Retrospective: The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959).

April 6, 2014 | By | Reply More

From the heady, early days of Hammer Films’ most successful period comes this now rarely seen horror film. It is a remake of ‘The Man In Half Moon Street’ (1945), in which Anton Diffring has found a way to never die, but only at the expense of the living. Made very much in the mould that elsewhere was doing wonders for Hammer Films. You do not need to be a fan of Hammer Films to like this movie, but it certainly helps.

Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

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In the late 1950s, the Hammer Films production studio had recently had great success with films like ‘Curse Of Frankenstein’ (1957), ‘Dracula’ (1958), ‘The Revenge Of Frankenstein’ (1958), ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’ (1959) and ‘The Mummy’ (1959). The formula was:-

1) have Jimmy Sangster write the screenplay

2) have Terence Fisher direct

3) have the film star a) Peter Cushing and b) Christopher Lee

4) give the whole affair a Gothic atmosphere and flavour.

With the exceptions that Lee was not in ‘The Revenge Of Frankenstein’ and Sangster did not write ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’, they stuck close to that formula. One film is missing from this list, ‘The Man Who Could Cheat Death’, made just prior to ‘The Mummy’.

Hammer had chosen to remake a film that was not a horror classic. It was more a remake of a gentle fantasy, of ‘The Man In Half Moon Street’ (1945), based on a play of that title by Barré Lyndon. When Peter Cushing backed out of the film he was replaced by Anton Diffring, whose sharp Germanic features made him a natural as a screen villain. But the rest of the classic team, Lee, Sangster and Fisher and atmosphere were all there.

The story involved a brilliant doctor who had found a way to extend his life greatly. It required materials that could be taken only from a living human subject and that operation was always fatal. This became a fairly common plot for horror films of the 1950s and 1960s: ‘Yeux Sans Visage’, ‘Atom Age Vampire’, ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’ and several others. Later the plot would be brought back to life once again for ‘The Night Strangler’, the second TV movie about Carl Kolchak, ‘The Night Stalker’.

Barré Lyndon’s name may be unfamiliar to many fans of fantastic films. He scripted an odd assortment of films, in addition this play this movie was based on he also wrote the screenplay for ‘The Lodger’, ‘Hangover Square’, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, ‘The War Of The Worlds’, ‘Conquest Of Space’, three episodes of ‘Thriller’, three horror episodes of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ and the terrific little horror film ‘Dark Intruder’. He was involved in many genres of fantasy film.

It would be a weak criticism to say that the film was not that good compared to the other films Hammer was making at the time. But the film had definite problems of its own. Perhaps because it came from a stage play the film is talky and little slow and set bound. These are problems that other Hammer films of this time avoided.

The year is 1890 and sculptor Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is much admired by Paris high society. What his friends do not know is that he had had plenty of time to hone his skills. Though he appears to be a man in his prime, he is really 104 years old. It seems that he had discovered a formula to keep himself young. His body does not age as long as he periodically has a secret elixir and has an operation that together stop his aging process. Sadly, the process requires the acquiring of certain glands from a living donor and the taking of these glands is immediately fatal. From there, the film follows a very predictable course.

Certain touches are added to the story that are never explained. Bonnet is in the habit of murdering his best models after he sculpts them. Perhaps they are involuntary organ donors, but the few lines that could have been added to the dialog to explain this are just not there. Also Bonnet has hands that burn normal flesh. The scene showing this to us is there, but also never explained. The corrosive hands are especially strange since Bonnet has romantic designs on his model Janine (Hazel Court) and the burning touch could be a definite obstacle.

This is one of the rare films in which Christopher Lee plays the romantic lead. As good an actor as he is, he seems a little stiff and dignified to play the role with any softness. Hazel Court is not a whole lot more human. Director Fisher is unable to romanticise the couple. Between Lee and Court there seems to be not enough warmth to melt a Hershey Bar.

This was not a film that called for a lot of visual effects. Only during Bonnet’s states of decomposition is there anything much out of the ordinary to see. While he is decomposing, Diffring has caps over his eyes and bags under them. They give him a sort of Droopy Dog look. A little better is a whole-head makeup to make him look like an old man, but it is too obviously a mask, particularly around the eyes.

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Hammer completests should certainly give ‘The Man Who Could Cheat Death’ a look. Otherwise the film is undistinguished. I rate it a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.

 

Mark R. Leeper
© Mark R. Leeper 2014

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Category: Films, Horror, MEDIA

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