The Man with Nine Lives

(5/10) One of five films that Columbia made with Boris Karloff, more or less from one and the same script, this 1940 cryonics film is competently made and quite enjoyable. At least you’ll get a few chuckles out of the utterly silly science, like doctors reviving patients from cryostasis with pots of hot coffee.

The Man With Nine Lives. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown & Harold Shumate. Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers. Produced by Irving Briskin & Wallace MacDonald. IMDb: 6.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1940_man_with_nine_lives_002Poor Boris Karloff. No matter what he does, he seems to end up on death row. In The Walking Dead (1936, review) he was was turned into a patsy for a murder, was executed and came back to haunt everyone. In The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review) the pesky police interrupted his experiment with an artificial heart before he could revive the poor sod he had just killed for science, Karloff was executed and came back to haunt everyone. Black Friday (1940, review) actually begins with Karloff on death row after having performed illegal brain transplants and shot his patient to death. So Karloff is executed. Unfortunately, we never learn if he came back to haunt everyone. And then there’s The Man with Nine Lives, which doesn’t quite follow the same pattern, even if it mostly does. Here Karloff is accused of murdering a patient, but for once the authorities actually give him the benefit of a doubt, and decide to see if he can prove his claims of a cryonic cancer cure. Unfortunately, this time Karloff is accidentally frozen in ice for ten years, comes back and ultimately starts to haunt everyone.

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Jo Ann Sayers frozen in ice with Boris Karloff looming over.

First off, the plot: A medical doctor called Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is researching the secrets of ”frozen therapy”, or cryonic therapy, but to get to the bottom of it all, he needs to learn the secrets of a Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), who, when experimenting with the subject was accused of murder, and subsequently disappeared in his remote house along with five other men seven years ago, and is now presumed dead. Mason travels to the house along with his nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers), despite the warnings of the locals.

When falling through the rotten floor of Kravaal’s house, the two discover a cave of ice behind a locked door (glacier ice, we learn later. This ”glacier ice” seems to turn up in caves in a number of mad scientist films of the era in the most bizarre places, where there aren’t any glaciers for hundreds of miles). Within they find the frozen body of Dr. Kravaal, and revive him — with hot coffee. Then the movie switches gears into a long flashback sequence, as Kravaal tells his story. Back when, he treated a patient in his cave, whom he put in a state of cryonic stasis as to save him from a fatal case of cancer. However, the patient’s nephew drags Kravaal to the police, as he was convinced that Kravaal had murdered his uncle. As Kravaal explains that his patient will most certainly die if he is permitted to finish his work, the authorities actually permit him to return, but with a retinue of medical experts, a sheriff and the nephew. But once down in his frozen lab, the authorities refuse to believe Kravaal’s claims of being able to bring the patient back from “death”, and in order to try to save both patient and his own work, Kravaal decides to bury the whole lot in ice, but accidentally buries himself as well. Until now again thawed out of the ice by Dr. Mason and Ms. Blair. There is also a subplot concerning a gas that preserved them during the long sleep, which becomes the MacGuffin of the film – as he later has to experiment on the four other men that he keeps prisoners after reviving them. In essence this turns into a hostage drama with Mason and Blair in the middle. And we all know how it ends.

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Roger Pryor, Boris Karloff and Jo Ann Sayers.

The five films that Karloff made for Columbia in the late thirties and early forties have a rather shabby reputation, but in fact most of them kept their noses pretty well above the waterline. For one thing, Columbia, like Universal, was a minor major studio, and even their B productions were allotted something at least resembling a budget. The studio also had a seasoned roster of cast and crew, proper facilities and at least some form of quality control. So while no masterpieces, Karloff’s Columbia pictures never never sink to the same levels of cash-strapped amateurishness that some of Bela Lugosi’s Poverty Row productions in the forties. The prevailing problem with the five films, however, is that they’re all badly scripted.

Seen as separate entities they are not too bad, but alas, together they are ripoffs of ripoffs, and all five follow the same basic formula: a good scientist (Karloff) experiments with things in an attempt to help humanity. But when misunderstood and judged by simple-minded authorities who destroy his work and sentence him to death, he turns bad and goes in search of revenge on those who have wronged him.

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Boris Karloff stands accused. The great Byron Foulger to the left.

What is immediately obvious from this script from the start is that it is utterly bonkers. It is difficult to take anything seriously after watching the opening scene where Dr. Tim Mason shows off his brilliant new innovation in ”frozen therapy”. This is how it goes: pack the patient in ice. Take the temp with a mercury thermometer under the tongue. Ta-daa! There you have ”frozen therapy”. And how to revive them from their stasis? Hot coffee. And later, down in the cave, we are told that apparently no other hot drink will do – it explicitly must be coffee, for some reason. I mean, even in the early forties this must have seemed utterly daft. This was the age when medical science learned how to keep a heart alive outside the body. Surely they had other ways of keeping a body chilled than simply pouring ice over the operating table? And I seriously doubt that coffee was part of the medical arsenal.

