Boris Karloff is The Body Snatcher (1945)

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To view The Body Snatcher click here.

Director Robert Wise is widely regarded as a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents. In The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 critic Andrew Sarris famously labeled Wise’s output as “strained seriousness” asserting that the director’s “stylistic signature . . . is indistinct to the point of invisibility.” David Thompson parroted these claims in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film when he stated that Wise’s “better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance” and complained that his filmography was merely a “restless, dispiriting search among subject areas.” While it’s true that Wise explored a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, noir, westerns, musicals and war dramas, his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview and he possessed the extraordinary ability to elicit career-defining performances from many of the actors he worked with.

A few of the remarkable roles Wise nurtured and defined include Lawrence Tierney’s ruthless Sam Wilde in Born to Kill (1947), Robert Ryan’s down-and-out boxer in The Set-Up (1949), Michael Rennie’s peace-pursuing alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Susan Hayward’s doomed career criminal in I Want to Live! (1958), Rita Moreno’s spirited and vengeful Anita in West Side Story (1961), Julie Harris’s meek and melancholy Eleanor “Nell” Lance in The Haunting (1963) and Steve McQueen’s solitary sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). But my favorite acting feat in all of Wise’s directing oeuvre can be found in The Body Snatcher (1945). Currently streaming on FilmStruck, this classic Val Lewton production directed by Wise, stars Boris Karloff in what is arguably his most accomplished performance playing John Gray, a merciless grave robber with soul-piercing eyes and a bone-chilling grin.

The Body Snatcher is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson that was inspired by the 19th-century crimes of Burke and Hare, two notorious body snatchers who committed multiple murders and then sold the victim’s corpses to The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for dissection purposes. The film adaption broadens Stevenson’s tale of an accomplished doctor (Henry Daniell) and his loyal student (Russell Wade) who become entangled with a grave robbing cabbie named John Gray. It also ratchets up the horror quotient by magnifying the role of Gray as he commits one shocking atrocity after another to supply the doctors with much-needed specimens while gleefully lining his pockets with the ill-gotten gains.

Stevenson’s original text only contains a few words that describe the character of John Gray commenting on the “hang-dog, abominable looks” typical of grave robbers and singling him out as “a very loathsome rogue.” The screenplay, which was originally written by Philip MacDonald and revised by Val Lewton, reinforces the characterization describing Gray as “a man of middle years with keen, darting eyes set in a face lined and furrowed by an evil life. The quick play of his features as he talks or smiles can form a moving and deceptive mask.” These brief descriptions of Gray only scratch the surface of Karloff’s rich, multifaceted depiction of the sinister scoundrel but they are noteworthy stepping stones that demonstrate what little background the 58-year-old actor had to work with and how much he brought to the role.

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Additional inspiration for Karloff’s interpretation of Gray most likely came from another Robert Louis Stevenson story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In The Body Snatcher, the dueling nature of man is represented by the noble, wisdom-seeking Dr. MacFarlane (also played brilliantly by Henry Daniell) while his evil alter-ego manifests as the capital-driven resurrection man. Even Karloff’s appearance in a worn top hat and long, cape-like coat is reminiscent of Hyde.

Karloff carries himself with a kind of willful arrogance, but his ragged clothes, stooped posture, deep-set eyes, heavy brows, unruly stubble and unwashed hair suggest a cadaver’s appearance. His John Gray is losing what’s left of his humanity with every swing of his shovel and Karloff wears the weight of the character’s deeds like a suit of rusty old armor. His crimes have become a grotesque badge of honor. He is the Grim Reaper or Charon of Edinburgh, driving a hansom cab through cobblestone streets instead of a ferry boat down the River Styx. He relishes the fear he ignites in the hearts of so-called ‘gentlemen’ who buy his profane wares, so they won’t have to dig around in rotting cemeteries during the dead of night and risk sullying their good names. But Gray is no mindless lackey and Karloff instills his character with a cutting wit and streetwise wisdom that suggest he is sharper than many of the well-read doctors he interacts with.

If I had to single out one standout acting moment in a film that contains many, I would point to Karloff’s final screen encounter with his longtime associate Bela Lugosi who also makes a noteworthy appearance in The Body Snatcher. Bela plays Joseph, a simple-minded and sympathetic janitor who cleans the doctor’s labs. When he becomes aware of John Gray’s nefarious money-making activities, Joseph decides to blackmail him but he isn’t prepared for the callous brutality that awaits him once he ventures inside Gray’s den of iniquity and their interaction takes a particularly macabre turn.

