Boris Karloff shines as the lone star in his first of five mad scientist films for Columbia Pictures’ B-movie unit in 1939. Made on a shoestring budget, this medical sci-fi turned old dark house revenge thriller is entertaining but predictable. (5/10)
The Man They Could Not Hang. 1939, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown, George Wallace Sayre, Leslie T. White, Starring: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox, Roger Pryor, Don Debboe, Ann Doran, Byron Foulger, Joe De Stefani, Charles Trowbridge. Produced by Wallace MacDonald. IMDb: 6.9/10.
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) was the first of five sci-fi horror/mystery films Boris Karloff did for Columbia Pictures, and one of the best. By now Karloff was already deeply mired in the mad scientist bog, and the films he did after signing a five-film contract with Columbia were for the most part rather formulaic. His stubborn refusal to stay dead and buried on screen were by now the butt of jokes. As the New York Times’ critic Frank S. Nugent wrote in 1939:
If you don’t know Mr. Karloff by this time, we will explain: He is the man whose funerals are never final. You lay a wreath on Boris in one corner and he is certain to appear in another, full of obscure, graveyard resentment, sworn to get you, if it’s the last thing he does.
If he didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him, if only to strengthen our faith in the essential indestructibility of the human breed.
The Man They Could Not Hang is basically a three-part affair. In the first one we meet Betty Crawford (Ann Doran) and her young boyfriend Bob Roberts (Stanley Brown), a medical student. Bob has volunteered to be put to death by Dr. Henryk Savaard (Karloff) and his assistant Lang (Byron Foulger), so that they can test their artificial heart to bring him back to life. But just as the procedure starts, Betty loses her nerve and calls the police who arrive and interrupt the procedure before Savaard has time to revive Bob, and is arrested for murder without having the chance to finish his procedure.
Savaard is put on trial as the film changes into courtroom drama, and is sentenced to hang. Before the sentence is handed out he ominously issues a threat to the judge and jury, as well as young Betty. We then get a death row scene with Lang who Savaard sent into hiding with the artificial heart when the police arrived. Lang is to claim the body ”for science”. And Savaard then has a chat with a priest, defiant in the face of death, with a slight atheistic slant, that would not have gone down well with all members of the public. And then we get the dead man walking scene.
During the course of the film we have also been introduced to Dr. Savaard’s daughter Janet Savaard (Lorna Gray) and the reporter Scoop Foley (Robert Wilcox), who in a sense become the leading man and lady of the movie.
After the hanging,Lang unsurprisingly revives Savaard, who then calls together jury, judge and Betty to an old dark house. Yes, this is where we enter old dark house territory. Scoop is able to trick his way into the group, and calls Janet to join them later. Savaard locks his guests behind armoured doors and electrified gates and railings, and tells them over a loudspeaker that one of them will die every fifteen minutes, and informs them all in due time of who’s next. Unfortunately, the good-hearted Janet crashes the party after two people have been killed – and tricks her father into choosing between letting the guests go or killing her. What will Savaard choose? Will he stop his quest for vengeance and realise that there are some things that that Man is not supposed to meddle in?
For avid readers of this blog, the setup may seem very familiar. That’s because it is basically the same plot as in Warner’s 1936 film The Walking Dead (review): Karloff is wrongly sentenced to death for murder, there is a courtroom episode and a death row episode and Karloff is revived with the help of an artificial heart, only to return to take his revenge on his killers. In fact, the courtroom and death row scenes are almost exact carbon copies of that film. Director Nick Grinde would use a very similar concept for his next Karloff film in 1940, Before I Hang (review). The use of an artificial heart was less sci-fi than one might assume, since the film was made just after the announcement of the so-called Lindbergh heart pump. For more information on how the aviator Charles Lindbergh came to design the world’s first machine to keep the heart alive outside the body, see the review for The Walking Dead, where the Lindbergh heart pump played a central part.
Even though Columbia’s five pictures cemented Boris Karloff’s (real name William Henry Pratt) typecasting as mad scientist, they did mark something of a departure from his career-defining role as Frankenstein’s Monster, which had followed him since the success of Universal’s Frankenstein (1931, review) – with studios often requiring him to conjure up the image of the mute, brooding creature. In this respect the Columbia films drew more inspiration from the British 1937 film The Man Who Changed His Mind (review), than for example The Walking Dead, which basically was Warner’s attempt to ride the wave of Karloff’s fame after Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review).
