Saturday, 17 August 2013

Black Friday (1940)

Black Friday was the last of Universal’s horror movie pairings of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (although the two iconic horror stars would appear together again in a couple of movies at other studios). This 1940 production has rather a poor reputation, which is in come ways understandable and in other ways a trifle unfair.

As a Karloff-Lugosi pairing it’s a complete washout. They don’t appear in a single scene together and Lugosi is relegated not only to a supporting role but a very unrewarding one. And while Karloff gets top billing he does not get the best and most important role.  On the other hand if you’re prepared to accept the idea of a movie that combines the horror film with the gangster film, and if you’re also prepared to judge it on its merits, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Karloff is renowned surgeon Dr Ernest Sovac and he is about to be executed. He hands his notes to a journalist and Sovac’s story is then told in flashback. Sovac’s closest friend is George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), a professor of English literature at a university in a quiet and very peaceful town. Professor Kingsley is much loved by his students. The peace is suddenly broken by the appearance of two speeding cars the occupants of which are exchanging gunfire. One of the cars swerves out of control and runs down Professor Kingsley.

Kingsley is rushed to hospital but there is little hope for him. He has suffered massive brain injuries. The driver of the car that hit him, notorious gangster Red Cannon, is not in good shape either. His back is broken, he is paralysed and the best he can hope for is life as a helpless cripple. Dr Sovac then decides to take a chance. He has been experimenting with brain transplants in animals and believes that some day human brain transplants will be possible. He secretly carries out a complex operation, transplanting part of Red Cannon’s brain into Professor Kingsley’s head to replace the damaged parts of Kingsley’s brain.

Dr Sovac is no doubt motivated by the desire to save his friend’s life and by scientific curiosity but he has another less pure motivation. The stricken gangster has $500,000 hidden away somewhere. If he could get his hands on that money Sovac could build a fine modern laboratory in which to continue his work, thus benefiting all of mankind (and benefiting his own career). Sovac believes the operation may offer him the opportunity to get that money.

Professor Kingsley makes an unexpected but apparently very successful recovery. The only cloud on the horizon is that he doesn’t seem to be quite himself. If he knew that he had part of another man’s brain in his head he would find this to be hardly surprising. Before long Sovac sees signs that indicates that part of the gangster’s personality has survived. If he can find a way to get into contact with Red Cannon’s brain he will know where the money is hidden.

Professor Kingsley starts to oscillate between his own personality and that of Red Cannon. At times the gangster’s personality takes over completely. This will cause Dr Sovac some problems since not only is it difficult to control a gangster but the gangster is also determined to wreak vengeance on the members of his gang who tried to kill him. Sovac has to get the information he needs before Red Cannon’s activities attract the attention of the police. Everyone thinks Red Cannon is dead but if he goes on creating mayhem he is certainly going to get noticed, or possibly even killed. And the surviving members of his gang, led by Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi) are also looking for the hidden half a million dollars.

Karloff gets to play another mad scientist whose motivations are a combination of good and evil. By 1940 he could have played such roles in his sleep. He’s very good, but Dr Sovac is neither the most interesting nor the most important character in this story.

Bela Lugosi’s role is very minor and he is disastrously miscast, resulting in a performance that even his most ardent fans are likely to be disappointed by.

Stanley Ridges has the plum part, playing the dual roles of Professor Kingsley and Red Cannon. He has to switch between these two very different parts and he has to make both roles convincing and he has to make his transformations believable. He rises to the challenge magnificently, not only doing a superb job but also overshadowing even Karloff.

Curt Siodmak was responsible for the screenplay. He was always fascinated by brain transplants and related ideas and the story he came up with here was a good one. Arthur Lubin directed in an uninspiring but workmanlike fashion.

The original plan had been for Karloff to play the dual roles as Kingsley/Red Cannon while Lugosi would play Dr Sovac. Karloff apparently felt (quite correctly) that although he’d played gangsters before they weren’t exactly his forte. He persuaded the studio to let him play Dr Sovac instead. It all worked out very well for everyone but Bela Lugosi who was stuck with a very minor part for which he was hopelessly unsuited anyway. No wonder he felt that after this anything was better than staying at Universal.

This movie forms part of Universal’s Bela Lugosi Collection. All four films in the set feature Karloff as well as Lugosi. There are no extras but the transfers are excellent and the price is very reasonable indeed making this set a must-buy for all self-respecting horror fans.

Black Friday is generally a very successful experiment in combining the horror and gangster movies. The central idea might be outlandish but it’s handled with a surprising degree of intelligence and subtlety. Stanley Ridges is superb and Karloff is very good. It all adds up to a movie that is much more entertaining and rewarding than its reputation would suggest. In fact it’s one of Universal’s best 1940s horror efforts and it’s a rather good movie. Highly recommended.

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