Movie Review: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
“King of Horror…in his biggest role!”
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Director: Nick Grindé
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox
Synopsis: A doctor who was executed for murder when an experiment went wrong returns from the dead to get revenge on those he holds responsible.
It’s impossible not to pity poor Bob Roberts (Stanley Brown – You’ll Never Get Rich, Destroyer), the medical student who willingly allows Dr Savaard (Boris Karloff – The Ghoul, Targets) to kill him so that the good doctor can bring him back to life with a mechanical heart configured from a device that looks no more complex than a kid’s chemistry set. Bob has the misfortune to be dating Betty (Ann Doran – Warlock, Where Love Has Gone), a nervous type who panics when she finds herself refused admittance to the lab in which Savaard is to perform his miraculous feat and hotfoots it to the nearest police station to report her boyfriend’s murder. The police arrive just in time to prevent Savaard from performing the second part of the operation which, from Bob’s point-of-view, is the important part, and refuse to allow him to continue his experiment, thus ensuring that Bob never gets to eat that chop-suey meal he promised Betty just before going under. The irony of Bob’s ‘murder’ being a direct consequence of Betty’s attempt to save his life isn’t lost on Savaard who wastes no time pointing it out to her immediately after he is sentenced to hang for Bob’s murder.
Little does the law realise that you can’t hang a man who plays the title character in a movie called The Man They Couldn’t Hang, so, thanks to the help of his obliging sidekick, Laing (Byron Foulger – Who’s Minding the Store?, Marriage on the Rocks), it’s not long before Savaard returns to the land of the living with a mechanical heart and stiff neck, and his formerly humanitarian perspective on life irretrievably altered. Initially, the vengeful doctor keeps his return from the dead a secret as he begins hanging those jury members who condemned him to death
Not long after the doctor’s execution, those members of the jury who condemned him mysteriously begin hanging themselves. Then, everyone else who had a part to play in Savaard’s death is tricked into attending a meeting in the supposedly deceased doctor’s mansion for a night of fun and games in which he proceeds to murder them in ingenious ways at fifteen minute intervals. Can ace reporter ‘Scoop’ Foley (Robert Wilcox) find a way to save them from certain death?
The first of four ‘mad scientist’ movies produced by Columbia over a period of 18 months The Man They Could Not Hang is steeped in B-movie pseudo-scientific babble, but it takes as it’s inspiration a real-life biochemist Robert Cornish, who successfully brought two dogs back to life in 1934 after giving them nitrogen gas. Not only that, what must have seemed at the time like fanciful notions of an artificial heart would soon become reality. Such prescience enables this tight little horror picture to rise above its low-budget origins, helped by Karl Brown’s fast-moving screenplay which creates in Karloff’s first mad scientist an unusually articulate and sympathetic villain.
(Reviewed 3rd January 2017)