Synopsis: In 19th century Austria, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) travels to the castle of the fearsome Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Burton is in search of two friends who had disappeared after going to confront the count. Suspecting they have been imprisoned or murdered, he adopts the pseudonym Richard Beckett and arrives at the castle, where he is welcomed as a guest.
Count von Bruno is the sort of guy who wears an eye patch and keeps a pit filled with hungry crocodiles around in case he needs to throw some smart-alec into it. He enjoys pausing for diabolical laughter when he has done something particularly sinister, and has a couple of other accoutrements of the evil aristocrat: a mute, brutish assistant named Gargon (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a beautiful, unhappy wife named Elga (Rita Cordray).
Burton finds himself attracted to Elga, and the two strike up a relationship. He also finds an ally in the Count’s dogsbody Dr. Messien (Boris Karloff). Burton promises Elga that he will find a way to take her away from the castle.
But Count von Bruno has been suspicious of his houseguest all along, and not only does he determine that Beckett is really Sir Ronald, but he also finds out that he has been moving in on Elga as well. He locks them up in his dungeon, but they are assisted by Dr. Messien, who provides them with a drug that will simulate death for 10 hours. Messien will help spirit away their bodies after the Count gives them up for dead.
Unfortunately, Count von Bruno discovers Messien’s plan, and he kills the doctor, then decides to bury Burton and Elga in 10 hours time — just as they will be regaining consciousness….
Comments: The Black Castle was the first feature directed by Nathan Juran, who worked occasionally under the name Nathan Hertz; and it seems fair to say he had a successful career that varied a good bit in terms of quality. This film is actually a pretty good example of what he could do. It’s a workmanlike film, not flashy; a simple, competently-made programmer. Juran went on to direct a number of genre films, including some very good ones (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth) and some that weren’t so good (The Brain From Planet Arous, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).
Juran wasn’t a director with an identifiable style, but he was an able craftsman and even his lesser efforts had a professional sure-footedness about them.
This film hearkens back to Universal’s horror titles of the 1930s and 40s, and even boasts the presence of two of its biggest stars of that era, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. From that alone we should expect something interesting from the studio that once dominated the genre. But despite its trappings The Black Castle isn’t really a horror film at all. It’s a costume melodrama that echoes the horror films of Universal’s golden age without having anything new or memorable to say.
Tonally the movie most closely resembles Karloff’s own The Black Room, but with the showy bad-guy role going to McNally and Karloff relegated to playing the count’s conscience-ridden physician.
However, Karloff in his supporting role does far better than Lon Chaney, Jr. It had only been seven years since Chaney starred in his last Inner Sanctum mystery (1945’s Pillow of Death) and — to put it mildly — the years had not been kind to him. Here we find him playing Gargan, the count’s wild-eyed, nearly-mute house maniac. Bloated, sallow, no longer able to memorize dialogue, Chaney stumbles around and grunts, exactly the same way he would play Mongo in The Black Sleep a few years later, slumming it with Tor Johnson and John Carradine.
Richard Greene is a winning presence as Burton. He was best known for playing Robin Hood on his 1950s TV incarnation, and his insouciance is quite winning here.
Rita Cordray is pretty enough but never seems to find her character, and it isn’t clear how a woman as pure-hearted as Elga ended up with an evil count. Cordray doesn’t seem well-suited to period dramas, and indeed this appears to be her only one, having done most of her work in programmers like The Falcon in San Francisco and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.
Synopsis: Mild-mannered professor of literature George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) teaches at bucolic Newcastle College, and while he is happy in this familiar setting, he announces to his students at the end of the term that he may not be back; he is being considered for a position at a more prominent university.
Young Jean Sovac (Anne Gwynne) walks with him to the car being driven by her father Dr. Ernst Sovac (Boris Karloff) who is one of Kingsley’s closest friends. Along with Kingsley’s wife Margaret (Virginia Brissac) they go into town. Crossing the street alone, however, Kingsley is run down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon. Cannon was being chased by a group of gangsters in another car: Marnay (Bela Lugosi), Kane (Paul Fix), Miller (Edmund McDonald) and Devore (Raymond Bailey).
Cannon’s car crashes after hitting Kingsley, and Cannon himself is paralyzed. When Dr. Sovac examines him at the scene, Cannon tells him that if the doctor saves his life he’ll split $500,000 with him that he’s hidden. Kingsley is also still alive, but has sustained considerable brain trauma from the accident.
