Saturday, July 9, 1972: The Strange Mr. Gregory (1945) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

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Synopsis: A famous magician called Gregory the Great (Edmund Lowe) is experimenting with an ancient method of suspended animation.  He has managed to place himself in a trance so deep that it is indistinguishable from death. Moreover, he is able to maintain this trance for days on end.  His butler / personal assistant Riker (Frank Reicher) assists him, and he is the only one who knows about Gregory’s mysterious endeavors.

One night, at the conclusion of his stage show, admiring amateur magician John Randall (Donald Douglas) and his wife Ellen (Jean Rogers) come to Gregory’s dressing room to visit him.  Riker tells them that Mr Gregory never receives visitors.  But Gregory, noticing the beautiful Ellen, immediately invites the couple in.  John Randall is quite excited to meet Gregory — so excited that he doesn’t notice that Gregory’s attention is fixed almost entirely on Ellen.

The fact that Ellen is a) married and b) uninterested in him does not deter Gregory in the least. He decides to make Ellen his.  He gets Randall to invite him to his home, for a gathering of the local amateur magician’s club.  In front of many onlookers, he shows Randall how to make a slip-noose that can easily be used as a garrote.  Later, seeing Ellen walk out onto the back patio alone, he follows her. Using his powers of hypnotism, he draws Ellen to him and embraces her, just in time for Randall to see what he’s up to.  Angered by the liberties he’s taking, Randall throws Gregory out of the house.


The next day, Gregory sends Ellen a dozen roses. She throws them out, but the next day, he sends eleven — and the next day ten, and the day after that nine.  Eventually Randall finds out about this flowery countdown, and goes to confront Gregory. 

To Randall’s surprise, Mr. Gregory is found dead the next morning, strangled with the very same garrote he had demonstrated at the party.  Riker sees to Gregory’s burial, but soon he too is strangled in the same way, after writing a note implicating Randall.

Randall finds himself on trial for a double homicide, and the prosecution’s case is strong: Randall had means, motive and opportunity. But just when things are at their bleakest, a surprise witness arrives to testify at the trial — Gregory’s twin brother Lane Talbot.  Talbot explains to the court that Gregory was a cad, and he might even be considered an evil man. No one should be judged too harshly for doing away with him.  In light of this testimony, the jury spares Randall the death penalty.

With Randall safely in prison, Lane Talbot begins worming his way into a grateful Ellen’s life.  But Ellen’s friend Sheila (Marjorie Hoshelle) is becoming suspicious.  Is Lane Talbot who he says he is?  Or is this the sinister Mr. Gregory, alive and hiding in plain sight?

 

Comments: In the movies, certain career paths are viewed with enormous suspicion. Scientists, as we have seen, are assumed to have at least a couple of screws loose. Actors, who spend all their time emoting and pretending to be people they aren’t, are another. Puppeteers and the curators of wax museums don’t fare much better. And tonight we can add another vocation to the list of ones your high school guidance counselor ought to have steered you away from: the stage magician. In fact, this is the second murderous magician we’ve encountered in as many weeks. Both movies were made within a year of each other, which makes me wonder what might have spurred this mini-glut of magicians-gone-wrong stories.

Like the title character in The Mask of Diijon,  this week’s conjurer has gotten tired of sawing ladies in half and wants to do a deep-dive into the mysteries of the human mind. Being able to simulate death would make for kind of a tedious stage show but it’s a terrific way to get away with all kinds of skullduggery. There isn’t a great deal of suspense in The Strange Mr. Gregory — we know, for example, that Lane Talbot and Gregory are the same guy almost immediately. The real mystery is why Gregory would fake his own death, frame one man for two crimes he didn’t commit, and murder another, all for the love of a married woman he hardly knows. Unfortunately, that’s a mystery the movie doesn’t get around to solving. But come on, you wouldn’t be watching it if it was called The Well-Adjusted Mr. Gregory, would you?

