When Val Lewton discovered that RKO was saddling him with star Boris Karloff for a three picture deal, Lewton was not at all happy. The producer had wanted to veer away from the Universal monster-mash factory, which he naturally associated Karloff with. A meeting between Karloff, Lewton, and Robert Wise changed all that. To Lewton’s surprise, Karloff was seeking a change of pace and a return to more literate acting. By the end of that meeting, both Lewton and Wise were charmed by the actor and enthusiastically looking forward to a fulfilling artistic collaboration. Karloff did three films with Lewton, the other two being Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) both directed by Mark Robson, a stock RKO director. Lewton should never have hesitated. The Body Snatcher is, easily, the best of the three starring Karloff and the actor almost single-handedly redeems the two Robson films.
Shortly after securing Karloff for The Body Snatcher, RKO signed Bela Lugosi to the film and ordered Lewton to create a role for the former Dracula star. RKO was bound and determined to replicate a Universal horror star extravaganza. Lewton was just as determined to give them something better. Karloff graciously accepted working with his former co-star (this would be their last teaming) and would prove helpful to Lugosi during shooting. While Karloff proved as rewarding an actor as Lewton and Wise hoped he would be, Lugosi’s casting proved problematic. Although Lugosi did turn in one of his few good latter-day performances, the actor’s mental and physical health (a combination of age, drugs, and alcoholism) was a considerable obstacle.
Robert Wise co-directed Curse of the Cat People (1944), but The Body Snatcher was his first solo effort. The film features two superb star performances and several very good character performances, including Lugosi’s. The Body Snatcher, in its pronounced literalness, may lack Lewton favorite Jacques Tourneur‘s poetic aesthetic, but Wise’s fleshier terrain gleans benefits.
Body Snatcher is an adaptation of a Robert Louise Stevenson short story which Val Lewton scripted (under his pseudonym, Carlos Keith) with Philip MacDonald. The film is inspired by and loosely based on the infamous Burke and Hare murders.
Karloff’s performance here is, rightly, one of his most critically acclaimed. Henry Daniel, one of the great character actors, is precision par excellence. The Body Snatcher is an actors’ film, and the two character stars deliver.
Cabman John Gray (Karloff) and Dr. Toddy McFarland (Daniel) are the ambiguous antagonist and protagonist. McFarland is essentially moral, socially accepted, but chillingly cold and obsessively driven to criminal activities. Gray is a social outcast. He is malevolent, manipulative, capable of brutality, blackmail, and murder. Yet, he has a fire in his heart that McFarland lacks.
It’s not even quite that cut and dry. This is Edinburgh in the Victorian era, when celibacy was proof of vocational dedication. McFarland’s celibacy is a facade. He has a secret wife, Meg (Edith Atwater), who poses as his maid. Meg is a seer, with the gift of vision and fire in her bosom. This relationship, so subtly presented, is the heart of McFarland’s hypocrisy and tragedy.
Gray is equally complex. He savagely brings a shovel down on the skull of an interruptive dog, yet is capable of tenderness when caressing the cheek of his horse, or petting his cat (after committing murder). Gray has affection for a crippled girl but, without an iota of remorse, murders a blind balladeer (an effective scene, shot in Lewtonesque shadows) to supply the cadaver for the girl’s much-needed surgery.
Lewton and Wise astutely play to Lugosi’s limitations, taking advantage of his language difficulty. Lugosi, as the blackmailing servant Joseph, is slow-witted, slow of speech and slow to grasp what’s happening. Lugosi’s best directors played to his awkward delivery. Some have criticized the brevity of Lugosi’s role here (including Lugosi himself). But it is that brevity which gives power to Lugosi’s role.The role Joseph stands alongside the actor’s best character work. Lugosi’s death scene with Karloff is expertly directed and acted.
Atwater projects strongly in her role. Hers are the needs of a fully rounded woman, her passions and visions aflame underneath the icy exterior McFarland demands of her. She fulfills that role without complaint, self-pity, or self-deceit.
However, the film falters considerably in the roles of McFarland’s assistant Fettes (Russell Wade), the crippled girl Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) and her mother (Rita Corday). These are contrived, saccharine characters.
The finale, straight out of the Stevenson story, is harrowing and sears the conscience.
Next week: Tourneur’s evocative I Walked With A Zombie (1943).