Tuesday, May 26, 2015
The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) -- U.K. Cut
Story by John Gilling; Screenplay by John Gilling and Leon Griffiths
Directed by John Gilling
Peter Cushing: Dr. Robert Knox
Donald Pleasence: William Hare
George Rose: William Burke
Don Cairney: Chris Jackson
Billie Whitelaw: Mary Patterson
Set in 19th century Edinburgh...where life is cheap!
People love a good torn-from-the-headlines murder story. The Law & Order franchise, in all its various permutations, has supplied and astonishing sixty-one years of television plus a TV movie. There's also at least one true-crime cable channel (I don't happen to get it, so I don't know what it's actually called, but my friend Sean refers to his true-crime network of choice as "The Murder Channel"). True crime is big money. It's got a pre-sold audience that knows at least the broad strokes of the story and who like watching mayhem with the added frisson of knowing that the events really did happen (as opposed to something like RoboCop--which is more violent than some actual wars--but is also an obvious and total work of fiction).
This one's got all kinds of gruesome details to savor, as well--in the 1820s as well as know, medical students were expected to dissect a body in order to learn about where everything's supposed to go and what color a gallbladder is ideally going to be when you get a look at one in the wild. At the time of Burke and Hare's crimes, medical schools were faced with a shortage of dissection cadavers. Remember that refrigeration of the body wouldn't be an option at this point; one would have to start work early and move very quickly in order to demonstrate all of the tubes and wires stuck through the average human form before it became necessary to get another one. The normal source of research cadavers was a simple one: executed criminals' bodies were donated to science and sliced to pieces both as a way to increase the sum total of human knowledge and as a deterrent to criminals, a superstitious and cowardly lot who probably didn't want to think about their bodies being taken apart in front of gawking med students after a walk up a long flight of stairs and a short drop.
During the time that the murders took place, apparently Scotland wasn't hanging as many people as they used to be and medical schools needed more cadavers than were available. As anyone familiar with free market capitalism can tell you, when there is a need and cash put down on the barrelhead, someone will come up with a way to meet that need. People buy weed, tobacco, alcohol, pornography, and hard drugs; providing those things has been legal or illegal in various parts of the country at various times. And when medical schools need bodies, they'll buy bodies. You can't buy a human corpse, of course, without someone else selling it. And it doesn't take a genius to realize that asking lots of questions of the person offering a brand-new cadaver at your loading dock won't help anyone in this situation.
All that stuff is just background details for The Flesh and the Fiends; I imagine that British audiences know more about the famed Burke and Hare than American audiences do, so the story is pre-sold to people who would want to watch something horrible for entertainment. While I'm at it, I'm also guessing that the gold mine for a true crime story, if you want to adapt one for film, is something instantly recognizable, lurid, and that took place long ago (so that nobody has to pay rights to the story). William Burke and William Hare, the men who specialized in anatomy murder in Scotland's biggest city in the 1820s. That link also points out the British slang term "burking" as a synonym for this particular crime, which lets you know just how well-known the two killers became as a result of their murders. There's supposed to be a children's jump-rope rhyme commemorating their killing spree in Edinburgh as well (as of this writing, if kids are still chanting this to keep time while playing games, it's creeping up on two centuries past the crimes and still in use): Burke's the butcher / Hare's the thief / Knox is the boy who buys the beef. As you'll see, the court of public opinion convicted three people for the crimes, not just two.
I really like seeing the BBFC certificate before a movie starts, and even more so when it was still the British Board of Film Censors, rather than "Classification" as it is now. Either way, there's no First Amendment in the UK so their government has the right to ban movies (or video games or television or music) from release completely, or to make it impossible for children to go see particular films. Given that this is about a pair of killers who sell bodies to a willfully blind physician, I'm fine with it. This movie gained an X certificate in 1960, which meant anyone under 16 couldn't see the film. (Brushing up on my BBFC trivia to write this review, I found out that the X certificate replaced the H certificate, which stood for "Horrific" and is the best thing anyone has ever thought of).
