Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part III: The Anatomist

The Anatomist (1956)
Dir. Dennis Vance
Written by James Bridie (play), Harry Allan Towers (Screen Adaptation)
Starring Alistair Sim, George Cole, Adrienne Corri, Michael Ripper, Diarmuid Kelly

THE ANATOMIST is the second version of the Burke and Hare story to be committed to celluloid. Or, well, actually the first. Or, to be more specific, the first, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth. Kinda. See, THE ANATOMIST is actually a frequently adapted play written by Scottish playwright James Bridie back in 1931. I can find some evidence that it may have been adapted for the medium of radio as early as 1937 (the BBC “Genome” Beta version has its premier Oct 10, 1937), but it was certainly adapted for the small screen first in 1939, with Andrew Cruickshank (later to star in another Bridie adaptation, THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN) in the titular role as Dr. Knox. (Side note: Why TV was allowed to use the real names of Burke, Hare, and Knox, while THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART --a decade later-- was not, remains a mystery). As far as I can tell, no copy of this 1939 show exists today, and I can’t even find stills of it, leading me to assume that, like so many BBC programs, it was aired once and discarded, never to be seen again. There was supposedly another TV version in 1949 (though the sole source for that information is the not-always-reliable IMDB), but again, if it was ever saved to begin with, it appears to be utterly unavailable now.

The version we concern ourselves with here, then, is the Dennis Vance version which appears to have premiered in 1956. It’s honestly a little unclear; IMDB lists two versions of the play which both played the same year, one listed as a 90-minute “ITV Play of the Week” and one a “TV movie” at 73 minutes. Of course, the version I watched is actually 81 minutes, so that doesn’t help. The two versions appear to have identical casts and crews as nearly as I can tell, except that the “TV movie” version lists Harry Alan Towers (credited as Leonard Williams?) as a writer, along with Dennis Webb’s adaptation credit. The on-screen credits for the version I watched only list Webb, so my assumption is that it’s the one which originally played as an “ITV Play of the Week” episode, presumably on BBC, assuming, again, that IMDB is even remotely accurate about these things. Which, as it should be obvious from the conflicting information here, it is not. I think there is a possibility that both versions actually feature the same performances, and the “TV Movie” version is actually a condensed and shortened version of the same production (which might explain the additional “adaptation” credit for Towers, who may have helped cut the film or added additional dialogue to help fill in gaps created by the missing 20 minutes) but with only one version available, there’s no way to be sure.  Further confusing things is the fact that the film is frequently credited online as a 1961 production, which would put it a year later than our ostensible next entry, THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Digging into this a little, it appears that ‘61 is actually the U.S. debut, and the original 1956 date for the production is the correct one. Again, this is mostly speculation based on what little information is available; there’s no copyright date visible on-screen.

OK! So, for anyone still reading, I apologize for the wonkery. I think I may be the only person in history to get interested enough to write anything about this obscure and mostly unwatchable subgenre, so I feel like I owe it to future generations to document this topic as thoroughly as I can. Anyway, this one, 1956’s (?) THE ANATOMIST is very plainly based on a play, and kind of feels quite a bit older than it actually is. Part of that is the fact that its source material was already a quarter-century old by the time this adaptation rolled around, and part is probably the cheapie TV production, which does not exactly lavish the film with opulent mise-en-scène and epic setpieces. I mean, this came out in the US in 1961, the same year as THE HUSTLER, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, YOJIMBO, WEST SIDE STORY. Though the wilder pop culture of the 60’s was still a few years off, this stagey, talky melodrama must have seemed pretty stodgy and old-fashioned even when it was new, and now it's half a century old.

Not that it’s a bad thing, necessarily. The writing is witty and highly literate, and it’s delivered with acid-tongued perfection by Scottish actor Alastair Sim, best known for his classic portrayal the title character in the 1951 Christmas Carol adaptation SCROOGE. Here’s the weird thing, though: Sim isn’t playing Burke or Hare, he’s playing Dr. Knox, the surgeon who bought the bodies from them but was never (officially) implicated in the crime. THE ANATOMIST is much more about the actual anatomist of the title than it is about the ghastly murders his name is inexorably linked to. For better or for worse, this is only in passing a tale of the killers, who appear in only a few scenes and vanish totally by the ⅔ mark. Otherwise, it’s a languid series of monologues by Knox on the subject of science, and how anyone who thinks that science should stop short of, say, murder, is probably a horse’s ass.

