The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

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The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) is Boris Karloff, as the doctor who has invented a mechanical heart valve. With this tool he’s confident he can restore the dead to life. Karloff’s idea seems so sound, and his personality apparently so solid and dependable, that one of his medical students (Stanley Brown) volunteers to be his first guinea pig. Karloff kills the man, chills his body, and fires up the pump, an intricate tangle of glass tubing, bubbling pipes and rocking vessels. He frantically works with his associate (Byron Foulger) to get the victim’s vitals ticking again.

Unfortunately, the man’s girlfriend, Karloff’s nurse (Ann Doran) has less faith in the procedure and calls the police. They bust in and arrest Karloff before he can finish, which is what kills the student. On trial for murder, Karloff’s theories are made to seem like looney social engineering, he admits to technically killing the student, and so he gets the death penalty. Karloff donates his body to “science,” aka his friend Foulger, who patches up the broken neck from the hanging and brings Karloff back to life. The machine has been proven to work, but instead of returning to show the world his scientific breakthrough, Karloff awakens a warped, cruel man who wants to destroy everyone who thwarted his work and sentenced him to death.

While Karloff secretly recovers, his beloved daughter (Lorna Gray, later known as Adrian Booth) falls in love with a caring reporter (Robert Wilcox), who’s looking into the suicides of six Karloff jurors. Then the reporter, the nurse, the judge (Charles Trowbridge), the D.A. (Roger Pryor), the police detective (Don Beddoe), the police doctor and the remaining jurors are invited to Karloff’s house. Karloff reveals himself looking good as new (except for a stiff neck). He informs them they’ll all be killed as punishment for their disbelief, and he’ll have the perfect alibi, since thanks to them he’s legally dead and beyond the reach of any law. He’s turned the house into a giant sealed trap set up to electrocute, stab, go dark and who knows what else, taking a victim every fifteen minutes. His daughter arrives to confront him, and because he loves her, she’s able to test his will, his deathtrap, and finally his conscience.

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This was the first of Karloff’s four “mad doctor” movies for Columbia and the story an amalgam of contemporary events and discoveries. There was a real scientist, Robert Cornish, who was experimenting with reviving dogs with a teeterboard and adrenaline injections, and in 1934 he managed to bring one terrier back after 5 minutes dead. Charles Lindbergh had recently invented a working external glass “perfusion” blood pump in 1935 which must have inspired the gadget seen in this movie, a dainty thing that Foulger worries will shatter under the pressure.

With Karloff’s fine acting and this good cast, the result is mostly enjoyable. It’s not terribly scary since the deathtrap part is cut short by the daughter’s visit. While it’s obviously nice that less people get killed, it would have been fun to see more than two of Karloff’s clever murder methods and how his prisoners would dodge them. There are plenty of well done and memorable scenes, like the jury deliberation with one holdout (a doctor) arguing that Karloff is correct and should be acquitted. A last visit by the chaplain on death row gives Karloff a nice bit where he admits that as a professional skeptic, he has no fear of death and will wait until “tomorrow” to see what he thinks about the afterlife. I also liked how we were shown all the players listening to the radio announcement of Karloff’s hanging.

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Karloff is great as always, but his character would be more sympathetic if he didn’t act like an arrogant brainiac, calling people idiots and blaming the treachery of a stupid woman. He’s reasonable enough when he explains to the jury that his ideas would make surgery easier and more successful. He says, you can’t take an engine apart to replace worn parts while the motor is running; you turn it off while you work, and that’s all he wants to do with a human body. At his sentencing, he delivers a fiery condemnation of everyone present, cursing them as backward-thinking rubes standing in the way of progress. “I offer you life and you give me death.” Karloff even kills Foulger for questioning his goals, and, as his daughter so perfectly puts it, he just wastes his miracle on cheap revenge. His final act in the film is a mixed bag of redemption and destruction. He uses his talent to save a life but also makes sure his work will never benefit anyone else, and that’s a shame for the genius who wanted people and knowledge to live forever.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) was directed by Nick Grinde.

I saw this years ago, but since I’ve been slowly reading through Greg Mank’s book Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, I’ve been going back to many Karloff movies.This year I’ve reviewed: The Black Castle (1952), Devil’s Island (1939), Night Key (1937), The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), The Old Dark House (1932), The Lost Patrol (1934).

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12 thoughts on “The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)”

    1. Thanks, I’ll read that! today I’ll watch a Grinde-Karloff I haven’t seen, The Man With Nine Lives. These are all good fun, even with the flaws, this one I feel squanders a bit of the cool deathtrap setup but Karloff usually a pleasure to watch.

  1. I’ve heard this title a million times, but for some reason, I thought “The Man They Could Not Hang” was a Western! Thanks for setting me straight, now I will remember to watch it next time I see it turn up . . .

    1. Sounds like that. One of the many Karloff mad genius variations that he did so well. He was always more lovable than scary to me so I’m having fun revisiting these.

    1. My tolerance for scary is pretty high, but this one avoids too much horror, more of a debate on ethics and Karloff plots but doesn’t manage to get much done. Shows up on TCM so try it sometime 🙂

  2. I have a copy of this somewhere and totally forgot about it – I’ll try to find it and watch it. I also need to do something about organizing my collection!

    1. One of the joys of sorting a collection is finding things you never knew you had 🙂 I have mine under some kind of control now, so that adding to it and going through it is like “tending the garden”– fun part of the hobby.

    1. They certainly are, I have a few more I want to get through so it’s turning into an ongoing project, these two “Man Who..” movies aren’t covered in the Mank book other than a mention, too bad. I love those background stories.

  3. What a cool idea for a story, albeit a half-whacked one! And yeah, too bad they didn’t follow through with the ‘house of murders’ bit…might’ve been a very cool second half to the movie.

    And I asked Mike this a few days ago, and since it was hinted to in a comment above, I’ll ask you: how many movies do you have in your collection? DVD, VHS, Beta…include them all!

    1. Yeah I mean since it is a horror picture and they set up the mad genius’s murder house, you kinda want to actually see it working! But even so, Karloff is fun to watch and it’s worth a look.

      The collection! I should do an update on it since last time I mentioned it was over 3 yrs ago, and I’ve added and changed it a lot since then, what do you think, should I do a geeky post? The short answer is about 5100 movies, no more tapes, all burned to dvd-r by now. and since I always loved comics, that’s how I sort and store the discs, in envelopes 🙂 The crazy thing is, all those movies and I still get excited about new ones! Thanks for asking

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