November 12, 2012

Man with Two Lives (1942)

Across the history of cinema, very few events have had the tremendous impact that the arrival of sound had. As a factor that redefined the art of cinema for ever, it meant as well a forced changed in the careers of many artists. Naturally, this is of course more than obvious in the case of actors, forced to adapt themselves to the changing art; however, it also represented a challenge for the filmmakers, who experienced the shaking of the foundations of an art they had come to dominate. While some of them, like Fritz Lang, managed to make a notable transition from silent cinema to "talkies", many others weren't that lucky and saw their careers finished. The case of director Phil Rosen could be considered a middle ground, as while Rosen could still work in sound films, he went from being a filmmaker of a certain name to an unknown yet efficient artisan making genre films in the world of B-movies. The film "Man with Two Lives", a mix of horror and science fiction released in 1942, is a typical example of the kind of cinema that Rosen would do in the sound era.

"Man with Two Lives" begins in the laboratory of Dr. Richard Clark (Edward Keane), whom along his young assistant Reginald Bennett (Tom Seidel), has dedicated his job to find a way to resurrect the dead. So far, it seems that Dr. Clark has achieved his goal, having been able to keep a heart beating for days; however, he hasn't been able to try his theories on a human being. The opportunity would come to him in a tragic way, when Reginald's brother, Philip Bennett (Edward Norris), loses his life in an unfortunately fatal car accident. Desperate, Philip's father, Hobart Bennett (Frederick Burton), begs Dr. Clark to put his theories to the test in order to resurrect his son, who had a promising future and was set to marry the beautiful Helen Lengel (Marlo Dwyer) in the following days. Dr. Clark accepts, though not without some reluctance. Fortunately, the experiment success and Philip Bennet is alive again. However, something is not right with Philip, who doesn't remember anyone and on the contrary, seems to know a lot about Wold Panino, a criminal who was executed at the same time Philip was resurrected.

Written by veteran scriptwriter Joseph Hoffman (who would have a prolific career in B-movie cinema), "Man with Two Lives" is another reinterpretation of the popular theme of change of personalities, having in this case the soul of a gangster in the body of kind and responsible Philip Bennett. Thus, Hoffman's tale moves between science fiction and crime melodrama, as the recently resurrected Panino uses Bennett's body to try to recover his criminal empire. As can be guessed, a lot of the drama in "Man with Two Lives" comes from the fact that Philip is a well liked member of high society, so his family and friends end up shocked as they discover the places and the people that Bennet is now visiting after his resurrection (not to mention his new activities). Hoffman's script is a tad predictable (not to mention it borrows a bit too much from Arthur Lubin's "Black Friday", released just two years before), though it does include a couple of interesting moments where the ruthless personality of Panino is evident. Sadly, Hoffman fails to explore more this aspect and even betrays himself with pretty cheap finale.

Director Phil Rosen gives life to Hoffman's screenplay in a pretty simple and traditional way. In fact, this simplicity in its visual narrative, though certainly effective to work with little time and low budget, results in a movie that feels even more antiquated than it really is. With a pretty static style that opts for practicality instead of a properly defined artistic vision, Rosen crafts an uninspired film that hardly takes advantage of the locations and props the film has (which include laboratory devices brought from previously done horror films). Despite the touches of horror and science fiction the story has, Rosen builds up his movie without paying too much attention to those aspects, leaving "Man with Two Lives" as mainly a gangster film and focusing more in the contrast between the two lives that his character experiences: the luxury existence of wealthy Bennett and the sordid life of ruthless criminal Panino. Even when Rosen himself had a solid background as cinematographer, the use he gives to the work of Harry Neumann in this department is pretty simplistic.

The performances by the cast in "Man with Two Lives" aren't really bad, so it's a bit sad that they hadn't a better material to work in this movie. Edward Norris plays the nice Philip Bennet, whom after suffering the unfortunate accident finds himself with the personality of the violent Panino. As Bennett, Norris is a bit wooden, even stagy in his performance, though once the personality of the criminal begins to control his character, Norris actually makes a pretty good job (certainly Norris was more comfortable playing the gangster than the nice guy). Marlo Dwyer, playing socialité Helen Lengel isn't bad in her role, though she's overshadowed a lot by actress Eleanor Lawson, who plays Panino's former girlfriend, confused at finding in Bennett the traits of her deceased lover. As Dr. Richard Clark, Edward Keane makes a job that's reminiscent of Lionel Atwill's style, though of course without the same level. Young Tom Seidel makes a pretty acceptable job as young Reginald Bennett, to the point of overshadowing Norris at times.

As mentioned before, "Man with Two Lives" is a film a bit too predictable for its own good, and pretty much lacking in originality. The fact that it's plot is too similar to "Black Friday" doesn't help much (specially when in said film one finds the performances of the two greatest icons of horror: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), and unfortunately "Man with Two Lives" does little to move away from that comparison. Without a doubt, with a better developed screenplay, the film could had explored far more interesting territories. Unfortunately, it would seem as if Hoffmand had been consciously trying to avoid risk at all cost, for example. after having taken the story to a climatic scene of a certain strength, Hoffman's script opts to take a easy way out that feels gratuitous and cheap. Phil Rosen's uninspired work of directing is another negative element in the film, as while the acting isn't really bad, Rosen does little to establish an atmosphere or a mood for his film, leaving "Man with Two Lives" as just an average gangster film of the 1940s.

Monogram Pictures was a pretty important studio in its time, as it served as production company and distributor to the works of many filmmakers forced to thrive in the world of B-movies. While there are many Monogram films of great quality, unfortunately Phil Rosen's "Man with Two Lives" isn't one of them. A hybrid of horror and gangster film, "Man with Two Lives" sets aside its horror genre inheritance and focuses more on being a typical crime melodrama. Despite its lack of originality, there are certain elements in the film that could had elevated the film a bit. Unfortunately, those elements aren't exploited and the film ends sadly as a pretty forgettable story.


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