The Men Who Should Have Cheated Death

From 1935 until 1979, Hammer Film Productions released some 166 feature films.  A phrase commonly used when referring to many of these pictures is ‘lesser known’.  Even if you restrict yourself to the horror and thriller genres for which Hammer is best remembered, there is still a large number of ‘lesser known’ works.  Of course, it is hardly surprising that in any list of movies there will be those with which the general public is not familiar.  The release of seven very popular Hammer Frankenstein films and nine even more cherished Hammer Dracula films was destined to overshadow the rest of the studio’s output. This is a bit of a minor tragedy, as most of these more obscure films are deserving of recognition.  Some are equal or occasionally superior to the best known Hammer productions.  Others may fall short of being considered hidden gems while still embodying the old-world craftsmanship that Hammer brought to the screen.  The Man Who Could Cheat Death fits comfortably within this final category despite having the wrong leading man.

Theatrical Poster

The Man Who Could Cheat Death is the retelling of the 1939 play The Man in Half Moon Street by Barré Lyndon.  The story had been previously fashioned for both the big and small screens, with a 1945 Paramount release being the most well-known.  Hammer screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, attempted to rework the story to better fit Hammer sensibilities.  The result was a tone reminiscent of a Jack the Ripper story but the plot from the play remains largely unchanged.  Dr. Georges Bonnet has discovered ever-lasting youth can be had by regular surgery to replace his parathyroid gland (of which humans actually have four and not in the location at which the doctor has his surgery but we won’t quibble on the details).  To obtain the necessary gland, the doctor has resorted to murder every ten years.

Dr. Bonnet on the hunt. That’s uncredited character actor Denis Shaw in the foreground as a loutish pub patron.

The action takes place in Paris of 1890, although it is a Paris that would probably not be recognizable to most Parisians.  This is Paris by way of London, including pea soup fog, a very British pub, and a prostitute with a Cockney accent.  But this is a Hammer film with all the lush sets and vibrant colours that are a hallmark of Hammer productions.  The script is heavy with discussion but even the most static and talkative scene is salvaged by a vitality inherent in its framing.  The Man Who Could Cheat Death is one of Hammer’s best looking productions.  Despite the film’s low budget, another Hammer trait, the fine use of colour, lighting, shadow, texture, and framing all come together to create a dramatic looking film with just a hint of the gothic.

Dr. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marlé) makes an ethical appeal in Bonnet’s laboratory.

Anton Diffring stars as the 104 year old Dr. Bonnet and this, unfortunately, raises one of the primary problems with the film.  Diffring is a more than capable actor but he plays the part in a very cold, theatrical manner.  He often turns away from the other actors to stare into the distance and pontificate towards the camera.  Diffring was known for this aloof acting style and was often cast as World War II Nazis because of it.  While the character of Dr. Bonnet does require a certain amount of cold, calculating arrogance, Diffring’s portrayal creates a very unlikeable lead with no connection to the audience or the other characters.  This is all the more regrettable when you learn the history of the film.  Anton Diffring was cast at the last minute.  The choice was likely based on Hammer having recently worked with him on a pilot for a Frankenstein-based series and the fact that Diffring had experience in the role having appeared in The Man in Half Moon Street episode of the TV series Hour of Mystery.  The actor originally cast as Dr. Georges Bonnet was none other than Peter Cushing.  Having suffered a serious illness while filming in Spain followed immediately with filming on Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Cushing dropped out of The Man Who Could Cheat Death claiming exhaustion only days before filming was scheduled to start.  One can’t help but imagine what the charismatic Cushing could have brought to the film if he had continued in the role.

Dr. Bonnet sculpts Janine Du Bois (Hazel Court). This scene was filmed to include some tasteful nudity, possibly for European release. Despite the existence of a still photo, it is not known whether any such print of the film ever existed.

What really drives home Diffring’s miscasting in the role of Dr. Bonnet is the presence of another Hammer regular that could have been wonderful in the lead.  Christopher Lee portrays Dr. Pierre Gerrard, the surgeon who Dr. Bonnet looks to for help when his long time accomplice Dr. Weiss is unable to perform the required surgery.  The part, while not insignificant, is far from a complex role for Lee.  Dr. Gerrard is little more than a patsy, discarded by Janine Du Bois in a very dispassionate love triangle and used by Dr. Bonnet.  Yet Lee brings his usual skill and professionalism to the part.  He portrays Gerrard as a wonderfully prim and proper Brit, despite the character being French, but does so in a very natural way instilling the surgeon with a little charm and personality.  This is exactly what is lacking in Diffring’s portrayal of Bonnet.  Yes, Dr. Bonnet is a cold, calculating, and self-centred monster but he should also be charismatic with hints of a conflicted soul.  Unfortunately, Christopher Lee was probably never considered for the part.  Despite the huge successes of both The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer executives did not yet see Lee as a leading man.  The studio would soon come to rely heavily on Lee but, at the time of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, he was still considered a secondary actor best suited to performing behind heavy makeup.

Inspector Legris (Francis De Wolff) asks Dr. Gerrard for assistance in his investigation of Dr. Bonnet.

There is one final unfortunate casting detail that I feel I must point out.  Character actor Michael Ripper was as much a mainstay of Hammer as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Ripper appeared in more Hammer films than any other actor and never failed to give a memorable performance.  In The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Ripper was cast as a morgue attendant.  Press material for the film back up this assertion.  However, there is no morgue scene in the picture and Michael Ripper does not appear.  It must be assumed that this scene was left on the cutting-room floor.

