Friday, 18 January 2013

Before I Hang

Director: Nick Grinde
Writers: Robert D Andrews, Karl Brown
Producer: Wallace MacDonald
Cast: Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Evelyn Keyes
Year of release: 1940
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK TV screening

There is, let me state categorically here and now, no such thing as a bad Karloff film. Even his final Mexico-filmed quartet of stinkers are made worthwhile by Boris’ presence. But Before I Hang stems from long before then, and in fact dates from only a year after Son of Frankenstein, making it one of Karloff’s earliest ‘mad scientist’ roles.

He is Dr Garth, sentenced to death for committing euthanasia, who continues his experiments in prison in the few weeks he has left. He has been developing an anti-aging serum, made from blood cells, and persuades the prison doctor to inject him with it a few minutes before he is led to the gallows. Apparently this will somehow allow Garth to be secretly resuscitated after he is taken down, though this scientific side of the story is understandably vague.

”It’s a good job I’m not being electrocuted,” says Dr Garth, “as that would damage the cells in my body.” Erm, yes - but you know, you are going to have a snapped spinal column...?

But things go awry when Garth’s sentence is commuted to life imprisonment at the eleventh hour, after the serum injection. He continues his experiments, gradually growing visibly younger, but one night he develops a murderous rage and kills the prison doctor (Frankenstein co-star Edward Van Sloan), along with a trustee who interrupts him and takes the blame. For his ‘heroic attempt to fight back’, Garth is released.

The second half of the story sees Garth back at home, in the palatial mansion he shares with his daughter (Evelyn Keyes), explaining his theory to three elderly friends, who politely decline his offer of a serum injection. Garth then seeks them out one by one and kills them - because, you see, the blood used in the serum he injected himself with came from a triple murderer. It’s sort of The Transfusion of Orlac.

Granted, the story makes precious little - well, no sense at all actually. Andrews also wrote episodes of Boris Karloff Presents while Brown was a former cinematographer on silent movies who had been a camera operator on Birth of a Nation! Director Grinde had worked with Karloff on The Man They Could Not Hang and The Man With Nine Lives, as had many of the crew - all three films were shot within one year.

But what makes this film terrific - apart from a bravura performance by Karloff, a solid supporting cast, a decent budget for sets, props and costumes, and some impressive hair/make-up - is the lighting. Cinematographer Benjamin Kline (Rock Around the Clock, The Munsters) and art director Lionel Banks (His Girl Friday, Return of the Vampire) have worked together to create a monochromatic chiaroscuro effect, clearly influenced by German expressionism. Shadows loom and flicker everywhere, sometimes blown up to huge proportions by low-held lights. Sometimes the characters are actually kept off-screen for a moment and all we see are shadows.

Before I Hang is a stylish movie that looks way, way better than you would expect from the dodgy script and brief running time. This TV print (which carries a Columbia Screengems end title card) looks like a PAL conversion from an NTSC master and so, while it looks good, it is clear that it could look much, much better. I would love to see a digitally remastered print of this on DVD.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted before November 2004

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