That topic cultivates some mildly interesting philosophical rigamarole (though pretty meandering considering there’s really only one basic point to keep dancing around) but you can’t help but feel a little cheated by the movie’s focus, because it has such a great Burke and Hare duo that it seems a shame to shortchange them. As Burke you got Diarmuid Kelly, a gaunt, ghoulish and eerie presence and perhaps the most singly frightening actor to ever take on the role of one of the two killers. Kelly didn’t do a lot of other movies, and had mostly smaller roles in the ones he did (one of the pirates in Disney’s 1950 TREASURE ISLAND, for example). But he’s great here, with his dead, monotone voice and coldly soulless eyes. Nicely matching him is future Hammer Films veteran/mascot Michael Ripper, playing Hare with a wild-eyed ferocity every bit as intense as Kelly’s disturbing nonchalance. The two of them together are such a compellingly frightening team that it’s little wonder that they’re the only two faces on the DVD cover, despite their relative absence from the movie.

The story itself, though, mostly takes place far away from them. It begins with our obligatory Handsome Generic Med Student (HGMS, in this case a young George Cole, who ironically played young Scrooge in the same 1950 production Alastair Sim is known for) arguing with his fiancee (Jill Bennett, THE SHELTERING SKY) about his mentor, Dr. Knox. Fiancee is not a fan, and harangues him in the most shrill possible manner about how she thinks Dr. Knox is bad news. She’s right, of course, but her point is not that it’s probably wrong to facilitate murderous bodysnatching, but basically that science itself is inherently against God’s will and also her boyfriend should spend more time with her and less on being a medical student. Yeah, what a heel, huh? How dare he take seriously his future career as a doctor? It figures an aspiring anatomist would be interested in her, though, because her nostrils are easily already large enough to inhale a medium-sized ocean liner, and she tends to flare then when she’s angry, which in this movie is all the time. In the grainy black and white, it frequently looks like someone put two generous shotgun blasts in the center of the screen. I’m telling you, these fucking things are out of hand. No wonder she hates science so much, there’s no science I know of that can explain how her brain doesn’t just fall right out of these mammoth blowholes. It’s extremely distracting just to look at her --which would normally be a detriment to the movie-- but given how irritating a character she is, it’s actually something of a blessing.*

Anyway other than that she seems like a charming young woman.

Into this bijou domestic tablou enters Dr. Knox, ostensibly to play to the flute for the arousal of the nosey luddite’s sister, who he wants to bang (when she points out that he’s married, he’s aghast at her insensitivity to his feelings). Everyone takes this opportunity to argue with him about whether science can go too far. He says no and keeps trying to play the flute, but they always interrupt him and ask the same question again. It’s like the 500 or so episodes of The Cosby Show where Cosby just wants to eat a sandwich but people keep interrupting him to ask how come it’s OK that he hires deranged ghouls to murder streetwalkers so he can cut up their bodies in front of a crowd of gawking unwashed frat boys. (EDITOR'S NOTE: I swear that was a good joke in the context of the time I wrote it. Hasn't held up so well upon revisiting, but I'm leaving it in for historical accuracy.) 

It's obviously a pretty risky move to posit this particular story as a series of long-winded conversations on a single topic set in posh sitting rooms, and I'd be lying if I said I thought it was an enormously good idea. This is pretty dry stuff, but it’s made watchable by Sim, who plays Knox in a pretty unique way. He's a big guy --noticeably taller than anyone else around him-- and physically quite imposing. But even more than his stature, his caustic wit is so formidable that he absolutely dominates anyone who tries to argue with him. In the many subsequent versions of this story that would include comparably long arguments about if science is going too far, this film may have the most one-sided. Everyone is so outmatched by Sim --both physically and intellectually-- that he emerges as not so much an arrogant intellectual but a sadistic bully, relishing the opportunity to administer a verbal (and in one case later on, a physical) beatdown on anyone who foolishly wanders close enough. Intellectually besting and delivering blood-curdling mockery to these morons is like shooting fish in a barrel for this guy, and the zeal with which he takes to it is a bit unsettling. It's worth noting that Sim --unlike almost every other actor to take the part-- also neglects Dr. Knox's characteristic wonky eye (the real Knox was stricken with polio as a child, damaging his left eye and giving it a weird droop), which might have made him seem vulnerable or damaged; this conception of Knox needs to seem invincible and arrogant.

As in THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, THE ANATOMIST reveals, about halfway though, that Knox is absolutely complicit in the murders. It’s something of a shock, because before that revelation, Knox is more of a hilarious cad, fitting somewhere in the venerable British tradition of bracingly witty assholes. You know, George Bernard shaw, Oscar Wilde, Dr. House. Guys whose artistic dexterity in the medium of pithy putdowns is so goddam impressive that you can’t help but like them. I mean, Knox gets all the funny lines in the first half, and like any good movie character we’re inevitably going to side with him because he’s far and away the most charismatic character in sight. But suddenly here he is, buying the corpse of a young Mary Petersen (Adrienne Corri, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, in a pretty small role) even as his HGMS points out that there’s no possible way this body was come by honestly. How does he respond? Thows the kid to the ground and basically tells him that murder is OK if it’s in the name of science. He cajoles, insults, threatens and intimidates into silence anyone who might be tempted to do the right thing. Holy goddam, this shit got dark all the sudden. It actually feels very much like the infamous rape scene in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED**: a tipping point, where before we might have been tempted to overlook the title character's amoral leanings in light of his cleverness and charisma, but after which there’s simply no way to defend him.

ain't I a stinker?

