Med school confidential, Val Lewton style: "When we dislike a friend, we dissect him." The theme is dilated from Robert Louis Stevensonís tale, the murky base of the obelisk of art and science -- whoís in charge of the cadavers in anatomy lectures? Two slum-bred hopefuls in fin-de-siŤcle Edinburgh, one becomes a physician and pedant (Henry Daniell) and the other a coachman and all-around ghoul (Boris Karloff). The doctorís anguished rationality ("a lot of knowledge, no understanding") and the cab-driverís cultured ghastliness remain locked in continuous symbiosis. "The pit yawns for both of them," Daniellís mistress (Edith Atwater) declares. Observing the danse macabre is the naÔve, blank-slate apprentice (Russell Wade), whose "medical career milestones" include recognizing the fresh corpse delivered for class. Researchers and healers are closer to the subjects on the autopsy slab than to their living patients in this acerbic chimera of shadow and sacrifice, grave-robbing becomes "the resurrection business." Robert Wise does justice to the cobbled streets and bottomless cellars of Lewtonís netherworld in one resourceful camera setup: Carriage, arched hallway, fog, a beggar womanís song suddenly stilled. The off-screen brutality (including one gruesome bit staged behind drawn curtains) doesnít lessen the existential horror of characters unceremoniously becoming sheet-wrapped bodies slung over a whimsical butcherís shoulders. Bela Lugosiís appearance as Daniellís bent, creeping, unwisely blackmailing servant gazes back mournfully on the Black Cat duo, the crippled child and the impassive equine reappear in Au Hasard Balthazar. The sustained chiaroscuro gives way to the lightning-blanched folia of the climax, Hippocrates has the last word: "The roads of learning begin in darkness..." With Rita Corday, Sharyn Moffett, and Donna Lee. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce