William Dieterle’s Six Hours to Live is a definite oddity. This 1932 movie is a science fiction murder mystery, and an unusual love story. It’s also a mad scientist movie, and a film about the conflict between science and religion.
An international conference is unable to each agreement on a new trade treaty because of the intransigence of the representative from the Republic of Sylvaria, Dr Paul Onslow (Warner Baxter). Tensions are running high, and Onslow is murdered. The identity of the murderer seems likely to remain unknown, until Professor Otto Bauer reveals his latest scientific discovery, a machine that can bring the dead back to life. But only for six hours. Restored to life, Onslow now has six hours to live, and in that time he must resolve both political and personal crises, track down his murderer, and come to terms with death.
You’d expect a movie like this to focus on the revenge sub-plot, or to be played out as a horror movie, but Six Hours to Live is more concerned with the spiritual and emotional journey taken by Onslow in those six precious hours. He wants to ensure the happiness of the woman he loves, and to do this he comes up with an ingenious scheme involving his rival for her affections.
He has an encounter with a woman whose in was killed in the last war, a woman who believes that his stand on the trade treaty will lead to another war. He also encounters a prostitute who takes him to the Carnival of Venus, in a somewhat Expressionist scene that is one of the movie’s high points.
Dieterle directs with flair and energy, and the movie has some great visual moments. Baxter is effective as Onslow. The worst feature of Hollywood horror and science fiction movies of this era is the comic relief that the studios were convinced formed an essential part of such movies. Mercifully there is almost none of that in this film.
I had some issues with this movie, mainly to do with the way the science vs religion theme was handled and with its tendency towards sentimentality, but those issues are really matters of personal taste. Six Hours to Live is a strange but interesting little movie, and it’s one that is well worth seeking out.