Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Monsters Against Pain

Apparently two Frankenstein's monsters an opium addiction makes. I suspect much of the audience viewing 1958's Corridors of Blood did not expect the luridly titled film starring Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee to be about a fictional Victorian surgeon's attempts to develop an effective anaesthetic. It's not a bad movie, though, succeeding mainly for its performances and cinematography.

Karloff's at the centre of the film as the surgeon Thomas Bolton, perhaps loosely based on William T.G. Morton, though the two men have little more in common than being surgeons and trying to develop anaesthetic in the 1840s--among other things, Bolton is English and Morton was American. Making Bolton English also allowed the filmmakers to create a den of Dickensian vice in which to ensnare him. He's lured there to write phoney death certificates in exchange for the opium the chemist eventually refuses to supply him with. Among the thieves, hustlers and prostitutes is the quiet and savage Joe, played by a looming Christopher Lee.

Lee's tremendously effective in this relatively small role. I thought of an interview with him I heard where he contrasted his technique with Peter Cushing's, saying Cushing liked to use as much of his body and face as possible while Lee preferred to see how much he could accomplish with as little as possible. One can see it in Joe's unnerving way of holding a gaze.

He's helped a great deal, too, by Geoffrey Faithfull's cinematography--he shoots the movie almost like a German Expressionist film from the 1920s, shaping the shadows with hard, disjointed edges.

Oops, someone has some panties from the future.

Karloff does a fine job as the doctor though the movie's discussion of the addiction has the naive paranoia of the late 1950s. The story relies on a lot of things that don't make sense--why would a wealthy surgeon not employ an assistant in his laboratory, why would he conduct all the experiments on himself?

Still, it's genuinely painful to watch when rotten luck causes Bolton's first demonstration of his anaesthetic to be a farce. Then we watch as this driven man never realises his ambition is gradually turning into addiction before it's much too late.

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