Before I Hang

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(4/10) Nick Grinde’s third Karloff film for Columbia is yet a variety on the scientist on death row. This time K isn’t brought back from the dead, but instead invents a youth serum, which he injects himself with, before realising that mixing it with a hanged murderer’s blood wasn’t the best idea. A rushed effort, but it holds together.

Before I Hang. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown, Robert Hardy Andrews. Starring: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett, Edward van Sloan. Produced by Wallace MacDonald. IMDb: 6.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1940_before_i_hang_005Before I Hang was director Nick Grinde’s third and final mad doctor film made for Columbia, starring Boris Karloff, and in the opinion of many critics (including this one), also the least. It was part of Karloff’s five-picture deal with the studio, which later switched directors to Edward Dmytryk and Lew Landers.

The plot treads familiar ground: Boris Karloff plays a kindly scientist sentenced to death. This time it’s not because of an experiment gone wrong, but because of a mercy killing of an old friend suffering the pains of old age. However, Karloff, or more precisely Dr. Garth, has been working on a serum which could stop and even reverse the cellular breakdown of old age. In prison, however, the resident physician Dr. Howard (Edward van Sloan again teaming up with Karloff for the first time since Frankenstein [1931, review]) has taken an interest in Garth’s work, and proposes to act as his assistant if Garth can perfect his formula during the three weeks before his death. As the serum needs to be mixed with blood, Garth at one point proposes that Howard take some an executed strangler — a point which becomes central later on.

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Edward van Sloan as Dr. Howard and Boris Karloff as Dr. Garth.

Half an hour before his execution, Garth inoculates himself with the serum, so that Howard could analyse its effect after his death. However, as the moment of execution approaches, Garth’s daughter (Evelyn Keyes) and her boyfriend (Bruce Bennett) have been able to talk the governor into overturning the death sentence and turn it into life in prison. Turns out the drug actually works, and physically transforms Dr. Garth into his 20 years younger self. Unfortunately, the as the serum was mixed with the blood of a murderer, Garth experiences a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome, as the evil in the killer’s blood urges him to kill, without having any recollection of it. And when Dr. Howard turns up dead, the blame falls on the mentally handicapped janitor, and instead Garth receives a full pardon.

Upon his release, Garth gathers up some of the most brilliant and eldest of his friends, and offers them his “cure” for old age. All three refuse, and a hurt and humiliated Garth retires to his lab. And if you have seen any other Karloff mad scientist films, you can probably figure out the rest of the plot for yourselves.

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Karloff strangling the janitor (Frank Richards).

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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Karloff and Evelyn Keyes (right).

After watching the previous Columbia entries, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review) and The Man With Nine Lives (1940, review), this formula begins to wear you down in Before I Hang. Not to mention that it was a formula that Karloff had already gone through in at least half a dozen other movies. From the get-go, Before I Hang feels like a remake of a remake.

The premise of the movie is outlandish, even for a mad scientist flick. It’s basically The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as presented in Maurice Renard’s The Hands of Orlac. The Hands of Orlac (1924, review) toyed with the idea that a man having the hands of a murderer grafted onto his arms would inherit the murderer’s soul as well. It worked, because it was a feverish treatise on a man’s twisted psychology and fears. But presented as it is in Before I Hang, as cold scientific fact, the idea that a cup of blood from a murderer would somehow make the host a compulsory killer, is just so childishly bizarre that even the most hardened B-movie veteran will bury their face in their hands. On the other hand, as Craig Butler writes at AllMovie: “Of course, in mad scientist films such as this, the “science” is much less important than the mad, so most fans will not care about the intense implausibility of the premise that blood from a murderer will turn a kindly man into a raving maniac. Hang’s problem isn’t really that its premise isn’t sound; it’s that the script is hackneyed. It’s all about connecting the plot dots, and those dots are absurdly obvious, even from miles away.”

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Karloff getting that tingling feeling.

The movie’s saving graces are Boris Karloff and a stylish direction from Nick Grinde. DP Benjamin Kline lights the hell out of the movie, with long shadows and ominous contrasts, bathing the creepy scenes in looming shadows. When Karloff changes, so does the light that falls on his face. Karloff once again brings yet another slightly varied character to his gallery of mad doctors. His Jekyll/Hyde switch here is threefold: In this film he goes from kindly octogenarian to a kindly man in his prime, to Killer Karloff. This is yet again another film in which one is reminded of just how good Karloff was at physical acting — his old man is one of the best I’ve seen from a young-ish actor. The make-up, which is slight, helps, bur Karloff sells it with his body language: the carefulness of movement and step we see in the elderly is often replaces by young actors by a slowness that has no motivation behind it. The elderly don’t move slowly because they can’t move quicker, they do it because they don’t trust their own bodies, and they know how disastrous a fall can be for brittle bones.