Edmund Lowe is perfectly qualified to play the title character; not only had he previously portrayed Chandu the magician, but he’d also played his own doppelganger in The Great Impersonation. And while Lowe looks somewhat longer in the tooth than he did in those films  (because he is) he still imbues Gregory with an aura of unnerving charm.

One amusing thing about Gregory is that for all the talk about what a great magician he is, what we see of his act is on a par with what you’d see performed at a kid’s birthday party. The stale magic tricks he employs — making doves appear from under silver serving domes and so forth — must have seemed tiresome even in the 1940s.

The prolific Frank Reicher has been seen on Horror Incorporated a number of times in minor roles (he played Ullman in the monster-rally House of Frankenstein, Dr. Norman in both The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost, Professor Mendelssohn in The Invisible Ray and the ill-fated Timmons in Night Monster). The character of Riker is a small one but Reicher makes it memorable in his few scenes.

Jean Rogers is pretty and assured in the role of the put-upon Ellen, though the part isn’t particularly well written. Rogers, of course, was Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon movies and while she was never an A-lister she was a sturdy screen presence through the late 30s and early 40s. After leaving Universal she moved first to Warner and then to the ritziest studio of them all, MGM. But she soon walked away from her contract in a dispute, and it wasn’t long before she fell all the way down to Monogram, a sure sign that her career had flamed out.

The Man With Nine Lives


Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body’s immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.


The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity that Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal’s last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island. The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the specialized techniques he’s developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. He’s astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams’ nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor’s office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man’s cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor’s hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams’ frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone — including himself — in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.
 
When Jasper Adams’ loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs….

Comments: I’ve written about this film a few times before (it was an early Horror Incorporated staple) but I’ve never much cared for it (have I made a secret of that? I don’t believe I have). Even more than the other three mad scientist pictures Karloff did for Columbia, this one feels rushed and cobbled-together. Even though Boris gets top billing, Roger Pryor is the actual lead, and he’s simply too weak a presence to carry the movie as far as he needs to. All the plot contrivances necessary to get him and his bony girlfriend Judith to Kravaal’s island are a little hard to swallow, and lead to so many questions (why is the hospital so unhappy with the publicity Dr. Mason’s groundbreaking cancer research has yielded? Wouldn’t Kravaal have been declared legally dead and his estate liquidated years before? Wouldn’t the police have made a more thorough search of the Kravaal house if that many people were missing?, etc) that they end up sinking the movie.

But look, the only reason anyone’s watching is that Boris Karloff is going to appear. It doesn’t happen soon enough. But when it does, Boris doesn’t disappoint. He is not just sinister — lots of actors could do sinister — but also compelling, strangely likable, and almost sympathetic. We would never buy that Bela Lugosi or George Zucco was interested in the welfare of mankind, but we believe it when Boris says it, and we believe it even when he’s using his captors as guinea pigs in his experiments. Misguided, sure. Unethical, absolutely. But contemptuous of the human race? I dunno. Let me get back to you on that.

Karloff’s greatest enemies, though, are the  ramshackle script and a lackluster supporting cast. The initial set-up of the movie – Mason and Judith setting out to find the mysterious Dr. Kravaal who disappeared a decade earlier – is intriguing, but the mystery is squandered by a whole host of increasingly absurd plot contrivances.

You’re probably best off approaching this one just as audiences in 1940 did – as a small programmer that might have occupied the bottom half of a double bill, with no ambition beyond killing 70 minutes. In the days before TV, that was enough.

 

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One comment

  1. Both of these titles were early entries on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater, shown only during the 60s. THE STRANGE MR. GREGORY was one I’d never seen until just a few years ago, a passable time waster. I did enjoy THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, but for this one Columbia there’s a longer wait for Boris to enter the fray, exactly 16 minutes, but from there perfectly acceptable mad doctor stuff. Roger Pryor was a smarmy presence in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, here just plain dull.

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