The Man Who Could Cheat Death


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Man Who Could Cheat Death
"Diffring is strong in the lead, showing a side to his talents that he would rarely have the chance to use again."

They're best remembered for their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises and Dennis Wheatley adaptations, but Hammer Studios also produced some interesting one-offs, among them this remake of Ralph Murphy's The Man In Half Moon Street (itself based on Barré Lyndon's play). The Gothic tale of a man unprepared to surrender to the ravages of time, it echoes Dorian Gray but is far more direct, less reliant on Caligula syndrome, in drawing out horror from the situation.

Anton Diffring is Dr Georges Bonnet. 43 at the time of filming he does not, we are told, look a day over 38, but Georges is actually 104. He has maintained his youth by arranging to have a fresh set of parathyroid glands transplanted into his body every ten years - bad news for the young women who possessed them to begin with. Now, however, the surgeon who performed the operations is too elderly to continue, and Bonnet must find somebody new. Fortunately, an old flame (Hazel Court) comes back into his life in the company of a younger surgeon (Christopher Lee), so all Bonnet has to do is find a means of persuading him to do the job.

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With Bonnet resident at 13 Rue Noir, this isn't a film that abounds in subtlety, though there's plenty of knowing humour. Bonnet's dependence on a glowing green potion to keep him from turning into a murderous monster as his powers wane creates obvious allusions to Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde, and his present position as an asylum keeper brings in another sub-genre. Court's character provides an opportunity for doomed romance with echoes of Bluebeard's Castle, as she becomes a little too curious about his sculptures for her own good -and Lee's character is, of course, also in love with her.

Hammer fans may find it strange to see Lee in a role like this, though he might be a younger version of his character in The Devil Rides Out. Though he'd already played the Prince of Darkness Hammer sill hadn't quite clicked as to how to make best use of his talents, and the result is that he seems curiously out of place, like Jacqueline Pearce in The Reptile. Diffring, however, is strong in the lead, showing a side to his talents that he would rarely have the chance to use again. Wanting to escape death ought to make a character sympathetic, and he effectively makes use of this, yet he also reveals a steely obsessiveness suggestive of a man warped by his experiences, by the repeated killing and the gradual separation from youthful 'peers' that comes with the shifting perspective of age. Playing the role completely straight, he makes room for the comedy and absurdity of other aspects of the story.

Complete with the detailed set dressing, elegant costumes and thundering score you'd expect from Hammer, The Man Who Could Cheat Death may not quite get its many fragments to gel, but it's still an intriguing and entertaining film. I's now available for home viewing after many long years of languishing in the vaults, and horror fans should seek it out.

Reviewed on: 16 Sep 2015
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The Man Who Could Cheat Death packshot
A man clings to life and youth well beyond their natural span by having the parathyroid glands of unfortunate young women transplanted into his body.

Director: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the play by Barré Lyndon

Starring: Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, Arnold Marlé, Delphi Lawrence, Francis De Wolff

Year: 1959

Runtime: 83 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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