Attempting to live forever has its pitfalls and contradictions, as shown in an early work by one of England’s breakaway studios. Mark Fraser revisits a modest gothic horror movie which raises a few ethical issues regarding the reversal of the aging process.
While the films of Hammer Film Productions Ltd are probably best known for embellishing the Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy legends, the English production house also attempted “cheap genre film-making on the Hollywood pattern which was a significant exception to the stiflingly literary and ‘respectable’ British cinema of the late Forties and early Fifties”.
At least that’s how British movie academic and writer Julian Petley described Hammer’s activities in the early 1950s when it was on the verge of revolutionising the horror genre while making actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee household names.
Petley made this remark in relation to Terence Fisher’s Stolen Face – a 1952 thriller starring Paul Henreid and Lizabeth Scott about a crazed plastic surgeon who adjusts the facial features of a female convict to resemble those of his erstwhile girlfriend – during which he noted that similar doctors “would haunt later Hammer movies”.
This observation, however, would have been just as apt if it was applied to The Man Who Could Cheat Death, a 1959 movie also directed by studio regular Fisher and starring Lee as a French surgeon who is effectively extorted by a loony 104-year-old physician-sculptor (Anton Diffring) to operate on him so he can maintain his youthful disposition.
Although a lesser known work in the Hammer canon, this film contains some of the trademarks of its better-known cinematic cousins. Aside from starting with a mysterious night time murder in a fog filled street and ending in a literal blaze of death and insanity (where some of the shots are slightly out of focus), it also “treats the ‘normal’ characters and the audience as innocent bystanders in a private battle between the forces of Good and Evil”.
How it does this, though, is a little different than the usual “Savant and Monster” fare dished out by the studio, thus giving it more of a cerebral edge than many of its Dracula and Frankenstein counterparts.
Set in Paris during 1890, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a kind of gothic horror morality tale which ambitiously attempts to tackle issues pertaining to immortality and the heavy price one has to pay in order to achieve it.
Dr Georges Bonnet (Diffring in a very theatrical performance) is a successful medical practitioner who sculpts beautiful women in his spare time. The good doctor also harbours a strange secret – he must have his parathyroid gland replaced every 10 years so he can carry on living forever. If this vital operation is delayed, he has to drink a steaming green elixir at regular intervals in order to stave off slipping into a fatally rapid state of putrefaction.
Moreover, Bonnet is prone to violent outbursts if he doesn’t manage to have his “medicine” at the prescribed time. This is highlighted at the start of the movie when he brutally assaults his latest model (and lover) Margo Phillipe (Delphi Lawrence), who interrupts him while he is trying to pour himself a measured 11th hour dose of the liquid. Later in the film it is revealed this kind of thing has happened before.
The only person who can help Bonnet is his life-long friend Professor Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle), an 89 year-old Viennese doctor who decided not to be a guinea pig for the eternal life experiment when the pair originally thought up the idea some 70 years earlier while they were in medical school.
Unfortunately, the elderly Weiss is no longer able to perform the operation as he has just suffered a heart attack. Instead the pair try to recruit Dr Pierre Gerard (Lee in all of his stiff upper lip splendour), a local surgeon who just happens to be courting Janine Dubois (Hazel Court), one of Bonnet’s former lovers and ex-models. Predictably things don’t go as planned when the old man gets cold feet after putting two and two together regarding Bonnet’s murderous past.
Things are further complicated for the wannabe patient when Gerard later withdraws his offer to undertake the procedure after finding out that Weiss “had to leave late last night” in response to “a message from his home in Vienna”.
“As I explained to the doctor, his reputation is such that under his patronage I agreed to do it,” the surgeon tells Bonnet. “But if he is not here it’s impossible.”
Out of the ordinary
As a gothic horror opus The Man Who Could Cheat Death was a somewhat modest achievement for Hammer, containing only a few of the kind of scary moments which dominated much of the studio’s subsequent output until its virtual demise in the second half of the 1970s. It is, however, an undeniably intelligent (albeit talky) work – one that arguably deserves a revisit by fans of the genre.
A good deal of the credit for this must go to the reasonably sensible script by Jimmy Sangster, another Hammer regular, who based his story on a play called The Man in Half Moon Street (which itself was turned into a film during 1945) by Barre Lyndon (whose real name was the less literary-sounding Alfred Edgar).
Rather than succumbing to the obvious temptation of portraying Bonnet as a kind of manically murderous Jekyll and Hyde figure, Sangster depicts his protagonist as a painfully conflicted man who fully recognises the unethical consequences of his actions, but is unable to take responsibility for them. If anything it’s almost as if life itself has become the doctor’s drug and he has grown into a full blown addict.
This all becomes apparent when Weiss – who has just figured out that the parathyroid gland to be used in the looming operation has been sourced from a living body – vainly tries to talk Bonnet into accepting the inevitability of death.
“You’ve changed so much,” the old man observes.
“I tell you why I have changed,” Bonnet mournfully explains. “It’s being alone – so utterly alone again and again; every few years having to sever all contacts and cut all traces, having to disappear and start a new life.”
“You knew this would be the case when you set out,” Weiss responds.
“Knowing something and living with it are two very different things,” his friend replies. “I often think I can’t bear it any longer.”
Fortunately this problem is solved when Bonnet decides to invite Janine along for the extended life ride – a move which necessitates another fresh parathyroid gland from a living victim. As a result the increasingly irrational doctor kidnaps his partner-to-be before extorting the reluctant Gerard, who eventually agrees to perform the operation (despite acknowledging it would an offense against both nature and God) in return for her safety.
It’s at this point the 104-year-old explains why he has kept his activities a secret from the rest of the medical fraternity – a moment which not only reveals the full folly of his quest, but also exposes his own selfishly desperate desire to remain alive.
“If we suddenly made it possible for people to remain alive and healthy indefinitely, the whole structure of nature would collapse,” Bonnet tells Gerard.
“Within one generation the population of the Earth would be doubled and quadrupled, there would be famine on a scale never before dreamed of.”
This is followed by the revealing punch line: “In order to replace an organ we must first find a replacement. With no one dying there would be no replacement.”
It’s an effectively telling scene – one which exposes the true motivation of a well-intentioned scientist who has effectively thrown his professional ethics out the window as he tries to defy nature.
In one of the extras which appears on the Eureka Entertainment Ltd blu-ray release of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Nightmare Movies author Kim Newman makes an interesting case as to why the film should be revisited (although, it must be noted, he fails to mention the movie in his lengthy book).
“If you are a horror fan, or a Hammer fan, you are less likely to have seen this so many times that you know every single lick of it,” he explains. “There is still a great deal of … charm and fun to be had with it, even with the sillier aspects. So it has little surprises, or little treasures, that you might not get from the Hammer films that you have seen dozens of times.”
For this reviewer’s money these could include Jack Asher’s atmospheric lighting (which is strangely archaic for the modern eye, but never dull), the ornate set designs (most of the movie is set indoors), the efficiency of the sometimes ham-fisted script, as well as the effective atonal score by Richard (Rodney) Bennett.
Interestingly, a ticklish highlight occurs towards the end of the film when Gerard turns up on Bonnet’s doorstep at night to perform the operation.
While lasting only a few seconds, this brief moment looks as if it might have been one of the direct inspirations for the scene when Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) arrives at the house of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in William Friedkin’s 1973 landmark American horror movie The Exorcist.
Talk about your little treasures.
Words by Mark Fraser
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1. Julian Petley: The House of Hammer – The Movie (editor – Ann Lloyd), chapter 42, volume four, page 821.
3. Kim Newman: Nightmare Films – Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 1988 (revised in 2011), page 28.