Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Karloff and Lugosi are miscast in 'Black Friday'

Black Friday (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi and Anne Gwynne
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When brilliant brain surgeon Dr. Sovac (Karloff) is the attending physician for dying mad-dog gangster Red Cannon and his best friend Professor Kingsley (Ridges), a man who is already dead from brain damage due to Cannon's actions, Sovac decides to conduct an extreme eperiment: He transplants part of Cannon's brain in the hopes of saving Kingsley... as well as proving his theory that a person's personality and memories is preserved in the brain cells. To Sovac's initial delight, his surgery is a success and his theory is proven true, but when he causes Cannon's personality to become the dominant one, the gangster-in-the-professor's body starts taking gruesome revenge on those who killed him, including rival gangster Marney (Lugosi).

"Black Friday" is an interesting horror flick that crosses Frankensteinian mad science with the hardboiled gangster genre. It has its interesting points, but it is a bit overburdened by too many plot complications, and it has an ending that comes too suddenly and too easily. Another run at the script to streamline the plot and expand the ending a bit would have improved this film immensely.

The acting is excellent all around, with Stanley Ridges doing a great job in the dual role of Cannon and Kingsley. (Never mind where the brill cream comes from when he turns into the gangster... it's a great bit of acting, contrasting the mild-mannered professor with the homicidal gangster.)

The oddest thing about the movie is the casting choicies. It seems like Karloff would have been perfect in the dual-role of Kingsley/Cannon, and that Lugosi would have been great as Sovac--heck, some of the exchanges between characters seem to imply that Sovac hailed from some strange and foreign land--but instead we have Karloff as Sovac, Lugosi in a minor role as a gangster, and Ridges as the ambulatory mad science project. As mentioned above, Ridges does a great job, but I can't help but wonder how much better the film wold have been if Karloff had been in that role, and Lugosi as the doctor.

(I read an online rumor that Karloff didn't feel he could play an American gangster, so he refused to take the Kingsley/Cannon part... but given that he played a similar part in "The Black Cat" that's an explanation that doesn't make much sense. In fact, if Lugosi had played Sovac and Karloff Kingsley/Cannon, they would have been in similar roles as the ones they played in "The Black Cat", a film where they both gave great performances. Perhaps a concern was that Lugosi couldn't bring enough of a sympathetic air to the part of Sovac? If anyone knows the true story, let me know!)

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