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The Man with Nine Lives

The Man with Nine Lives(1940)

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teaser The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

Released in England as Behind the Door, The Man with Nine Lives (1940) is the second of Columbia's unofficial "Mad Doctor" series starring Boris Karloff. He made his first with the studio, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), a year earlier, and later went on to Before I Hang (1940) and The Devil Commands (1941). In each, he played a scientist obsessed with his particular path of discovery, encountering resistance and repression from society but driven on to disastrous results. Karloff would also play variations on the role for Universal in such films as Black Friday (1940) and The Ape (1940). In a way, these pictures can be seen as the cheap horror programmer version of all those scientist biographies that pit a dedicated man on the verge of making an important breakthrough against a world that believes him at best misguided and at worst insane, such as in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940), and Preston Sturges's curious take on the genre, The Great Moment (1944).

In the first film of the series, Karloff's mission was bringing people back from the dead (a motif used to great effect in a revival of the mad doctor genre, the 1985 horror comedy Re-Animator). In The Man with Nine Lives he is involved in something with a stronger basis in scientific fact. As Dr. Leon Kravaal, he develops a potential cure for cancer that requires his patients to be frozen in order to use a revolutionary new serum on them. When government officials believe he has killed a patient in an experiment gone awry, Kravaal freezes them and himself. Their bodies are discovered years later by his assistant and unfrozen, allowing the doctor the potential to refine his process. But greed, corruption, and bureaucratic small-mindedness combine to derail the project with deadly results.

Perhaps part of the appeal of these mad scientist pictures is that they are, at least in hindsight, based very loosely on some real fact. In various stories in the series, Karloff worked with artificial hearts, brain transplants, means of communicating with the dead (something America's most famous inventor, Thomas Edison, was engaged in for several years near the end of his life), and here, cryogenics, a precursor to later cancer treatments that involved lowering a patient's body temperature prior to surgery. Of course, the methods are distinctly kooky; in this story, for instance, the means of freezing patients necessitates large, well-placed ice cubes, and reviving them which is akin to pumping them full of hot coffee.

Both The Man with Nine Lives and The Man They Could Not Hang were based in part on the real-life saga of Dr. Robert Cornish, a University of California professor who, in 1934, announced he had restored life to a dog named Lazarus that he had put to death by clinical means. The resulting publicity (including a Time magazine article and motion picture footage of the allegedly re-animated canine) led to Cornish being booted off campus. He continued his experiments for a few more years, although he was denied access to the cadavers of prisoners put to death in the state prison system. Cornish reportedly served as a technical adviser to the earlier film, and a low budget feature called Life Returns (1935), was made about his exploits but dumped by Universal as an unsuitable release bearing their trademark.

The Man with Nine Lives, The Man They Could Not Hang, and Before I Hang were all directed by Nick Grinde, who had a very busy career in the 1930s (he made close to 40 movies in one decade) turning out popular B movie programmers for various studios. He also reportedly worked uncredited on this screenplay to unintentional comic effect.

Director: Nick Grinde
Producer: Irving Briskin, Wallace MacDonald (Both uncredited)
Screenplay: Karl Brown, story by Harold Shumate
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline
Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Leon Kravaal), Roger Pryor (Dr. Tim Mason), Jo Ann Sayers (Nurse Judith Blair), Stanley Brown (Bob Adams), Hal Taliaferro (Sheriff Ed Stanton).

by Rob Nixon

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