Review: Before I Hang (1940)

Written by Robert Hardy Andrews, Karl Brown
Directed by Nick Grind
Starring Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett, Edward Van Sloan
US Release Sept. 17, 1940
RT 62 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

Unless you grew up during a particular era, you might not realize that moral issues with which we struggle in modern times are not really anything new. Until I watched Before I Hang for the first time, I had no idea that euthanasia was a subject of debate as early as 1940. When Dr. Jack Kevorkian (“Dr. Death”) was on trial in 1999, nobody mentioned that Boris Karloff played a similar character sentenced to death by hanging for ending the suffering of an aging patient.

In court, Karloff’s Dr. John Garth acknowledges, “In the face of the law, I am a murderer. Before I am sentenced, I did what I did because… it would be years before I could end his suffering. He begged me for the simple mercy of death.” Lest you think the movie is a serious drama, I assure you the focus immediately shifts to experimentation with a serum that will cure old age. “Someday, somehow, medical science will find a way to end the needless, ghastly suffering caused by the ravages of age!”

The prison warden (Ben Taggart) and doctor (Edward Van Sloan) are more forgiving than the judge who sentenced him, and provide Garth with the means to continue his studies during the three weeks of life he has remaining. They even allow him to use blood from a three-time killer after he’s executed. The procedure is “entirely different from a blood transfusion.” A serum is developed from the man’s blood cells, then injected directly into a subject’s heart. Garth calls his studies, “a race for life… against death.”

What I like most about Before I Hang is that there is no mad scientist character. Garth is mild mannered, soft spoken, polite and considerate. He experiments only with people who are dead, and doesn’t kill people so he can experiment on them. Later, when he’s granted a stay of execution, has his sentence commuted, and continues his work from home, he asks permission of potential subjects rather than submitting them to procedures against their will.

The problem is, he injected his own heart with the serum on the day of his execution without realizing he wasn’t going to die. Therefore, he lives with the “poison” of a killer’s blood in his body, creating a subtle Jekyll-Hyde effect whenever he begins to “inoculate” anyone else with his serum. I say “subtle” because there’s no visual transformation. Garth simply becomes edgy, rubs the back of his neck and begins wringing his hands or twisting a scarf, the better with which to strangle someone.

The physical transformation comes after Garth’s first… incident. He’s in a coma for 12 hours, then wakes up with bruised wrists from being restrained because he apparently turned violent. But he doesn’t need glasses now and looks younger.  His hair is no longer completely white. Dr. Howard tells him, “By all medical records, you’re 20 years younger than when you came here.” Garth uses his recovered youth and vitality to convince his elderly friends they could benefit by receiving his inoculation.

“Your old age is a disease and I can cure it,” he tells them. “How can you even hesitate?” Again, he doesn’t force it upon them, but is very persuasive. His daughter, Martha (Evelyn Keyes) is worried about him, though. He’s obviously wracked with guilt when he realizes a change in personality has occurred and his friends start ending up dead. Confession is good for a man’s soul, and that’s ultimately what Garth does, telling his friend, George Wharton (Wright Kramer) what has happened.

“I know what I did. Nothing can save me but my own death.” Garth wants to surrender to the authorities. However, he still believes his experiments have been worthwhile and leaves all his research to Dr. Paul Ames (Bruce Bennett), a colleague who is also Martha’s beau. After the brief involvement of the police, the movie ends with Garth dramatically marching down the darkened streets toward the prison. At its gates, he says, “Call the warden. Let me in.” Sirens blare in the background.

Actually, that’s not the very end. I’ll leave its conclusion for you to experience; however, I will share the coda. It reminds us that Before I Hang is not typical 1940s horror fare. It turned a controversial issue into a fairly serious, expeditious (62 min.), movie that is also quite entertaining. “In the war of science, many men must die before a victory is won.” Paul tells Martha, “There’s so much to learn.” She replies, “Someday. Yes Paul, someday.” In 2016, we’re still learning.

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