Robert Wise made bad movies (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956, The Sound of Music, 1965) and good ones (Executive Suite, 1954, I Want to Live!, 1958, The Sand Pebbles, 1966); but the one flat-out beauty that he made is his eerie, atmospheric, downbeat The Body Snatcher, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 story (with the hyphenated title “The Body-Snatcher”). With the exception of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), this is the best horror film that Russian émigré Val Lewton, born Vladimir Leventon, produced in Hollywood. Under the pseudonym Carlos Keith, Lewton also co-authored the excellent script with Philip MacDonald, which changes Stevenson’s ending to make it less fantastic and more moralistic, cautionary and blatantly psychological. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), you may recall, comes equipped with a rational explanation for its horror, however inadequately this ultimately accounts for the enormity of the horror that Hitchcock’s black comedy gives us.
Indeed, the film changes the story considerably, expunging the years-later one-sided narrative frame—the story opens with it but never returns to it—and with it the narrator and making Fettes young, a mere medical student, not someone for whom Wolfe “Toddy” Macfarlane had long ago been a medical class assistant, Fettes’s “immediate superior.” The story is contemporaneous with Burke and Hare in its flashback, but just post-Burke and Hare in the film. Gray is a minor figure in the story, where he pops up in a single scene, it seems, just to become, by Macfarlane’s own hand, a fresh corpse for in-class dissection. (The murder occurs off-page, as it were.) Stevenson purists are going to like Wise’s film only against their better judgment; but it is hardly to its discredit that the film isn’t excessively literary. Wise, moreover, succeeds in evoking both the rough Scottish texture and dark, melancholy mood of Stevenson’s late Victorian fiction. Its attention to time and Stevenson’s imaginative space distinguishes a film whose budget was so small that its main set, Dr. Macfarlane’s home, was left over from Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944).
Edinburgh 1831. The previous year, William Burke was hanged on testimony supplied by partner William Hare in exchange for immunity from prosecution; some say that the two outsiders—Irishmen—were wrongly accused of the year-long wave of murders known as the West Port murders (1827-1828) that provided, for pay, additional corpses for cadavers to Dr. Robert Knox, a medical school lecturer in anatomy. Normally, Burke and Hare merely robbed graves for their trade; they were “resurrection men.” Since then, Knox had moved to London while Hare had altogether vanished. Expanding the legal supply of medical cadavers, the Anatomy Act would be enacted in 1832 as a result of the scandal. Therefore, the film unfolds in the short space of time between the legal resolution of the serial killings and the subsequent political resolution. It is then that Young Donald Fettes, a vicar’s son, becomes assistant to Macfarlane, who was (fictitiously) Knox’s assistant. In this capacity, the idealistic, compassionate Fettes—the story’s Fettes was never such—must pay cabman John Gray for each corpse that he provides to Dr. Macfarlane, however distasteful the whole enterprise is to the boy—as indeed it is distasteful to Macfarlane. Like the actual Knox, however, the fictional Mcfarlane needs cadavers in order to educate his classes of medical students. In the film, Fettes and Macfarlane interact over the delivered body of a girl whom Fettes recognizes much as they do in the story, where Macfarlane worries over what might happen to Knox, rather than what might happen to them, were their suspicions of murder broadcast or held by others. The film takes as its theme the elusive gray of human morality, an area made indistinct, neither black nor white, by the competing claims on our attention and actions. From our vantage, because of the near coincidence of time between its release and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 2½ months later, the film brushes against humanity’s capacity for staggering moral complexity and contradiction. The context that the film provides deepens and expands the meaning of the words of Hippocrates with which the film closes, along with a wonderful shot of the beginning of the rest of Fettes’s journey through life:
It is through error that man tries and rises. It is through tragedy he learns. All the roads of learning begin in darkness and go out into the light.
The shift in young Fettes’s likeability is important. It is intended to give the film a clear-cut hero, which the story, pre-dating Hollywood, lacks. Here is one of the narrator’s descriptions of Fettes in the story:
Few lads could have been more insensible to the impressions of a life thus passed among the ensigns of mortality. His mind was closed against all general considerations. He was incapable of interest in the fate and fortunes of another, the slave of his own desires and low ambitions. Cold, light, and selfish in the last resort, he had that modicum of prudence, miscalled morality, which keeps a man from inconvenient drunkenness or punishable theft.
Nor is any other character in Stevenson’s tale any more likeable. Nor should any character in the story be likeable. Indeed, the film might have gripped more brilliantly had it not indulged, and manipulated us with, Fettes’s farfetched though clichéd virtue.
However, Fettes’s reformulated nature lends the film irony. Both Fettes and the film’s premier villain, Gray, are introduced extending kindness to the same little child, who doesn’t exist in the story: Georgina Marsh, a wheelchair-bound cripple whose single mother begs Fettes, who implicitly becomes her future romantic partner, to convince the renowned Dr. Macfarlane—for that is what he is in the film—to perform the delicate surgery needed for Georgina to be able to walk. It is Gray, though, who “persuades” Macfarlane to operate by goading him into doing it. The operation is a success, but the patient, full of fear, still cannot walk. An impoverished Gray, we learn, had his own medical future canceled years back when he took the fall for then-friend Macfarlane’s crime and was sent to prison, a fact that he now holds over Macfarlane’s head. In a tavern, he explodes at Macfarlane, who is full of self-pity and rage that little Georgina won’t walk despite his brilliant surgery: “Look, look at yourself, could you be a doctor, a healing man, with the things those eyes have seen? There’s a lot of knowledge in those eyes, but no understanding!” Gray has turned Macfarlane in the direction of a huge mirror, which throws at Macfarlane two faces that have become somewhat morally confused with one another: Macfarlane’s; Gray’s. Gray is the one who currently supplies Macfarlane with dead bodies, including the one that Macfarlane used in his preparation for the operation on Georgina. While Fettes continues his relationship with the child, and not simply because he is falling in love with her mother, Gray does not even process the coincidence that the child he had treated kindly and the child on whom Macfarlane has operated are one and the same. Gray’s kindness, then, is a mere reflex from an earlier self from which his sordid life has largely separated him, while Fettes’s kindness is bone-deep, but in jeopardy of being lost to the sordid dealings upon which he has only recently embarked.