Character actor Barry Shawzin plays an alcoholic and shaky-handed surgeon in a scene that, fortunately, was not cut.

Lest I leave you with a bad impression of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, if you can get past the what-might-have-beens, it is not a bad film.  As I already mentioned, more action sequences would have helped dilute the excessive dialogue.  There is also the feeling that the producers ran out of time and/or budget as the ending is very abrupt.   On the other hand, the entire picture creates a gorgeous visual.  The Man Who Could Cheat Death also contains enough of the little nuances that Hammer fans have come to expect.  The movie is populated by numerous character actors (most uncredited due to the film’s strange lack of final cast list) in enjoyably quirky roles.  In between surgeries, Dr. Bonnet partakes in a diabolically-bubbling, green elixir to stave off the effects of his extreme age.  Better yet, the symptoms of being overdue for a dose of the mysterious liquid include bulging eyes, green skin, rage, and, inexplicably, the ability to burn human flesh with a mere touch.  The film is not a shining star in the Hammer catalogue nor even one of its hidden gems but it is a fun and entertaining diversion.

Dr. Bonnet needs his fix.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by Jimmy Sangster; Based on the play The Man in Half Moon Street by Barré Lyndon; Starring Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, Arnold Marlé, & Delphi Lawrence; Available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

This is my contribution to The Christopher Lee Blogathon.  My perpetually youthful ally on this site has also concocted an article for the blogathon here.  Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below.  Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for allowing us to reveal our true selves.

(Some historical information for this article was sourced from historian Troy Howarth’s commentary on the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray release of The Man Who Could Cheat Death.)

22 thoughts on “The Men Who Should Have Cheated Death

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    1. Cushing or Lee in the lead would have definitely raised up the film but it was still fun and a beautiful watch. Lesser Hammer is still quality entertainment.

      Thanks for having us, Gill. We always enjoy participating in your blogathons.

  1. Great review, Michael! I agree that this is one of Hammer’s “almost” films, that just misses the mark (I think Diffring was much better in the non-Hammer film, Circus of Horrors). It’s a shame that Cushing was unavailable for the lead, as he would have been truly memorable. On the other hand, this film manages to include many of the qualities that make Hammer films special. It’s always a treat to spot some of their regular performers (including Ripper, of course) appearing again and again. Many thanks for joining our blogathon!

    1. Thanks, Barry. This film is perfect for regular Hammer actor spotting. It’s a shame the film didn’t give them the credit they deserve. I’d love to know why the film has no end credits for the cast.

  2. Hi Michael! You absolutely hit the nail on the head — in a lead role that needed at least some saving graces, Diffring’s icy demeanor puts the audience off and mitigates the character’s tragedy. Cushing would have been much better. Even in his villain roles, especially as Frankenstein, Peter evinced an old world charm that had you pulling for him (at least a little bit). Great contribution to the blogathon!

    1. Thanks, Brian! Yes, Cushing could play an absolute monster like Frankenstein and yet you still felt a bond with him. Diffring just wasn’t able to pull that off. I didn’t mention it in my article but Dr. Bonnet is supposed to have this powerful emotional connection to Hazel Court’s character and yet as a viewer you feel almost nothing between them. I hate to pick on the guy because I don’t think Diffring’s performance was terrible. But, it could have been so much more.

  3. Great review of a film I’ve never heard of, Michael! 👍

    Despite its problems, and the what ifs, it sounds entertaining. I will have to keep an eye out for it!

  4. I like this movie a lot but you are right, Diffring is a very cold leading man. He has that same icy quality in everything I’ve seen him in, which works well for supporting roles, often playing the villain. Love the rest,of the cast, though, and the story.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Chris. Cold-eyed and cold-hearted Diffring worked perfectly as a Nazi officer, which is ironic as he apparently escaped persecution from the Nazis.

  5. The older I get and the more movies I see, the larger and more interesting grows the stack of “the if only” they had made a different casting choice, the had deleted his or that. I may sigh during a rewatch, but it still gets its turn in the sun.

    1. Well, I think that’s the final nail in the coffin for that joke. 😄

      Hammer did low-budget so well that I have a hard time thinking of their films in that way. Thanks for reading, Rebecca.

  6. Great review! I quite liked it. It’s a nice looking production. However, I do agree with you about Diffring. He is indeed too cold. You are right, Peter Cushing (or even Lee) would have turned this fun chiller into a minor classic.

    1. Thanks, Eric. Despite my misgivings about Diffring, both my daughter and I still enjoyed the film. There was just something missing and I think it was a connection with the lead.

  7. Great review. This is one I haven’t seen. I suppose if it starred Cushing or Lee I might have made more of an effort. Although I don’t dislike Anton Diffring, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see something he stars in. It’s a shame Cushing had to drop out, but it’s strange that it took Hammer so long to realise that Christopher Lee should be a leading actor. He keeps popping up in 2nd or 3rd fiddle roles in Hammer films in the early 60s but they’re never making proper use of him.

    1. Thanks! I guess in hindsight Lee was an obvious leading man but Hammer initially thought of him as the ‘monster guy’. Ironic that they would beg him to keep the studio afloat by returning to the role of Dracula over and over.

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