The Man They Could Not Hang is a 1939 Columbia horror flick starring Boris Karloff as a mad scientist.
Dr Henryk Savaard (Karloff) is a brilliant scientist who has come up with an amazing breakthrough that will revolutionise surgery. He has invented a mechanical artificial heart which allows him to kill a patient and then bring him back to life. As he explains, you can’t repair an engine while the engine is running. You switch off the engine, do the repairs, and then restart the engine. It’s the same with the human body - if you can bring it to a complete standstill the surgeon has enough time to do the necessary repair work while the patient is technically dead, after which the patient can be revived.
He naturally needs to put his theories into practice, and a young medical student volunteers to be the first human subject (Dr Savaard has already tested his theories successfully on animals). Unfortunately the medical student’s girlfriend panics and calls the police. Dr Savaard pleads with them to give him time to revive the young man but the police surgeon decides that Dr Savard’s theories are dangerous nonsense and refuses. As a result the young man dies and Dr Savaard is charged with murder.
Dr Savaard stands trial and is condemned to death. He is naturally very embittered about his experience and vows to take his revenge on the fools who have condemned him - the jury, the judge and the police surgeon. Of course he won’t be able to carry out his plan of revenge if he is put to death. Or will he? Putting a man to death who knows the secret of life and death is not an easy matter.
This is a classic mad scientist film. The mad scientist starts out as an idealistic and humane man who only wants to benefit the human race, but misunderstood and condemned he is transformed into a homicidal madman.
This is the sort of role Karloff always played so well. It gives him the opportunity to be both a crazed monster and a gentle sensitive man. Karloff plays both sides of Dr Savaard’s personality to perfection. The supporting actors are all quite adequate but Karloff dominates the movie completely.
Director Nick Grinde spent his entire career making B-movies and he does a competent if not unspectacular job, and he doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of low-budget film-making - he doesn’t allow the pace to flag. He keeps things moving, and with a reasonably good story and a fine actor like Karloff that’s enough.
The settings for both the mad scientist laboratory and the revenge scenes look reasonably impressive. The visuals are nothing spectacular but they’re effective enough.
The movie raises the usual questions that mad scientist movies raise. How far should science go? Are there territories that should be off-limits to science? Should scientists be free to pursue their researches no matter where those researches take them? The movie doesn’t really draw any profound conclusions about these matters, other than suggesting that the dangers of science going too far are real, especially the dangers to the scientist himself.
The biggest strength of this movie is Karloff’s subtle performance as a man who tries to be a benefactor of mankind only to find himself labelled as a madman and a murderer. Karloff pretty much carries the movie single handed and he’s more than equal to the task. This is an entertaining movie even if it reaches no great heights and it can certainly be recommended to fans of 1930s horror and to Karloff fans.
This movie is released on DVD as part of Columbia’s Icons of Horror: Boris Karloff collection. There’s a lack of extras but it’s a nice clean print.