Still, we respond to the moral complexity that the film conjures: Macfarlane and Fettes must do business with the likes of Gray in order to have their work progress. Or must they? Macfarlane’s wife—there is no such character in the story—persuades Fettes to leave her husband’s mentorship. It is an effort on her part to make some amends for the cesspool of evil and corruption into which her husband’s soul has fallen. It apparently works, for the new ending, which includes Macfarlane’s guilt-ridden death, suggests his redemption. A white-haired Macfarlane, now briefly visiting Scotland, remains very much alive in the story.
Much of the film’s haunting beauty, nothing like which Wise would again even try to achieve, derives from the street singer and her song, which inspires Roy Webb’s score. This is the character that corresponds to Stevenson’s Jane Galbraith, whom Fettes recognizes as having been alive just hours earlier when her corpse is delivered to Knox. In the film it is Gray who both murders the girl, who is anonymous in this incarnation, and delivers the body to Macfarlane’s home; but also, here, Fettes is intriguingly implicated in the crime, for on his own he has approached Gray to plead for a body pronto so that Macfarlane can prepare to operate on Georgina. Until he sees the body that Gray delivers, he has no idea that Gray would commit murder to do his job—a wonderment, surely, given Burke’s recent trial and execution. However, this lovely street singer is an ideal candidate for Gray’s grisly handiwork.
The film notes that poverty is something shared by nearly all the victims of people like Gray. The street singer, who may be homeless, sings late into the night, soliciting coins. Gray murders her shortly after Fettes has charitably added to her cup, warmly saying, “Thank you just the same,” after she cannot direct him to Gray’s lodgings, which he finds on his own, and which lamentably leads to her violent end. The murder itself is the best scene that Wise ever shot. (The black-and-white cinematographer, incidentally, is Robert De Grasse, whose other credits include nine films starring Ginger Rogers, her Oscar-winning Kitty Foyle, 1940, among them.) After Fettes departs, having stressed the urgency of Macfarlane’s receiving a body, into the dark night Gray also departs with his horse and carriage. We cannot see the street singer, but we hear her melodious, sorrowful, soulful voice—already, perhaps, a musical straddling of the fence between life and death. (Through it, God may be mourning the singer’s imminent fate.) The sound of her voice draws Gray slowly into the round patch of blackness from which it emanates, accompanied by the measured beats of the horse’s hoofs. Shot from the rear, the carriage disappears into the black hole; we hold our breaths. Mid-note, the singer’s voice is stopped. Wise has thus succeeded in distilling by its sad end the poignancy of the street singer’s hard and harrowing life. Moreover, all this reflects on Fettes, who himself is so poor that he would have withdrawn from medical school had not Macfarlane made him his assistant—a paid position. Poverty is indeed a unifying theme in this film, to which Gray’s situation likewise contributes. “That’s the soul of the [resurrection] business, the pay,” he at one point says, and the use of the word soul in such a context is sorely ironic.
However, the actor playing the part, Boris Karloff, completely misses the irony, or at least passes on the possibility of making it deliberately so on Gray’s part. Karloff is good—he is coarse and creepy—but he is incapable of bringing to the role what Fredric March or John Carradine would have brought to it. Karloff’s most memorable scene comes near the end, when Gray’s hideously naked corpse, which appears to have replaced that of the woman whose grave Macfarlane has robbed, keeps knocking against Macfarlane as he drives the coach through darkness, wind and rain, with lightning illuminating the corpse in terrifying flashes. While it is possible to imagine Karloff’s Gray as a convicted felon, it is not so easy to imagine him as anything once like young Fettes, which the script implicitly insists that we do. Karloff hasn’t the subtlety or depth to suggest the humanity that has been driven out of Gray.
Still, this is one of Karloff’s better performances, certainly the equal of the ones he gave in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935.) (His three best performances would remain the expressionistic ones he gave in Karl Freund’s The Mummy, 1932, John Ford’s The Lost Patrol and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, both 1934, which would also remain his three best films.) Two other performances in The Body Snatcher, though, are first-rate: those of Henry Daniell as Macfarlane and Bela Lugosi as Joseph, Macfarlane’s greedy servant, who stupidly tries blackmailing Gray and gets “burked” by Gray as a consequence. Let me show you how it’s done, Joseph: a frightening moment.
As did Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940), George Cukor cast Daniell, a close friend, in a number of supporting roles, in Camille (1936), Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). He is the sort of actor about whom we wonder: What might he be able to do if he were given the lead role in a film? This film answers us. Although Daniell gets third billing (perhaps to stress the Karloff-Lugosi reunion, although Karloff’s name alone appears above the title), Macfarlane is the main character and the starring role. Daniell is superb. Unlike Karloff, he is capable—here at least—of all sorts of shading and subtleties, including those that help us to imagine Macfarlane as he used to be years ago: what Macfarlane himself, as long as he lives, would rather forget.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.