Rejuvenation and Demise

Before I Hang (1940, directed by the to me previously unknown Nick Grindé) is almost a companion piece to a movie I wrote about earlier, The Walking Dead, and likewise situated somewhere in that gloriously indefined terrain that falls between crime, horror and science fiction. In this one Boris Karloff plays the very old and venerably white-haired doctor Garth, an altruist and humanitarian who based on his experiments with the human cellular unit is convinced that old age is a disease and humans may live well-nigh forever. He has experimented with a serum to rid the human cell of the poison that is old age, but the serum doesn't work. Not quite, not yet. Before he can perfect his formula he's sentenced to death for a mercy killing. He tried the serum on one of his dying patients. It had no effect. In the end he could watch the suffering no longer and ended the patient's life. For this he must suffer the penalty.

Dr Garth has three weeks before the sentence is carried through and he is executed.

In gaol Dr Garth gets a most peculiar proposition. The warden and the prison doctor are willing to allow him to continue with his work. For his serum he uses the blood of executed criminals and by Jove, this time it seems he gets it right. But there's no time to verify the result, the day of his execution is upon him. With less than half an hour to live, he gets the prison doctor to inject him with the serum so that his body may be studied after his death: his last gift to science. Then they shall see if it works, if it really works.

But wait, hang on - just as Dr Garth is about to step out of the laboratory gallantly to brave the gallows there's a telephone call. The governor has tweaked the sentence a bit and instead of hanging Dr Garth now faces life imprisonment. Dr Garth feels almost cheated, then the serum makes him feel a bit funny and he passes out.

He goes into a coma and when he comes to, well, dash it all, he's different. He doesn't need his spectacles for a start. That's not all. He looks younger, his hair's no longer completely white. As his colleague the prison doctor who has analysed Dr Garth's blood exclaims: "John, by every medical test you are twenty years younger than when you came here!" Blimey. Oh, and another thing. Before he went into coma he turned quite nasty and had to be subdued by three men and put in a strait-jacket.

Shortly thereafter Dr Garth is fully pardoned and may return to his studies. He's changed and not only physically. There's something eating at him, something he cannot remember - it's like a curtain or a wall and he cannot get past it. The prison doctor has been murdered and he isn't fully convinced the convict who is supposed to have done the deed is in fact guilty. There's something he must remember. But he can't.

Dr Garth throws a party for his friends at his residence. When it commences he just stands there glowering at the piano player, his face twitching. After the piece is finished the other guests rush over to the pianist gushing over his performance, telling him how he improves with every passing year and just keeps getting better and better. Dr Garth puts them in their place and cruelly tells the player they're lying and that he, the player, is an old man and that his powers rapidly decrease.

Then he tells them he's chosen them of all his friends to be the next recipients of his serum so that they may aid mankind with their crucial gifts for years to come. The guests are reluctant, the risk is simply too great. "I've had a full life," says one guest, "and after all, man is supposed to live three score and ten years." "But old age is a disease and I can cure it," exclaims Dr Garth, not quite understanding why the others are so unwilling. It baffles him. It hurts him. This is where science inevitably is going but oh so painfully slowly, while he, with one small inoculation, can add years to their lives, and do it right now, at this instant. Why are they hesitating?

The party ends on a sour note and Dr Garth storms off to his private quarters. Cut to the pianist's residence. He sits at his piano and practices but his fingers simply won't obey. Maybe Garth was right. He is getting old. Suddenly there's an ominous tap on the French windows. It's Dr Garth. He's come to persuade the pianist to take the serum. The pianist gives in. We shall do it now, Dr Garth says and reaches for his black bag which he's brought with him.

Whilst mixing the serum Dr Garth seems to experience a headache. He pulls out a white handkerchief - with which he then, quite coolly, proceeds to strangle the pianist. Then, horrified at what he's done, he shies back.

The detective on the case immediately hones in on Dr Garth and wants him under surveillance. Distraught and horrified at his deed, Dr Garth pays a call to a friend. He admits it was he who killed the pianist and the prison doctor as well - and he now knows why. The serum he was inoculated with was made from the blood of a murderer and the lust for murder has tainted his own blood. He will confess his deed to the police, he will turn himself in, but not quite yet. First he wishes to inoculate his friend so he may check and verify the result scientifically. Otherwise his huge discovery will die with him and that cannot be allowed to happen. The friend hesitates. Dr Garth pulls out his handkerchief to wipe his brow. There's an alarming look in his eyes. The friend tries to call for help and Dr Garth strangles him.

Dr Garth hurries home. His daughter finds him packing. His daughter knows. He pulls out his hanky, as if to strangle her, and she passes out. The police storm his house but he's already flown the coop. He makes his way to the gaol and he's let in. He acts in a strange and threatening manner and the guard shoots him down as he keeps coming on like he was crazy. I only wanted to be hanged before I kill again, he explains to the warden and then he expires.

"In the war of science many must die before victory is won," Dr Garth's assistant declaims in the end, echoing the sentiments of Dr Garth.

Karloff again gives a splendid, inspired and graceful performance. The script, despite its many fine qualities, is severely lacking. Which eventually sinks the film. And as the movie is just a few minutes over an hour long it's a bit of a rush job anyway. And the melodrama is too much. Cheap, to put it in a word. The horror elements are few and far between, the crime plot rather bland and banal, and the science fiction slightly juvenile. Which all of it could be ignored and heartily forgiven were the script better. This one really don't hold a candle to the extremely fine The Walking Dead.

The director, by the way, isn't quite as unknown as first I surmised. He's done Million Dollar Legs with Betty Grable, Shopworn with Barbara Stanwyck and above all The Bishop Murder Case with Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance. Not too shabby. The Philo Vance books never work as films but I'd quite like to see Rathbone's performance as that epitome of American snobbery and insufferable besserwisserism.

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