Based on the play by Barré Lyndon (screenwriter of The Greatest Show on Earth, The War of the Worlds, Man in the Attic), The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a surprisingly literary film with very tight plotting and memorable leads (although Hazel Court's pretty much trapped playing the busty, corseted love interest, with the I.Q. of a toothpick), and some very extensive dialogue scenes that would never have survived a more contemporary studio translation.
As surgeon/amateur artist Georges Bonnet, Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors, The Blue Max) has some very long moral debates with colleagues Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marlé) and Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee), and the exchanges add great depth to Bonnet's awful dilemma in wanting to stay young knowing it has more to do with ego and fear of a horrible death than any value for humanity.
Death has that elegant Hammer look (the film was shot by house cinematographer Jack Asher), as well as some fine set décor that vividly captures a wet and dingy nineteenth century France . Equally potent is an early and very sly score by Richard Rodney Bennett (Billion Dollar Brain, Murder on the Orient Express) which beautifully supports the sometimes Grand Guignol horror without bashing audiences hard with dissonance; it's a fine example of invisible scoring, and demonstrates Bennett's versatility in many genres.
Green is the colour of greed as well as Bonnet's secret potion that stops him from turning into a paling, leathery thing, while warm tones symbolize the moments of rich life he experiences when he carves another busty model with whom he's already romanced and discreetly boffed in the boudoir.
Jimmy Sangster's adaptation balances moral and physical horror, and nicely staggers Bonnet's multiple secrets, as well as the creepy, if not campy shocks that hasten Bonnet's eventual confrontation with destiny.
As Bonnet, Diffring is hugely theatrical, and Terence Fisher's direction is often static whenever characters are talking, or following Diffring as he walks from one corner to another, and looks off-camera to no one or nothing in particular, delivering his lines and expressions with thick melodramatic pauses, but it works for the film's odd mood, and shapes Bonnet into an arrogant and misogynistic beast. His treatment of old flame Janine Dubois (Hazel Court) is particularly awful; at one point, after teasing her with drops of passion, he abandoning her in her birthday suit like some stale pastry when his servant is at the door.
More impressive is Lee as Court's beau, forced to help the man stealing his girl's attention. Although he played a straight role in The Skull, in Death, Lee is part of an ensemble cast, and shows off some fine subtle acting that was often wasted by producers bent on milking Lee's horror persona, when he was far more versatile in character roles, like the vile but infectiously likeable Rochefort in Richard Lester's giddy Three Musketeers diptych.
Legend's DVD is a straight bare bones release, but The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a tight little Hammer film that will surprise genre fans accustomed, and perhaps inured to the studio's familiar vampire and werewolf franchises.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan