Terrence Fisher was responsible for some of the true classics of the Hammer production company, his Dracula and Frankenstein adaptations spawned sequels that became the meat and bread of Hammer’s output, whilst classics like Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out proved Fisher’s validity as a skilled director. The Man Who Could Cheat Death, starring Anton Diffring and Christopher Lee, is one of Fisher’s finest films.
Georges Bonnet (Diffring) is a well-respected Scientist and Artist living in 1890’s Paris, elongating his life by replacing his glands periodically. When he comes into contact with an ex-lover (Hazel Court) and her new partner (Christopher Lee) his tightly maintained exsistened comes under threat.
It’s difficult not to immediately fall in love with the aesthetic of Golden Era Hammer. Rich opulent colours cover the interiors of smug city homes, everything is gold or red, there’s a roaring fireplace and the walls are a patchwork of oil paintings. Step outside and there’s usually an impenetrable fog sweeping over some gothic turn-of-the-century city. In The Man Who Could Cheat Death, we venture to Paris in the 1890’s, starting in the humble, dark, and eerie streets for a murder, then flipping to high-society decadence for the introduction of Diffring’s Bonnet and his remarkable sculptures.
Fisher’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death is actually a remake of Ralph Murphy’s 1945 film The Man In Half-Moon Street, itself a loose adaptation of Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Ideologically Fisher’s film never really becomes as nightmarish a farce as Wide’s did, yet it surpasses the tame 40’s fantasy of Murphy’s. Diffring gives a fierce performance, stealing much of the show as he winds tighter and tighter in a frenzy to save his own skin. The murders are actually quite shocking too, each one sitting atop some quickly unravelling social situation for Bonnet, who eventually starts to rot as he succumbs to his years. As bonnet grows greener and his eyes start to age rapidly, there are sudden decisions which turn innocent moments into much darker ones. Lee makes an unflinching hero, calm, collected, and smart, the baseline – perhaps – for his future role as the Duc de Richleau in Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out, a role he gets far more entertaining scenes in. Here, Shiffring’s mania makes too strong a force for the script Lee is granted, yet he makes a sturdy opposite.
A great film with some terrific ideas, but not enough to make this the hidden gem of the Hammer trove, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is an interesting take on the Dorian Gray story with a superb turn from Anton Diffring.
Dir: Terence Fisher
Stars: Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Arnold Marie