The Man They Could Not Hang - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

The Man They Could Not Hang Reviews

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March 1, 2014
Boris Karloff is awesome as usual, even if some of his supporting cast isn't the best he's worked with. The script, especially the dialogue, is the shining star of this movie, though it seems to end far earlier than it should've. The aesthetics are classy and reminiscent of the wave of flicks that this film is grouped in. It's not a perfect film, but it IS the inspiration for Abominable Dr. Phibes, House on Haunted Hill, Saw, Psycho and more. Definitely give it a watch. B
½ February 19, 2014
When you think of Boris Karloff, you immediately think of his outings as Frankenstein's monster in film. But during his career, unlike the typecasted Béla Lugosi, he had a number of different roles; he was in dramas, crime thrillers, war epics, and he also provided the voice of the Grinch in the 1966 TV special "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" But horror was his main genre, and mad scientists were a specialty for him. Released in 1939, mere months after "Son of Frankenstein," "The Man They Could Not Hang" was a particularly special outing.

Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a scientist who's invented a machine that can bring the recently dead back to life so that doctors can have more time to cure their injuries or illnesses. One of his medical students, Bob Roberts (Stanley Brown), volunteers to let Savaard kill him and then try out the machine on him to make him alive again. But Roberts' fiancée Betty Crawford (Ann Doran) panics and gets the police. They arrest Savaard for murder before he even has a chance to use his machine; he's convicted and sentenced to death, but with his assistant Lang's help, he returns to exact his vengeance on the judge, jury and prosecution that condemned him.

The story is an archetype of the time period; there were many stories about scientific inventions and discoveries. Along with that, it's actually broken up into three different stories: the first story where Savaard tries out his invention, the second story in the courtroom where he's pleading on his behalf but is found guilty, and the third where he returns from the dead and goes on his rampage. The first story is flawed, but still pretty good.

I've always had a problem with Betty's character in this sequence. On the one hand, I can understand her skepticism and fear; her fiancée is about to be put to death, and she's scared he won't wake up. But the fact that she's Savaard's nurse presents a problem for me. If she didn't know him, and therefore didn't trust him that much, I could understand her feelings. But she surely knows the guy, surely knows his capabilities as a scientist, so why would she be that quick to go to the police? Then when the police actually do show up, I agree with reporter Scoop Foley (Robert Wilcox) when he says they may as well leave Savaard alone because since Roberts is already dead, what more harm can he do to him? This sequence mostly just holds up because of Karloff's conviction during these scenes, his pleading for them to leave him to his work.

The second act is probably the least interesting; it plays out like a typical courtroom drama, though executed relatively well. Savaard tries to convince everyone that he was attempting a breakthrough in the scientific world, looking for a new link in humanity; it's evocative of Colin Clive's performance in "Frankenstein," in my opinion. He seems like someone who legitimately wants to do good in the world. Interestingly enough, the idea of Savaard's invention would later become reality in the form of open-heart surgery, minus the patient having to actually die, of course. Talk about life imitating art. Anyway, I do like how not all of the jury thinks he's a crackpot; there are those who understand his ambitions.

So when Savaard is brought back to life, he is bitter and cold, believing that even with his invention successful, the scientific community will never accept him. He gathers the judge, jury and prosecution at his house under false invitations, and basically lays a hoard of death traps for them. This is when the movie more than makes up for its shaky start. Karloff is at his best when he gets to be really cocky and sinister, and I love watching the expression on his face; he knows he has these people right where he wants them. Yet he's still classy the whole time, not punishing those who he feels don't deserve it.

Now I know I seem to focus quite a bit on the negative aspects of "The Man They Could Not Hang," but this is one that I really enjoy. Karloff holds it all together, but Lorna Gray also does a fine job playing his daughter Janet. She becomes horrified at the acts he undertakes in the climax, but they seem to still have a genuine mutual love for each other. The traps Savaard lays are really clever, and these people don't seem like idiots; they act how I'd imagine real people would react. And just like "Frankenstein," the movie does seem to bring up a number of questions regarding life and death, and if mankind even deserves to know the answers.

The issues I brought up are very minor, save for the scene with Betty early on. My only real complaint would be what isn't in the movie: character interactions. This movie is short, only about 64 minutes long. But I would have liked it very much if there were more sit-down conversations between some of these characters. Maybe one between Savaard and Betty regarding the invention of his, or between Janet and Betty regarding who's to blame in this whole matter, or how about between Savaard and Lang (Byron Foulger)? Lang brings him back to life, but he's only mentioned once after that with a quick explanation that Savaard had him killed for threatening to expose his evil intentions. Couldn't we have seen something, or at least gotten something more substantial than one quick line about it?

