Wicked Wednesday: The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

I try to like British films. I really do. But if you ever were to force me to choose between Hammer and Universal, it will almost always be Universal. Though why you’d be asking me in the first place would is odd anyway.

I’ve tried many times to enjoy Hammer Horror, but their films rarely connect with me. There are (English) people I’ve actually lied to about my taste just so I don’t seem rude. But I can’t pretend with The Man Who Could Cheat Death. This is certainly not a highlight of Hammer Films.

Or a highlight of anything, really. Unless you really enjoy endless, reiterating dialogue.

In Paris 1890, Doctor Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring)is a successful sculptor and doctor. At one of his parties, the guests admire his newest sculpture. Someone inquires about its purchase, but Bonnet tells him that his statues are never for sale.

The sculpture is of a young woman named Margo. Bonnet is particularly known for his great taste in models. During his party, one of his former models, Janine arrives with her beau Dr Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee). She enquirers about the statue he was meant to do of her, which sits unfinished behind some of his other works.

Bonnet ends his party early when he’s told his guest has been delayed and won’t arrive until the following day. When he thinks his guests are gone, he turns to open a safe, but is interrupted by Margo, who has stayed behind.

The young model clearly noted the obvious attraction between Bonnet and Janine. She begs for him to love her, and he grows increasingly irritated. His eyes begin to bulge and his skin turns a sickly green colour. He then grabs Margo around the mouth and throat and throws her to her ground.

He turns back to his safe and takes a measure of the green potion that sits inside it.

The following day, Janine returns to Bonnet’s apartments and asks why she and Bonnet never stayed together. They had fallen in love while living in Italy, but the doctor had a sudden departure. Though he does admit that he still loves her, and continues his sculpture of her.

During their session, Bonnet’s guest Professor Ludwig Weiss arrives. Bonnet is clearly thrilled that his guest has finally arrived, but quickly loses his smile when the professor tells him of the stroke he suffered months before. Ludwig shows that he has lost the use of his right hand is now unable to do surgery, particularly the one he promised to do on Bonnet.

Ludwig tells Bonnet that if they are to go through with “the surgery,” they will need the help of another surgeon. Thinking on his feet, Bonnet asks Janine to bring Pierre with her to their dinner the following night.

After Janine leaves, the two men discuss their experiment. It’s revealed that Bonnet is actually 104 years old, actually older than the 89-year-old Ludwig. Bonnet has retained his looks and health from when he was in his thirties. In order to maintain his life as is, he needs a surgery in which his parathyroid gland is replaced.

Ludwig is all for helping Bonnet, though he expresses his concern that Bonnet is losing his humanity and perspective on their project. He agrees to rope Pierre into their plan by asking him to be the surgeon. At dinner the following night, Pierre eventually agrees to Ludwig’s request based only on Ludwig’s reputation as a doctor.

As the guests prepare to leave for the night, Inspector LeGris arrives looking to speak with Bonnet. The inspector inquires after Margo, who was last seen at Bonnet’s party for his sculpture of her. Bonnet tells the inspector he has no idea where the girl is. And when the inspector asks to see the statue of Margo, Bonnet tells him that it was accidentally smashed that morning.

But Pierre knows better, as he had seen the statue in Bonnet’s study earlier in the evening. He almost tells the inspector this, but stops himself. Once the LeGris is satisfied, the party leaves for the night.

Ludwig immediately knows that Bonnet has had a hand in Margo’s disappearance as every time they moved to a new location, one of Bonnet’s models went missing. He then sees the parathyroid that Bonnet has collected and realises that it was taken from someone alive, not a corpse as they previous had done.

Then poor Ludwig has Bonnet turn on him. Bonnet is late to take his green potion, the one thing that keeps him normal until he will be able to have his surgery again. Bonnet then tells his colleague that he loves Janine and wants her to be with him forever by giving her the surgery. This disgusts Ludwig, who no longer sees their experiment as a good thing.

Bonnet tries to get to his potion in the safe but is constantly thwarted by Ludwig. He finally kills the man, managing to take his potion just in time.

The next morning, when Pierre arrives at Bonnet’s home, the man refuses to do the surgery he’s told Ludwig had left early that morning. Bonnet is then in a rush to discover where he can find a surgeon to work on him. The surgery must be done every 10 years, or he will become old and die. But when he ends up with no real help, he decides to blackmail Pierre.

Bonnet lures Janine into his workshop basement where she admires his statues. He hands her the one of a dog that he did as a child, marked with the year 1798 – the year he claims he was 12. Janine then realises that Bonnet is over 100 years old, but before she can speak to him, he locks her away.

Meanwhile, the inspector enlists Pierre to help him with his case. He tells Pierre about the unusual circumstances surrounding Bonnet. LeGris also tells Pierre that at least three disappearances have been linked to Bonnet, as they were all his models at some point. But each disappearance spans 60 years, much longer than the 30-ish look that Bonnet sports.

Pierre arrives at Bonnet’s home to speak to him and is told the truth about Bonnet and Ludwig’s work. Bonnet was the volunteer to be a the experiment for perpetual life. Without his surgery, he will die. All of the age and disease he has avoided will come upon him all at once.

While Pierre initially resists, Bonnet tells him about Janine, who is still locked up. Pierre had no choice but to agree to the surgery, but before he can begin, he sees that Bonnet has gone missing.

Bonnet rushes to the workshop to speak to Janine, who has found a mutilated, insane Margo in a prison cell. Bonnet tells Janine his story, and asks if she truly wants to be with him forever. She agrees, but their plans are cut short when Margo throws a lantern, causing the basement to catch fire.

Pierre arrives with the inspector just in time to save Janine. But for Bonnet, it is too late. Without his surgery, all of the age and disease begins to wear on him and he ends up looking like someone who went face-first into some wet clay. He and Margo burn together – Bonnet no longer able to cheat death.

I actually took a lot of notes for this film. But really I could have just scratched out large swathes of it. Little did I notice that the long-winded dialogue just loved reiterating itself. Maybe the writers assumed that their audience was especially dim. Though I do love both Christopher Lee and Diffring, I don’t think either could have saved this one.

The pacing is fine, but it constantly feels like it’s running around in circles. Perhaps it wasn’t quite enough for a feature-length film. The mad scientist shtick has been done much better than this. The Man Who Could Cheat Death is both flat and boring.

In the coming months, I do think I’m going to force myself to watch more Hammer films, and hopefully I’ll find the ones I enjoy. But for now, I sort of feel like Izzard got it really right:

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