THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) B/W 77m dir: Robert Wise
w/Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Sharyn Moffett, Donna Lee, Robert Clarke, Carl Kent, Jack Welch, Larry Wheat, Mary Gordon, Jim Moran, Ina Constant
This film is another of the productions of Val Lewton, who worked for RKO Studios in the 1940s and was a true master at producing high-quality "B" horror films.
From Variety's contemporary review of the film: "Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and given tightly scripted adaptation, Snatcher seldom lacks interest. Yarn deals with the traffic on dead bodies by hansom cabbie Boris Karloff. Corpses are used for study purposes in a medical school mastered by Henry Daniell. Russell Wade, young assistant to Daniell, is caught in the web of the illicit dealings, with Edith Atwater playing the wife of Daniell. Bela Lugosi is seen briefly as a handyman at the med school.
"Karloff portrays his sadistic role in characteristic style, but best performance comes from Daniell. Lugosi is more or less lost, probably on the cutting floor, since he is only in for two sequences.
"Body Snatcher is located in Scotland over a century ago. Settings are inexpensive but sufficient for the needs. Production values, in general, however, aid materially in making this picture a winner."
From Joel Siegel's study of the producer, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror: "The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's last round of RKO pictures, a thoughtful period suspense tale, intelligently constructed, acted, and filmed. However, it is somewhat tainted by the literariness and over-careful historicism of those late films, and for all its effectiveness, lacks the poetry of I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. ...
"The Stevenson source story is interesting if not especially distinguished: it provided Lewton with a rough, undeveloped tale of post-Burke-and-Hare body procurement for Edinburgh medical schools. The Lewton screenplay considerably improves upon the Stevenson material: the characters are more fully drawn, a number of interesting ironies are added, and the climax is grislier than anything Stevenson managed to achieve. There is, too, an added sentimental subplot, neither fresh nor particularly well written or acted, which detracts from the source material. Lewton's simultaneous tightening and sentimental diluting of Stevenson confirms what friends of the man have suggested --- that he would really have been of his time as a Victorian story-spinner.
"Karloff gives what is arguably his best performance as Gray, a man who wrongs and is wronged, a Uriah Heep more vicious and more pathetic. The screenplay affords Karloff much better material than he was used to receiving; in particular, one little dialogue in which he explains himself to MacFarlane, whom he has been tormenting: 'I'm a small man, a humble man, and being poor, I've had to do so much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr. MacFarlane jumps at my whistle, that long am I a man --- and if I have not that, I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a graverobber.'
"Henry Daniell is at least Karloff's equal as MacFarlane, a bold, witty performance. Bela Lugosi, included for marquee chiller value, has little to do as Joseph, MacFarlane's servant; he is seen sneaking about once or twice, and then is murdered by Karloff at the film's midpoint. Edith Atwater, the British actress who married Kent Smith [CAT PEOPLE], is hearty yet affecting as Meg, MacFarlane's wife. It is a small role, and one suspects it was written in because Lewton admired her and wanted to work with her. The romantic leads, Russell Wade and Rita Corday, are just adequate, a problem with many of the Lewton films.
"The Body Snatcher is precise in its details of 19th-century medical schooling, and after its release was screened for students at a number of American medical colleges. The problem of obtaining cadavers for study is, obviously, a useful chiller-plot mechanism, but it is also treated as a serious problem in the advancement of human enlightenment. MacFarlane is the man of science who has lost his humanity, a stock character who, despite Daniell's robust performance, can barely survive such heavily didactic speeches as 'Ignorant men have dammed up the stream of medical progress with stupid and unjust laws. If that dam will not break, the men of medicine have to find other courses.' Like the moral pedagogy, the dramatic ironies are are unsubtle. Gray blackmails MacFarlane into operating on the spine-damaged child, a request further pushed by Fettes [Wade], who has grown fond of the child's widowed mother. This forces MacFarlane to commission Gray to come up with another body for spinal section research, which in turn leads to the murder of the street singer. Karloff, a kindly monster, is the agent by which the child comes to walk again; Daniell, who does the actual healing, grows increasingly bestial in the pride of his knowledge. Forces of enlightenment and entrapment, reason and passion, daylight and darkness, are warring here as they are in the very best of Lewton's films, but this time the lines are too heavily drawn and much subtlety is lost in the impulse to moralise. However, the film never departs from Lewton's characteristic pattern; despite a 'safe' and 'progressive' final title telling how laws regulating the procurement of bodies for medical schools were reformed, it is the force of darkness which prevails in the film's last, best, superbly chilling scene."