Val Lewton originally did not want to work with Karloff but producer Jack Gross convinced RKO to sign the “King of Horror” to a three-picture deal. Gross hoped the actor’s name would attract audiences but Lewton wanted to distance himself from Universal’s brand of Gothic horror. He was interested in creating modern thrillers with a subtler approach that didn’t rely on lots of monster makeup to terrify audiences. But according to director Robert Wise, once Lewton met Karloff, the two became fast friends and developed a respect for one another’s talent.

“Boris Karloff was an absolute joy . . . he was very well educated and well-read, a cultured man with fine manners–soft-spoken, and a gentleman in every sense. He was a delight to work with as an actor–very responsive, very professional. Boris was particularly keen about doing The Body Snatcher. He felt it was his first opportunity to show what he could do as an actor, a fine actor of great skill and great depth.” – Robert Wise, quoted in Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank

When it was released in 1945, The Body Snatcher proved to be one of RKO’s most successful horror films and Boris Karloff went on to appear in two other Lewton productions, Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). Karloff is exceptional in the three films he made with Val Lewton but in The Body Snatcher, he is a terrifying force of nature. Robert Wise, who was proud of his collaborative working relationships with actors, was able to encourage a truly spectacular performance from the aging horror star that rivals his iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Karloff also had something to prove to these new purveyors of horror cinema who were not particularly interested in his antiquated skills, but they shouldn’t have worried. Karloff’s cadaverous John Gray is one of the greatest screen achievements of the 1940s.

If you stream one horror film this Halloween, I recommend The Body Snatcher but I suggest pairing it with The Haunting (1961) and Audrey Rose (1977). These chill-inducing movies were all made by Robert Wise and prove that the director was not only adept at eliciting great acting performances from his cast but he also knew how to scare the hell out of an audience.

Kimberly Lindbergs

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15 Responses Boris Karloff is The Body Snatcher (1945)
Posted By Doug : October 26, 2017 7:28 am

Kimberly, whatever else Karloff may have been, he elicited quite the valentine from you in this post-very fine writing; “The Body Snatcher” plus “The Haunting” and “Audrey Rose” sounds like quite a good evening.
I’m kind of surprised that Robert Wise is regarded as ‘a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents.’ by some critics.
Quibbling with a Craftsman who didn’t feel the need to inject his personal ‘brand’ into every production?
Not every director ‘needs’ to make a production all about him or her, and Wise was wise to never allow his work to be set in a particular genre.
John Carpenter, for example, would have a hard go of it outside of Horror.
Thank you, Kimberly, for this post, arriving the week of ‘Halloween’.

Posted By nightsmusic : October 26, 2017 11:23 am

My favorite of all Karloff’s movies. A brilliant actor who, until this movie in particular, had few scripts that truly showed how talented he was. And Robert Wise brought his brilliance to a peak here. Wonderful review of all involved. Thank you.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 26, 2017 3:38 pm

Doug – Thanks so much! I adore Karloff and I’m glad you enjoyed my Halloween “valentine” to the man. I’ve always liked Wise’s work and think he deserves better consideration. He may have been a “jack of all trades” director but contrary to popular opinion, I think he was a master of some genres and wish he had made more horror films and noirs.

nightsmusic – Thank you! It is a shame that Karloff wasn’t given more opportunities to really show off his acting chops.

Posted By Christine in GA : October 26, 2017 7:18 pm

Great article, Kimberly, one of your best. I’m a big fan of THE BODY SNATCHER and Boris Karloff and agree it’s one of his best, if not the best, performance. Henry Daniell is also excellent. The scene with the blind girl singer is still chilling (those who’ve seen the movie know which scene I’m talking about). I also love Karloff in TARGETS.

As for David Thompson, I’d give him a mixed grade on his opinions and criticisms so I’m not surprised he’s selling Robert Wise short. Thanks again for showcasing a great film and actor.

Posted By George : October 26, 2017 7:45 pm

Wise’s critical reputation fell in the ’60s and ’70s, as he became a director of musicals and other expensive “prestige” films (Sand Pebbles, The Hindenburg, etc.) But I don’t think he lost his skills — except for the snoozefest that was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Gene Roddenberry bears some of the blame for that.

Both Sarris and his arch-rival, Kael, loathed prestige directors such as Wyler, Stevens, Kramer … and Wise.

“his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview”

For proof, see 1947′s Born to Kill.

Posted By Christianne Benedict : October 26, 2017 11:23 pm

I have a hard time reconciling the fact that the same man who directed Born to Kill made The Sound of Music. Then he turned around and made The Andromeda Strain, which is the stuff of nightmares. He was versatile. I don’t dislike his “prestige” pictures at all, not even the big musicals, but I liked him better in disreputable genres like horror, noir, and sci fi.

