Friday, September 21, 2012

The Body Snatcher (1945) -- Robert Wise

Cadavers for medical research are hard to come by in 1831 in Edinburgh. For the price of ten pounds each Dr. MacFarlane, a teacher of anatomy, engages a local cabman and long-time acquaintance, creepy John Grey, to supply specimens for his students. Grey secures the dead bodies under cover of darkness with shovel and pick, raiding church cemeteries. A grisly practice, it is a common one, and one that the good doctor believes is necessary. When the doctor's young assistant, Fettes, turns to Grey to provide a fresh body for study to help a wheelchair-bound girl, Grey looks to expedite matters.

The name Boris Karloff surely brings to mind for most people his iconic role as Frankenstein's monster in director James Whale's 1931 classic horror film, but Karloff starred in plenty of memorable features in the genre. His John Grey is far different from the sympathetic creature concocted in Frankenstein's lab. Grey is a loathsome fellow, completely lacking in conscience. He delights in mentally torturing a former colleague who has risen in society, and is fully capable of murder.

Karloff gives a chilling performance, superb as he handles the despicable nature of the character, grinning conspiratorially as he holds MacFarlane's past over his head--the doctor calls him a malignant cancer--or when winking at the new assistant as he makes his first delivery. Watch his face change when later confronted by another of the doctor's assistants, Joseph, (Bela Lugosi in a throw-away part), who comes to Grey's apartment with blackmail in mind. Karloff conveys curiosity, seemingly amiable, but once he understands what the fellow is up to, his face takes on a sinister and serious look. You can see him planning the man's demise. And in a delightful precursor to a James Bond villain, SPECTER's Blofeld, Grey lovingly strokes a cat, an as out-of-character gesture as one can imagine from a ghoul.   

The film is based on an 1884 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which drew its inspiration from real events, the notorious Burke and Hare murders, serial murders that took place in Edinburgh in 1827. William Burke and William Hare sold corpses of their murder victims to Doctor Robert Knox for use as dissection material for his medical students. Eventually discovered and brought to trial, Hare turned on his partner. Protected by immunity, Hare's testimony sent Burke to the gallows. Knox and Hare went free. The film alludes to the case, and it is Grey and MacFarlane's unspecified involvement with the incident that ties the two together.

One of producer Val Lewton's psychological horror films, 1940s B-pictures made quickly and on a tight budget, The Body Snatcher is better than the best known of that lot, Cat People. Like that film, its effective score was written by Roy Webb, whose eerie music works wonderfully to set the mood.

It may come as a surprise to some viewers that Robert Wise served as director. Best known for his 1960s work on commercial big-budget films such as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Sand Pebbles, Wise first found success as an editor in the 1940s, most notably with Citizen Kane. But he soon moved to the director's chair. Among his 1940s credits are two terrific noirs: Born to Kill and The Setup.

Wise's skill as an editor is on display here when he mixes alternating POV closeups in one of the film's best scenes--the first meeting in a tavern by MacFarlane and Grey. The doctor and Fettes come in for a drink. Grey, looking sinister sits alone at a corner table and summons them over. The doctor relents with reluctance, clearly repelled by the man. He and Grey exchange an odd conversation, and Fettes is left wondering what is the connection between these such different men.

Grey and MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) - a sordid partnership.

Cabman Grey: "I am a small man, a humble man. Being poor I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr McFarlane comes to my whistle, that long am I a man. If I have not that then I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber. You'll never get rid of me, Toddy."
Wise also makes good use of silhouettes and shadows during some of the scenes of violence to engage the viewer's imagination. Thankfully, one such moment includes Grey's nasty bludgeoning of a poor dog that loyally guards the grave of its master. Another involves Grey following a waif-like balladeer down a dark alley. Wise sets this up immediately prior with a terrific slow pull in of the camera to Karloff, watching the girl pass by his door. You hear the girl sing and the sound of the horse's hooves on the cobblestones, and watch her and Grey's cab disappear into the dark. Suddenly the girl's song is cut short.

Eventually, there is a fateful encounter between the two protagonists. Faithful to the source story, the film's climax is a spectacularly wild coach ride in a rainstorm, MacFarlane on one side of the seat, Fettes on the other. In between sits a bagged corpse of a recently deceased woman they dug up from a graveyard. MacFarlane begins to hear a strange but familiar voice. Stopping the vehicle, he calls for Fettes to step down and bring him a lantern. He uncovers a potion of the bag and gets the shock of his life. Madness has taken over.  

Grey makes a ghastly delivery. 
This is a perfect film to watch late at night, with a fire crackling in the fireplace. It will give you a better appreciation of the power of Karloff as an actor, and how skilled film-makers needn't employ blood and "got ya" moments to thrill an audience to tell a great tale.


  1. Karloff really was a terrific actor.

    I like that you said " skilled film-makers needn't employ blood and 'got ya' moments to thrill an audience to tell a great tale." So true!

  2. Hi, Silver. Thanks for commenting. I have 2 more Karloffs to watch: "Bedlam" and "Isle of the Dead." I hope they are as good as this one. Take care.

  3. Robert Wise is among my 10 favorite directors, with "I Want to Live," "The Set-Up," and "Odds Against Tomorrow" being just a few of his films I really enjoy.
    This would never be a movie I could watch. Horror and I just do not mix. I've struggled with irrational fears since I was about 8 years old, and while I have come to the place of being able to do mild suspense, I know this movie would be more than I can handle. (I would undoubtedly be sleeping with the lights on and my head under a pillow!)

  4. I consider this Karloff's finest performance, and I'm a fan who adores everything the man did on screen.

    I love the scenes with Karloff and Danielle. They are like a fine baritone and tenor giving their all in an operatic duet.

    Wonderful review of a movie that must be watched on a dark, chilly night.

  5. Patti, I think the film is more creepy than anything but I can see why it's not for everyone. Sounds like the ending would definitely keep you up for a few nights. Best to stay away.

    CW, I didn't mention Danielle, but he is darn good too. I love his confrontation with Karloff in their fight in Karloff's apartment. As filmed, you don't know who's getting the worst of it until the next scene. Really effective.