The Body Snatcher
by Evan ODell 8/4/09
(1945) Directed by Robert Wise. Story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Screenplay by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton. Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, and Sharyn Moffett.
The novel by Robert Louis Stevenson was based in part on the real life Burke and Hare murders. As medical science progressed in the early 19th century, demand rose sharply for medical cadavers. The only legal supply of cadavers, the bodies of executed criminals, had been greatly reduced by the slowing execution rate. This gave rise to a certain kind of criminal willing to obtain specimens by any means. William Burke and William Hare, were serial murderers who sold corpses to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. The word "Burking" comes from their method of killing victims by getting them drunk and strangling them. The murders brought about reform to the crisis in medical education and the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which increased the legal supply of cadavers.
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were given top billing. This would be the last onscreen teaming of Lugosi and Karloff. Bela's role is really quite small, though the scene he shares with Boris Karloff is quite memorable. Karloff makes the most of the role, perhaps my favorite non-Frankenstein role after The Black Cat. The real protagonist of the film is Henry Daniell as the doctor who doesn't care where his cadavers for medical research come from.
This was one of the RKO movies made under Val Lewton. Lewton would often be given the title, the budget, and an 18 day shoot and have to craft the script to match. This was director Robert Wise' first feature to direct. He had edited CITIZEN KANE and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and done 2nd unit direction on CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. He replaced Gunther von Fritsch, who was known for his documentaries and had previously directed CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, as director on THE BODY SNATCHER because the studio felt Gunther didn't effectively manage time.
This is one of those movies where the atmosphere helps sell the story. That, and the way Boris Karloff played the slimy, sinister body snatcher. Its budgetary constraints are occasionally evident, but it is still an effective story, one based on historical truth. There has always been strong public revulsion to the act of grave robbing. This film does a fine job of portraying that and the considerable lengths men would go to for the advancement of medical knowledge. There is a listing for a 2009 remake on imdb.
Naïve young medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) reassures a widow that her buried son will be just fine. Then he is made apprentice to Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) where he learns the true nature of cadaver acquisitions when Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff) delivers the corpse to Dr. MacFarlane. The low born Gray enjoys his relationship with the aristocratic doctor and the two share a past. Fettes seeks to acquire a body from Gray for Macfarlane to study so a widow's (Rita Corday) daughter (Sharyn Moffett) can walk again. When the supply of bodies dwindles, Gray turns to murder.