Saturday, April 2, 2011

Corridors of Blood (1959) - #368

Pain and the knife are inseparable.

Even though Corridors of Blood wasn't officially released until 1962, and despite its official copyright date of 1958, I'm bending my rules a bit here by pairing it up with the film it was originally intended to serve as the headliner in a double feature, 1959's First Man Into Space. In that respect, Corridors of Blood shares a connection with Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part II, which I also wrote about in my timeline prior to the date of its actual public issuance. Thus, this blog may be the only instance in human history that those two films are ever linked together, though their common themes of a gifted individual with grandiose intentions succumbing to madness and delirium instead may lend a certain resonance to the connection after all. And if we add the negative impact that a meddling, censorious bureaucratic infrastructure had on each film's destiny into the mix, there may be enough material worth exploring there to inform a plausible film school graduate thesis.

But I'm not going to explore those tenuous threads any further here. Like the surgeon working in barbarously primitive conditions that Boris Karloff portrayed in Corridors of Blood, I'm here to make quick work of this patient, keeping the blood-curdling screams and mind-warping trauma to its absolute minimum. Let's face it, this is not the kind of film that was produced for the sake of provoking deeply reflective analysis or making a profound commentary on the human condition. Indeed, from the actual producers' point of view, Corridors of Blood was targeted to land squarely on that point of the continuum where maximum shock value runs into the minimum amount of resistance from the guardians of public morals who made it their mission to limit the exposure of impressionable youth to images of sliced, scarred or otherwise mangled human flesh. This trailer gives you pretty much everything you need to know about what they thought the audiences of their time were looking for:

Shock... SHOCK!... SHOCK!!! You get the idea. And that's what I was fairly expecting, though of course I knew full well going in that the gory, dripping crimson-splattered imagery conjured up by a title like Corridors of Blood would hardly be realized on the screen, given the time that the film was made. But little did I expect it to turn out as what I saw: an intelligent, relatively informative and thought-provoking character and culture study of the era when the concept of anaesthesia transitioned from long sought-after dream to effective technological breakthrough.

The idea of getting numbed up prior to going into even the most minor forms of surgery (dental work is as close as I've ever come to personally experiencing it myself) is an easy one to take for granted nowadays, so sophisticated have our techniques become for medicating patients into precisely calibrated states of oblivion. As we're brutally reminded right from the very beginning, it wasn't always that way! Prior to the 1840s, and even then only in a few select societies, bodily amputations, incisions and extractions were a matter of intense physical anguish that carried their own risks on top of whatever malady the surgical procedure was trying to alleviate. And surgeons themselves were far from the meticulously skilled, highly  finessed (and compensated) detail artists we think of today. Rather, they were esteemed at how quickly and straightly they could saw through bone and hold their blade steady while the victims, er, patients thrashed and struggled against the bonds of leather straps and burly men intent on holding them still. 

No wonder then that any physician with a heart would long to find a way to relieve the misery of those he operated on, if for no other reason that karma can be a bitch and who knows when it would be their turn to go under the knife? Such was the plight of Dr. Thomas Bolton, well-regarded in the medical establishment of 1840s London, but troubled himself at the tragic results of even his best work. Donating his free time to serving the miserably poor wretches of London's Seven Dials district and dedicating late nights of study to the pursuit of a pharmacological solution to the problem of surgically-induced pain, Bolton (played by Boris Karloff) has discovered at an advanced age a renewed sense of mission for his life's work, but he's pushing himself hard in the process. His suitably crude and creepy mad scientist's lab provides the tools he needs to concoct a variety of potions, using compounds like nitrous oxide, opium and laudanum to come up with, at last, a gas that when inhaled seems to numb a person up quite effectively.

As you've probably already figured though, the formula he landed on isn't entirely benign, though its pleasurable, addictive qualities soon keep him coming back for more, especially after his first experiments on actual patients demonstrate clearly that he still has some refining work to do. And that work is complicated when, in one of his drug-induced blackout periods, he stumbles into Black Ben's public house, a den of ill repute that he'd visited before to certify the death of a poor bloke who happened to pass away while trying to recuperate in the quarters they provided him. Ben's a girthsome bear of a man, possessed of no scruples whatsoever, looking to make a quick shilling any way he can, and he's found a lucrative trade in selling black-market corpses to the nearby hospital for their medical students to practice their carving techniques. And when you learn that Ben has an assistant who goes by the nickname Resurrection Joe, played by none other than horror film legend Christopher Lee (in an early, pre-stardom role), well you can imagine the entanglements that poor Dr. Bolton soon falls into.

Though there are enough titillating and gruesome moments to at least partially justify the kind of marketing approach used in that trailer, anyone expecting even a mild precursor to the slasher flicks of later decades is bound to be disappointed. We never see Karloff brazenly wielding a scalpel as he lurches through the London tenements (or more refined parlors he's entitled to visit, for that matter), as much as we might enjoy watching such a spectacle. Instead, we get an impressively sensitive performance from the venerable old actor, around 70 years of age and widely considered washed up or at least irrelevant by the studios who originally employed him and enjoyed great success through his run of the 1930s and 40s following his legendary role in Frankenstein. Karloff had enjoyed a mild resurgence with the success of The Haunted Strangler (also collected in the Monsters and Madmen box set) and the creative team behind that film was now rewarded with a slightly larger budget and access to the relatively lavish MGM British unit studio, where some evocative sets were created to capture the decrepit atmosphere of the Seven Dials. It's not quite the glorious squalor we see in Oliver Twist, but it's hoary enough. 

Also worthy of a respectful nod is the script by a female writer, Jean Scott Rogers. She successfully incorporates some interesting historic anecdotes, both scientific and lurid, from the era. Her theme of the conflict between scientific discipline and the conventional mores that considered intense pain and suffering to be "God's will," therefore casting ethical aspersions over Bolton's research, still resonates today as the debate has shifted to genetics and end-of-life controversies. And her portrayal of the personality drive that can lead a person to both great humanitarian work and the depravities of addiction was more skillfully rendered than the film's eventual B-movie destination warranted. It's not at all the fault that those who made Corridors of Blood had higher ambitions, since they were led to believe that it would get the proper backing to have a chance at success. Studio mismanagement and executive turnover caused the movie to languish for several years, until it was belatedly issued with a ridiculous Italian werewolf movie truly deserving the epithet of "schlock horror." Here, at least, Corridors of Blood is back where it rightfully belongs, paired up in sequence with First Man Into Space. And besides, I just didn't want to wait until I reached 1962 to finally review it for my blog!

Eclipse Review: Sapphire

Next: The 400 Blows

1 comment:

Dave said...

I also need to mention my pleasant surprise to discover the bit part performance of the great Scottish character actor Finlay Currie as a hospital administrator. He had the pivotal role of Magwitch in Great Expectations and I also enjoyed him in the early Powell & Pressburger classics 49th Parallel and I Know Where I'm Going!