The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)


(director: Nick Grinde; screenwriters: Karl Brown/story by George Wallace Sayre & Leslie T. White; cinematographer: Benjamin H. Kline; editor: William A. Lyon; cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Henryk Savaard), Lorna Gray (Janet Savaard), Robert Wilcox (Scoop Foley), Roger Pryor (Dist. Atty. Drake), Don Beddoe (Police Lt. Shane), Ann Doran (Betty Crawford), Joe De Stefani (Dr. Stoddard), Charles Trowbridge (Judge Bowman), Byron Foulger (Dr. Lang), Dick Curtis (Clifford Kearney), James Craig (Watkins), John Tyrrell (Sutton), Stanley Brown (Bob Roberts); Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Wallace MacDonald; Columbia Pictures; 1939)
“The B-film story might be weak, but Boris Karloff gives a strong performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nick Grinde (“Before I Hang”/”Road to Alcatraz”/”Scandal Sheet”) helms the first in a series of Columbia’s four “mad scientist” films that starred Boris Karloff. The silly storyline was inspired by the real-life experiments of the biochemist Robert Cornish. He brought dogs back to life after giving them nitrogen gas. An unfortunate side effect of the process, however, is that the dog had severe side effects after being revived. The B-film story might be weak, but Boris Karloff gives a strong performance.

Dedicated scientist Doctor Savaard (Boris Karloff) has killed his volunteer medical student patient, Bob Roberts (Stanley Brown), and plans to revive him in order to solve the riddle of death. But the subject’s skeptical girlfriend, Betty Crawford (Ann Doran), gets cold feet in the middle of the experiment and tells the law and they arrest Savaard without giving him the hour needed to work his miracle. Condemned as a misguided madman scientist, Savaard is hanged. After the execution his body is delivered to his assistant Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), who follows Savaard’s radical theory and has time to repair by operation his broken neck and give the subject a mechanical heart. Once revived, Savaard returns no longer as a humanitarian but as a dark madman bent on revenge. He influences six of the hostile jurors to commit suicide, and three months after his miraculous return calls the others to his home who condemned him–the judge, the jury, the prosecuting attorney (Roger Pryor), the arresting police officer (Don Beddoe) and several material witnesses. They are then threatened, as he plans to kill them one at a time in 15-minute intervals after he locks them in by electrified gates. But Savaard’s loving daughter Janet (Lorna Gray), informed of the meeting by her reporter boyfriend (Robert Wilcox), arrives to find her crazed dad after he ghoulishly kills the rigid judge (Charles Trowbridge) and the zealous jury foreman (Dick Curtis) who demanded his execution. With Janet’s presence, Savaard finds his humanity returning and succumbs to the forces of law and order. Before dying, he destroys his life’s progressive work because he sees how dangerous is the new theory in the conservative current real world.