Here's a sneak-preview of material from my forthcoming book, Smirk, Sneer and Scream: Great Acting in Horror Cinema. The first half of my book is devoted to performances by horror stars such as Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and, of course, the great Boris Karloff. Each of these chapters begins with short biographical summary and some general comments. Later, I analyze some of the actor's best performances. Here's my take on one of Karloffs very finest portrayals, as grave robber John Gray in producer Val Lewtons timeless The Body Snatcher.-- Mark
The Body Snatcher (RKO, 1945) -- Karloff once called producer Val Lewton "the man who rescued me from the living dead and restored my soul." Lewton facilitated this resurrection by casting Karloff in a trio of exquisite thrillers, none finer than The Body Snatcher. After spending much of the past few years in a succession of assembly-line mad doctor vehicles, and with the general quality of horror films rapidly fading, Karloff was overjoyed to be cast as John Gray, the title character in Lewtons masterpiece of psychological terror. Karloffs zeal is palpable throughout the film, as he tackles his role with verve unseen since his mid-1930s heyday.
Screen writers Philip McDonald and Lewton, who wrote under his pseudonym Carlos Keith, draw Gray superbly. Gray, as his name suggests, is no simple black-and-white bogeyman but a complicated human being rife with inner turmoil. At least in his own mind, he is as much victim as victimizer. Karloff mines this emotional complexity for all it will bear.
When audiences first meet Gray, he looks anything but villainous. He delivers a crippled girl to a clinic run by Dr. McFarlane (Henry Daniell), hoisting the child into his arms to carry her through the door. "Come little Miss, cab man Gray will carry you safe enough." Karloff speaks in the same warm tone he probably used with his real-life daughter, Sara Jane. Gray even pauses to allow the girl to pet the white horse that draws his cab.
Later, Gray makes a more ghoulish delivery -- a body unearthed from a nearby cemetery -- to McFarlanes young assistant, Fettes (Russell Wade). "Ive had some dealings with McFarlane in the past, and Ive always gotten along with his assistants," Gray chimes, jovially tapping Fettes on the chest. Throughout the picture, Gray retains a beguiling cheerfulness that masks his darker motives.
McFarlane and Fettes encounter Gray again at the local pub. Gray insists on calling McFarlane "Toddy," even though (or because) the nickname galls the doctor. Gray is calm and confident as he incessantly needles McFarlane, leaning back in his chair with his head held high, ever smiling. McFarlane lowers his eyes and grimaces, bullied into silence.
Fettes pleads with McFarlane to operate on the crippled girl. At first, McFarlane refuses. Then Gray assures him: "Youll do it to oblige Mr. Fettes and meself. Maybe theres some private reasons between you and me thatll make ya. Some long lost friends, eh, Toddy?" When McFarlane relents, Gray patronizes the doctor: "Thats a good boy." McFarlane, with impotent rage, bitterly protests: "You only want me to do it because I dont want to. Thats it, isnt it, Gray?" Gray doesnt bother to look at McFarlane. Instead, he turns to Fettes and, wearing his frozen smile, cheerfully notes: "Toddy hates me." This brand of amiable avarice is uniquely Karloffian. Its difficult to imagine anyone else succeeding as well with such a scene.
We soon learn that Gray is a former accomplice of notorious grave robbers Burke and Hare (whose exploits inspired the Robert Louis Stevenson story on which the film is based). McFarlane was an assistant under Burke and Hares employer, Dr.Knox. Burke and Hare murdered 18 people to provide "specimens" for Knoxs anatomy lab. Now Gray takes the same approach in his efforts for McFarlane. When McFarlane learns Gray has begun murdering specimens, not merely stealing them from graves, he immediately discharges the "cab man" -- but Gray will not release McFarlane so easily. "Well, thats the end of business between us," Karloffs voice is swells with mock sadness, "but well still be friends, Toddy."
When McFarlanes operation on the girl proves unsuccessful, the doctor laments his failure to Gray at the pub. He demonstrates the operation he performed by stacking two goblets, but Gray sends the glasses crashing to the floor.
Gray: You cant build life the way you put blocks together, Toddy.
McFarlane: I know the body. I know how it works.
Gray: Youre a fool, Toddy, and no doctor. Its only the dead ones you know. (He forces the physician to look in a mirror.) Look at yourself. Could you be a doctor, a healing man, with the things those eyes have seen? A lotta knowledge in those eyes -- but no understanding.
Karloff underscores the disparate personality traits of his character, illuminating Gray with battling flashes of contempt and compassion. Gray revels in McFarlanes suffering, but his analysis of the doctors character remains on target. His futile attempt to correct McFarlane shows Gray has some degree of sympathy even for his nemesis. Theres also some measure of altruism in Grays desire for McFarlane to heal the crippled girl.
Gray "Burkes" McFarlanes servant, Joseph (Lugosi, in a thankless role) after the butler attempts to blackmail the body snatcher. With his left hand still on the face of his smothered victim, Grays right hand absently strokes his pet cat -- again combining cruelty with kindness. Finally, McFarlane confronts Gray. He waits for the body snatcher in Grays tiny, shabby room. "I must be rid of you," McFarlane explains. "Youve become a cancer, a malignant evil cancer rotting my mind." McFarlane attempts to bribe Gray. Grays rebuff provides Karloff with this extraordinary monologue:
It would be a hurt to me to see you no more, Toddy. Youre a pleasure to me ... a pride to know I can force you to my will. I am a small man, a humble man, and being poor I have had to do much I did not want to do. So long as the great Dr. McFarlane jumps to my whistle, that long am I a man. And if I have not that, then I have nothing. I am only a cab man and a grave robber.
Throughout this mesmerizing speech, Karloff radiates with the icy power that has held McFarlane helpless for so long. Yet, his voice also reveals sorrow and regret, particularly in the phrase "I have had to do much I did not want to do." Its as impressive a soliloquy as Karloff would ever deliver.
Contemporary reviewers reacted coolly toward The Body Snatcher, as well as Karloffs performance. Despite the laurels heaped on Lewtons films today, critics of the 1940s considered these pictures beneath notice. Decades later, in Classics of the Horror Film, Everson wrote: "Karloff is superb. How sadly he was wasted in routine horror roles. His dialogue is beautifully written to begin with and equally well delivered." In Boris Karloff and His Films, Jensen writes: "Karloff inseparably combines the more superficial techniques of menace with a rounded personality."
John Gray ranks as Karloffs most naturalistic portrayal. Like the very finest performances by any actor, the character seems to take on a life of its own and exist wholly apart from the actor behind it. Many consider this Karloffs very finest portrayal, and it proves difficult to argue otherwise.
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