After the "Regal Films" logo is shows, we get the prologue. In the best torn-from-the-headlines tradition, we get a title card telling us that this is SRS BZNS right from the start: "This is the story of lost men and lost souls. It is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true." Interestingly enough, the dead they're talking about not having to apologize to are both victims and assailants, as well as at least one person who knew what was going on and let it happen anyway. I wonder if this was included as a bulwark against the famously rigged British libel court system, in which the defendant has to prove their statements were not defamatory (the plaintiff is not required to assist them in this endeavour, which can get costly and difficult for anyone sued under this system).
The first image shown is a fog-shrouded cemetery at night. Two men in heavy coats sneak in and start digging up a grave (the death date is listed as 1827, so assuming the audience knew about Burke and Hare they'd know that the resurrectionists were going after a fresh body and that this is just the tip of the body-procuring iceberg). The credits run over the grave-robbing sequence; Peter Cushing gets top billing, as well he should. At the time this one was released, Cushing had starred in five movies for Hammer Studios and had established himself as a go-to actor for amoral scientists in period pieces in the Frankenstein films, and showed other facets of his talent as Sherlock Holmes and as scientists in a Yeti movie and a Mummy film; Regal scored quite a coup by getting him in this. Donald Pleasence gets second billing, which is also well deserved. He was several years off from his iconic portrayal of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, but clearly if you wanted someone to be a menacing lower-class murderer in your Burke and Hare movie he was an obvious choice. Also, the credits say that the (black and white) movie was shot in "Dylascope", which sounds incredibly English to me for a reason that I cannot articulate.
Our two grave robbers have been quite industrious over the credits, and use a chain to haul the freshly buried corpse out of its grave. The film then cuts to "The Academy of Doctor Knox" in Edinburgh, a palatial mansion where Knox teaches the next generation of Scottish gentry how to do medicine. Young(ish) man about town Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell greets Martha Knox as she arrives. That's "Knox" as in "my uncle owns this entire place". Dr. Knox is busy giving a lecture to a packed hall of students hanging on his every word as he explains that "miracle" is just shorthand for "we don't know how it works yet, and never will". He rejects absolutely the concept of the miraculous according to his definition. In the dim past, the men and women of science and learning thought the human body was an inexplicable miracle; now, of course, in 1828, the functions of muscles, glands, organs and bones are known. It's a hugely complex machine that can go wrong thousands of different ways, but it isn't inexplicable and it isn't a miracle. This turns out to be prelude to his congratulatory speech to the class; they're graduating to become doctors and will be part of "the most honorable profession in the world". He also tells his students that they haven't finished learning when they graduate; they're starting. They applaud (as well they should) and Knox leaves the lecture hall. As a side note, Knox clearly demonstrates his status in the lecture hall by having a bow tie the size of a California condor while everyone else makes do with an ascot.
One student who is not joining the graduating class--Chris Jackson--follows Dr. Knox out of the room after the speech concludes. He wants to know why he hasn't graduated and Knox lowers the boom on him dispassionately. Knox says the young man is too emotional and needs to approach medicine strictly on an intellectual level. When he knows how to do that, he'll be a fine doctor and a graduate of the Knox Academy. Knox, for his part, isn't completely heartless--he offers Jackson a job that pays "an extra guinea a month" (a pound and a shilling, which would very very roughly be worth about $55 in contemporary American terms. For a starving student, that's the difference between ramen for dinner exclusively and takeout pizza once a week.
Once Jackson leaves in high spirits, Knox retires to the part of the academy that serves as his living space. Martha surprises him with her presence and the doctor proposes a toast to Martha's arrival from the Continent. The happy reunion is interrupted when Jackson discreetly tells Dr. Knox that two men have arrived with a stiff. Turns out Knox much prefers the term "subject", and Jackson retreats under the frosty aura of Knox's disdain. Martha and Dr. Mitchell make light conversation and do some 1828-approved flirting in the withdrawing room while Knox leaves to go buy an illegally exhumed corpse from a pair of sketchy felons. He offers them five guineas for a week-dead (and presumably unembalmed) body, enlisting young Jackson as his bagman. Turns out that Knox only had one guinea on him in loose change, which he gives to the graverobbers. Jackson's job is to get change for a larger-denomination coin and go to the sleazy dive bar where the two men will be drinking up their paycheck so he can give them the rest of their money.
