Sunday, February 23, 2014

#1,287. Black Friday (1940)

Directed By: Arthur Lubin

Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges

Tag line: "A Reign Of HORROR... a man-made monster on the loose!"

Trivia: This was the only one of the seven films featuring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in which the two stars have no scenes together

Black Friday is a 1940 film starring a pair of horror icons, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But of all the movies the two made together (including The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein), this one is unique in that both are outshined by a character actor who, throughout his career, was relegated to supporting roles. With Karloff and Lugosi receiving top billing, Black Friday was, on paper, yet another “supporting” role for Stanley Ridges, but make no mistake about it: he’s the star of the show!

Brain surgeon Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) has developed a procedure that allows him to transplant a portion of brain from one living creature into another. Thus far, he’s experimented only on animals, but when his close friend, English professor George Kingsley (Ridges), is badly injured in a car crash, Sovac must rely on this new technique to save his life. The problem is, the brain he’s forced to use to perform the operation once belonged to New York gangster Red Cannon, who was driving the car that struck Kingsley. The procedure is a success, but with one very critical side effect: the docile Kingsley, on occasion, transforms into the vicious Red Cannon! Things get even more interesting when Sovac learns that Cannon, prior to the accident, had hidden half a million dollars somewhere in New York City. Hoping to use this money to build a research facility, Sovac invites Kinglsey to accompany him to New York, where, once back in familiar territory, the Red Cannon portion of his brain takes over. But as Sovac looks for a way to coax Cannon into recovering the money, the criminal is busy taking revenge on his former cohorts, who, led by Cannon’s old partner Eric Marnay (Lugosi), were responsible for the crash that killed him.

Of the film’s two top-billed “stars”, Karloff delivers the stronger performance, portraying Sovac as a kindly doctor whose greed eventually gets the better of him. As for Lugosi, he was badly miscast (a New York gangster with a Hungarian accent?), and the few times he appears on-screen (save his final scene) aren’t particularly memorable. But the real reason to check out Black Friday is to see Stanley Ridges, convincing as both a quiet, unassuming English professor and a hardened criminal. While the physical transformation from one persona to the other is minor (when Cannon takes control, Kinglsey’s grey hair becomes jet black), the difference in temperament is staggering; it’s quite a shock whenever the friendly Kinglsey changes into a brutal gangster, and the actor handles both aspects of his character’s complex personality to perfection.

Born in England in 1890, Ridges spent practically his entire film career in the background, playing minor roles in a few dozen movies, including Sergeant York and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (only once was he the lead, in a 1943 B-picture titled False Faces). After seeing him steal the spotlight from Karloff and Lugosi in Black Friday, it’s obvious Hollywood missed out on something special. Stanley Ridges should have been a star.

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