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ITV Play Of The Week: THE ANATOMIST (TV) (Dennis Vance, 1956) **1/2
The gruesome true story of Scottish rascals Burke and Hare has long held a fascination for film audiences; consequently, in the last 70-odd years, we have seen their body-snatching exploits dramatized for the big and small screen no less than 11 times and, in fact, this is the sixth official version that I have gotten under my belt – or the seventh if one counts the definitive Val Lewton variation, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) which had provided Boris Karloff with one of his finest roles – and the most intriguing one that remains for me to catch up with is the Tod Slaughter one entitled THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART aka HORROR MANIACS (1948)!
Anyway, the film under review (actually the second of three TV adaptation of James Bridie's play that had been made in 1939 and 1980) is so obscure that some online sources cannot even agree on the year in which it was made, with some giving it as 1956 and others as late as 1961! Given the fact that stars Alastair Sim (who plays Dr. Knox in a typically eccentric characterization) and George Cole (as one of Dr. Knox's most admiring students) had already appeared together several times – including SCROOGE (1951) and THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN'S (1954), not to mention the black comedy THE GREEN MAN (also from 1956), the earlier date makes more sense – especially since both of them would make infrequent appearances in film from the 1960s onwards. Besides, by 1961 Michael Ripper (who plays Hare here) had already gone some way into establishing himself as Hammer Films' unofficial mascot and, after all, the Baker-Berman film version THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS starring Peter Cushing was only released in 1960 so, again, the earlier date is the more plausible one. Curiously enough, since we are speaking about Horror icons and their ilk, the IMDb states that prolific writer-producer Harry Alan Towers adapted this version of THE ANATOMIST but, frankly, I am sure I would have spotted his name in the credits had it actually been there!
So, when all is said and done, how does this retelling of the familiar tale stack up against previous (and more renowned) versions? Well, to say that it is literate and stately is to state the obvious and, indeed, it is too talky for its own good with just one assault – that on drunken bar wench Adrienne Corri – being depicted for the benefit of the viewers with the rest of the 81-minute running time dedicated to Cole's romantic hiccups with his stuffy girl Jill Bennett and Sim's own flirtations with the latter's sister (which sees him ostensibly playing the flute and donning a cloth over his head in the manner of a High Court Magistrate's wig to officiate over the Cole-Bennett case before him)! Having said that, it is interesting and unusual to see the age-old "Science vs. Morality" debate from the feminine viewpoint (in spite of that title!) that culminates in their giving shelter inside their house to a fleeing Sim from the ire of a pursuing lynch-mob!
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