given little or no relation to his personality or predicament. Bonnet is a freak instead of the sympathetic figure seen in movies as diverse as The Leech Woman, 4D Man and The Asphyx.
When Bonnet's eyes begin to revert to their true age, makeup man Roy Ashton provides dramatic facial makeup. The doctor's final transformation is muffed with just one unimpressive mask that looks good only in stills. Far more disturbing are the permanent marks left on the face of Bonnet's first victim (Delphi Lawrence) during an early struggle -- it almost seems as if Bonnet has an acid touch. But what we remember best from the tame The Man Who Could Cheat Death is the color and the performance of Ms. Court. 1
Legend's DVD presentation of The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a transfer of a good film element without a great deal of tweaking and certainly no digital cleanup. The prologue may all be an optical and looks a bit milky, while the color throughout is very good but not quite a match for DVDs of other Technicolor Hammer films of the time. Still, Jack Asher's lighting designs are beautiful to behold; he works wonders within simple enclosed spaces. No extras are offered. The attractive cover billboards the fact that this is a Hammer film, without naming the company.
The enhanced widescreen image scans the frame about three notches too low, consistently crowding (and even trimming) the heads of the characters and leaving a lot of compositionally neutral space below. It's an unnecessary flaw that will surely irritate Hammer adepts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Apparently a game gal -- but with class to spare --- Hazel Court filmed a brief topless cutaway for the (unseen) continental export version of The Man Who Could Cheat Death. What a shame that our sex-soaked present culture has lost the charm of unspoiled eroticism. In the 'repressed' 1950s a hint of nudity could amount to a major thrill.
Hey, Glenn - Great review as always for this new Hammer dvd.
One thing worth mentioning is something that's not often brought up when people discuss this film. While it's usually pointed out that this is a remake of the 1945 Paramount film (and Barre Lyndon play), what often gets left out is that there had been a much more recent version done in 1957 for British TV.
Notice who played the lead: Anton Diffring! And old Professor Weiss is even played by the same actor, Arnold Marlé Clearly Hammer hadn't yet abandoned their earlier practice of looking to successful BBC TV productions for material for their film projects.
I wonder if the House of Mystery TV production might have given Hammer the idea to pursue this AND THEN led them to approach Paramount with the offer to provide them with a remake if they'd put up some of the financing. I'm also curious if Jimmy Sangster might not have based his screenplay more on the then recent TV production rather than the earlier film. Anyway, just thought you'd be interested! Sincerely, Greg Stevens
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