The Man They Could Not Hang - 1939

The Man They Could Not Hang - Released August 17, 1939. Directed by Nick Grinde

The title notwithstanding, Karloff (as Dr. Savaard) does get hung. He has invented a mechanical heart (which in operation looks like a clever martini shaker) and one of Savaard's medical students volunteers to die so that the doctor's theories on bringing dead people back to life can be proven. The young man's girlfriend calls the police and they show up and interrupt the procedure, which leaves the dead student still dead and Savaard with a murder prosecution hanging over his head.

At the trial, Savaard tries to convince the judge and jury that his experiments are worthwhile and could have saved the life of the dead student. He seems perfectly reasonable and sane as he takes the stand and his lawyer asks him what his experiments are about:

"To operate on a living body is like trying to repair a motor while it is still running. But with a motor you can turn the power off, take it apart and find out what's wrong with it, replace the worn and broken parts, and put it back together to be made to run just as good as new."

This makes a good impression, but Savaard can't stop there. He proceeds to angrily accuse the dead assistant's girlfriend of "treachery," to pontificate to the jury the body doesn't matter at all, only the mind counts, and that with his procedure he can make Death a servant and not a master. Plus, he could harvest parts from young people killed in accidents and use their body parts to keep great geniuses alive interminably.

When the prosecutor gets a turn to speak, he turns this against the doctor by describing a scenario in which a free Dr. Savaard would "butcher young athletes to use their bodies to keep doddering old men alive, presumably scientists..."

Convicted and sentenced to hang for the death of the young assistant, Savaard's body is recovered by another assistant and then revived using the artificial heart technology (which inexplicably makes it easy to repair a broken neck and nervous system).

Once revived, Savaard commences to immediately killing the jurors from his trial and everyone else involved in his conviction. Savaard gathers the last group of survivors to his house and locks them in, killing them one by one with booby-traps and methods as simple as a sniper rifle. The uneven nature of the movie is that it begins as a medical thriller, but morphs into a typical old-Hollywood haunted-house-booby-trap puzzle with a maniac (Karloff) on the loose.

Director Nick Grinde keeps the tale rolling along and utilizes well-done visuals though the script becomes predictable and generally flat in between Karloff's scenes or when Lorna Gray appears for her few appearances (she Savaard's daughter).

The script writers seem to lose their enthusiasm for the tale as soon as the theoretical medical section is over, and some scenes (without Karloff) look to have been shot in one take without rehearsal, as line readings are flat and provide nothing to the story except to connect one plot point to another. Without Karloff stalking about the movie and condemning everyone for failing to recognize his great genius, there just isn't much here at all.

The film seems to be thematically designed to take advantage of news stories of 1939 in which doctors were experimenting with reviving people who were briefly dead by using nitrogen gas, and to also capitalize on stories about John Babbacombe Lee, a real "man they could not hang" from England who had survived three execution attempts.

Original Page March 2014 | Updated May 11, 2017

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