The Man They Could Not Hang also drew heavily on the old dark house genre, especially John Willard’s dark comedy play The Cat and the Canary – where a group of people are invited to an old mansion to work out the will of a dead madman, and are stalked by a mysterious serial killer. The play was made into a hugely successful film in 1927. Curiously, The Man They Could Not Hang predates both the remake of The Cat and the Canary and Agatha Christie’s influential novel And Then There Were None (with the ten little Indians) by just three months. It is possible, though, that Columbia tried to steal some momentum from Paramount’s highly anticipated remake of The Cat and the Canary. Karloff had of course also starred in one of the last all-out old dark house pictures – The Old Dark House (1932), directed by Frankenstein’s maker James Whale.
Columbia Pictures, like Universal, was a so-called second tier studio among the eight majors during the studio system in Hollywood, and the Karloff features were made by the studio’s B outfit, which meant they were on a very tight budget and schedule, which shows. There is nothing impressive about the sets, which are mostly recycled from other films, or shot on location. 90 percent of the film takes place in largely nondescript rooms, and the rest in a courtroom and a jail cell. The director is also a budget version – Nick Grinde, a journeyman director and B movie specialist, best known for his fast-paced gangster films for Warner at the time. Today Grinde is mostly remembered for directing three of Karloff’s Columbia pictures. The direction of The Man They Could Not Hang is pretty nondescript and derivative, and some camera setups are direct copies of The Walking Dead. It is however professional and workmanlike, and the film’s 65 minutes move along quite fluently.
Script writers Mr. Brown, Mr. White and Mr. Pink … sorry: Sayre, were all B film hacks, but nonetheless conjure up an enjoyable little story, albeit filled with gaping plot holes and some ghastly dialogue and awkward exposition. Things go wrong from the beginning. Bob happy-go-lucky attitude about being killed for science is ridiculous, as he condescendingly tells his girlfriend: “There is nothing to me panicky about!”, while Betty quite reasonably asks “They are going to kill you! Don’t you understand that?” It also seems rather unlikely that they seem to have their very first discussion on the matter around three minutes before the experiment.
And Betty’s decision to go and get the police after the procedure has begun – after Savaard has repeatedly asked Bob is he is sure he wants to volunteer, and at the point where the police really can’t do anything – seems very contrived. Especially since she hasn’t done very much to try to stop the procedure from taking place in the first place, other than clinging a bit to Bob. Furthermore, it is a bit far-fetched that the pleasant, well-meaning do-gooder Savaard would suddenly turn into a homicidal maniac, contriving month-long plots to set up a cruel game of death just to get back at the police and jury for basically doing their job. If it was some brain defect caused by his death and resurrection, this is never explained – and he seems to have his plans laid out even before he is killed.
None of the artistic and technical staff were specialists in either horror nor sci-fi, but seasoned workmen who turned up and did whatever put food on the table. Best known today is probably editor William A. Lyon, who won two Oscar and was nominated for another four. Cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline made a lot of westerns, but also filmed the sci-fis The Man Who Turned to Stone, and one of our favourites on this blog, The Giant Claw (both 1957). Stock music was used for the film.
Boris Karloff is the only real star name of the cast, as the other actors were mainly Columbia B-unit staples. Lorna Gray, as Janet Savaard, holds up her end of the bargain well, and comes into her own at the end of the film, but is sadly underused before that. Gray was born Virginia Pound, and later changed her name to Adrian Booth. Gray played the female lead in some of Columbia’s B-films and even did some work with The Three Stooges, before she moved to Republic (and later Paramount) and started appearing some of their westerns serial. She is perhaps best known today for playing the female lead in Republic’s last superhero serial, Captain America (1944, review). She also made an iconic appearance as the evil Vultura in the 1942 adventure serial Perils of Nyoka. She was awarded The Golden Boot for her work in westerns in 1998 (along with three Carradines, among others). She dropped out of acting in 1951, but regularly attended film festivals up to her death in 2017. According to an article on the Cinecon festival’s website, Boris Karloff is one of the favourite actors she ever worked with, and she also remembers his infamous tea breaks.
Robert Wilcox does what is required in his role as the roguish hero reporter Scoop, but the role is so generically written that there isn’t much to do with it. Wilcox is perhaps best known for his role as the hero Copperhead in the sci-fi action serial Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), and for his stormy, alcohol-drenched marriage with Diana Barrymore of the legendary Barrymore acting clan.
Ann Doran had a long working career, starting out as a Columbia B-unit staple, mostly in supporting roles, but also as a lead in a few comedies – she appeared alongside Gray/Booth in the famous Three Stooges short Three Sappy People. She is the socialite who gets a cream pie shaven off her face. She continued to work in mostly B-films and numerous TV-series up until the end of the eighties. She appeared in a few sci-fi series, including Adventures of Superman (1952), Men Into Space (1960), Project U.F.O. (1978), and The Twilight Zone (1985). She had a small role as a child psychiatrist in the seminal big critter movie Them! (1954, review), and appeared as one of the crew members of the space ship in the cult classic It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958). Doran’s character in The Man They Could Not Hang is mostly given the job of looking worried and acting hysterically, so it cannot be regarded as one of Doran’s best performances.
