11 February 2009

Bela Lugosi Collection: Black Friday (1940)

Black Friday (1940)
Directed by Arthur Lubin. Starring Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne, Bela Lugosi, James Craig

This upcoming Friday is a Friday the Thirteenth, which means that many bloggers will get busy either reviewing the re-boot of Friday the 13th or older installments of the long-running slasher series. (Or they might go watch Confessions of a Shopaholic, which sounds far more terrifying than anything Jason Vorhees could whip up with his machete. Remember, I have it scientifically proven that I won’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic.) However, I shall dare to play different. I’ll celebrate this legendary date of superstitiousness with a review of another “Friday the Thirteenth” movie that came along four decades before the first set of slashings at Crystal Lake: Black Friday. Conveniently, it’s also the final film in my series of reviews of Universal’s DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection.

Come to think of it, since “Black Friday” also means the dangerous shopping day after Thanksgiving—and last year, for at least one poor Mal-Mart worker in Long Island, it turned fatal—this might serve as my tie-in to Confessions of a Shopaholic as well.

If you approach Black Friday as another meeting of the horror movie mavens, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, you will likely loathe it and feel cheated on a deep fandom level. Karloff and Lugosi get top billing before the title, and the plot sounds fine-tailored for the actors: a mad scientist turns his friend into a monster when he tries to save his life with a brain transplant. So will Lugosi play the doctor and Karloff the twisted creature, sort of like The Raven? Or will Karloff settle more comfortably into his standard mad scientist part he has started to specialize in, and Lugosi would drag out Ygor monster-acting chops from Son of Frankenstein?

The answer is: neither. Karloff does play the scientist, but the tortured brain transplant victim is played by the legendary… Stanley Ridges! (Wait, who?) And Lugosi plays a second-tier gangster with less screen time than the three people billed under him.

What goes on here? It’s a confusing story and the passage of six decades hasn’t made it any easier to untangle. The available evidence makes it appear that Lugosi was originally cast as the doctor, and Karloff his victim-turned-monster, but Karloff requested the doctor’s part instead (or else the studio disliked his performance and forcibly moved him). Considering the role of the victim, English Literature Professor George Kingsley, requires the actor in the part to transform into a tough-guy mobster, Karloff probably was correct to think he didn’t fit the role. I agree; I can’t visualize Boris Karloff playing a convincing womanizing American gangster. So the Universal brass shifted him to the part of Dr. Ernest Sovac. Instead of moving Lugosi to the Kingsley part—a dual role I can’t imagine him playing either—they kicked him downstairs to a small supporting part of an inexplicably Hungarian-accented mobster who never has any scenes with Dr. Sovac. Stanley Ridges, a busy character actor, got the prize role of Kingsley, and runs away with the whole damn film, upstaging both big names.

No wonder so many horror fans get ticked off at Black Friday: a Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairing in which not only do the two famous icons never meet, but one of them has a tiny part and some unknown character actor steals the film with his performance.

But what a performance! Ah, Stanley Ridges: the great surprise in Black Friday. If you can get over the Karloff/Lugosi deception (and if you bought this in The Bela Lugosi Collection, you have good reason to feel slighted with this “Bela Lugosi” movie), you’ll discover a terrific performance from a seasoned pro. Ridges appeared as a supporting actor in many films throughout the 1940s, including classics like To Be or Not to Be, Union Pacific, and The File on Thelma Jordan. But Black Friday gave him his juiciest part. He delivers the caliber of performance that would net an actor today an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (although I consider Ridges the true lead, he isn’t billed as such), but the Academy in 1940 couldn’t bother with a B-movie thriller.

Ridges has a Jekyll n’ Hyde role, and the way he separates the personalities of Professor George Kingsley and gangster Red Cannon is a marvel to watch. The make-up for the two parts is minimal (Cannon gets darker, slicked-back hair, and doesn’t need nose-pinching glasses), and Ridges achieves it with a complete alteration of expression, mannerism, physical carriage, and voice inflection. The two personalities on-screen couldn’t be more different than the two faces of Frederic March’s Dr. Jekyll.

And in the Red Cannon role, Ridges looks amazingly like Kevin Spacey. Weird.

How did poor professor Kingsley get into this awful mess of having to transform into a remorseless gang leader? We can thank co-screenwriter Curt Siodmak for it, the master of brain-switching plots. The brain swap here makes utterly no sense, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The movie opens with Dr. Ernest Sovac on his march to the electric chair. The dour scientist hands his notes to a reporter, telling him it contains the true story of the events that have led to his conviction, and perhaps they can be used for good one day. Maybe Universal will want to buy the film rights. The handwritten notes with Karloff’s distinctive voice behind them narrate the terrible events that started one Friday the 13th.… (ah, there’s our title connection!)

Professor Kingsley teaches English Literature at a small college (it probably has a mummy problem, too), but on that fateful Friday the doddering old academic gets into an auto accident when a gangster’s car smashes into him while he crosses the street. The gangster is the notorious Red Cannon, who was trying to escape from his double-crossing gang. Cannon and Kingsley end up in the hospital, with the Professor dying from a head wound and Cannon paralyzed. Enter Kingsley’s good friend Dr. Sovac, who decides that now he can try out his brain-transplant experiment in order to save Kingsley life. The operation is illegal, but Sovac secretly performs it, transplanting Cannon’s brain into Kinglsey, and Kingsley recovers.

