-Dr. Savaard (Boris Karloff), The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
It had been three years since Karloff had starred in a true horror film. He had appearances in some mysteries, such as Charlie Chan at the Opera (1937) and the disappointing but harmless The Invisible Menace (1938). He had even taken on his own Asian detective film series with the Mr. Wong character. But 1939 would see him return to Universal with his third and final appearance as the Monster in Son of Frankenstein (1939). By this time, he was also perfecting the mad scientist role and was ready to elevate it to new heights. That first step came in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939).
Karloff stars as Dr. Henryk Savaard, a researcher in cryonics. He has developed a technique for bringing back the dead using an artificial heart and is ready for human experimentation with his assistant Bob. However, when the assistant’s fiancée protests and brings in the police, the experiment is stopped and Bob dies. Dr. Savaard is put on trial for murder and, ultimately, put to death by hanging. However, Dr. Savaard has arranged for his other assistant, Lang, to secure his body upon death and revive him using the heart. However, Dr. Savaard is a changed man and the jurors who convicted him are all turning up dead…by hanging. A dinner party is being planned but who is going to survive the evening.
Karloff’s sensitive portrayal of Dr. Savaard elevates the film and makes us sympathize with his character even as he is killing one juror after another. The filmography is masterfully done by director Nick Grinde, who would work with Karloff two more times the following year. A sharp looking film combined with Karloff’s great performance as both the undeserving victim of a bloodthirsty jury and a lost soul seeking revenge. However, the biggest flaw in this film, as is seen in other Karloff films, concerns the secondary characters. You always have the “necessary” comic relief that usually results in more groans than laughs. Supporting characters are shallowly written and irritate the viewer because they offer little and take away screen time from the man they all really want to see.
The script also starts off with lofty goals of learning about life after death and ultimately becomes little more than a revenge flick. This would bother Karloff a great deal as most of his mad scientist films were similar in tone. He hoped they would spend more time on the script but the formula was a proven success. Hollywood knew what they audiences wanted out of their Karloff films and the studios didn’t want to take any risks.
Despite its’ flaws, The Man They Could Not Hang was a return to form for Karloff and would escalate the cycle of mad scientist roles that Karloff would perfect in the late 30s and early 40s. With perhaps one exception, this was the best of the films and comes highly recommended. It is part of a wonderful four-film set, Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff, but its availability is hit and miss right now. Seek it out and you’ll have four of the better Karloff films. Meanwhile, indulge in this clip and prepare yourself for a fun matinee.