Realizing that $500,000 would allow him to start a new and far better practice, Dr. Sovac hatches a plan: he decides to transplant part of Red Cannon’s brain to Kingsley, replacing the portion damaged in the accident.
Kingsley makes a speedy recovery, and during his convalescence Dr. Sovac proposes an unusual form of therapy: he suggests the two make a trip into New York and live it up — check into a nice hotel, see a show, eat out at fancy restaurants, and so on.
The two go to the city. Sovac knows that Red Cannon was a regular at the Midtown Hotel, and takes Kingsley there, hoping it will jog Red Cannon’s memories. The tactic works – Kingsley asks for a specific suite of rooms at the hotel, and tells the bellhop to use a specific knock, which the bellhop recognizes as Cannon’s.
Later Sovac takes him to a show, where Kingsley recognizes singer Sunny Rogers, Red Cannon’s girlfriend. Back at the hotel, an exhausted Kingsley falls into a half-conscious state. Sovac is able to coax Red Cannon into consciousness. He tells Red what has happened; and while Red is at first unhappy to find himself in an unfamiliar body, he soon realizes that none of his old associates will recognize him. He slips away from Sovac and murders Devore.
The next morning, Kingsley is Kingsley again, but Sovac knows he’s been up to no good during the night when he sees blood on his hands. He believes Kingsley is back in control now, but the wail of a siren brings the Red Cannon part of his consciousness to life. Soon Cannon is completely in control of Kingsley’s body, and swears to avenge himself on all of his former gangland friends….
Comments: Even if you’d completely missed the opening credits, you would have no trouble figuring out who wrote the screenplay for Black Friday. The movie is filled with ideas that Curt Siodmak would use over and over throughout his career.
Plot elements from this film would be cannibalized for a number of later films. Brain-swapping would be a prominent part of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); the revenge subplot was recycled for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943); and the idea of a criminal’s brain slowly taking possession of an innocent man’s body was revisited in Siodmak’s most successful work, his novel Donovan’s Brain (1943), which was adapted for the screen twice, most successfully in the 1953 film of the same name starring Lew Ayres.
When people talk about this film, though, they usually talk about the casting. Black Friday is blatantly marketed as another Karloff-Lugosi team-up, but Lugosi only appears in the relatively small role of gangster Marnay. Karloff, most sources agree, was originally slated to play Kingsley / Red Cannon and Lugosi Dr. Sovac.
Some accounts claim that Karloff found himself unable to effectively play the Red Cannon part. This seems unlikely, since Karloff had started his film career playing tough guys and gangsters. The more common (and far more likely) explanation was that Karloff coveted the Sovac role because of the two it was closer to the “lead” (Sovac narrates the story in flashback as he is being led to the electric chair). With Karloff playing Sovac, another actor had to be found to play Kingsley / Red Cannon. It wasn’t a good fit for Lugosi and his thick accent, so Stanley Ridges stepped into the role and Lugosi was demoted to playing Marnay.
Ridges is actually quite effective in the part, perhaps better than Karloff himself would have been. He does well differentiating the vacant milquetoast Kingsley with the tough, driven Red Cannon and they really do come across as completely different characters.
On the whole Black Friday works, though it is built on an astonishingly rickety set of plot contrivances. The mechanics of just how Red Cannon’s brain is fused with Kingsley’s isn’t very well explained, and a lot of people who write about the film seem to think that Cannon’s brain was completely transplanted into Kingsley’s body (in fact only part of it was). On top of this, getting gangsters involved in the life of a shy English professor is accomplished via the clumsiest of plot devices: an improbable high-speed chase down the streets of a sleepy college town.
Equally unlikely is Red Cannon’s promise to split the money with Sovac, and Sovac’s decision to perform a completely unprecedented brain transplant in order to take him up on the offer (after all, the Nobel prize Sovac would earn as a result of such revolutionary surgery would pay much more than Red Cannon’s stash). Sovac also seems to know just how to trigger Red Cannon’s memories once the surgery is complete. For his part, Kingsley seems pretty chipper for a guy who recently underwent brain surgery – there isn’t even a trace of a surgical scar anywhere on his scalp.
But picking apart this movie seems unfair. Black Friday is fine for what it is, an entertaining programmer that came and went quickly, as movies of the time did, with no expectation that they’d be remembered.