Another amusing fact is that Dr. Kravaal’s mansion had been searched ”inside and out” for seven years, without finding even the slightest clue to what happened. Mason and Blair simply fall through the floor and land almost directly in Kravaal’s lab. When the police where looking for bodies, didn’t they think of looking under the floor boards? And one assumes that there would have been a hidden door or a hatch for Kravaal to traverse through, or did he also fall through the floor to get to his lab? I find it hard to believe that a team of hardy police inspectors would miss a hidden door when searching for six missing people in a house.

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Bring the coffee! Roger Pryor and Jo Ann Sayers.

And then we have the idea of the gas. This is how it goes: Back in ye olde days when Kravaal was suspected for murder, he concocted a poison in a jar, and threatened to release its gas if his inquisitors would not let him finish his treatment of the frozen man. When he is finally revived he realises that it was this gas that kept them alive in the ice. But here’s the catch: when making his poison, he carefully wrote down the measurements of the ingredients. But when brought back to life, one of the stupid authority guys burn the note. This is naturally less logic than it is a plot convenience, because this leads us to the core of the poodle: Kravaal has to experiment on the men to find out just the right mixture. But hang on: how does this work? How did he know, without looking it up in any book, how to make the poison in the first place? If he did it from memory, why couldn’t he just make the poison again? But then, of course, we wouldn’t have a film.

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Director Nick Grinde.

Nick Grinde was a pretty anonymous director best known for directing fast-paced crime films for Columbia at the time, and today people remember him, if they do, for his three Karloff movies. Grinde has a steady hand and brings a fluent pace to his films. If there are faults to be found with The Man With Nine Lives, they won’t be found in the direction. A James Whale Nick Grinde ain’t, but the workmanlike direction is solid. Another thing that this film does right is the set design – especially the ice cave is very nice work. If the thing looks authentic, it’s because much of the movie was filmed in an actual cold storage. In an interview with Tom Weaver in his book A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde, lead actress Jo Anne Sayers said that the scenes of Kravaal’s lab were filmed “in an ice house somewhere in L.A. where I guess meat and stuff were frozen and stored”. She remembers that it was so cold that they could only film for 15 minutes at a time, despite all having warm underwear. Sayers recalls a tricky scene where she was supposed to be put into cryonic stasis, and they piled chunks of real ice on top of her when she was lying on a gurney (she did have a think blanket on top of her). The problem was that she was supposed to be “dead”, but because of the cold air in the freezer, her breath was visible on camera. The crew put a rubber tube in the side of her mouth that was off-camera, and she had to do the scene breathing through the tube.

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Jo Anne Sayers breathing through a tube.

But art director Lionel Banks also makes good work with the cave/basement and the lab, creating some nice atmosphere and actually makes it look like a real place, with all its furniture, the small kitchen, the fireplace, book shelves, etc, rather than yet another spooky film set. And no wonder, Lionel Banks was nominated for an Oscar seven times.

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). If you want to look for a sci-fi connection out of the lot, then your best bet is actually the sound engineer Edward Bernds, who turned to directing in 1945, and went on to direct, among 100 films, Space Master X-7 (1958) and The Return of the Fly (1959).

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Mad doctor like.

Boris Karloff, as usual, keeps up his end of the bargain, pulling off that usual feat of his: managing to be at once lovable, benign and brooding, menacing. One must assume that Karloff started taking on these mad scientist roles in an eagerness to prove that he had a wider range than just playing the hulking Frankenstein monster, but must have become utterly frustrated by being typecast as the mad scientist, a role he reprised ad infinitum, while trying his best to get away from the genre. In these Columbia films he clearly tries to find ways to make what is basically the same role over and over again, different in each film, and to a certain extent he actually manages to do so. When watching the movies back-to-back, one can clearly see a slightly different personality in each of them – even down to the way Karloff moves and carries himself. In this one, he also sports a nice goatee, Sigmund Freud-style, which actually suits him quite well.

Roger Pryor was considered a poor man’s Clark Gable during the thirties, and actually got to play he lead in one big film, Belle of the Nineties in 1934, opposite Mae West. Although not overly handsome, he did have a slick mustachioed charm about him that earned him leading man roles up until the beginning of the forties – and he also had a slight family resemblance to famed character actor Cedric Hardwicke. Apart from Karloff, Pryor probably delivers the best performance in what is essentially the leading man role in The Man With Nine Lives. He also appeared in a large supporting role in one of the other Columbia Karloff pictures, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review).

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Defrosting Byron Foulger.

Jo Ann Sayers was born Miriam Lucille Lilygren in 1918, and appeared in 15 films during her short stint in Hollywood from 1938 to 1940, one third of them being shorts. Apart from this film, she had one other leading lady role in a 1940 B film, although she recalls in her interview with Weaver that The Man with Nine Lives was probably her biggest Hollywood role. It was also her last Hollywood role before she — quite serendipitously — landed the title role in the Broadway musical My Sister Eileen, which turned out as one of the biggest smash hits in New York in 1941. She stayed with the show for a little over a year, but then dropped out of acting in order to get married. Although she left full-time acting, she spent much of her life supporting theatre and music, co-founding a children’s theatre and serving in prominent capacities in cultural institutions, big and small, giving special consideration to orchestras and theatres.

