Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Black Friday (1940)

October, 2018

Universal, 1940. Director: Arthur Lubin. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor. Camera: Elwood Bredell. Film editor: Philip Cahn. Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne, Virginia Brissac, Murray Alper.
            Like most film enthusiasts, I like to greet the approach of Halloween by revisiting the great horror films. Needless to say, the established classics like Dracula and Frankenstein are high on my list, but there are many other, lesser-known gems to choose from. One personal favorite is an obscure little film that I happened to discover by accident, years ago: Black Friday. This is an oddball choice for more reasons than one; for starters, it can scarcely be considered a horror film at all. To be sure, it sounds like one. Produced by Universal in 1940, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as the top-billed stars, and presented under an appropriately ominous-sounding title, it seems to promise genuine shudders. The unsuspecting viewer could certainly be forgiven for approaching it with expectations of a forgotten horror classic.
            What one finds, instead, is an offbeat little picture more properly classified as a crime story. An English-literature professor at a small college is run down in the street by a gangster’s getaway car. The car crashes, and the professor’s friend, a doctor played by Karloff, accompanies both the professor and the gangster to the hospital. The gangster dies on the operating table, and Karloff is able to save the professor only by transplanting some of the gangster’s brain tissue into his skull (the kind of fanciful medical premise that has given us such horror classics as Mad Love). All goes well until the mild-mannered professor starts to exhibit flashes of the gangster’s personality and behavior. Learning that the gangster had died without revealing the location of a fortune in stolen money, Karloff takes his friend to the big city, hoping that familiar sights and locations will jog the gangster’s memory—which is now inside the professor’s head.
            Unfortunately the experiment works too well, the gangster’s brain takes over the professor’s body altogether for extended periods, and Karloff finds himself saddled with a cold-blooded killer determined to exact revenge on all his old enemies, none of whom recognize him any more! This is where Black Friday makes its strongest claim to horror-film status: the gentle professor and the ruthless gangster, both alternately inhabiting the same body, lend a Jekyll-and-Hyde element to the story. Police are baffled by a string of untraceable murders, the victims all double-crossing members of the late criminal’s gang—and one of them is played by Bela Lugosi, who has literally only a few minutes of screen time in the whole of the film, despite his prominent star billing above the title.
            Why this odd casting imbalance? Lugosi’s biographer, Arthur Lennig, has written that the film was originally planned with a very different lineup: Lugosi as the doctor, Karloff in the dual role of the soft-spoken professor who unexpectedly becomes a hard-bitten gangster. It’s not difficult to imagine the eerily quirky modern-day horror film that might have resulted from this casting. We don’t know why that original plan was abandoned, but Lennig speculates that Karloff himself used his clout at Universal to reshuffle the roles in the story, for reasons unknown. The result is a film to which Lugosi and (especially) Karloff lend their distinctive presences, but in which the relatively unknown Stanley Ridges walks off with the acting honors as the professor. He turns in a creditable performance, shifting convincingly from kindly academic to snarling, trigger-happy gangster and back again.
            And, regardless of what might have been, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie on its own terms—slickly produced by Universal, beautifully photographed, telling its story in a tightly paced seven reels. Anne Nagel may be somewhat colorless as the gangster’s duplicitous former girlfriend, but the combined strength of the other leads is more than enough to carry the plot. And like so many other films of the period, this one benefits from cameos by familiar character players, among them John Kelly, Eddie Dunn, and Murray Alper—the latter essaying a comic turn as a hotel bellboy who had often served the late gangster, now utterly bewildered by this stranger who seems to know all about him, some of the time. All in all, as we return to the lesser-known horror films this Halloween, Black Friday—albeit only tangentially a horror film—is one well worth a fresh viewing.

J.B. Kaufman