While Jackson hauls the decayed cadaver out of the crate that the resurrection men supplied, he and Dr. Knox have a polite talk about whether or not Parliament will be able to pass laws that will make it possible for medical schools to legally acquire cadavers for dissection; Knox doesn't think that's likely and also doesn't think much of professional politicians. Jackson and another man awkwardly dump the body into a trough full of brine so that it'll pickle a bit and hopefully stay together long enough for a dissection.
At the smoke-filled Merry Duke tavern, the lower classes of Edinburgh are out to drown their sorrows and maybe get a sausage roll to sop up a little booze. The two body snatchers are spending their pay and macking on barmaids while a pair of idlers grumble about how the tone of the establishment is lowered by letting in graverobbers (and, to be fair, they have a point). Those two men also notice that everyone likes the guys paying for drinks. And the shorter of the pair complains that his wife has been on his case telling him to look for a job lately (the horrors!). Everyone in the joint notices when Jackson shows up, since he's dressed better than anyone else on the block. But the two griping drinkers really take notice of four more guineas clinking into the graverobbers' waiting hands. If those two were getting plastered and making out with the barmaids with one of those coins, I imagine they'll be able to do whatever they want for as long as they can with five. That calculation is evident on the layabouts' faces as well.
The night's entertainment for the crowd of drunken louts includes one guy yanking a barmaid's skirt off after she slaps him (the jerk says she didn't mind his "filthy" hands until the toff stumbled in, and he seems to be at least partly right). The jerk humiliates Jackson, who tries to do the chivalrous thing by getting the skirt back. And the crowd's in such a good mood that they celebrate the drunken asshole getting a concussion from the barmaid just as much as they did Jackson's easily confounded attempts to help the woman out. Jackson politely excuses himself and wanders off in a daze, and is beaten unconscious by the two featured idlers seconds after he walks out of the pub. The barmaid shouts for the police and frightens the assailants off before they can kill Jackson and takes the stunned med student back to her rented room. He's still dazed from everything that just happened, but he's not so dense that he doesn't understand the barmaid's references to students from the academy coming around the slums to study anatomy. Flustered and confused, Jackson takes the barmaid into his arms shortly after he says he'd better be going.
The next morning, Jackson's all "I totally did it last night" and snuggles with the barmaid, whose name he (and the viewer) haven't learned yet. He asks if he can see her again; she says she's always around the Merry Duke. When Jackson says he was thinking more of taking her out on a date, the barmaid cracks up and points out that his social standing would take a hit--if he was lucky, all his friends would just laugh at him and if he wasn't, they'd ostracize him for taking his slumming a little too seriously. But remember what Dr. Knox said about Jackson's emotions overwhelming his intellect? He doesn't care at all. He says he'll return the following day and take his new girlfriend out on the town.
The crowded lower-class streets are teeming with humanity; among other things, Daft Jamie the developmentally disabled young man is playing games with children. A fruit peddler gives Jamie an apple, free gratis, but William Hare swipes it from him (the thieving son of a bitch--it's a low man who swipes food from a charity case). A little girl summons William Burke back to his tenement flophouse, saying something terrible--that she can't mention openly--has happened. Turns out old John, one of the tenants died in the night, and Burke's wife wants the body gone before people start to talk. I imagine nobody wants to sleep in someone else's death bed, so she's got a point. She's also miffed that the old man died owing her three pounds' rent.
William Hare thinks he might have a way to help with that--he knows the going rate for a week-old corpse dug out of a grave; a completely fresh one might well fetch half a dozen guineas or more. And it's the Christian thing to do, so that old John won't have to lie moldering in the ground with an unpaid debt on his mind. Watching the wheels turn in Hare's mind is one of the pleasures of Pleasence's performance here, and he does a great job portraying Hare's chummy amorality in these early scenes.
Meanwhile, Dr. Knox is holding a soiree to simultaneously debut his niece into Edinburgh society and also get turbo-bitchy towards all his friends and enemies alike. And there's so very little to enjoy more in this jaded world than Peter Cushing eloquently smack-talking other people ("I can show you the heart, dear Reverend. Can you show me the soul?"). I also enjoyed this exchange: "That's a libel!" "I know. A lawyer told me the story." But before too long a uniformed and bewigged house servant calls Knox away while even his insult victims praise his genius. He's been called away to examine the freshest body he's seen in quite some time while Hare unctuously extols the virtues of the body. Turns out that a brand new cadaver fetches seven guineas on the black market, and Hare makes sure to get the money in his hands rather than letting Burke carry it.
The next day, Jackson is out for a stroll with the barmaid (wearing what I assume is her finest clothing, which looks much better than her work outfit). He runs into Dr. Mitchell and Martha Knox, experiencing a spasm of social discombobulation. But he does introduce her to his acquaintances from the world he travels in, and the viewers learn that her name is Mary Patterson. Small talk between the four goes rather disastrously, and when Jackson disentangles himself from the situation Martha and Dr. Mitchell discuss the various ways that Jackson's screwing up his personal and professional life. Back at Mary's lodgings, she and Jackson have a brief spat about whether or not he's embarrassed to be seen in public with her before the makeup cuddling. Jackson is still responsible enough to at least say he's got to go to work and prepare things for Dr. Knox's lectures at this point, and good for him.
Meanwhile, in a filthy tavern, William Hare watches an old alcoholic woman snoring, passed out at her table. He drinks the dregs from her glass and picks Burke's pocket of his remaining cash before waking his partner up, then refers to the old woman as a "capital investment" and makes absolutely certain nobody else in the bar is conscious to watch Burke and him leaving with her. To take her back to Burke's flophouse for a free night's rest. The pair navigate past a town crier and an old blind beggar to get poor old Aggie back to where it's safe (and, importantly to them, without being observed by anyone that could connect them to her inevitable disappearance). Hare orders William Burke to get Aggie even drunker with a dose of whiskey and sends Mrs. Burke out to keep watch. Once the old woman's utterly insensible, Hare gets Burke to pinch Aggie's nose and mouth shut until she asphyxiates. Hare might be a thief, a murderer, a lout, a drunkard and worse, but he's smart enough to know that Dr. Knox won't have any plausible deniability if his dissection cadavers have stab wounds or shattered skulls. And even if Knox never gets suspicious, Hare wants to make sure that nobody in his tenement neighborhood connects him with the disappearances.
Turns out old Aggie is worth eight guineas, payable immediately upon receipt due to her freshness and Burke and Hare's discretion. Even with the pair of killers bowing and scraping to Knox, the scene gets stolen by Cushing's low-key joke about Aggie's advanced alcoholism ("I prefer them to be pickled externally"). Burke and Hare ask if Knox could use many more bodies, and although the doctor doesn't really put two and two together, Jackson's in the same room and he's acquired at least a little dose of street smarts since he started seeing Mary Patterson. Not that he recognizes the two men who beat and robbed him earlier, but he knows something's not right. As Burke and Hare leave the Academy's loading dock, they puff themselves up with pride knowing that they're doing a good job and getting paid well. And there's thousands of people in Edinburgh that nobody would ever, ever miss...
At the next lecture, Jackson's utterly unprepared to explain what he's supposed to already know and, worse still, has fallen asleep in the lecture. Knox humiliates him at length in front of the class and then leaves him to his shame. Back at his lodgings, Mary knocks a lantern over during a spat and watches in horror as Jackson has to beat the flames out before the whole building goes up. She and Jackson have a discussion about whether or not they can be together, coming from utterly different social classes and all; they decide, at least for now, to stick together and keep making each other happy.
Hare seems to be taking to his new career; he's bought a fancy new waistcoat to go with his shabby, torn jacket and drinking top-shelf booze to the point of coma rather than the rail swill he's used to. Mrs. Burke complains about how little money is left over from his partnership with her husband, but a new lodger forestalls her complaints. He'll be paying rent for the spare bed, at least, and after Hare makes pleasant chitchat with him about where he's from and whether or not anyone's going to come looking for him if they miss him, it does certainly seem that he might be worth a bit more to the household.
