To celebrate the beginning of Season 7 of The Walking Dead, I'm watching The Walking Dead, 1930s style. I won't be watching the contemporary version until tomorrow, but I thought it'd be fun to see this one tonight. There is no zombie apocalypse going on here, and the only dead guy walking is one of my favorite horror guys, Boris Karloff. This film can be found on the Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics set. I recommend picking this set up while you can.
This movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, who you may not know that you know. Or at least I didn't, until I kept seeing his name reappear on a lot of my pre-code movies like God's Gift to Women, The Office Wife, Bright Lights, The Mad Genius (Boris Karloff appears briefly in this pre-Frank film), and one of my favorites, Female. I was further surprised to discover he directed Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, and White Christmas. I could list more but I should get on with it. I don't know how it is that I did not know this guy's name as well as I knew Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, Billy Wilder, Cecil B. DeMille, or Alfred Hitchcock. But I do now and now so do you. Let's move on.
"Leave the dead to their maker. The Lord our God is a jealous god."The movie opens with a silhouette rising up from the ground before the titles appear. The action begins in a courtroom that is going to recess and folks are talking about how Judge Shaw is going to let Martin off for stealing 350K because he's one of Loder's gang. Martin is being reassured by attorney Nolan, who just happens to be played by one of my favorite fellas from the silent and pre-code days, Ricardo Cortez, that there's no way the judge will convict him. Even the reporters are convinced of this outcome and are ordering acquittal headlines ahead of the verdict. Judge Shaw's wife pleads with him in chambers not to convict Martin because of the threats the family is receiving. So of course everyone is surprised, excepting those of us in the audience, when Judge Shaw convicts Martin of misappropriation of funds and sends him up for ten years in the State Pen without parole.
Nolan is playing pool with the Loder boys and feeling remorseful about letting poor old Martin down. Merritt is concerned that their organization may be discovered by Judge Shaw even if Martin keeps quiet, but the boys inform him that their aptly named colleague, Trigger, is going to drop Judge Shaw. Nolan tells of his splendid solution to avoid any suspicion for the murder by laying the blame on John Ellman (Karloff), who is fresh out of prison after being convicted by Judge Shaw. Nolan will cinch the plan by defending him for the Judge's murder, making sure he loses the case.
Ellman meets with big boss Loder to get a job as a piano player. We find out he was sent up for second degree murder involving his wife. Apparently he hit some guy and unintentionally killed him. It's left to our imagination to determine if it was an affair or if the victim was trying to force himself on his wife, but Ellman seems a sympathetic dupe. Loder refuses to help him and has him thrown out.
Trigger meets Ellman on the street and chats him up over a coffee. He offers him a job watching Judge Shaw's house, taking notes on his comings and goings, claiming his wife wants to catch him stepping out.
Meanwhile, we get a peek into the Medical Sciences Foundation Research Laboratories, where Jimmy is marveling over Dr. Beaumont keeping a heart in a jar pumping for over two weeks, while Nancy is asking how many more payments until they own the engagement ring, and whether or not he'll be taking her out that night. When Jimmy joins Dr. Beaumont (yes, it's Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th Street, who also appeared in The Trouble with Harry, Them! and The Skin Game), he asks if they intend to get married even though he's not making much money working for him, suggesting he's a fool if he waits around to marry the pretty Nancy.
Ellman is doing his job taking notes on Shaw's whereabouts, who has not been home all day or night. Nancy and Jimmy are out together and get sideswiped by an erratic driver who does not stop. Jimmy takes off after the hit and run driver, commenting that his insurance just ran out the day prior. He locates the car that hit him, which has stopped to unload a body into another car. Jimmy pulls up to the car and notes the dead man inside, while the hit and run car returns and informs them that they haven't seen or heard a thing and that they should keep their traps shut. Ellman walks up to the car as they are pulling away, and gets inside. He sees the corpse in the back seat and we then see a report that he's being held for the murder of Judge Shaw.
We are back in the courtroom and Nolan is defending Ellman as planned, while Ellman claims he is not responsible for the murder and has told of a young couple who can prove his innocence. Jimmy and Nancy are sitting in the courtroom and Jimmy says they can't keep quiet about what they witnessed, while Nancy says they should leave, fearing the gang will kill him if he talks. Ellman is convicted and sent to the electric chair.
Ellman is still holding out hope that the witnesses will come forward and pleads with the warden not to kill him for something he didn't do. The warden asks for his last request and Ellman asks for a musician to play his favorite piece while he walks to the chair.
Jimmy and Nancy are frantically telling Dr. Beaumont that they know Ellman is innocent, pleading with him to do something. Unfortunately, he contacts Nolan for help, telling him he's got the witnesses who can prove Ellman's innocence and asking him to get in touch with the governor. Nolan, who is dining with his gang at the time of the call, says he'll get in touch with the DA when it's too late.
Nolan and DA Werner are on the way to meet up with the witnesses at Dr. Beaumont's lab, while Nancy sobs about the lateness of the hour. The priest is chanting in Latin over a stunned Ellman and the cellist is warming up for the Dead Man Walking concert when Nolan and the DA finally arrive. Dr. Beaumont tells the DA to call the governor at 5 minutes to 12, as he wouldn't talk to him when he tried to call. The DA is on the phone to the governor as Ellman is walked to the chair to the accompaniment of the cello and the Latin chanting priest.
