From the first two bars of music as the first shot fades in, you know that you are watching a Hammer film.
Like Universal horror films of the 1930s, movies from MGM's golden age, and late-period Cannon films, Hammer Films from the 1950s and ’60s have a distinctive, trademark style. The music, cinematography, art direction, editing, shot composition, dialogue, and acting are all of a piece. Perhaps this is not unique to Hammer, but it certainly is a hallmark of successful filmmaking. Could this be one of the reasons for the success of the Marvel superhero films? The same creative team and the same stable of actors keep appearing, just in different combinations.
Turns out that the good doctor has a lot on his mind: 1) he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his oldest friend Professor Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle); 2) his current model Margo (Delphi Lawrence) is getting a bit clingy; that won’t do because 3) Bonnet has decided to rekindle his romance with Janine; and (SPOILER ALERT) 4) he is secretly 104 years old. Every ten years he requires an operation to maintain his eternal youth, said surgery performed by his oldest friend (LITERALLY), the elderly Professor Weisse.
Hammer Films all seem like the same team made them, because of course the same team did. Jimmy Sangster wrote most of the screenplays. Terence Fisher directed. The same art directors, set designers, and costumers worked on film after film. Does there exist a single Hammer film that does not contain a scene set in a pub?
The Hammer stable of actors is so good at showing subtext—by acting, not telling. Anton Diffring clearly has a secret. Hazel Court is the jealous lover. Delphi Lawrence is insecure. Christopher Lee is angry that he was not offered the lead role.
Watching the film, I was entertained and delighted by the way it was mixing and matching various horror archetypes in an attempt to come up with something new. At first, I thought screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was merely trying to combine the “secretly aging” trope from The Picture of Dorian Gray, the “secret formula” bit from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the “secret loneliness of immortality” shtick from Dracula, all in the service of creating a new entertainment. While whispers of those previous novels and films are central to The Man Who Could Cheat Death, while watching the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc’s bonus materials I learned that the film is in fact a remake of a 1945 American film, The Man In Half-Moon Street. In the American film, the good doctor is a painter, not a sculptor. I wonder why Sangster changed this detail.
At the midpoint of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, we find a magnificent, extended dialogue scene between Dr. Bonnet and Professor Wiess that takes the form of a philosophical debate: if someone offered you eternal life, would you take it? This is one hell of a scene, if only because, unlike most current movie fare, the film actually slows down for a few minutes to discuss ideas. Ah, nostalgia. If I were still teaching Film Study, I would use this scene to illustrate the “Man As God” archetype that Stephen King writes about in Danse Macabre.
I hope that this short column conveys my love for The Man Who Could Cheat Death. In the first podcast I ever recorded for F This Movie! (about The Wolfman remake) I talk about how I long to walk the streets of “Universalville” once again. The look and feel of classic Hammer is something I similarly crave and savor, and it’s the best thing about The Man Who Could Cheat Death. Sometimes even B and C grade Hammer films are very nice… and will suffice.
(Acid Hand/Face Burning, Last Minute Rescue, General Pace) 60%
(Green Light SPFX and Makeup, General Immorality, Loads of Suspense) 75%
(Two On-Screen Murders, Brief Climactic Fire FX) 45%