When Burke and Hare show up with the lodger's corpse stuffed into a box (Burke gets stuck hauling it around, because Hare's no dummy) Dr. Mitchell is there to receive them, and he's nowhere near as willfully blind as Knox is. Among other things, he'd sure like to know why the body has a big bruise on the side of its head. But Knox's arrival amputates this branch of the conversation handily. After Burke and Hare leave, Mitchell tries to raise his objections to Dr. Knox, who is having less than none of it. Before either one of them can say anything they couldn't take back, a clot of Edinburgh's high society men have shown up to chastise Knox for an article he wrote about another surgeon's lethal misjudgment of how to treat a recent patient. One of them threatens a lawsuit and tries to provoke Knox into throwing the first punch; the good doctor is much too smart for that and instead goes for blistering invective against the four men arrayed against him and then politely requests that they leave.
Man, I could not enjoy Cushing in this movie any more than I do.
Meanwhile, things are falling apart between Jackson and Mary; he finds her drunk in a room full of laughing, dancing inebriated proletariat. When he tries to take her home she lets him have it with both barrels and immediately regrets it. She runs outside to cry in the road and Burke and Hare are there to share some booze and sympathy, offering much more to drink back at their place. They get spotted by one of Mary's friends on their way back to Burke's place and there's some deeply unsavory talk between Burke and Hare about what exactly is going to go on in that room when Burke's standing lookout and Hare is all alone with Mary. In the room things don't go as planned, and Hare winds up having to asphyxiate Mary without anything more carnal and enjoyable as a prelude. The look on Donald Pleasence's face is utterly horrifying when you see how much Hare is enjoying his work.
Mrs. Burke arrives right after the deed is done, and opines that she doesn't mind the occasional murder for profit in her house, but if either of them touched the attractive young woman, that's another thing entirely. Neither Burke nor Hare have to lie to her to say nothing happened (other than killing an innocent woman for money), so she's mollified.
At the Academy, Jackson has decided to get his shit together and is working on his treatises bright and early; Dr. Knox's servant Davey comes in with a sheet-covered body on a gurney. He's enthusiastic; the doctor wants drawings made of this new cadaver, as it's the best one they've had in recent memory. Taking a break from his studies, Jackson decides to see what this new body looks like, and is horrified to see it's the woman he loves. Dr. Mitchell walks in on him while Jackson's still in shock and can't get a word out of the poor man, who runs off in search of Burke, Hare, and vengeance. And since Dr. Mitchell saw Jackson and Mary together, he's the one who can tell Dr. Knox and Davey what exactly is going on here.
Over at Casa Burke, Jackson starts a ruckus with Burke while the other man is eating breakfast; Hare approaches silently from behind him, unnoticed, in a really well set up shot. While Jackson's trying to strangle Burke with his bare hands, Hare demonstrates a knowledge of anatomy with the direct application of a dagger into the younger man's back. While carrying Jackson's body out to dump it, Daft Jamie the impoverished mentally handicapped street urchin sees them in the alley. Later on, after Jackson's body is discovered, neither Knox nor Mitchell is willing to tell the police anything about Burke and Hare--out of unwillingness to have their own complicity in the murderers' activities brought to light. Knox himself says that if Mitchell thinks a common prostitute (which he thinks Mary was) is more important than training a generation of talented doctors, he should do the right thing and get in touch with the police.
Daft Jamie comes across the gruesome twosome in the morning and lets them know that he took a ring off of the finger of a dead man he found in an alley. The local priest says that's a sin and he should give the ring to the police--he tells Burke and Hare that he hasn't done that yet, and the audience mentally clicks a stopwatch. They promise to talk to Jamie later about what to do with the ring and how to avoid the police; when Jamie leaves the confab he runs across one of Mary's friends, who is worried sick about Patterson, as she seems to have disappeared two or three days earlier.
