Director: Terence Fisher
The mad science theme* continues at this blog with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, a nice-looking Hammer film, which like the 1945 Paramount version, The Man in Half Moon Street, was adapted from the Barré Lyndon play. The story concerns Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) who, thanks to an experimental procedure performed in his youth, gets to keep it; he’s 104 years old, but looks 35. Like Dorian Gray or Wolverine, Georges never ages and is unaffected by illness and injury. But unlike those characters, Georges must do some demanding and unethical maintenance work every decade to stave off the aging process. He regularly sips from a steaming, bubbling green potion kept in his safe, but only a gland transplant will stop all those years from catching up with him and rotting his body away.
Georges is as much of an aesthete as Dorian Gray, widely known for his fine taste in models and the skill with which he sculpts their likenesses. At the Parisian unveiling of his latest statue, a former muse and lover Janine Du Bois (Hazel Court) makes a return, and their rekindled romance sparks a rivalry with Janine’s prospective gentleman Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee). It’s a sensitive time for Georges, as he waits for his old friend Dr. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle), the man who knows his secret and the only surgeon qualified to do the thyroid transplant. The glitch kicking off Bonnet’s downfall is that Ludwig is aging and further disabled by a recent stroke and urges Georges to find someone else to do the surgery. Someone like Pierre.
Asking someone new to get involved means revealing the secrets of not only the immortality experiment but also of the trail of murdered and missing women Georges has left around the world. Though the stern and guarded Pierre is briefly fascinated by the prospect of a new procedure and scientific breakthrough, he has misgivings when he catches Georges lying to police, backs off when he learns the truth about his youth, and ends up helping the Inspector (Francis De Wolff) who’s come searching for George’s latest missing model. Pierre is morally upright, can’t be bought or swayed by anything he’s offered, but is finally forced to operate when Georges imprisons Janine, at which point Pierre pulls off a clever double-cross.
The deliberate pace might not yield enough action, scares or blood for some horror fans, but it does keep the tension steady and makes room for long discussions on the effects and ethics of living forever. Georges and Ludwig reminisce about their youthful quest for this knowledge, “for humanity,” never realizing how much of a curse it would be. Finding what lies beyond the “curtain of life” led to Georges playing God, murdering and valuing himself and his goals above all others. At the same time, Georges articulates some solid reasons for not sharing the secret; he foresees unmanageable overpopulation resulting from everyone living forever, as well as a murder culture arising from the need for replacement glands. This is all civilized debate until Ludwig discovers Georges not only harvested a thyroid from a living body but also plans to cure his loneliness by making Janine into his immortal companion. Ludwig smashes the container of Georges’ magic green youth juice, provoking Georges’ rage and leading to a morbidly funny bit where the panicked Georges scrapes and scoops up the salvageable bits of the congealed fluid.
And that’s what Georges is, a sad, solitary and pathetic genius who’s lived so long he’s running out of things to live for, but is greedy for more. He’s accomplished, attractive, desirable and pursued by ladies wherever he goes, but they offer diminishing thrill in mortal form since he outgrows them or they get close enough to discover his secret and he has to kill them. Frantic to find someone to operate on him, Georges is reduced to begging a washed up alcoholic surgeon with a shaky hand and filthy instruments, and he takes a good long while to assess the risk as his face registers both revulsion and desperation. The ice cold Anton Diffring does a great job exploding in moments of terror and temporary madness, and creating this tortured, sympathetic character who never expected immortality would be so hard, who hates himself and what he has to do to survive, but still feels he’s the only one who deserves it and curses life as cruelly short as he reaches the end of it. The mad rush to get the gland ends in a fiery climax in Georges’ dungeon thanks to one of his prisoners, and we get the payoff of his spectacular, smearing, boiling decay in the company of his lifetime collection of statues.
*Some other Mad Doctor movies reviewed recently: