The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)
During the first wave of success from the studio that dripped blood, Hammer Films, not every thriller cast Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as antagonists in the lead roles. While this film does cast Lee in the second lead and generally speaking, the heroic role, we are treated to a well cast Anton Diffring this time out in the title role of The Man Who could Cheat Death.
It’s Paris of 1890 where our tale of immortality begins. A foggy night and a murder are soon to follow in a Ripper styled theme. The killer has what appears to be a doctor’s black hand bag and scalpels within. Cut to an evening social with a mustached and dapper looking Christopher Lee arriving with beautiful Hammer Queen, Hazel Court on his arm. Anton is hosting and is to unveil his most recent sculpture. He also doubles as a well respected doctor who has his own practice and more as we will soon find out when his nosy model ventures where she shouldn’t.
When it comes to science and the gift of immortality, it usually involves human body parts and magical potions if we are to believe what the genre films have taught us over the years of horror cinema and this thriller from director Terence Fisher is no different. Anton is actually 104 years old and with the arrival of an old friend who chose not to cheat life years ago, the plot will move forward quickly when he discovers that Anton is more concerned with prolonging his own life at all costs versus the scientific discoveries they initially set out to unveil all those years ago.
Lee who is also a doctor with a strong sense of ethics is called upon to assist in a gland operation to help prolong the life span of Anton but soon finds himself trusting in his own beliefs more so then the desires of the demented Diffring. He’ll have every opportunity to derail the madman’s plans and save the lovely Hazel from the the clutches of Anton’s evil desires before the fade out.
This is a Hammer film I’ve always enjoyed and believe it deserves a bit more praise then it has received since it’s release. I suspect the number one reason it isn’t thought of as often when horror buffs discuss the early days of Hammer is the fact that it isn’t another pairing of the studios dynamic duo, Lee and Cushing. It seems more then obvious that Peter would have been a perfect fit in the title role.
Along with house director Terry Fisher, the credits are sprinkled with Hammer familiars. Michael Carreras served as producer. The screenplay was from Jimmy Sangster and Roy Ashton did the superb job on the effects of Diffring’s aging issues and bulging eyes when he faces his own immortality. Once again the folks at Hammer give us the lush color photography that they excelled at bringing a new look to the stale horror genre at the time.
I can’t help but compare the focal point of the plot to Darren McGavin’s second go around as reporter Carl Kolchak in the telefilm, The Night Strangler which featured a killer who came out of hiding every few years to claim some victims and their glands to brew his own secret life sustaining formula.
Not surprisingly, Hammer pushed the envelope here by featuring more then a bit of Miss Court’s cleavage and even a full look at her unclothed back as she poses nude for Anton’s sculptor. While we don’t get a frontal view, the audience members did get to see the finished statue from the waist up leaving little to the imagination of how healthy Miss Court’s bust line actually was.
Hammer fans I am quite sure will recognize the cellar were Anton has Miss Court stowed away nearing the climax of the film. If I’m not mistaken, it’s a redressed set that was also utilized as the crypt for Lee’s Dracula the previous year in the film that really cemented the studios reputation world wide, Horror of Dracula.
Leading man Anton Diffring would seem to be a natural fit for many of the studios productions yet wasn’t employed again by Hammer until 1975’s Shatter in a rather small role as was Peter Cushing in the ill fated production that joined Hammer with the Shaw Brothers of the far east. Prior to this title, Diffring did actually appear in an aborted TV series the studio was trying to put together titled Tales of Frankenstein in ’58.
I’d love to say I have the early classic one sheets of Hammer’s horrors but in reality, the only one sheet original I have prior to 1960 from the studio is indeed an excellent conditioned copy of this thriller.