THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES reviewed
THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES
aka BEHIND THE DOOR (UK)
1940, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $14.98, 74m 2s, DVD R1-4
Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor), a pencil-mustached staffer at King Hospital, has been experimenting with cryogenics since becoming inspired by the book FROZEN THERAPY, written by the controversial theorist Dr. Leon Kravaal, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. After he gives a public demonstration -- successfully freezing a woman patient for five days, then reviving her with thermal blankets and lots of hot coffee! -- his pompous supervisor (THE MUMMY'S HAND's Charles Trowbridge) orders Mason to take a leave of absence till the furor dies down. Mason and fiancée/nurse Judy Blair (Jo Ann Sayers, who calls him "Steve" at one point) decide to visit Kravaal's home in Silver Lake, Canada, in hope of discovering papers relevant to his research. They find much more after stumbling upon a subterranean laboratory with a special refrigerated chamber in which Kravaal himself (Boris Karloff) lies frozen. Ordering Judy to make coffee, Mason succeeds in reviving Kravaal, who embarks on the story of how he came to be put on ice ten years before, along with a group of other men (including B-movie favorite Byron Foulger) who meant to arrest him, yet to be thawed. Once revived, these men create additional problems, and one of them -- realizing that his status as legally dead has robbed him of a million dollar inheritance -- destroys Kravaal's secret formula for using frozen therapy to cure cancer, angering the doctor to the point of shooting him. Kravaal then imprisons the others, intent upon using them as guinea pigs until he can recreate the formula, whose basic ingredients he remembers, though not their measurements.
Of the four "Mad Doctor" films that Karloff made for Columbia -- the others being THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939), BEFORE I HANG (1940), and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) -- this taut Nick Grindé-directed effort has long been the hardest to see, and it's also the most satisfying of the bunch, despite some chuckle-raising aspects. Scripted by Karl Brown (who wrote three of the four) from a story by Harold Schumate, this is a rare B-thriller that ratchets its suspense by guiding its characters through more moral minefields than straightforward action, and it sustains its ambivalence so well that the viewer remains uncertain throughout of which group to side with, and equally uncertain of whether Kravaal really is a genius or a madman. (Even when battle lines are seemingly clearly drawn, as when Kravaal shoots a man in cold blood, the script presents the action with additional angles of gray; the victim was not only the aggressor -- but already legally dead, as well.) Karloff, goateed and briefly donning Mr. Moto spectacles to mix phials of smoking chemicals, gives a surprisingly humane performance that fairly glows from the midst of so much other ham. The atmospheric photography is the work of Benjamin Kline, who also shot the two "HANG" pictures; he would later photograph 28 THRILLER episodes hosted by Karloff, including the great Karloff-starring "Mad Doctor" episode, "The Incredible Doctor Markesan."
Sony's no-frills 1.33:1 DVD features only the original English soundtrack and English, French and Japanese subtitles (what, no Spanish?); though the disc is identified as Region 1, it is also playable in Regions 2-4. Evidently the original negative materials for this title no longer exist; the source material used here is a digitally cleaned, somewhat darkish Famous Film Corporation re-release print hailing from 1947, but even this source appears to have been incomplete. The disc looks fine until 64:12, whereafter the last ten minutes look noticeably softer and grayer, and slightly more zoomed-in, with cloudy signs of digitally repaired water damage. The "after and before" impression is hard to miss, and acceptable only given the rarity of the title. The otherwise classy, sepia-toned packaging refers to the film's protagonist as "Dr. Tim Morgan."