Based on the Barre Lyndon play “The Man in Half Moon Street” which had been made into a Hollywood movie in 1945, England’s Hammer Films added to their increasing roster of monster tales with 1959’s THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. The winning team of director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher are once again united for another Technicolor Hammer horror that would bring the decade to a close, and although it’s a minor effort compared to some of its predecessors, it still has its merits. Released theatrically by Paramount (the only early Hammer horror distributed by the company), it now makes its second U.S. appearance on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
In Paris 1890, Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring, CIRCUS OF HORRORS) is out murdering women when he isn’t wrapped up in his hobby of sculpting. Bonnet is actually 104 years old but keeps the youthful image and healthy body of a man in his 30s by cutting out the parathyroid glands of said women and utilizing them for his secret elixir. When Bonnet’s 89-year-old colleague Prof. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marlé, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN) shows up and sees his much older friend appear much younger, he refuses to perform a vital operation on him, and that spells trouble. Another sensible and ethical doctor, Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee, SCARS OF DRACULA) is blackmailed into performing the surgery after Bonnet endangers the life of the beautiful Janine Dubois (Hazel Court, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH), a young woman who they are both vying for the attentions of, with Bonnet naturally in the lead, being the evil and deceitful one.
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is another colorful and handsome Hammer production made at their tiny Bray Studios, but it's a dialog-driven affair with most of the proceedings taking place on several soundstages. Bernard Robinson’s sets are lavish, but too recognizably redressed from previous Hammer efforts (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, etc.). The Dorian Gray-like horror antics are kept to a minimum but are highlighted by Jack Asher’s effective lighting on Bonnet when he’s on the brink of turning monstrous, or when the camera probes from the inside of his secret elixir cabinet, which glows outwardly in a florescent green. Providing the film’s score in a position often reserved for James Bernard is Richard Rodney Bennett, whose successful career would lead to three Oscar nominations and eventual Knighthood. Roy Ashton’s excellent decaying make-up is generously displayed during the film’s fiery climax.
As Bonnet, Anton Diffring is well cast in the villainous role, and gothic horror suits him well even if this may not be the best example of that. He would top himself the following year in the memorable CIRCUS OF HORRORS, but his subsequent genre roles were usually of the supporting kind, and he didn’t return to Hammer until 1973 (he had a small role in SHATTER). Many forget that Diffring essayed the role of Baron Frankenstein for Hammer in their black & white 1958 TV pilot, “Tales of Frankenstein,” but Diffring will probably remain known for appearing as various German soldiers rather than as a horror icon. Christopher Lee is very good here as Pierre Gerard, proving early on in the horror cycle that he offered more than lumbering monsters or speech-deprived vampires. A bonafide “scream queen” of the highest degree, the late Hazel Court is given less to do here than in some of her other genre efforts, and she reportedly was filmed topless (during a nude modeling sequence) for a “continental” version which is yet to resurface. A number of other familiar Hammer character actors are present here, including Francis De Wolff (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) and Charles Lloyd Pack (THE TERROR OF THE TONGS).
Legend Films first released THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH on DVD on 2008 (its U.S. home video debut) and then on Blu-ray in 2011, with Kino’s new Blu (the same source as the 2015 U.K. Eureka release) being a noticeable improvement in quality. After a rather dark and murky credit sequence (Bonnet roaming the foggy Paris streets in search of glands) which has never landed well on home video, the 1080p HD 1.66:1 transfer boasts excellent detail and the bold colors (much better than the muted colors on the Legend transfer) are consistently distinct, with the contrasts also being excellent and fine grain is well supported. Aside from occasional film dirt, the image is very clean and smooth, granting us a very handsome HD edition of this early Hammer classic. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also in good shape, and aside from several crackles and pops, sounds nice and clear throughout. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Exclusive to this Blu-ray is a new, thorough audio commentary with author/film historian Troy Howarth. Howarth starts by mentioning that this was Paramount’s first handling of a Hammer film (and the last until the early 1970s) and he points out how the opening depicts a very anglicized portrait of Paris (to set up the “Jack the Ripper” style killings), something that’s maintained throughout the film. He rightfully scrutinizes the weaknesses of the main characters despite the fine actors playing them (Diffring and Court indeed have zero chemistry), rightfully defends Lee’s performance, describes the bit of nudity intended for the Euro version which was filmed (though likely no longer exists), touches upon Peter Cushing’s bailing out on the role, that Michael Ripper shot scenes that were cut, and he shares information not only about the main cast but the unbilled side players and the behind-the-camera talent. Carried over from the 2015 Eureka U.K. Blu-ray are two featurettes with noted British journalists. Kim Newman (17:09) starts off by running through the early days of Hammer Horror and their involvement with Paramount for the release of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, and he expresses that the film suffers due to losing Cushing in the lead role. Jonathan Rigby (16:52) mentions that Hammer was on a wave of success during the time of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, and he gives an informative history of the story behind the stage show and the film (adding that Christopher Lee went to see the play as a teenager). Rounding out the extras are a “Trailer From Hell” segment on THE SKULL with Joe Dante, and trailers for TALES OF TERROR, THE OBLONG BOX, MADHOUSE, TWICE TOLD TALES and THE CRIMSON CULT (all available on Blu-ray from Kino). (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS