Halloween Havoc!: BLACK FRIDAY (Universal 1940)

The Twin Titans of Terror, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, reteamed for their fifth film together in 1940’s BLACK FRIDAY. Horror fans must’ve been salivating at the chance to see the duo reunited after the success of the previous year’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but left the theaters let down upon discovering Boris and Bela share no scenes together, and the bulk of the action is carried by character actor Stanley Ridges in a dual role.

The movie’s a variation on the old Jekyll & Hyde theme, with a twist: instead of a secret formula, the change occurs via brain transplantation! The preposterous premise finds Karloff on death row as Dr. Ernst Sovac, walking that last mile to his fate in the electric chair. Sovac hands his notes and records to a sympathetic newspaper reporter, and our film begins in earnest. Flashbacks relate the tale of kindly old English literature Professor George Kingsley, struck down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon, who is trying to escape a hit by his former gang. Both men are badly hurt in the crash, with Kingsley being mortally wounded and Red paralyzed. To save his friend Kingsley’s life, Sovac transplants part of Red’s brain in Kingsley’s head (which of course kills the gangster).

While Kingsley convalesces, Sovac learns Red has a half million dollars in ill-gotten loot stashed away in New York City. The doctor brings his friend to The Big Apple under the pretense of “a change will do you good”, hoping to jog the Red Cannon part of his brain into revealing the money’s whereabouts, so he can fund more brain transplanting research. This works all too well, as the familiar surroundings cause the Red Cannon part of Kingsley’s brain to slowly take over, especially after seeing his former moll, nightclub canary Sunny Rogers. Aware that he’s unrecognizable in his new body, Red goes on a killing spree against the four mobsters that tried to rub him out…

The script by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor seems tailored for Lugosi to play the mad Dr. Sovac and Karloff as Kingsley/Red, right down to the character names and some of the dialog. But for whatever reason (reports vary), Karloff insisted on taking the Sovac part. It’s not like he’d never played a gangster before (see THE CRIMINAL CODE or SCARFACE for examples), but Karloff got his way. Bela wound up being wasted in the part of crook Eric Marnay (and though he’s quite good, it’s a minor role), and Ridges (who was probably slated to play Marnay) got the juicy role of Kingsley/Red. Ridges is effective, but it would have been a much better film if the original casting had stood.

Director Arthur Lubin adds a nice touch using the old “spinning newspaper effect” with Sovac’s notebook to transition scenes, with Karloff adding narration. DP Elwood “Woody” Bredell does a good job painting with shadows and light, warming up for future jobs on PHANTOM LADY , CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, and THE KILLERS . The supporting cast features Familiar Faces Murry Alper, Raymond Bailey , Virginia Brissac, James Craig (the sympathetic reporter), Paul Fix, Anne Gwynne, and Anne Nagel, but on the whole this is the weakest of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings (except for maybe RKO’s YOU’LL FIND OUT, with Peter Lorre and Kay Kyser and His Kollege of Musical Knowledge). *sigh* If only they’d stuck to the original casting…

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