After that, you assume the tables are gonna turn, and this egomaniacal asshole is gonna get what’s coming to him. But somehow the movie has other ideas. Because it skips directly from this scene to the aftermath of Burke and Hare’s arrest, which has happened off-screen at some point in the recent past. Knox is not criminally implicated, but even as he tries to go on with his daily routine, he’s stalked by angry mobs out for his blood. A fitting punishment for this sociopathic bastard, right? Except somehow the movie doesn’t see it that way; Knox shows up at the house of Nostrils McGee and her sister, and instead of just condemning him for essentially putting hits on poor people, they seem very sympathetic that he’s so terribly inconvenienced by the folks that are angry with him now! Seriously, Knox offers a line or two vaguely articulating some personal vulnerability -- personal, mind you; he offers scant few regrets whatsoever about his professional role in the the murders -- and the movie seems to totally forgive him! It ends with his students fighting off the angry mob, and telling him that he’s so awesome that if he can’t make it into the school, they’ll come to him! And the movie seems to think this is a heartwarming turn! It’s like the end of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, if Robin Williams had actually hired two seedy hitmen to murder poor people so he could cut them up in public.

Obviously, I find this ending baffling. This would not be the last time a Burke and Hare movie was inexplicably forgiving of Dr. Knox, but it is certainly the most egregious example. Most films hedge a bit on exactly how complicit the Doctor is; those that do tend to hold him up as an ambiguous figure, a conflicted guy who did the wrong thing but maybe for the right reasons. This is the only one to unambiguously demonstrate that he’s not just aware of the murders, but actively impeding the cause of justice and then not just forgive him, but give him a heartwarming ending where everyone supports him. It’s so baffling I can’t help but wonder if this was originally intended to be darkly ironic or something, and the director of this version just missed it? But there’s little evidence for that in the screenplay. Bridie gives the doctor a moment or two of regret, and then immediately starts rewarding him. And you could almost go along with it, too; Sim’s portrayal is a wondrous thing, laying subtle hints of brittle pain underneath the pushy bluster and bellicose quips and reminding you that Knox is perhaps more scared child than savage fighter. But it’s not quite enough; after his bullying, manipulating performance to scare his students out of reporting a murder, you can never quite trust him again. Whatever his personal suffering, he’s managed to dodge responsibility for his crimes and easily deserves everything he’s gotten and a whole lot more. It’s bizarre that the movie doesn’t see it that way.

As a whole, THE ANATOMIST is too stagey and plodding to be a classic, and its weird, frustratingly tone-deaf ending doesn’t help matters. But it has its moments; nestled in his endless pontificating, Knox has a bunch of funny lines (“You must know that no real lady would ever force her lover to talk about his wife! It embarasses him beyond bearing!”) and Sim plays him with grandstanding finesse. Though they’re tragically shortchanged by the screenplay, Ripper and Kelly are dynamite as Burke and Hare, for my money the best duo in the whole run of films. And if the production is not exactly a visual marvel, at least it’s nicely balanced by a script which is written with uncommon care and deftness for language. If you absolutely must enjoy a 1950’s TV movie which tacitly condones murdering the poor as a source of cheap organs for the rich, this is definitely one of the better ones. * Normally I would consider myself above mocking an actresses' physical appearance, but this is a really annoying performance and I'm feeling petty. I'm sure I'll live to regret it.

**Fittingly, I suppose, since it would be Cushing who next had a go at this character.


Burke and Hare-athon Checklist!

Title: The Anatomist (1956)

Genre: Black Comedy/Series of Monologues

Story regulars: Burke, Hare and Knox, Mary Petersen, HGMS. No Jaime, no Docherty (or any other victim; in fact, the movie is a little unclear about if anyone else has been killed).

Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Bizarrely positive, in spite of openly admitting his complicity.

Wonky eye or no? No. I should explain: the real Dr. Knox suffered from Polio as a child, and had a droopy, useless left eye. Most portrayals include this detail, but Sim does not, perhaps fearing it would make him seem vulnerable.
Scottish accents? Our HGMS has one, and a few minor characters do as well, including, for some reason, Burke and Hare. Sim, despite being Scottish himself, does not.
Irish accents? For some reason Burke and Hare sound more Scottish than Irish, though I suppose it’s kinda borderline.
Heaving cleavage? None. But if frilly dresses are your thing, Christmas just came early.
Rockin’ theme music? Almost no music.

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