The phone rings in the warden's office, but the coppers are too busy talking about the prison baseball team to answer it right away. When the officer finally picks up and gets the information that Ellman is innocent, we see the lights dim, and he informs the governor that it's too late, that he already got the first jolt. The DA gets a call in Dr. Beaumont's office letting him know that Ellman is dead. Dr. Beaumont tells him to call the governor back and call off the autopsy.
We are back in the lab looking at a chest X-ray while Jimmy, Nancy and a team working with Dr. Beaumont are surrounded by lots of bubbling flasks and cylinders. Jimmy tells Nancy to keep that Lindbergh heart (invented the year prior to this movie's release) pulsating.
Dr. Beaumont has got Ellman on an oscillating table and throws a switch, causing electrical charges to crackle and flow. It does not escape the viewer's notice that Karloff has been through this before. As suspected, Dr. Beaumont is successful at returning Ellman to life, though he ends up with some Bride of Frankenstein style highlights in his hair.
Dr. Beaumont is getting recognition from all over the world for bringing the electrocuted Ellman back to life, but we can see from his interaction back in the lab with Ellman that he hasn't yet brought him all the way back. Ellman claims he has no memory of events before his death. The doctor suspects it may be due to a blood clot at the base of his skull, but that operating is too great a risk. He wonders what may have happened to Ellman during the transition when his spirit left his body and what effect the death experience may have had on his subconscious mind.
Ellman hears Nancy playing the piano and is stirred by the melody, leading him to the room where she is playing. He sits at the piano and begins to play his favorite tune. Nolan walks into Dr. Beaumont's office declaring that the state has appointed him Ellman's guardian, and that Ellman has been awarded half a mill for being unjustly electrocuted. Nancy bursts in telling him to come see Ellman at the piano. When Ellman sees Nolan, he angrily tells him to get out. Dr. Beaumont says that Nolan is the best friend he has, but he denies that and says that Nolan is his enemy, but is unable to explain why to the doctor.
The doctor shares his confusion over Ellman's feelings toward Nolan with DA Werner, who explains that Nolan is the brains behind a racketeering group that's controlling the city, and has worked out that these bad boys likely framed Ellman for killing Judge Shaw. Beaumont comes up with a plan to invite the racketeers over and see if Ellman displays the same antagonistic reaction that he had with Nolan.
The night of the party and the gang shows up in fancy dress. Jimmy encounters Nancy and claims he's worried about all the attention she's giving to Ellman and that Dr. Beaumont is changed and is only focused on finding out what Ellman experienced while dead.
Dr. Beaumont introduces Ellman, instructing the audience that he is not presenting him as the man who returned from the dead, but as a pianist. He sits down and plays his signature tune. While playing, his gaze wanders the room and his face is lit with an otherworldly light as he finds the conspirators in the audience, who also notably light up, and he gives each of them the stink eye, while they sweat and look nervous and leave the room.
The racketeers talk together about putting Trigger to work on him when DA Werner walks in and claims their behavior has given them away for being responsible for sending Ellman to the electric chair for the murder for which they were responsible. When he leaves, they hook up Trigger for the hit. As he is loading his gun for the job, Ellman enters his room and asks why he killed the Judge. Trigger pulls his gun on him, threatening to plug him, and as Ellman advances on him, he falls over a piece of furniture and shoots himself.
One by one, the thugs each receive a visit from Ellman, who never lays a hand on any of them, yet they still manage to get their comeuppance. Dr. Beaumont tells the DA that he suspects Ellman has knowledge not given to him by man and that he's going to operate to get the evidence the DA needs to put Nolan and Loder away, despite the risk to Ellman, so that he may also learn the secrets from beyond.
Nolan and Loder show up claiming they have a court order for Ellman's removal. The DA notes that the order is dated for the next day and they'll have to come back for him, causing the doctor to decide to operate before morning. Ellman sneaks out in the rain and goes to the cemetery. Nancy knows he'll be there and Nolan and Loder follow her in hopes she'll lead them to Ellman.
The doctor rushes out to help him, and finds that a bullet hit the base of his skull where the blood clot was located. He is hopeful that he can hold out long enough to tell the doctor what he discovered in death. He asks him to try to remember what death was like and try to put it into words, while at the same time Nolan and Loder meet with some sweet justice. Dr. Beaumont asks him what is death, but all Ellman is able to tell him before he expires is that he felt peace and....ahhh.
A fascinating twist on Frankenstein and interesting to see the latest medical technology incorporated into the story. There's quite a lot going on in this flick with mobsters, romance and revenge. It's also a movie about the mysteries of life and death. It addresses the drawbacks of the death penalty and the consequences of assuming the powers of God. It's a beautiful film to see, with great use of light and shadow and interesting camera angles. Boris Karloff is a delight to watch as he subtly changes his facial expression to change his peaceful countenance to one of supreme menacing hatred. He retains his morality by never actually doing anything to harm those he would seek revenge against, but by inadvertently frightening them to death. There's an intimation that his trip beyond the grave imbued him with some godlike power. Dr. Beaumont is desperate to know the secrets of death, but is destined to only find out when his time comes. There's quite a bit going on under the surface of this film to ponder.