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Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- BLACK FRIDAY (1940)

Yes, I confess. I watched this on Black Friday. I couldn’t resist, but I think it’s a much better way to spend the day after Thanksgiving than braving the stores.

Yet again, this is a film that gets lumped in with the many horror films to star Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but in this case it’s more of a crime thriller with some Jekyll-and-Hyde-type science-fiction elements. In fact, even though those giants of the horror genre get top billing, the standout performance is really that of Stanley Ridges.

Karloff plays Dr. Ernest Sovac, who, when his friend Professor George Kingsley (Ridges), receives a deadly brain injury in an accident, saves his life by transplanting part of the brain of gangster Red Cannon, another victim in the accident, into Kingsley’s skull. Sovac’s intentions are good initially, but when he learns that Red had a hidden fortune, greed sets in, and he begins tampering with Kingsley’s mind to bring the Cannon personality to the forefront, hoping he can learn the whereabouts of the missing loot.

Karloff turns in another good performance, as a much more subdued and benign mad scientist than we’ve been seeing. Lugosi’s role, I’m afraid, is little more than a glorified cameo, and here’s where things get a little odd behind the scenes. Apparently, Karloff was originally tapped to play Kingsley and Cannon, while Lugosi would have played Dr. Sovac. Rumor has it that Karloff didn’t feel he was up to the duality of the role, so he took on Sovac and Lugosi ended up in the much smaller part of Eric Marnay, the second in command of Cannon’s gang. In comes Ridges who plays the duality so completely I admit it took some time for me to realize the two very different personalities were not played by separate actors. Costume and make-up helped accent the difference, but a lot of the credit goes to Ridges’ vocal work and the way he carried himself physically. This could have ended up a entirely different film had the original casting remained intact. I have to wonder about if the rumor is true about Karloff’s decision. I’ve seen him play quite a diverse range of characters, yet similarly in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Karloff plays only Jekyll while another actor plays Hyde. Ridges holds his own with Karloff quite well. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he would have achieved notoriety on par with that of his costars.

One other interesting thing that went on behind the scenes: in what was probably a publicity stunt, Bela Lugosi supposedly underwent hypnosis for a scene in which he appears to suffocate. This may have been a ploy to make up for the fact that his role was so small despite his billing. You can see how it was used to promote the film in the trailer from my last entry.

Overall, I enjoyed it, though the brain transplant plot device did severely challenged my suspension of disbelief, but as such pseudo-science is common in these movies, it was easy to forgive.

This week’s supporting features:

Goofy in Tennis Racquet (1944)

The Our Gang short Readin’ and Writin’ (1932)

I’m taking a break for the holidays. I should be back on track by mid-January, returning with:

Revenge of the Creature (1955) starring John Agar, Lori Nelson, Ricou Browning, and Tom Hennesy

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