Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Starring: Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Arnold Marle, Delphi Lawrence, Francis De Wolff
Running Time: 83 mins
BBFC Classification: 15
In a kind of ‘Jack the Ripper’ sort of opening, death stalks the parks and by-ways of Paris and finally intercepts a businessman, who then has his para-thyroid gland removed in a surgical manner – cue opening credits as the killer heads to the Rue Noire after dumping the man’s body in a lake.
Dr George Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is a respected surgeon and also a sculptor of some note, although he only seems to sculpt young women who were once his girlfriends. A previous girlfriend, Janine Dubois (Hazel Court), turns up at his house with a friend Leo (Christopher Lee) in tow, who is also a surgeon. When Janine and Bonnet are left alone together she confronts him as to why he dumped her some years ago when everything seemed to be going so well. He’s reluctant to explain his sudden disappearance, but it’s fairly obvious the two of them are still in love with each other.
It turns out that our good doctor has a sinister secret, which involves his quest for immortality, and this extra longevity comes at a terrible price. And this secret requires a chemical solution to be made from fresh para-thyroid glands, augmented by the occasional operation performed by his partner in crime, Ludwig (Arnold Marle), another renowned surgeon. Things suddenly get very complicated for Bonnet when Ludwig refuses to perform George’s operation or help him anymore, forcing Bonnet to look towards the surgeon friend of Janine to help him out.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death (TMWCCD from now on!) is one of Hammer Film’s earlier horror efforts and is based on a stage play by Barre Lyndon, which probably partly explains its very stagey nature. The storyline has elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey running throughout, and in a way, it’s surprising that Hammer didn’t just go ahead and make their own version of that literary classic. However, in turning the story’s focus more to science the film has become a piece about pushing scientific research to the edge, but for the wrong reasons, and therefore this kind of makes things a little more contemporary.
Playing a character that ‘wants to lift the cover off life, to see beyond’ Anton Diffring does a decent enough job, although one wonders what the late, great Peter Cushing would have done with such a meaty role. The rest of the cast are satisfactory, and once again it’s nice to see Chris Lee playing a sympathetic character for a change. Diffring, who was probably more at home on the stage, has an annoying habit of looking out toward the camera (audience) in a rather theatrical way, on a regular basis, which tends to lend his performance a certain fakeness.
I think, probably, my favourite performance though is Arnold Marle’s, as Bonnet’s eccentric collaborator, Dr Ludwig Weiss; and it’s the conversations between these two obsessive surgeons that really is the fetid core of this weird tale, and their final altercation is probably the best scene in the film.
Overall the picture and sound quality is pretty good, the music score impactful, and the set design is also noteworthy. The film was filmed at Bray Studios, Hammer’s main basecamp for many years.
TMWCCD still holds up well today and will certainly appeal to fans of vintage Hammer horror and to those who enjoy their horror more subtle than most modern-day horror films.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray and is being distributed by Eureka! Video. The special features on the disc include an interview with film critic and author Kim Newman (17 mins) where he talks us through Hammer history, an earlier version of the film – The Man in Half Moon Street – and about the lead actor Anton Diffring; and a second interview with author Jonathan Rigby (17 mins) who also talks about the film’s origins, about the BBFC’s reactions to the film, and he critiques the film; all interesting stuff to fans of early Hammer films. Apparently there’s also a limited edition collector’s booklet, but I didn’t get sent that to review.