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In Edinburgh in 1831, Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane runs a medical school where Donald Fettes is a student. Fettes is interested in helping a young girl who has lost the use of her legs. He is certain that MacFarlane's surgical skills could be put to great use but he is reluctant to do so. The good Dr. MacFarlane has a secret that soon becomes all too obvious to young Fettes, who has only recently been promoted as his assistant: he has been paying a local cabbie, John Gray, to supply him with dead bodies for anatomical research. Gray constantly harasses MacFarlane and clearly has a hold over him dating to a famous trial many years before where Gray refused to identify the man for whom he was robbing graves. Fettes isn't aware of any of this but soon realizes exactly how Gray obtains the bodies they use in their anatomy classes. Written by
Robert Wise on Henry Daniell: "Henry was as far from a complainer as any I've ever known. He'd walk onto the set, do his work like the pro he was, do it damn good, and then quietly leave without being a burden to anybody. Period." See more »
When John Gray puts the blade into the bread, it moves dramatically over the next few shots. See more »
A sinister coach driver John Gray (Boris Karloff) supplies corpses for Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his assistant Donald Fettes (Russel Wade), but things start going pair shape when Dr. Wolfe finds out more about where these corpses are coming from, as supplies are running short and he tries to get rid of Gray, who doesn't share his buddy's (or Toddy's) thoughts. Another thing on their minds is that a mother of a young girl with a bad vertebra that's getting worse asks Dr. Wolfe for his help, but he refuses at first. But with the constant bugging from assistant Fettes, he finally goes ahead with the operation.
The more I watch this film, the better it seems to get! Val Lewton's "The Body Snatcher", which is set in the year 1831, Edinburgh - is an excellently well-handled thriller that holds SUCH great performances from the likes of Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Russel Wade, Edith Atwater and Bela Lugosi. What shines and drives the film other than its performances - is the intelligent screenplay and hypnotic atmosphere and setting that reeks of death and coldness. The foggy, empty and dark streets of Edinburgh during the night have an approaching sense of menace, especially when Karloff is on screen. An impressive Boris Karloff as John Gray the Cabman evokes such tension and depth. He always makes his presence distinguishable, with the scenes he's in being the most interesting. His appearance and body language has some unsettling effect - in a captivating way. His performance in my opinion is up there with the likes of "The Mummy" and "Bride Of Frankenstein". I read a lot positive remarks towards Karloff's performance, but IMHO Henry Daniell was equally as good. He's great as the troubled Dr. Wolfe, who is haunted by Gray. You could say he was the backbone of the film. When these two shared the screen, is when the fireworks certainly occurred. Russel Wade is quite sympathetic in his role, as the reluctant assistant who gets drawn into Dr. Wolfe's mess. Edith Atwater delivers a sound performance and there's basically a neat cameo role by Bela Lugosi.
I wasn't bored, but for some people it might be a tad too slow and real talkative, as what this film thrives on, is its vivid literature, well-rounded characters and potently gripping confrontations, especially between Wolfe and Gray. The story has its moments of psychological suspense that steadily develops into a thrilling and powerful finale (that has the usual thunderstorm evident). The way the final lines of dialogue were set up in that sequence is truly unnerving. Also throw in elements of greed, guilt and pride and how it gets the better of people. So there is a moral to all of this. Sudden shocks and jolts fill the film, but definitely not cheap ones. Mostly the deaths are implied, though there is great use of sound in those situations eg. The sound of a horse trotting. It's very effective! It isn't stylish or spirited directing by Robert Wise, but to cap it off, he achieves a downright inventive and believable movie piece.
My only small complaint is that it could've been a much darker film, but it's the lightness of the sub-plot about the crippled girl that "slightly" spoilt it. Was it trying for an innocent point of view?Nonetheless, it's still my favourite Lewton/Karloff film, to date.
"Never get rid of me!"
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