Arthur Lubin, 1940
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Anne Gwynne, Stanley Ridges
Surgeon Dr. Ernest Sovac illegally saves the life of his best friend, Professor Kingsley, when Kingsley is involved in a car accident. Gangster Red Cannon was responsible for the accident and though he barely has a scratch on him, Sovac murders Cannon and transfers some of his brain into his friend. Kingsley makes a miraculous recovery, but seems to have developed some new personality traits. When Sovac realizes that part of Red Cannon’s brain lives on in Kingsley, he brings him to New York in that hope that he will remember the location of the $500,000 Red Cannon hid before his death. Meanwhile, they are being pursued by Kingsley’s wife, who is desperate to know what’s wrong with her husband, and rival gangsters who also want the money. Unfortunately for Sovac, Cannon is more interested in murderous revenge than uncovering the loot.
Arthur Lubin directed a number of the Abbott and Costello horror comedies and seems ill suited for a solemn-toned horror-gangster-science fiction hybrid. The pacing is off and though the film does have some promising elements, it seems unclear about exactly what kind of film it really wants to be. There are a few sci-fi/horror elements, namely the ridiculous and illegal brain transplant surgery. Karloff’s Dr. Sovac outright kills Red Cannon to save his friend’s life, but overall seems more interested in the results of the surgery -- his experiment -- and Cannon’s money than he does in his friend’s life. Possibly the worst best friend a person could have. This also borrows way too much from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Screenplay author Curt Siodmak, a regular Universal horror script writer, visited the theme of duality many times throughout his work in films like The Wolf Man and in the similarly brain surgery themed Donovan’s Brain, among other brain-themed horror/sci-fi films.
For some reason this is listed as a star vehicle for Lugosi and Karloff, despite the fact that Lugosi appears in maybe 7 minutes of the film as a disgruntled gangster. Karloff has a bigger role, but even he is pushed to the side by Stanley Ridges, who has the starring role as Professor Kingsley/Red Cannon. Initially, Lugosi was supposed to play Sovac and Karloff was supposed to play Kingsley/Cannon, but director Lubin allegedly replaced him because he thought the role wasn't appropriate for Karloff. Ridges is compelling and certainly steals the film away from everyone else, but the constant and completely unbelievable personality switches throw off the film’s suspense and rhythm. It makes little sense that Red Cannon’s brain/personality seems to be taking over Professor Kingsley, but maybe it's my mistake to assume this film is remotely interested in making sense.
Overall what could have been an interesting genre effort is pretty lazy and borrows heavily from gangster films that were popular in the '30s, but shifting to film noir in this period. During the early '40s, Universal was desperate to make a buck in anyway possible. There are a couple of atmospheric proto-noir shots, such as when Kingsley/Cannon goes into the water works to retrieve the hidden money. I don’t think I can recommend Black Friday, but it feels more like a long episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents than Universal horror, so if that interests you, you may want to check it out. Oddly this film is available as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection, even though Lugosi barely appears in the movie.