Here all the logic circuits in my brain completely fried, and I had to wonder if Curt Siodmak thought any audience member would buy this. Sovac assumes that the brain transplant will save Kingsley’s life, which makes sense if Kingsley’s brain received serious damage. But by Movie Law, this would erase Kingsley’s personality and replace it with Cannon’s: Kinglsey’s body has an entirely new brain. Instead, Kingsley wakes up only mildly distraught but still acting like himself and with his normal memories. Sovac wonders if Red Cannon’s memories remain subsumed in Kingsley. Again: what? Sovac, you transplanted the man’s whole flippin’ brain into Kingsley’s head! You wonder if maybe Red Cannon’s memories are in there? What else could be in there? Did Kingsley’s personality somehow survive in the pancreas, or maybe the upper duodenum?

Perhaps Siodmak’s script doesn’t mean “transplant” in the way we think of it. Maybe Sovac only used parts of Cannon’s brain to repair Kingsley’s. But it doesn’t sounds that way. And when Kingsley starts to make full transformations into Red Cannon, with the gangster’s complete memories, it seems that two brains have gotten stuck into one head. How did Sovac manage to pack them both in there? Perhaps this is an early draft for The Man with Two Brains?

I’m going to drive myself into Arkham Asylum with the Scarecrow if I keep thinking about this. I’ll have to accept Siodmak’s premise: Professor George Kingsley now has the repressed personality of violent mob boss Red Cannon inside his head. Cannon knows the location of $500,000 that he hid from his traitorous associates. And Dr. Sovac, abruptly throwing out all the empathy for his friend that he previously displayed, decides he’s going to bring out the Cannon personality so he can get his hands on all that free grant money!

Sovac’s 180˚ turn in personality doesn’t make much sense (more than the brain-swap, at least) and Karloff handles this a bit lazily. He drags the suffering Kinglsey off to New York City to travel Cannon’s old haunts so he can jolt the gangster out of remission. He does everything but stick a gun in the poor meek professor’s face and scream “Show me the gangsta’, fool!”

Cannon comes out, and Sovac and a few other folks in the New York mobland scene are quickly very sorry about it. Cannon doesn’t want to play Sovac’s game: he wants to kill the men who double-crossed him and get back his dame, Sunny (Nagel). He starts a murdering spree, beating two of his old gang to death with his bare hands, which alerts Marnay (poor Bela’s part), the de facto leader of Cannon’s old bunch, that something funny is going on. Dr. Sovac tries to get control of the situation, but the whole gang war starts wheeling downhill fast and a lot people are going to end up really really dead.

Bela Lugosi’s role in this is embarrassing. He shows up briefly in the first few minutes, doesn’t appear for another half-hour, and snuffs it like a chump ten minutes before the actual climax, somehow suffocating in a broom closet that Cannon/Kingsley has blocked with a Frigidaire. That’s not how I want to see a legend like Bela Lugosi. But Lugosi doesn’t hold up his side and brings little to what he has to work with. In a few places he flubs the English of his lines. (“Impossible. Red’s been dead since two months.” Didn’t the director insist on a second take?) But you can’t blame Karloff for upstaging Lugosi, since Stanley Ridges takes care of that. Karloff is off wandering through another movie, seemingly unsure what to do with the gangland craziness exploding around him.

In fact, Black Friday isn’t much of a horror film at all, or even a mad-scientist movie. It plays as a gangster melodrama with a horror concept as a catalyst. It sometimes acts more like a Warner Bros. film, a studio famous for its crime sagas, than a Universal production. It doesn’t have much of the atmosphere you would expect from either studio. Movies were still a year away from the start of the film noir revolution that would give crime dramas an entirely new look and feel.

Some of the flatness of the production comes from the man in the director’s chair. Arthur Lubin helmed most of the Abbot & Costello movies at Universal, so the flat look probably derives from a director used to playing invisible in his filmmaking style for a pair of comedians. He also helmed Universal’s 1943 lavish technicolor but dishwater-dull re-make of The Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains, and would eventually create the famous TV show Mr. Ed. A weird legacy, to say the least.

Problems, problems, problems. But Black Friday still delivers the fun, and as I’ve said before, we can give most of the credit to Stanley Ridges. I also have to give props to sexy Anne Nagel as the femme fatale and the snappy Universal Production machine that gives the film a fast-clip that never lets its audience get bored. Leave aside the pedestrian look of the film, and any complaints you might have about how the casting left Bela Lugosi crammed into a closet somehow suffocating to death, and Black Friday is a good flick for any Friday night.

But the brain stuff… man, I’m still trying to figure out what hell Curt Siodmak was getting at. If I ever get into a review of House of Frankenstein, for which Siodmak wrote the story (and I have), I can show you what real brain-swapping madness looks like. The movie concludes in a brain-juggling festival, and Boris Karloff again serves as Ringmaster.

Now that I’ve completed reviewing the films in The Bela Lugosi Collection, it’s time for a re-cap of the five movies:
  • Murders in the Rue Morgue: Flawed, but good pre-code gruesomeness, great design and photography, and an important place in history because of its connection to Frankenstein.
  • The Black Cat: Freakin’ brilliant. Just see it.
  • The Raven: Vicious fun, and a rare time when Lugosi really upstages Boris Karloff. Love those death traps!
  • The Invisible Ray: Dull film that doesn’t make much use of either of its stars. The poorest film in the collection, and only Fulton’s effects make it worthwhile.
  • Black Friday: A fun gangster melodrama with some horror elements, but it’s no Karloff/Lugosi film, that’s for certain.