This little film is one of Boris Karloff’s lesser-known efforts, and was the first of his films under his new contract at Columbia Pictures. Expect a low-budget thriller that feels like someone took the stories of Saw (2004), Frankenstein (1931), and Clue (1985) and put them in a blender.
The Man They Could Not Hang was released in 1939 by Columbia and was directed by Nick Grinde, who would come to direct two more Karloff/Columbia flicks. Five of the films Boris Karloff made during this time are collectively known today as the ‘Mad Doctor Series’, which makes my choice of this film extra-perfect for the Blogathon!
Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, an at first good-natured scientist with the best mad doctor name ever. Dr. Savaard has developed an artificial heart mechanism, designed to restore life to patients (that were “scientifically put to death”) after surgery, and he intends on testing it out. He and his assistant put a volunteer to death, but Savaard’s nervous nurse runs to the police. Quickly, Savaard sends his shifty-looking assistant Lang (Byron Foulger) into hiding with the artificial heart. The good doctor is arrested before he can attempt to bring the man back to life.
In the courtroom, Savaard is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Before he is led out of court, he delivers a chilling monologue that sets the mood for the rest of the film:
“You who have condemned me, I know your kind. Your forbears poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me in my work is a crime so shameful that the judgement of history will be against you for all the years to come!”
Karloff as Dr. Savaard
It is really a treat to watch Karloff in his element. He seems to relish every line he reads, especially in this scene. That aspect is one of the hilights of the film!
After Savaard’s execution, several members of the jury, the judge, and the prosecutor recieve mysterious invitations to Savaard’s mansion. When they all arrive, none of their stories as to why they were invited there match up. Even the butler does not know who hired him.
In a twist that is forseen but still pretty chiling, Savaard makes his entrance to the macabre dinner party. He has been revived by his assistant Lang, who took posession of Savaard’s corpse in the name of science after his hanging, and resurrected him using his own artificial heart invention. Dr. Savaard now has a vendetta against everyone in his mansion, and traps them there. The windows are sealed shut, and the foyer gate is electrified. Savaard, now fiendishly and creepily speaking from an intercom upstairs, plans to kill off his guests one by one, fifteen minutes apart.
This is where the film is at its best. No fooling, this part is very fun to watch. Just like the courtroom monologue scene, Savaard is in complete control and chews the scenery. Basically, he intends to manipulate the guests into causing their own deaths. I won’t give away too many particulars; the film is worth seeing for this sequence alone. It is one of two shining scenes in an otherwise by-the-numbers thriller.
Unfortunatley, it is all too short-lived and the film falls flat on its face afterwards. Savaard’s daughter shows up and discovers the remaining guests trapped. She places her father in a complicated situation, as she is about to touch the electric gate. Either turn it off, saving her but letting his prisoners go, or letting her touch it, keeping the guests alive for more ‘fun’, but killing her. It is an interesting dynamic, and one that would have been more timely (in my mind) if the one-by-one deaths had gone on longer.
I won’t divulge the ending, but it is tacked-on, nothing too special, and makes you wish the film was in the hands of better filmmakers. Other than Karloff, who gives a great performance, the film could’ve benefited from better talent, behind and before the camera.
After all, this film is a b-movie. One should not expect more than that, but given some of its standout moments, I felt myself wishing that the rest of the picture could have been equally as good. Boris Karloff is the pole that holds the film up and he makes it worth seeing, and there are some fun (yet macabre) moments. At just over an hour, this film is worth your time.
Personally, I would love to see a remake of this film. In the right hands, it could be even more exceptional. As it exists, The Man They Could Not Hang is a fun and macabre low-budget thriller, with a great performance by Karloff. Don’t expect perfection, just expect some fun and chills.
This movie is available on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment, along with the other 4 movies in the “Mad Doctor Series” Karloff made at Columbia Pictures. Also included is The Black Room, a 1935 film Karloff made at Columbia before his contract. The set is a good deal, but don’t expect extraordinary picture quality. All screenshots in this review come from this DVD set!
A side note: fans of The Three Stooges will recognize character actor Dick Curtis as one of the jurors, namely the one who gets stabbed in the ear. Curtis appeared in twelve of the Stooges’ films, most often playing antagonists.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my opinion on The Man They Could Not Hang! Be sure to check out the other Mad Scientist Blogathon posts (and while you’re here, check out the other posts on Peyton’s Classics)! Thanks for reading!
written by Peyton James Ennis, 2017