Oh, I know how the man cheated Death. He caught up with Death, and he made Death watch this film. And Death died of boredom. Legend Films and Paramount have released The Man Who Could Cheat Death, a 1959 Hammer horror snoozer starring preening/ridiculous Anton Diffring, the luscious Hazel Court, and board-up-his-ass Christopher Lee. With about one shock effect every forty minutes, you tell me how exciting this 82-minute film could possibly be?
Considering the obvious title here, you could probably write the synopsis yourself. A remake of Paramount's 1945 horror outing, The Man in Half Moon Street, starring Nils Asther (which in turn was an adaptation of the Barre Lyndon stage play), The Man Who Could Cheat Death tells the strange and fantastic tale of Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring), a physician and scientist in 1890 Paris who also sculpts remarkably accomplished busts of beautiful women. Obviously involved with his latest model, Margo (Delphi Lawrence), Bonnet unexpectedly encounters past model - and former lover - Janine Dubois (Hazel Court), when she comes to his latest unveiling at his apartment/studio/laboratory, in the company of squaresville surgeon Dr. Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee). Instantly reconnecting with her lover, Janine offers herself to Bonnet...for "modeling," and tries to understand why he left her in Italy so suddenly, after they planned to wed.
But Bonnet is secretive about his reasons for abandoning her, as he is with many other aspects of his tortured life, as well - including the fact that he's actually 104 years old, and that he murders young women for their parathyroid glands. Surgically implanted into Bonnet every ten years by 89-year-old college chum Professor Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle), the glands keep Bonnet from ever aging. But at the end of the ten-year cycle, if Bonnet is without a new gland, he has four weeks in which he can drink a secret elixir, every six hours, that will temporarily keep him alive and fresh-looking. But the side-effects of the potion are unpredictable - and frequently murderous. Unfortunately, when Weiss shows up in Paris for Bonnet's next surgery, he reveals that a stroke has rendered him incapable of operating on Bonnet, which forces Bonnet to consider using Dr. Pierre Gerard for the morally unethical operation. Why "morally unethical?" Because both Gerard and Weiss find out that Bonnet takes the glands from living tissue, not from corpses, which sets into motion a seemingly endless series of weighty discussions on the ethical nature of murdering people for their glands, amidst one or two very slight thrills.
With uncomfortably close parallels to Wilde's infinitely superior The Picture of Dorian Gray, the little-seen (and with good reason) The Man Who Could Cheat Death fails to entertain on even the most basic Hammer levels: atmosphere, chills, sex. The production design and set decoration, while crammed full of bric-a-brac from other, better Hammer productions, are confined to three or four static sets, creating a claustrophobic, miserly feel to the small-budgeted project. Hammer legend Terence Fisher, severely hampered with the ridiculously talky script from equally well-known Hammer alumnus, Jimmy Sangster, can't seem to do anything here but pull the camera back and let the film roll. Visually, the only moments of interest come during Bonnet's transformations, when Fisher's askew framing and showy lighting effects (with the aid of Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher) resemble the most garish of late-50s horror comic book panels (did anyone involved with ABC's Batman screen this prior to designing that series?). But those tame moments of terror come so infrequently, we're forced into actually listening to the film, with the most shocking horror for the viewer coming in the realization of how tedious The Man Who Could Cheat Death is throughout its interminable run-time.
While the promise of seeing lush, ripe Hazel Court either suggestively stripping for her modeling session (unfortunately, not attempted), or erotically pawed by the half-mad Bonnet (Diffring's Bonnet is more arch than passionate), would have been good enough for The Man Who Could Cheat Death to stay comfortably within the Hammer framework of blood-soaked sensuality, any possibility of exploring - within the confines of the English censors, of course - Bonnet's perverse sexuality are utterly ignored, pushing aside yet another Hammer hallmark. And with Bonnet's killings relegated to a few dull stranglings (only his scarring touch on Margo - totally unexplained, by the way, in the screenplay - is noteworthy) and an abrupt flame-out for the finale, The Man Who Could Cheat Death fails to meet any of the Hammer benchmarks.
Which leaves us with the talking. Endless talking. Lurching from one numbingly boring yak fest to another, The Man Who Could Cheat Death seems to go out of its way to deflate any potentially suspenseful scenes by interrupting them for a good chin-wag about the pros and cons of unethical medical practices. For example, when Ludwig finally pieces together what's happening in Bonnet's lab, he's discovered by the evil doctor. What follows should have been a screw-tightening suspense scene as Bonnet quickly assesses the danger Ludwig now poses to him, followed by a quick dispatch of the unlucky college chum. Instead, we're treated to a Victorian version of Who's Life Is It Anyway?, as Bonnet and Ludwig ping-pong back and forth yet again about what's right and wrong about killing young girls for their glands. Don't we, the audience, already know what's right and wrong about killing young girls for their glands? Of course we do! So why the hell is The Man Who Could Cheat Death beating it into the ground? We get it. It's wrong. And that's what makes it fun. So how about letting us enjoy it by showing it every five or ten minutes, instead of jawing about it, and just get on with the bloody thing? It's a maddeningly plodding, lugubrious horror film, and deservedly obscure.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.