In 1931, Boris Karloff became a horror icon playing a character who was reanimated by a mad scientist in Frankenstein. But his star-making performance as the monster in James Whale’s classic Universal fright flick is not the only time that the talented Karloff has been brought back from the dead. In 1939, he once again cheated the reaper in The Man They Could Not Hang.
The Man They Could Not Hang stars Karloff as Dr. Henryk Savaard, a doctor who has invented an artificial heart mechanism. Dr. Savaard and his assistant, Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger from Sullivan’s Travels), are in the middle of testing it on a volunteer medical student when the student’s fiancé, Betty Crawford (Ann Doran from Dead of Night and It! The Terror from Beyond Space), panics and calls the police. The interruption of the procedure ends up killing the test subject, and Dr. Savaard is charged with murder. He is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, but before he is taken away he condemns the decision of the jury, the judge, the district attorney, and everyone else involved in his trial. After his execution, his body is turned over to Dr. Lang, who promptly uses Dr. Savaard’s device to bring the dead man back to life. Dr. Savaard goes on a vengeful rampage against those who were instrumental in his death. It’s up to Dr. Savaard’s daughter, Janet (Lorna Gray from Valley of the Zombies), and newspaper reporter Scoop Foley (Mysterious Doctor Satan’s Robert Wilcox) to step in and find a way to stop the mad doctor from killing his killers.
Directed by early B-movie auteur Nick Grindé (who would go on to work with Karloff again on the similarly titled Before I Hang and the also-similarly titled The Man with Nine Lives), The Man They Could Not Hang is a crime drama with dark horror elements; the only thing keeping it from being a complete murder mystery is the fact that the murderer is not a mystery at all. Truth be told, the movie follows a pretty predictable path. Nevertheless, the screenplay, adapted by Karl Brown (who wrote the aforementioned Before I Hang and The Man with Nine Lives) from a story by George Wallace Sayre (The Contender) and Leslie T. White (Wolf of New York), drips with tension and suspense. The Man They Could Not Hang is just a well told story that is enjoyable despite the absence of any real surprises or twists.
The central figure in The Man They Could Not Hang is, of course, Boris Karloff. By the time Karloff made Frankenstein, the actor was already a seasoned professional with dozens of roles under his belt. While spending the thirties covered in makeup playing Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy, Karloff found himself becoming a bona-fide horror icon, also appearing in lesser-popular but more challenging films like The Black Cat, The Ghoul, and The Black Room. These understated films, along with his body of work at RKO Pictures in the forties that included The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam, proved to the horror world that when the makeup came off of the monster, Karloff was an extremely talented actor. Although Dr. Savaard is one of Karloff’s least sympathetic characters, his performance is both subtle and melodramatic, and the audience still finds itself wanting to root for him, even when he makes the jump from hero to villain for the second half of the movie. It may not have been as big of a hit as some of his other films, but The Man They Could Not Hang helped to transform Boris Karloff from horror icon to legitimate movie star.
The reanimation scene in The Man They Could Not Hang is an especially fun segment. The scene plays out as if Grindé is purposely trying to pay tribute to Frankenstein. Karloff’s character is strapped to a table while Lang has him hooked up to the pulsing and gyrating artificial heart until, finally, the machine explodes from the herculean effort that is needed to bring the doctor back. Despite the destruction of the mechanism, Dr. Savaard’s respiration and heartbeat are restored, and, as Lang leans in, the audience almost expects the man to shout “He’s alive…ALIVE!!” It doesn’t happen, but the energy in the scene is the same as that of the creation scene from Frankenstein. Intentional or not, it’s a cool little nod to one of the most memorable scenes from the film that turned Boris Karloff into a household name.
The Frankenstein tribute isn’t the only familiar-feeling part of The Man They Could Not Hang. In the last act of the film, Dr. Savaard gathers up his enemies in the same house and tells them that they will die, how they will die, and in what order, with one person being dispatched every fifteen minutes until they are all dead. This is similar to the plot of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Now, The Man They Could Not Hang was released into theaters on August 17, 1939, and And Then There Were None was serialized in the Daily Express newspaper (as its much more offensive title Ten Little Niggers) from June sixth to July first of the same year. The point is that it is highly unlikely that either work influenced the other, so the similarities are probably just a case of spontaneous inspiration. Looking back on both with twenty-first century eyes, however, it’s easy to see that And Then There Were None and The Man They Could Not Hang both share a common theme of murder and mayhem.
The musical score to The Man They Could Not Hang sounds generic, and there’s a reason for that; like many low-budget films of the era, the producers opted to use stock music culled together from a half-dozen or so different composers who, over the years, also contributed to Hollywood classics like Gone with the Wind and Sunset Blvd., as well as to horror gems such as The Uninvited and The Soul of a Monster. The resulting patchwork soundtrack sounds more like that of an action adventure film than a horror movie. It still works, because The Man They Could Not Hang is not so much of a horror movie as it is a crime mystery with some strong horror elements, but the score does not have the same recognizable punch as some of the other classic horror films of the era.
Although he will always be remembered to most casual fans as Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff went on to make many movies after the changing of the guard at Universal Studios at the end of the thirties. Karloff’s most compelling films featured the master thespian sans his monster makeup, and The Man They Could Not Hang is one of his best.