July 26, 2007
Black Friday (1940)
The figure of the gangster in fiction has always been a very popular and fascinating image since the hardboiled crime fiction of the late 20s made the gangster a new model of antihero for the modern times. Through the decade of the 30s, gangster films and crime melodramas would become very popular among the audiences, culminating in the development of the Film Noir, the highly stylish kind of crime films that reigned supreme during the 40s and the 50s. Considering the popularity of gangsters in movies, it wasn't a surprise that soon they became used as characters in a wide array of stories, and horror films weren't an exception. Among the films that successfully mixed horror with crime melodrama, 1940's "Black Friday" was definitely one of the best. An often forgotten movie that had in his cast two of the most important figures in the horror genre: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
"Black Friday" begins on a Friday 13, with Professor George Kinglsey (Stanley Ridges) giving his last class of English literature at the University of his town as he has been offered a position in a different school. However, on is way to the train station, Kinglsey is ran over by a car, putting his life in serious danger. In a last attempt to save Kingsley's life, his good friend Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) performs an illegal operation: Sovac implants parts of another man's brain into the professor's. Fortunately, the experiment is successful and Kingsley begins to recover his health quickly. However, something has changed in his good nature, and soon Sovac discovers that the personality of the man he used to save his friends can take control of the professor's body. And the problem is that the man was Red Cannon, a notorious gangster who now wants revenge.
With a screenplay written by Eric Taylor and Curt Siodmak, "Black Friday" is essentially a modern reinterpretation of R.L. Stevenson's classic horror novel "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" with gangster Red Cannon acting as the movie's Mr. Hyde. Like Stevenson's story, "Black Friday" is an interesting character study about human morality; however, while the professor's split personalities do represent two extreme sides of the human nature, the real drama is on Karloff's character, Dr. Sovac, who is at a crossroads between his willingness to help his friend and his desire to use him to prove that his theories about the brain are correct. While it is not on the level of Siodmak's posterior work (his immortal "The Wolf Man" for example), he and Taylor make a great job in creating an interesting story and developing remarkably their main characters.
A seasoned director of low-budget crime melodramas, Arthur Lubin makes a very effective work at the helm of "Black Friday", and manages to give the film the exact kind of atmosphere that made gangster films very popular in those years. The great work of cinematography done by his regular collaborator Elwood Bredell plays an important role in this, and in many ways one could say that "Black Friday" is one of the direct precursors of the Film Noir style. Despite the low-budget, "Black Friday" has that very polished and elegant look that movies produced by Universal in those years had, although this film lacks the ominous Gothic atmosphere of the classic 30s horror movies, as it relies more on its characters than in visual style. As usual, Lubin's directing of his cast is remarkable, and he manages to bring the best out of his actors, specially of Stanley Ridges.
While acting alongside legendary icons such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it's hard to avoid being overshadowed, however, Stanley Ridges not only manages to do that, he also achieves to deliver the best performance in the whole film. In his dual role, Kingsley is simply amazing, going from the good hearted Kingsley to the sociopath Cannon with remarkable ease, making the two characters look as if they were played by two actors. Even though Ridges steals the film, Karloff is still great as Sovac, which is a slightly more complex variation of his trademark "Mad Scientist" character. Bela Lugosi is also wonderful as Cannon's rival Eric Marnay, although sadly his role is extremely small despite having top billing. Finally, Anne Nagel is very effective as Sunny Rogers, the classic femme fatal of the movie.
With excellent performances by an effective cast, as well as solid directing by Lubin, "Black Friday" is a very good movie for its time and an example of the kind of horror movies that would dominate the decade. However, in all fairness this movie is not exactly a masterpiece as a small yet important problem that prevents it from reaching its true potential. The main problem is the serious miscasting of both Karloff and Lugosi, who really seem to be in the wrong role. Don't get me wrong, both make a great job in their characters (Lugosi has a couple of amazing scenes), but it's difficult not to think that Lugosi is playing Karloff's character and vice-versa (apparently, Karloff was supposed to play Ridges' character). Another detail is that those expecting the classic Gothic style of Universal's horror films will be sorely disappointed.
In many ways it could be said that "Black Friday" represents the ending of an era for the horror genre, and the beginning of another. Karloff and Lugosi, the ones who started the Golden Age of Gothic horror in the 30s, appear here in a movie that forecasts the moody noir-influenced horrors of the 40s. While different to the rest, "Black Friday" is still an excellent horror and a chance to see Stanley Ridges in his best role overshadowing two icons.