The Body Snatcher is not my favorite Karloff film–that would be Frankenstein–but it IS my favorite Karloff performance. That sinister lisp is put to exquisite use in this film. “You’ll never be rid of me, never be rid of me, never be rid of me…”

Posted By Erich Kuersten : October 27, 2017 10:22 am

Kimberly – you concisely explain why I’ve never liked this film in a way that makes me now like it. The whole bit with Henry D. not doing the child’s operation after getting her hopes up, etc. smacks of Dickensian emotional blackmail, but mainly it’s that Karloff’s performance makes me genuinely uncomfortable – as you say, smarter and more streetwise than those doctors he serves, relishing how uncomfortable he makes them, and me. I’ve never really understood the animosity accorded ‘journeymen’ like Wise and Wyler. Their work is always mature and accomplished, serving the material rather than themselves. The journeymen score more watchable movies than some of the recognized auteurs who make a handful of classics and a lot of indulgent tripe. And not only that but their ganging up on them smacks of something I know you and I both can’t stand, a kind of critical herd / mob mentality ordinarily beneath them. Amen.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 27, 2017 5:37 pm

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone! Glad to see other Wise and Karloff fans speaking up.

Christine – I love Karloff in Targets too but I tend to love him in everything.

George – Born to Kill is a great example of that “gloomy nihilistic worldview” I discussed but even his prestige films like West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles & The Hindenburg share it. It was a thread that ran through much of his work despite the gloss he gave some of his films.

Christianne – So glad you mentioned The Andromeda Strain! It’s one of my favorite Wise films and one of the best sci-fi films made in the 1970s. And talk about great performances, the whole cast is terrific in that but I’ve got a serious soft spot for Kate Reid. She’s so great!

Erich – So glad I was able to make you see the film in a different light. That’s the kind of response I always hope to get! And yeah, I hate the critical heard mentality that develops around certain directors. Journeymen (aka workhorse directors) typically get kicked around a lot and their best qualities are often overlooked or undervalued.

Posted By George : October 27, 2017 8:03 pm

Kimberly said: ” … even his prestige films like West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles & The Hindenburg share it.”

I remember seeing Sand Pebbles as a kid and being shocked by the ending, and by Steve McQueen’s fate. I thought heroes always won! Probably the first downbeat ending I saw in a movie.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is another great, gloomy Wise noir, with a memorable, nihilistic ending.

I also loved Kate Reid in Andromeda Strain. The novel had an all-male team of scientists, but screenwriter Nelson Gidding suggested one of them be a woman. Kudos to Wise for going along with it. I’m afraid that if this happened today, fanboys would be going berserk on the internet, as they did over the recent Ghostbusters reboot.

Posted By George : October 27, 2017 8:16 pm

“Journeymen (aka workhorse directors) typically get kicked around a lot and their best qualities are often overlooked or undervalued.”

We saw that again this year, in the online “community”‘s response to Ron Howard taking over the Han Solo movie. Fans were outraged that a “journeyman” like Howard was replacing the “visionary” directors, who were apparently in over their heads.

The workhorses usually don’t get much praise until they’re dead. See: Walsh, Wellman, Hathaway, Sirk, Joseph H. Lewis, etc.

Posted By Doug : October 28, 2017 8:00 am

“the online “community”‘s response to Ron Howard taking over the Han Solo movie.”
That community is guilty of Heard Mentality-”I heard this or I heard that”.
If they ever SAW any of Howard’s films, they would be thrilled that he is on the Solo picture.
He’s been a solid director for decades; one of his underrated films, 2011′s “The Dilemma” is a revelation.
Luckily, Wise and Howard and other fine craftsmen are not limited by the mis-perceptions of others.

Posted By jojo : October 28, 2017 8:42 am

I will never understand the film-snob parroting on the greatness of say Curtiz, and the trashing of Wise. Perhaps, it has something to do with the (incorrect) notion that Wise had a hand in ‘destroying’ Magnificent Ambersons… I’m not sure.

But, Wise has more flat out great movies on his resumé, than Curtiz has good. Okay, that may be a hyperbole, but still…

Posted By Christine in GA : October 28, 2017 11:44 am

I have enjoyed reading all these well-written thoughtful comments. Thanks.

Kimberly, I also love Karloff in everything. He always delivers a fine performance regardless of the film. I was just pointing out TARGETS as one of my favorites.

Posted By George : October 28, 2017 3:55 pm

Check out Karina Longworth’s current series of “You Must Remember This” podcasts, which are all about Karloff and Lugosi.

Posted By swac44 : October 28, 2017 5:24 pm

Karloff gets some plum roles in pre-code titles like The Criminal Code and Five Star Final, but once Frankenstein fever kicked in, it seems he just had to go with the flow.

Thanks for inspiring me to pull my Val Lewton box down off the shelf. Watched this film yesterday, followed by Wise’s DVD commentary where he notes that whatever rivalry existed between Karloff and Lugosi, he didn’t see evidence of it when they were working together on set.

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