But I usually try to judge movies based on what they do have rather than what they don't have; this was just what I feel would have propelled this film into near-perfect territory. But all things considered, this movie is really good. Karloff soaks up every bit of dialogue he speaks, and he's basically excelling at what he does best. Sure, the movie has some flaws, but it's still definitely worth the watch.
November 8, 2012
Boris Karloff gives a great performance in this strange, flawed film. The beginning is rough but it picks up and has an exciting final act.
Super Reviewer
October 15, 2010
This movie is unbelievable and kind of silly, but I liked it, it was a fun mad scientist movie with Karloff. There was really good suspense and a good actors.
August 14, 2010
borris carlov is again great but besides him this film is only descent its not a masterpiece because it lags alot but its still a descent movie 6.5\10
April 18, 2010
My favorite Karloff movie. The way he plays this role is beautiful. It may be a tad short in length, but still very enjoyable
November 18, 2009
Goofy, ridiculous, but enjoyable mad scientist film with Boris Karloff. It's too short to wear out its welcome but comes close to doing so.
October 29, 2009
This is my first film on "Mad Doctor" series of Boris Karloff and it just straight blew me away! Karloff was magnificent as Dr. Henryk Savaard; along with the beautiful storyline & fantastic script...his character's transformation from kindly dedicated scientist to a madman bent on murder & revenge was simply brilliant to watch.
October 12, 2009
A neat little questioning of ethics, Karloff finds himself as a man charged with murder after a failed experiment to restore life to a newly dead boy. It doesn't really pick up until after the trial scenes although there is a nice little speech to be found there. The revenge sequence is most good.
January 12, 2009
a beautifully written commentary on human sociology. devastation followed by vengeance, a hero driven to villainy. tragic and prescient, this is one for the ages.
August 1, 2008
Highly effective sci-fi horror with one of Karloff's most menacing performances.
July 9, 2008
Just screened this over at Rob's tonight. The print looked great too. This picture was amazing! The writing and Karloff's delivery were right on the mark, I feel. Rob mentioned that at the time that he'd seen this or when it aired on tv, the competition was all monster movie pics from universal. Karloff, in my mind, was just stellar (as always). It was especially poignant because of the nod to dr. frankenstein. To my mind, it seems quite a nice reply to the questions and madness posed in Frankenstein. I was quite keen on the way the story played out and the way the Karloff's character followed through. It wasn't over the top, I didn't feel cheated at the end, zip, bang, boom! It was a nice old movie I could watch over and over again.
½ April 23, 2008
This movie is kind of entertaining but not one of Karloff's best. It just hits on way too many Boris Karloff movie clichés. He is playing yet another kindly doctor who has made a medical breakthrough, is executed, and comes back from the dead for revenge. His transformation from the doctor who wants to help people to the killer is just really contrived compared to most of his movies. With most of his victims we only hear about their murders from other characters, which limits the scenes of Karloff being scary.

I did like the part where he has trapped members of his jury and prosecution inside his booby trapped house and tells them how they are going to die. They should have made his doctor character a little more sinister though so you could really believe this character was a guy who liked to torture people.

This movie also has a really stupid and unintentionally funny ending. This is probably the worst movie I've seen with with Karloff as the tortured mad doctor. The Man Who Changed His Mind, The Devil Commands, and Corridors of Blood are ones I would recommend instead of this one.
December 29, 2007
An excellent mix of horror and science fiction where a scientist (Karloff) gets unfairly condemned to death, but thanks to his science returns from the grave to have his vengeance on those who condemned him. The movie may not be perfect, but Karloff gives one of his best performances
October 26, 2007
Another good thriller from Karloff. Karloff is in mad scientist mode, and man, so I love his classy mad scientists, and he;s conquered death. To bad the authorities don't think so. As far as thrillers go, you could do a lot worse.
November 23, 2006
The Man They Could Not Hang
Starring; Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Byron Foulger, Ann Doran, Robert Wilcox, and Joe De Stefani
Director: Nick Grinde


Surgeon and brilliant research scientist Henryk Savaard (Karloff) invents a device that will revolutionize blood-transfusions and organ transplants, a device that is so effecient it can allow surgeons to perform impossible operations and literally be used to fully restore a dead person to life. However, when his final experiment is disrupted by the police and his volunteer dies, Savaard is tried, convicted, and hanged for murder. His loyal assistant Lang (Foulger), a brilliant surgeon in his own right, repairs Savaard's broken neck and uses the fantastic medical device to restore Savaard to life. Lang intends for Savaard to prove to the world that his device works and that if he had been allowed to continue his work, the volunteer wouldn't have died, but Savaard is more interested in taking his revenge against the jury, law enforcement officers, and medical people who scoffed at his work and condemned him to die.

"The Man They Could Not Hang" is a neat little B-movie that starts out as a sci-fi thriller and takes a hard left about halfway through and turns into a "what if Agatha Christie were to write a story about a mad scientist taking revenge on those who wronged him" about halfway through.

The film is its best after Savaard has lured all those who wronged him to his house, trapped them, and is killing them off, one by one. The murders are particularly clever and sadistic, and this is one of those rare films where a "diabolical genius" actually comes across as a the genius he's supposed to be. (In fact, Jigsaw from the "Saw" series of horror films is a sort of great-grandchild of Dr. Savaard; they both put who they consider well-deserving victims in death traps and taunt them.)

The actors In "The Man They Could Not Hang" all give great performances, and Karloff is particularly noteworthy. The transformation he brings to Savaard shows how great an actor he was, as within the space of a very brief movie and limited dialogue and screen-time, he presents a character who changes from a driven, optimistic visionary with a desire to make the world a better place, into a bitter, twisted man who is deaf and blind to everything but his hatred and desire for revenge against those who humilated and scorned him. The way Karloff slips back and forth between Savaard's two personalities at the end of the movie when he is confronted by his daughter (Gray) is a fantastic performance.

The only strike against this film is that the last quarter seems a bit rushed. It would have been well-served by an additional ten minutes of running time, with a bit more time spent with Savaard's trapped victims, or maybe even a little more interaction between his daughter and her reporter boyfriend (Wilcox). The ultimate end to the film is perfect, though... I just wish the journey there had been a little bit longer.

I recommend this film for Karloff fans... and for those who like the "Saw" movies not for their gore, but for their villian. I think Dr. Savaard is a character you'll enjoy.
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