Byron Foulger as Lang is one of the few of the characters who actually have some character apart from Savaard in this film, and Foulger holds his own well against his famous counterpart. He would later turn up in a number of sci-fi films and serials: The Man With Nine Lives (review), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (both 1940), Man Made Monster (1941, review), Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), Space Patrol (1952), and The Magnetic Monster (1953, review).
Karloff is always pleasant to watch as a philantropic do-gooder, and seems to have an ability to subtly scale his sincerity and kindness up and down as the role requires, and this time it ranks somewhere in the middle, as he is quite prepared to nominally break the law (kill a man) for his research. This time he plays the evil Karloff with a smirk and a taunt, rather than with a scowl and a brood, which works wells. More perhaps than in any of his previous sci-fi horror films, Karloff is here the lone star of the film, and he carries the role well, as he has always been able to get by – by complementing his limited range with his immense charisma. And we all love that velvety, sophisticated voice and Karloff’s subtle lisp.
His other films in Columbia’s mad scientist franchise were Before I Hang (1940), The Man With Nine Lives (1940), The Devil Commands (1941, review) and The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942). He did not work exclusively for Columbia at the time, but continued to do more traditional horror films for Universal, starred as the Chinese detective Mr. Wong in Monogram Pictures’ franchise, freelanced for other studios, and took up his career on stage, starring in an acclaimed version of Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway in 1942. For Karloff, the late thirties and early forties were an extremely productive time, until he took a short break from films to concentrate on his stage career between 1942 and 1944.
Karloff fans seem unable to agree on his best Columbia pictures, as they all keep a pretty even standard. My favourite has always been the Lovecraftian The Devil Commands, while others seem to prefer this one or The Man With Nine Lives. Modern critics’ ratings are also somewhat scattered. Patrick Legare at AllMovie gives it a measly 2/5 stars, citing “a simplistic plot”, while Richard Cross at 20/20 Movie Reviews gives it 2/4 stars, writing that the “tight little horror picture” rises above “its low-budget origins, helped by Karl Brown’s fast-moving screenplay which creates in Karloff’s first mad scientist an unusually articulate and sympathetic villain”.
At the other end of the spectrum is Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind, who gives the movie 4/5 stars. Rosengren writes that The Man They Could Not Hang is “a satisfying blend of suspense, horror, science-fiction and drama, and though a little dated with its science, is a perfect example of what a good script and good actors can accomplish in a B film”. James Jay Edwards as Film Fracture calls the movie “one of [Karloff’s] best.
The majority seem to place the film somewhere on the middle of the spectrum, like me. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings says that “it’s not bad; Karloff gives a strong performance, and there are several touches here and there that I quite like […] Though I don’t think the story is as interesting as the one in The Devil Commands, I did find it somewhat more compelling than Before I Hang.” Gary Loggins at Cracked Rear Viewer writes that Columbia’s Karloff films are “all okay, not on a par with Karloff’s Universal or RKO classics, just B-movies that’ll keep you entertained on a cold Halloween night”.
My personal view on the matter is that in a way I’d like to give the film a higher rating than 5/10, but I’m trying to imagine this without Karloff and with a less clean print than the one I watched, and come to the conclusion that as a film this one is exactly on the middle of the scale. It’s not bad, neither is it especially good. It’s entertaining enough, but highly predictable and with an off pacing. It’s the final third of the movie we are waiting for, and when we get to it, it feels rushed and incomplete. The mid part of the film, the court sequence, drags on for far too long, as the audience knows what the outcome will be. If we would gave gotten to know any of the members of the jury involved then the long scene with the jurors deliberating might have served a purpose, but when push comes to shove, they’re all just characters to pad out the film with. But Karloff is on high form, and it is one of his better performances. He is the glue that holds the film together, as one reviewer wrote.
The Man They Could Not Hang. 1939, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown, George Wallace Sayre, Leslie T. White, Starring: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox, Roger Pryor, Don Debboe, Ann Doran, Joe De Stefani, Charles Trowbridge, Byron Foulger, Dick Curtis, James Craig, John Tyrrell, Robert Sterling. Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline. Editing: William A. Lyon. Sound: George Cooper. Makeup: Clay Campbell. Produced by Wallace MacDonald for Columbia.