Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

Terence Fisher gets plenty of respect from horror fans for his celebrated Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but I’ve always felt that he doesn’t get enough respect for the many other movies he made for Hammer. In fact most of the very large number of movies he directed for Hammer were not part of their Dracula and Frankenstein cycles. The Man Who Could Cheat Death, made in 1959, is typical of these lesser known movies.

This is both a Mad Scientist movie and a There Are Some Things With Which Science Should Not Meddle movie. Fisher wasn’t a great believer in moral ambiguity - he tended to believe that there was good and evil, and that one should know the difference. But his movie-making wasn’t as simplistic as that would imply, since he was also fascinated by characters who found themselves in a situation where they had to confront such problems, and who were not always able to find easy answers.

In this case we have two young and idealistic scientists who found a solution to the problem of death, a way of prolonging life indefinitely. They initially started out with the belief that this discovery would benefit humanity, but 70 years later things are are not quite so straightforward. Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is 104 years old, but looks about 35. His much younger colleague Prof. Ludwig Weiss had declined to use their discovery himself, and looks every bit of his 89 years.

Dr Bonnet has found that immortality has its price. He has to relocate every ten years or so, before people start to notice that he doesn’t age. And he cannot find love, since the women he loves inevitably age while he does not. But he cannot let go of his immortality. Dr Bonnet has immortalised all the women he has loved in the form of statues, sculpture being one of his hobbies.

Things reach a crisis when his colleague Prof Weiss becomes too old and infirm to perform the operation that Bonnet requires every ten years. He has to find another surgeon. He picks on Dr Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee), perhaps not the wisest choice since both Dr Gerard and Dr Bonnet are in love with the same woman, the beautiful Janine Dubois (Hazel Court).

Anton Diffring is both vaguely sympathetic and vaguely creepy as Dr Bonnet. He’s not quite a villain, or at least he didn’t start out to be, but somehow things are not as simple as they used to be. Immortality is not the kind of gift that is easy to give up. And moral compromises are easier the more often you make them.

Hazel Court is wonderful, as always.

Christopher Lee gets to play a hero this time, although a somewhat reluctant hero, the doctor/scientist with a conscience as opposed to the doctor/scientist who has lost his moral bearings.

With Terence Fisher Fisher directing, and with production design by Bernard Robinson, this is classic Hammer and it looks splendid.

It’s a strangely forgotten Hammer film, and an unjustly forgotten one. This is low-key horror, without any gore, but as in the best of Fisher’s films it’s more a movie about moral horror, where the horror comes from the situation the protagonists find themselves in. Like many of Fisher’s movies it was perhaps a little bit too subtle for the drive-in audience on which Hammer relied.

It’s an example of Terence Fisher’s fundamentally conservative approach to the horror genre, where those who defied the moral order and presumed to set themselves up as the equals of God inevitably paid the price for their hubris. But Fisher did this sort of thing exceptionally well.

The Legend Region 1 DVD is pretty good, although I believe Hazel Court's nude scene has been very slightly cut.

No comments: