by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Walking Dead, another in TCM’s Boris Karloff marathon last October 30, and a movie that took some typical Karloff situations (including casting him as a man who dies and is then brought back to life by scientific means) but gave them fresh spins and managed to create a quite somber mood very different from the sensational (for its time) horror of a lot of his better-known vehicles. It was made at Warner Bros., which had just signed Karloff to a five-film contract (at one point in 1939, the height of the studio system, when most Hollywood actors were working for just one company, Karloff had non-exclusive multi-picture contracts with four studios at once: Universal, Columbia, Warners and Monogram.) Indeed, for its first few minutes it seems like a typical Warners crime drama and one wonders just how they’re gong to fit Karloff into it: Stephen Martin (Kenneth Harlan) is on trial (without a jury) before Judge Shaw (Joseph King) on the charge of defrauding the government on contracts. Martin is actually part of a gang of high-class criminals headed by his attorney, Nolan (Ricardo Cortez). They mount a campaign of intimidation and threats against Judge Shaw to get him to acquit Martin, but he convicts him anyway. Nolan meets with his associates in the gang — Loder (Barton MacLane), Werner (Henry O’Neill) and Blackstone (Paul Harvey) — and announces he’s hired a hit man named Trigger (Joseph Sawyer) to kill Judge Shaw.
When the other gang members protest that this will draw more heat on them, not less, Nolan tells them not to worry: he’s got the perfect fall guy lined up (obviously playing Sam Spade in the first version of The Maltese Falcon five years earlier had taught Ricardo Cortez a thing or two about finding a fall guy). His patsy is John Ellman (Boris Karloff), who 10 years earlier was sentenced to a long prison term by Judge Shaw for killing a man who accosted his wife. Ellman has just been released two weeks before Trigger’s scheduled hit on Shaw, and they arrange to run Ellman’s car off the road and plant Shaw’s body in it after they kill him. The frame works and Ellman is tried, convicted and sentenced to death — Nolan, pretending he’s doing him a favor, deliberately mishandles the trial so badly as to ensure Ellman’s conviction (12 years before Orson Welles used the same plot gimmick in The Lady from Shanghai) — but there’s one complication. Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill), two young medical students working as lab assistants to medical researcher Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), actually witnessed the real killer run Ellman’s car off the road and transfer Shaw’s body to it.
Jimmy wants the two to come forward as witnesses, but Nancy successfully talks him out of it until the night Ellman is scheduled to be executed, when she finally breaks down and allows him to go to Nolan with the information that can spare his client’s life. Nolan deliberately delays reaching anyone in law enforcement with this information so he can make a show of concern while really sabotaging things so that the governor’s reprieve reaches the prison just after Ellman is executed. He hasn’t reckoned with Dr. Beaumont, who demands that instead of being autopsied Ellman’s body be turned over to him at once, whereupon he takes it to his lab and, with Jimmy and Nancy assisting, plugs it into a bunch of Frankenstein-like gizmos (including the so-called “Lindbergh heart,” which the celebrated aviator and fascist apologist actually co-invented with Dr. Alexis Carrel, whose real-life experiments with research partner Dr. Robert Cornish in attempting to revive electrocution victims apparently inspired this film) that bring Ellman back to life. At first Ellman is incapable of speech — he emits only non-verbal whines, groans and snarls similar to those he used in Frankenstein — but eventually he comes to and achieves at least a bit of his former intelligence. He also seems to acquire some sort of extra-sensory power, because without any actual evidence he intuits the identities of the people who set him up and starts knocking them off one by one. Eventually the police close in on him and he’s shot down, and before he dies the second time Beaumont frantically tries — and fails — to get Ellman to describe what the experience of death (his first one) was actually like.
The Walking Dead is an intriguing movie that tends to argue against my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers; though five people worked on this script (Ewart Adamson and Joseph Fields get credit for the story and Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Andrews and Lillie Hayward for the script), it has a lot of felicitious touches. Asked if he has a last request, Ellman is at first indignant — “You take my life and you want to grant me a favor?” — but then comes up with one: he asks that a live musician play his favorite piece as he’s walking to the electric chair (and as he gets in the chair he gestures up to the ceiling and says, “He will forgive me,” meaning God). Indeed, the first half of this film is considerably more moving and better as drama than the second half — though the whole piece is presented with a remarkable subtlety for what was pretty obviously intended as an exploitation piece aimed at Karloff’s core horror audience.
Michael Curtiz is the director, and he’s probably the best one Karloff worked with in the 1930’s other than James Whale (and maybe Edgar G. Ulmer). As Ellman, a sympathetic victim of both criminals and law enforcement, Karloff underplays throughout the film — a far cry from the snarling overacting he sometimes fell into with less carefully drafted scripts and less assertive directors — creating a vivid impression of a sensitive man, not especially bright but sympathetic and all too aware of what’s happening to him and why. The parallels to Frankenstein are there but they’re kept subtle — Ellman, even after he’s revivified, remains a normal human being (albeit one with quirky post-resurrection mental powers) and a likable if rather distant character whose killings are sufficiently well motivated that they don’t cost him the audience’s sympathy. The cinematographer is Hal Mohr (an Academy Award winner for the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a far more prestigious name than one would expect on a 62-minute “B” picture), and even when he has Ellman doing Karloffian things like skulking around in graveyards, he creates a vivid and somber atmosphere just as effective as the outdoor scenes in Karloff’s 1930’s films for Universal.
The Walking Dead is a quite good movie, ably showcasing Karloff’s remarkable sensitivity and subtlety as an actor and using familiar horror/sci-fi elements in intriguingly different ways. It helps that Edmund Gwenn’s character is also subtly played — instead of the usual “mad scientist” he’s a totally benign figure, even avuncular (in fact Gwenn plays this so much like his role as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street 11 years later — and with his neatly trimmed white beard he even looks like he did as Santa Claus — that one half-expects him to announce to his lab assistants Jimmy and Nancy that as soon as he finishes the experiment he’s going to have to load his sleigh with toys to deliver them to all the children of the world on Christmas eve), motivated not by some mad scheme to rule the world or even (as Karloff was in most of his own mad-scientist roles) by an idea to help humanity that he pursues in an unethical way, but simply by a sense of atonement for the guilt of his associates in failing to stop Ellman’s execution.
Though it sags a bit in the second half as the plot turns towards more conventional 1930’s horror situations, The Walking Dead is still an estimable movie that contains one of Karloff’s very best performances. Too bad his later work for Warners was in routine melodramas, most of them remakes (Invisible Menace, West of Shanghai, Devil’s Island, British Intelligence) that hardly “stretched” him the way this one did!