Jamie's meeting with Burke and Hare ends with the expected fatal result, though Jamie makes it outside of the flophouse and Mary's friend, hiding in the alley, witnesses his murder. She runs off screaming that Burke and Hare killed Jamie and grabs a cop to go look for evidence at the Burke residence. The semi-hysterical woman tells the police to look at Knox's academy for Jamie's body. Over at the academy, Dr. Mitchell (who was there when the police got tipped off) tries too late to tell Knox not to receive poor Jamie's body. Mitchell tries to tell Knox how much the doctor has to lose if his alliance with the killers comes to light. The inspector arrives before Knox can dispose of the body, and requests an examination of the corpse from a skilled professional. Knox says there's no doubt that Daft Jamie died by violence.
Which leads to a literal torch-bearing mob outside the Merry Duke. It's time for some slum-clearing vigilante justice. Burke and Hare run for a disused warehouse and leave Burke's wife to face the music alone as the mob closes in. She narcs on them immediately, and they have it coming. There's hundreds of extras crowding the frame as the mob breaks into the warehouse, and Hare throws his partner down a flight of stairs as a delaying action (the son of a bitch). But he's stuck behind barred windows and gets hauled away by the police to face justice rather than vengeance.
Mitchell stops by the academy to tell Dr. Knox that his chief suppliers have been arrested and will face trial, which means that he'll be ruined at best and imprisoned at worse. Hare, always the swifter of the pair, turns King's Evidence so he can narc on Burke and hopefully save his own neck. Burke is found guilty while Knox isn't charged with any crime (although the court of public opinion disagrees with this course of action pretty emphatically, in the slums as well as in the higher social strata). It turns out crowds of people chanting that you're a murderer will distract the few remaining students during your lectures.
Burke is hanged, to the crowd's roaring approval while Hare is set free (the police are at least willing to let him leave out the back door of the jail rather than pitching him directly to the mob outside). They are not, however, willing to give him an escort even a single step outside the door. He gets a really good lesson in what terror is before a pair of vigilantes burn his eyes out with a torch--I don't know if that happened in real life, but it makes quite a satisfying end to the villain in this movie.
And as for Knox? He walks out his own front door, past a jeering crowd, and faces the doctors who hate him. He tells them to take their collective best shot, because they couldn't have wished for a better chance to hurt him, then leaves the room. Dr. Mitchell shows up as the only person saying anything at all in Knox's defense, and even he makes a plea to amend the cadaver-research laws so Knox will be the last monster using the black market and criminals to get around the existing restrictions.
Just about the last we see of Dr. Knox he's talking to a child in an alley; he doesn't have a halfpenny to give the street urchin for a sweet but he says she can have some money if she comes to his house. She's scared to leave the slums, though, because the stranger might sell her to Doctor Knox. The walk home gives Cushing a chance to let the realization that he's become the boogeyman flow over his face; finally, at long last, he realizes that there was a price to pay for aiding and abetting the two murderers. He tells his niece that he understands the depths of his failure as a human being now; he was a brilliant doctor but only now realizes what an awful, soulless human being he was.
And may have been all along.
He finds this out just in time to hear the news from Dr. Mitchell that he won't be facing any professional censure from the Edinburgh doctors; they're perfectly willing to let the proletariat drag Knox's name through the mud without getting their own hands dirty.
The film ends with one more lecture from Knox, to a packed gallery of students, on the Hippocratic Oath. One assumes that he'll be paying a bit more attention to the "do no harm to anyone" portion in the future.
What a treat! Dark alleys, murderous deeds, social strife, doomed romance and more. The film is packed with incident and moves along for its 93 minutes at a brisk pace, never tarrying with any of its various plots long enough to bore anyone (I can't say I cared all that much what happened with Knox's niece and Dr. Mitchell, but it's nice to have them there anyway). And it's a real treat to watch Donald Pleasence go from brutal thug to murder boss to terrified victim on his own. Just watching the emotions play across his face is a treat. And at the same time that he descends into murderous profiteering, Peter Cushing gets to play a character in deep denial who eventually reconnects with the buried spark of his conscience and resolves to do better by himself and by everyone around him. It's the happiest ending you could possibly get from a story about two drunken lazy murderers who know exactly what a human life is worth (up to $440 or so in current Yankee dollars).