In Praise of Boris Karloff’s The Man They Could Not Hang

A look at the classic 1939 Boris Karloff thriller The Man They Could Not Hang

Recently, I resurrected my VCR and, with its Lazarus-like return, I have also unearthed my vast VHS collection. There’s a comfort watching films that I may already have on Blu-ray on VHS and I realize that it’s a subjective connection to be sure. Because the ancient tape versions I have of countless horror classics don’t look better than they do on digital and HD. It’s the act of going through the motions that I find pleasing. Of slipping that cumbersome cassette out of its case and feeling the crude machine pull it into its depths, hearing it whir to life and that glorious black leader full of anticipation. This is how I used to watch movies. And doing it again just feels sweet and safe.

But outside of that connection, the truth is there are plenty of rare titles in my collection, many of which are hard to find on disc and some of which have never, ever been on disc. Among the movies that fall into this bloody bucket is the 1939 Boris Karloff vehicle The Man They Could Not Hang, one of the many post-Frankenstein ‘B’ pictures that Karloff made, films that trade in the act of exacting revenge and movies that, despite their vintage, were very dark and often outright nasty (see the Karloff/Lugosi masterpiece The Black Cat for a prime example). I plucked my pristine Columbia tape of The Man They Could Not Hang out of my creepy closet and, with my 7 year old son Elliot in tow, revisited the film last night. And it’s every bit as good as I recall.

Karloff is in peak form as the kindly, altruistic scientist Dr. Savaard, a celebrated figure who has secretly found a way to cheat death and grant immortality to mankind. But unfortunately, the only way to prove his experiments work is to actually kill someone first. He finds a willing donor in a young medical student who has complete faith in Savaard but when the cops show up on the scene after getting tipped off, they arrest him for murder – despite his protests that he has done and will do the exact opposite – and haul him off to jail. Savaard’s trial is long and well-publicized and he gives passionate testimony as to his intentions and urges the court to understand that he has the power to heal the sick and cure disease and save the world. They, naturally, don’t listen and, while his daughter (the lovely Lorna Gray) weeps in the stands, the jury finds him guilty and the judge sentences him to hang.

But as we learn from the title of the film, we know this loose-in-the-noose nonsense won’t stick. Savaard arranges for his assistant to steal his post-executed body and whisk it back to his lab where the sidekick brings him back to life. Initially paralyzed and confined to a brace due to the snapping of his neck, Saavard’s body heals but his mind has snapped. No longer as concerned with care, Saavard swears to avenge his own almost-death and devises a plan to kill each and every one of the jurors. The first few he kills methodically. The last batch he imprisons in a booby-trap-rigged mansion and, over dinner, announces his plan to murder them in a series of novel ways. And he makes pretty good on that promise…

The Man They Could Not Hang has the edge over other Karloff noirs of the period in that it has a slightly larger budget and thus the set design and lighting are superior, as is the direction by Nick Grinde (who also directed Karloff in the similar film Before I Hang the following year). Karl Brown’s script is also excellent, and crackles with smart dialogue and impassioned pleas for people to reject ignorance and superstition and embrace science. In fact, that’s what make’s Savaard such a memorable character. He’s tragic. Here is a man who has no interest in personal gain, who has no ego or arrogance. He’s simply a man who wants to share his gifts and help his fellow man. And yet he’s broken by the small-mindedness he sees every day. During his trial, we watch him break down, we watch his heart turn to ice and see that hatred grow.  By the time he re-emerges as an angel of death, we cast no judgements on his motives. Add in the complications of the love he has for his daughter and you have perhaps one of the greatest – if not the greatest – part that Karloff ever played without the aid of Jack Pierce’s make-up.

Another interesting aspect of The Man They Could Not Hang is the way in anticipates the wave of so-called “torture porn” that would come much later. There’s the DNA of Vincent Price’s Theater of Blood in here as well as some of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character (Karloff would play him too) but there’s also a healthy dose of what would define the Saw franchise, with Karloff doing what Jigsaw would do 60 years later. Those who think 1930s horror cinema was gentler and more milquetoast will be alarmed by just how morally dodgy and mean spirited this movie is.

The Man They Could Not Hang was released on video domestically via the very Columbia tape I screened and it was later included in Sony’s “Icons of Horror” Karloff-centric DVD set 10 years ago. So far, no Blu-ray release that I am aware of. If I’m wrong, let me know…

This is one serious slice of vintage Karloff greatness. It’s tight, cerebral and a rough-hewn and is absolutely worth a look. Especially when watched on VHS. Late at night. And yes, Elliot loved it…