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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. Still, Before I Hang feels like his weakest entry into the Karloff cycle, despite some very atmospheric shots. It simply has the feeling of a rushed film without much thought put into it. Bosley Crowther at The New York Times agreed in 1940: “The mechanical zest with which director Nick Grinde usually manages to obscure script deficencies [sic] in films of this genre is conspicuously absent in Before I Die [sic]. But if you’re taken in by reels and reels of test tubes, mechanical hearts and other scientific gadgets, or the brooding atmosphere provoked through the use of murky photography, then Before I Hang should prove to be moderately entertaining.”

Apart from Karloff, the standout name in the cast is naturally Edward van Sloan, who so masterfully set the template for the good scientist in horror films with his performances as Professor van Helsing in Dracula (1931) and Professor Waldmann in Frankenstein. This is, unfortunately, far from his most memorable turn, as his part is as blandly written as the rest of the dialogue, and he is killed off rather early on in the script. Evelyn Keyes and Bruce Bennett in particular, have very little screen time and their characters are completely redundant, and they seem to have been stuck in the film simply because it needed a young couple. Calling them “leading” would be misleading (excuse the pun), and Bennett can’t have more than ten minutes on screen, taken together.

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Evelyn Keyes, Boris Karloff and Bruce Bennett.

Bruce Bennett was born Herman Brix, and was an Olympic shot put medallist before he got his big break in Hollywood as a poor man’s Buster Crabbe in the title role of The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), a role which hounded him for the rest of his career. He played the lead in the SF-ish stinker Sky Racket (1937, review) and had a small role in The Man with Nine Lives. He later played more SF leads in Z-movies like The Cosmic Man (1959) and The Alligator People (1959) and had a supporting part in The Clones (1973). Brix changed his stage name to Bruce Bennett in the late thirties as he hoped to get away from being typecast as the big, dumb hero in B-movies after his turn as Tarzan, and even if the name change didn’t immediately help, he did graduate to A-movies in the forties, but only ever in a supporting capacity.

Evelyn Keyes is best remembered for her bit-part as Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister in Gone With the Wind (1939), but she had a decent enough career with numerous leading lady parts in B-movies, although she never made the A-list. One actor worthy of mention in Before I Hang is veteran character actor Pedro de Cordoba, who does a marvellous turn as an ageing pianist, one of the three men that Karloff wants to cure. The splendid portrayal comes so out of the blue that it almost feels like it belongs in another film altogether.

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Karloff, Evelyn Keyes and Don Beddoe as a police detective.

There are staunch defenders of Before I Hang, even if they are few and far between. Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind gives the movie an almost surreal 4.5/5 stars, praising both the atmospheric direction and the acting, Karloff and Keyes in particular. Graeme Clark at The Spinning Image awards the film with a more grounded 6/10 stars, while The Terror Trap clocks it in at 2.5/5. Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum gives it 2/5, writing: “Even though the flick runs a scant 62 minutes, Before I Hang really plods along at a lumbering pace and seemingly takes forever to arrive at its predictable conclusion. Karloff does a solid job playing yet another variation on his Kindly Old Scientist Who is Actually a Homicidal Maniac role, yet his presence alone isn’t enough to save this lukewarm B picture.” Craig Butler at AllMovie also rates it 2/5 stars: “Boris Karloff was still in his prime in 1940, and he makes even lower-tier work such as this enjoyable. It’s not one of his great performances, but there are moments here and there, little nuances that lesser horror actors wouldn’t have thought of. He can’t quite save Hang, but he keeps it afloat — which is quite an achievement.” The blog Prison Movies digs even lower, giving Before I Hang a measly 1/5 stars, and writes: “There is little to excite great interest – although it must be said that Dr Garth’s novel strangling technique, approaching his victims from the front with a giant handkerchief – is mildly entertaining.”

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Lobby card.

Before I Hang’s stumbling block is its script, not just the outlandish premise, but the whole thing. Why on God’s green Earth was Dr. Garth’s death sentence turned into a full pardon? He was still a condemned murderer, even by his own admission. When he inoculated Dr. Howard, he used Howard’s own blood to mix the serum — why didn’t he do the same for himself? Why does he get his murderous instincts when he is inoculating people? Why doesn’t he give himself up to the police in the first place, but instead asks a friend to turn him in? There’s no rhyme or reason in anything in this film, and it doesn’t even manage to create its own internal logic. But on the other hand, it is brief and to the point, has a lot of atmosphere and a Boris Karloff in high form, and nothing with a Karloff in high form is ever disastrously bad.

Janne Wass

Before I Hang. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown, Robert Hardy Andrews. Starring: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett, Edward van Sloan, Ben Taggart, Pedro de Cordoba, Wright Kramer, Bertram Marburgh, Don Beddoe, Robert Fiske, Kennet MacDonald, Frank Richards. Cinematography: Benjamin Kline. Editing: Charles Nelson: Art direction: Lionel Banks. Makeup artist: Clay Campbell. Sound recordist: J.S. Westmoreland. Produced by Wallace MacDonald for Columbia. 

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