Sayers’ performance in The Man With Nine Lives is adequate, without being memorable. Like all people who have worked with Boris Karloff, she has a story or two for Weaver. According to Sayer, Karloff’s real passion was raising roses, which the two used to talk about on set. She remembers one instance during filming when her character offers to make some tea down in Kravaal’s freezing lab. She just barely got started before Karloff broke character and cut the scene, putting filming on hold, while he explained to Sayer how make “proper tea”. She says Karloff was very pleasant and cooperative: “He wasn’t social-social, exactly, but he was very amiable, and we didn’t have any problems or confrontations or anything.” One thing she doesn’t mention in her Weaver interview, but which pops up in a 1941 interview with Collier’s Magazine, is that at one point she sprained her ankle and held up filming for a day. Well I don’t blame her, climbing ladders with those shoes.

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Karloff and friend reading the comics.

The rest of the cast play their crudely written stereotypical roles as well as may be expected from a bunch of seasoned B-movie veterans. Most notable among the supporting cast is probably Byron Foulger, the small, nervous man who would play meek or irritable little men in nearly 500 films big and small throughout his career, and who’s face was familiar to all movie-goers in the forties, although few might have remembered his name. He also appeared in the serials The Spider (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), as well as the sci-fi films The Man They Could Not Hang, Man Made Monster (1941), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Rocket Man (1954), and as a guest star in the TV series Space Patrol (1952), The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Time Tunnel (1967).

In a small role we see Bruce Bennett, previously known as Herman Brix. Brix was a shot-put champion who rose to fame as Tarzan in 1935. He played the lead in the awful Sky Racket (1937, review) and the almost equally bad serial The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938, review). He still clung to the leading man role in Before I Hang (review), but was reduced to a bit-part in The Man With Nine Lives (watch out for him as a state trooper). He appeared as a guest star in a number of episodes of the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, and in the fifties and sixties his career took a turn for the worse, when he found himself in films such as The Cosmic Man and The Alligator People (both 1959), as well as The Clones (1973), his next-to-last film.

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Boris Karloff and Jo Ann Sayers.

As a small curiosity: the role of the frozen therapy patient in the beginning of the film is played by Minta Durfee, a comedienne who started her career on stage as early as 1908, and began acting in the fledgling Hollywood industry in 1914, teaming up with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, and her husband Roscoe ”Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she sometimes took decade-long breaks from films and starred mostly in uncredited bit-parts throughout her later career, she kept on making movies until her death in 1975.

Benjamin Crisler at The New York Times gave The Man with Nine Lives a positive review upon its release, writing: “Being a great Karloff admirer, anything he does is all right, but for casual and literal-minded moviegoers The Man With Nine Lives may seem hard to take”. Modern reviewers seem to rate it somewhere between “average” and “good”. Dario Lavia at Cinefania gives it 2/5 stars, calling it “a B movie without any great ambitions”, and claims that it has “little budget, much darkness and little action. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant awards The Man with Nine Lives with 2/4 stars, and is especially irked about the lack of logic in the script: “Karloff’s character never even begins to make logical sense. Dr. Mason continues to champion the rightness of Kravaal’s mission (curing disease) even though the doctor double-crosses everyone in the room. The angry brother of the patient who died ten years before throws Kravaal’s only copy of his perfected revival formula into a fire, so Kravaal shoots him. When everybody stares in shock, Kravaal turns with his pistol and says, ‘You think everything is murder, don’t you?’ It’s an unintentionally hilarious moment reminiscent of a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon: Calvin is caught hammering nails into his mom’s coffee table, and looks at her with an utterly unrepentant ‘Well, what?'”

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Karloff and Roger Pryor.

Craig Butler at AllMovie finds the wonky science in the film laughable, but notes that “Lives doesn’t need any degrees in science; it has Karloff instead, and he’s in very fine form here”. Butler gives it 3/5 stars, calling it “a neat little programmer, with an interesting gimmick”. TV Guide is likewise positive, rating the film 3/5 stars, writing that “Karloff is a gem in his role” and that “the director keeps the suspense going throughout”. Derek Winnert goes a notch higher, giving The Man with Nine Lives 3,5/5 stars. Alfred Eaker at 366 Weird Movies has problems with the anonymous cast, and writes that without Karloff, “the oddly named Man With Nine Lives would be hopelessly decaffeinated”.

What more is there to say, really? The Man with Nine Lives is a mediocre entry into the Karloff canon, somewhat enlivened by placing his usual mad scientist tale in an unusual setting. The script is just silly, and if you choose to laugh at it instead of pulling your hair, the movie is quite enjoyable. But doubtless this was just putting food on the table for everyone involved.

Janne Wass

The Man With Nine Lives. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown & Harold Shumate. Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers, Stanley Brown, John Dilson, Hal Taliaferro, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Ernie Adams, Bruce Bennett/Herman Brix. Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline. Editing: Al Clark. Art direction: Lionel Banks. Second unit director: Arthur S. Black Jr. Sound: Edward Bernds. Produced by Irving Briskin & Wallace MacDonald for Columbia.

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