Saturday, July 4, 1970: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Synopsis: Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant doctor as well as a great humanitarian. He has designed a machine that will keep the blood circulating in a patient’s body even when the heart has stopped. This is used in tandem with a coffin-like chamber that chills the body. With the body thus in a state of suspended animation, doctors can operate on a patient at their leisure.

With the assistance of his friend Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), Savaard enlists his lab assistant Bob (Stanley Brown) to test the machine. Their plan is to stop Bob’s heart, use the machine to circulate his blood for a time, then restore him to life. But the police burst in during the experiment. Finding Bob’s heart not beating, the coroner declares him dead and Savaard is arrested for murder.

At his trial Savaard tries to explain his methods, but the jury is unimpressed. He is convicted and sentenced to hang. Embittered, Savaard vows to take vengeance on the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and all twelve jurors .

On death row, Savaard arranges to have his body turned over to Dr. Lang after the hanging.

The prison chaplain makes a final visit to his cell in the hours before his execution, but Savaard seems unconcerned, even haughty, about facing death. Within the hour Savaard is hanged and his body is handed over to Dr. Lang.

Months later, a reporter notices something peculiar: six of the jurors in the Savaard case have apparently committed suicide. Soon he learns that the surviving jurors — as well as the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney — have been invited to a mysterious house. Going to investigate, the reporter learns that he and the invitees are trapped inside. Dr. Savaard’s voice comes over a hidden loudspeaker, telling his guests that they will die one by one, every fifteen minutes. Moreover, no one will ever suspect Savaard because he has the perfect alibi: he’s already dead….

Comments: This week we have another Columbia offering from the Son of Shock! TV package, and don’t be surprised if this one seems a bit familiar. The premise here — a gentle doctor trying to serve mankind is unjustly sentenced to the gallows, after which he becomes a murderer — is quite similar to that of 1940’s Before I Hang, which was broadcast on Horror Incorporated on May 30.

Hmm, let’s see. Aside from the studio and the premise, what else do these movies have in common?

Well, both star Boris Karloff; both have the word “hang” in the title; and both titles are misleading (Before I Hang features a man who isn’t hanged; The Man They Could Not Hang features a man who actually is hanged. *

But the two movies actually diverge dramatically after the initial setup. Dr. Garth in Before I Hang becomes the unfortunate victim of a Jekyll-and-Hyde side effect hidden in his breakthrough serum. Dr. Savaard simply turns into an embittered serial killer. In fact, Savaard’s angry address to the courtroom is the closest I’ve seen to an out-and-out “Fools! I’ll destroy you all!” speech from a cinematic mad scientist.

The idea of transforming Karloff from a gentle humanitarian into a monster makes a good deal of sense, because Karloff is quite convincing at both. He’s an enormously likable actor. But I didn’t buy his transformation in this movie. If Savaard was as gentle and humane a man as we’re led to believe, even the death of his lab assistant and his unjust conviction for murder wouldn’t be enough to send him over the edge. The truth is, it isn’t easy to turn a truly good man into a truly evil one. Had Savaard suffered a Job-like punishment, had everything in his life taken away, even his devoted daughter Janet, that might have been enough to do the trick.

Oh, had I forgotten to mention that Dr. Savaard had a devoted daughter named Janet? She was played by Lorna Gray, who is marvelous. I guess I didn’t mention her because she isn’t really germane to the plot, at least until the last couple of minutes of the picture. Gray’s performance, brief as it turns out to be, is one of the truly good things about The Man They Could Not Hang. So it’s a pity they didn’t give her more to do.


* But let’s be fair: Before My Sentence Is Commuted To Life In Prison lacks a certain dramatic punch, while The Man They Mysteriously Couldn’t Kill By Hanging is a bit clunky.

One comment

  1. After signing a 5 picture deal with Warner Brothers in 1936, and a 6 picture contract with Monogram in 1938 for the Mr. Wong series, Karloff continued to show his business sense by signing up for 5 pictures with Columbia in 1939. The sheer volume of work was a blessing for him, since he was just as helpless as Lugosi during the two year horror ban, his existing contracts supplying employment at a difficult period for horror fans. THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG was his debut on his Columbia deal, all science fiction more than horror, all of which cast him as dedicated scientists who come to a bad end. After he returns from the dead a bitter madman, we cheer him on to succeed because none of his victims are presented in a sympathetic light, especially Roger Pryor's smarmy D.A. Still a teenager at the time, Lorna Gray also acted under the name Adrian Booth. All the Columbia titles generally aired on CHILLER THEATER only during the 60's, and this was no exception, shown just once, on January 22 1966, paired with the debut of Monogram's RETURN OF THE APE MAN, starring Bela Lugosi and John Carradine.


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