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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)