The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

Directed by Terence Fisher

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The Man Who Could Cheat Death is pure, delightful pulp outside of a long conversation on the morality of immortality.  It’s actually quite a good movie, one whose selling points indicate none of the real quality of the film.

This is a horror movie that is never quite horrifying, a drama where, by today’s standards, the end result is quite predictable, but most of all this is quite the thinker.  It’s not open-ended or particularly radical, but this is a film that bothers to consider aspects of its premise many movies might leave unexplored.

My favorite sections of this film had to do with my affinity for a good conversation movie like those of Richard Linklater or like Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre.  The less gripping parts of the movie are the ones dealing with a murder and a man turning into a fried pickle.

Set in 1890, Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is a young-looking, handsome sculptor who has his eyes set on the pretty Janine Du Bois (Hazel Court).  The problem is that she is involved with Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee, aka Saruman from Lord of the Rings).  To make matters worse, Georges is really 104 years old, weeks behind on a procedure he needs to have every 10 years in order to stay alive and running out of this ‘in case of emergency’ green liquid he must drink every 6 hours to stay alive.  I mean, talk about a love triangle, right?

Up until now Bonnet has received the help of his longtime friend, Dr. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle), an 89 year old man who recently suffered a stroke that has rendered his right hand useless in surgery.  Weiss and Bonnet discovered the procedure that renders him immortal, and ever since then Weiss has performed the procedure to save his life.

But now Weiss is having second thoughts.  First he admits he cannot do the surgery and recruits Dr. Gerrard to perform it for him without going into the specifics of why Bonnet so desperately needs the procedure.  Gerrard questions the morality of performing an operation in secret but concludes that there can’t really be any consequences, at least if the patient offers consent.  He agrees to the procedure so long as Weiss, a respected doctor, will lend his name to the operation.

But then the police show up to investigate the disappearance of a woman we see Bonnet murder pretty early into the film.  When Weiss realizes Bonnet has killed someone (and not for the first time), he pulls out of the operation, telling Bonnet it’s time he just let death take over.  Besides, what’s he so scared of?  While Bonnet fears death, Weiss is fine with the end when it comes.  He is at peace with himself and his actions, which is good, because Bonnet kills him.

This is the midpoint, and maybe I shouldn’t spoil the rest, but it’s not too unpredictable.  That being said, the story is told in an effective way, slowly tightening the noose around Bonnet’s neck.  The police close in, as does his own mortality, and he struggles to find someone willing to perform a procedure with unknown intentions.

The final scene is pretty glorious, paying off the long-awaited promise that Bonnet would transform into something horrible on his way out.  This isn’t a spoiler, first because the movie was released 59 years ago and second because this moment is implied in the poster…

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It’s a spectacular moment with splendid special effects (for the time) which reminded me of the body transformations in The Fly (1984) and An American Werewolf in London (1981).

The story is effective and neat, but again the best moments are the long conversations between first Bonnet and Weiss and then Weiss and Gerrard, the scenes which should feel boring in contrast to the sensational nature of the rest of the film.  But rather than act as simple filler, these sequences further dramatize and contextualize the rest of the film.

Weiss is the level-headed one of the two, if that wasn’t obvious by the fact that he hadn’t made himself immortal.  But still, he was a part of the process of making Bonnet immortal.  He’s a complex figure because he’s had enough, but he’s put up with this for so long.  Weiss understands emotionally what Bonnet does not, that no human should live for so long, particularly in defiance of such human maladies, even common colds or zits.  Bonnet doesn’t get zits.  His skin is perfect and always has been since he started the treatment.  He is never ill, and he gets to freeze himself at his physical peak.  Well maybe that would’ve been ten years earlier, but he’s more or less still there.

Both men understand that immortality isn’t natural, but Bonnet has become addicted to his life in an extremely unhealthy way.  He clings not to life but to his physical body, the thing we must all give up and the thing enlightened people seem to have given up well before death.  If our body merely transports our true being, our soul, then Bonnet is like a luxury vehicle which has no working air conditioner, heater, no mirrors, seat belts or even seats.  The car works, and maybe the engine is a V8 (I think that’s a good engine), but there’s nothing left inside.

Weiss points out that there is no real purpose for him to keep on living.  Bonnet even admits that he has nothing else beyond his immortality, and because of the nature of such immortality, he is forced to leave behind every friend he makes at some point.  As the story progresses, we learn that he typically relocates every ten or so years and for the last few decades has had to kill someone to survive, thus prioritizing his life over others.

So staying alive this long is killing him, spiritually.  He is alone, and yet he holds on tight to that isolation.  It is pure ego which drives him, and once he kills Weiss (for smashing the beakers containing his life-saving green liquid), he is left scrambling for a lifeline.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a fun story to think about.  It’s entertaining but thought-provoking, though almost accidentally so.  None of the morality questions the characters discuss is so revolutionary that it hasn’t been considered before, but just the fact that they spend any time discussing it at all feels important.  The film gives weight to a thoughtfulness that should go into every concept as important and life-changing as this one.  It’s the same thoughtfulness John Hammond doesn’t have in Jurassic Park, a movie which is all about man’s ego and destructiveness.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death is about the importance of death.  This is a horror movie that reminds us death is natural.  It’s a relief to watch Bonnet die, not because he’s slowly turning into the villain but because he just seems so tired, so stressed, so burnt out that you want him to simply close his eyes and let nature take its course.

Up Next: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Code Unknown (2000), The Changeling (1980)

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