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A criminal has plastic surgery done to change his identity. However, during the operation, he loses his memory; when he comes to after the surgery, he has a change of heart and decides to help people by becoming a doctor. Written by
THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE (Columbia, 1936), directed by Harry Lachman, is not exactly a story about reincarnation. It's an interesting blend of crime melodrama and science fiction. Though this particular premise can be categorized as something ahead of its time by 1936 standards, the end result is something more on a timely level in regards to personality change after brain surgery.
The story revolves around "Slick" Rawley (Ralph Bellamy), a disfigured crime leader who, after attempting his latest crime, is caught by a night watchman who sounds off the alarm. Chased by a policeman, a shootout occurs, leading Bob Williams, the officer in question, to die in the line of duty. Inspector Logan (Willard Robertson) of the Homicide Squad, and close friend of the victim, makes every effort to have Rawley captured and sent to prison with death sentence awaiting him, but his capture proves to be a difficult task. As Slock looks out his apartment window to find Logan and law enforcement officers closing in, he orders his partners in crime, former boxer John "Gloves" Baker (Ward Bond), and his moll, Peggy Russell (Isabel Jewell) to go their separate ways as he travels about alone. As the police give chase, Slick eludes them once again by hiding inside Baldwin Medical College. Entering an auditorium, Slick sits in on a very interesting lecture given by Doctor Clifford L. Schuyler (Thurston Hall) about hardened criminals being victims of organic or functional disorder, and how a brain tumor can cause abnormal pressure. Learning how Schuyler's brain operation experiments on vicious dogs and violent monkeys have changed them into gentle creatures, Slick comes to the doctor's home later that evening and talks him into operating on his brain and performing plastic surgery so he can start life anew. After the delicate operations, Slick, having no recollection of his past, is no longer the hardened criminal he once was. Told to be a victim of an automobile accident, Schuyler gives Slick a new identity of James Blake, assisting him through medical school. During the ten year span (1926-1936), Blake becomes both useful citizen and respected criminologist. After hiring Janet Hayden (Marian Marsh), a victim of the depression, as his personal secretary, Blake's past starts to catch up to him when he encounters Peggy at Belmore Island Prison, and later, Gloves, who, after serving time, comes to rob him in his office. Recognizing both his voice and habit of twirling his key chain, Gloves, convinced the mild-mannered doctor to be Slick, becomes his hired chauffeur, revealing nothing about their past association together. Problems arise as Blake becomes more curious about his past and why Peggy is trying to blackmail him.
Taken out of content to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," pointing out the nature of good and evil in human beings, the story, though modernized and recycled, very much leads to the same results. Slick Rawley starts off as bad. Though his disfigured face may be the reason for his criminal activities, it's never revealed how his face got that way in the first place. He does show there's good in him by wanting the brain surgery that could and does change his personality on a whole new different level. Ralph Bellamy gives a convincing performance in assuming two basic characters into one. His co-star, Marian Marsh, memorably the central figure of Trilby to John Barrymore's SVENGALI (Warners, 1931) appears late into the story, and given little to do as opposed to a challenging performance to earn her an Academy Award nomination. On the other hand, Ward Bond, one who's long career has ranged from uncredited parts to familiar face in the supporting role category, has a good sizable role as a tough but loyal friend whose main goal throughout the story is to go visit his mother before she dies. Bond's actions and mannerisms are his own but sometimes makes one think of a youthful Anthony Quinn. Thurston Hall shows off diversity in roles other than executive types. Nana Bryant as Hall's wife is one who's doubtful in her husband's experiments and unsure about having a wanted criminal under his wing; while Henry Kolker as the courtroom judge who befriends the kindly doctor with a criminal past, helping him with his published essays on criminology.
As interesting as the story is, it's interesting to note how THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE used to be shown on broadcast television as part of its horror film festival during the 1960s and 70s. In the New York City area, it played on Channel 5's (WNEW) long running Saturday afternoon/ evening broadcasts of "Creature Features" (1973-1979) before that weekly movie presentation was put to rest by 1980. Unavailable on the television markets for quite some time, and never distributed to home video or DVD, it finally surfaced on Turner Classic Movies on April 9, 2012. Though more science fiction than a fright film, the basic idea was good enough to be reworked by Columbia as CRIME DOCTOR (1943) starring Warner Baxter, spawning a long-running film series through 1949, and another brain surgery idea put to use in MAN IN THE DARK (1953) with Edmond O'Brien, but hardly recognizable to the 1936 edition. The original, no great masterpiece by any means, is certainly one for the memory book of forgotten films worth rediscovering. (**1/2)
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