Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death.
Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging — a sentence to be carried out in one month’s time.
At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth’s line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth’s execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.
But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn’t be allowed, and he takes the prisoner’s blood after the execution.
The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body. But moments before the scheduled execution, Garth’s sentence is commuted to life in prison.
Within 24 hours, Garth’s body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark — he seems in every way 20 years younger.
Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer’s nature into his bloodstream….
Comments: There’s an interesting moment in Before I Hang that takes place in the prison warden’s office. Dr. Garth is expounding on his theory of old age. He tells the warden that contrary to popular belief, there’s no reason why human beings ought to grow old and die. Theoretically, the human lifespan should be unlimited. He mentions the work of Dr. Alexis Carrell, who proved that individual cells can reproduce indefinitely. It’s only when those cells are at work in the human body, says Dr. Garth, that the stresses of life build up toxins that cause the body to decay.
Dr. Garth’s name-check is intriguing because Carrel was a real person, a Nobel Prize winner who did groundbreaking work in the areas of vascular and open-heart surgery.
He was also interested in the science of aging. The work Dr. Garth mentions was widely known at the time the screenplay was written. In 1912, Carrel sealed a culture taken from a chicken’s heart inside a flask, giving it regular doses of nutrient. He reported that the cells continued to divide in the flask for more than twenty years, proving that individual cells can reproduce far beyond the lifespan of the creature from which they were taken. Carrel’s findings captured the popular imagination, and for decades the idea that cells can live forever outside the body was commonly believed to be true.
But Carrel’s research could never be replicated by other scientists, and his claims eventually lost credibility. In the end scientists eventually discovered what would be known as the “Hayflick limit” — a cap on the number of times a cell can divide. The prevailing view today is that cell division is finite because if it weren’t, replication errors would eventually creep into the DNA sequence, and cancer would run wild in the organism. It turns out that humans aren’t meant to live forever – just long enough to transmit their DNA to a new generation. Then their work is done.
Unfortunately, Carrel’s interests extended into some unsavory areas. He was an outspoken proponent of eugenics, and lavished great praise on the Nazi program of exterminating those whom society believed to be inferior. After the German invasion, Carrel used his connections with the infamous Marshall Petain to secure an important medical post in Vichy France. After the country was liberated, Carrell was arrested and charged with treason, but he died in 1944, before he could stand trial.
The Face Behind the Mask
It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.
Comments: Every movie is a self-contained universe, one that operates according to certain rules established by the screenwriter. In the case of The Face Behind the Mask, this universe is surprisingly arbitrary, stocked with characters and incidents that tilt wildly between the too good to be true and the too bad to be believed.
Within minutes of arriving at the New York waterfront, Janos happens to meet Detective Jim O’Hara, a cop so kind-hearted that he buys the newly-arrived immigrant an ice cream soda (!) and gets him into a clean, reputable flat on his personal recommendation. Before he’s even seen the room, Janos gets a job as a dishwasher in the diner downstairs. As Janos settles into bed that night, he shakes his head, unable to believe his incredible luck.
Almost instantly, his luck reverses polarity, and Janos becomes the victim of almost absurd series of misfortunes. The apartment building he is in just happens to burn down the very first night he stays there; his face is horribly disfigured and he cannot find work because of his grotesque appearance. He runs out of money and he and his only friend, a petty thief named Dinky, are out on the street. Then Dinky gets pneumonia, and the two huddle miserably in an abandoned car, Dinky coughing miserably and seemingly doomed to death. An honest man, Janos is reluctant to take the safecracking job that Dinky’s too sick to perform; but out of desperation he does it.
Almost overnight, Janos’ fortunes shift again. He not only succeeds in keeping himself and Dinky alive, he quickly climbs the criminal ladder, becoming an underworld kingpin. He makes more money now than he would ever have done as a watchmaker, and he uses his money to obtain at great expense a custom-made rubber mask, one that is an identical copy of his old face.
This may seem like a crude or trivial thing for a crook to want, but the human face is the one piece of equipment you absolutely have to have in order to be accepted in human society. Indeed, the face is necessary even though the woman with whom he falls in love is blind. In a sense the mask was made not for her benefit, but for his own. It allows him to reclaim not only membership in the human race, but the human ability to love as well. And as we reach the movie’s conclusion, it allows him to act selflessly, in the best interests of Helen, even at the cost of his own life.
Interestingly, the mask we’re presented with in the movie isn’t a mask at all – Lorre simply had heavy makeup applied to his face, and a couple of pieces of tape were used to pull the skin taut. It helps drive home the symbolic function of the mask as the image we project to the world. You could argue that, given a chance to custom-order your face, it should be possible to upgrade from one belonging to Peter Lorre. On the other hand, perhaps it’s better to just be yourself.