The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959 United Kingdom)

No, this is not the Cliff Richard story but that could be an alternate title. TMWCCD is from the era when a film could be made for 84,000 pounds, and look expensive. We have here a tale of an eminent doctor, Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring, who stepped into the role after Peter Cushing backed out) who dabbles in sculpting. Bonnet is maintaining a pretty big secret: he’s actually a lot older than he looks, managing to stay healthy and youthful looking by a scientific process involving removing glands from unwilling donors. The problem is one can see this was developed from a stage work so the viewer has to be patient. Very patient!

The first 45 minutes or so are bogged down in over-talky scenes that occasionally tell the viewer plot details that are already known – or at least strongly guessable – and the film suffers from some quite bad overacting from Anton Diffring in the set up stages of the plot. Maybe he was just over anxious. Like the film though, he improves as things develop and ceases to look as if he’s acting, which is the biggest fault in his performance in the early part of the story. The film has an impressive pedigree, with frequent Hammer director Terence Fisher doing a more than capable job, and Jimmy Sangster (Fisher, Lee, and Sangster, having previously done “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula” together) writing the script.

The settings of late 19th century Paris are moodily photographed, and the music score composed by Richard Rodney Bennett is excellent. The cast has a field day with the material, with Diffring managing to be equal parts demented and sympathetic. It’s nice to see Lee in a heroic role, and in support Arnold Marle and Francis De Wolff do great work. Mr Bonnet (who is really 104) has maintained his youth by receiving a fresh set of parathyroid glands transplanted into his body every 10 years. Bummer for the young women who possessed them to begin with. Now however, the surgeon who performed the operations is too elderly to continue, and Bonnet must find somebody new. Fortunately, an old flame (the voluptuously vibrant Hazel Court) comes back into his life in the company of a younger surgeon (Christopher Lee), so all Bonnet has to do is find a means of persuading him to do the job.

Sparse use of music gives the film that quiet calm common to much of Hammer’s ‘lesser’ output that ensures every footfall and ruffle of clothing is heard. Anton Diffring, who was probably more at home on the stage, has an annoying habit of looking out toward the camera (audience) in a rather theatrical way, on a regular basis, which tends to lend his performance a certain phony quality. A sedate and measured film, then, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is part of a sub-genre of horror pictures that critically dissect the vain obsession of the artist devoted to his work, even to the point where he will seemingly return from the grave to carry on or, in this case, attempt to perpetually stave-off their mortality. It fits right in with Murders In The Wax Museum and Phantom Of The Opera in this regard. And, naturally, there is a very conscious evocation of Dorian Gray about the penalty that must be paid for seeking eternal youth. Overall, this flick is mostly parlour room concept and little substance.

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