Written by: William Grote
Directed by: Charles Saunders, W. Lee Wilder
Starring: Robert Hutton, George Coulouris and Julia Arnall
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A diabolical dream come true!
The great prophet Nostradamus vaguely predicted a lot of things, but I bet even he couldnít have guessed some asshole would want to steal his head in a movie one day. But thatís exactly what happened in 1957ís The Man Without a Body, a British production that was still insistent on riding the brain-switching pseudo-science gravy train that had been on the rails for a couple of decades at that point. Of all of horrorís earliest trends, this one might have been mined more often than most, as even Universalís Frankenstein series took a brief detour there once Karloff ditched the franchise, leaving Lugosi in the lurch (literally). At any rate, this was the only one that involved the infamous French soothsayer, at least to my knowledge (and, probably, his as well, but I can only assume that).
When tycoon Karl Brussard (George Coulouris) learns he has an inoperable brain tumor, he refuses to just die; instead, he seeks out a scientist (Robert Hutton) who has been experimenting with transplanting monkey brains into disembodied heads. He then goes shopping for a potential new brain at a wax museum full of historical figures, and it dawns on him that he should borrow Nostradamusís brain so that he can continue to live. After a trip to France, where he exhumes the prophetís body and takes his head, he returns in the hopes of co-opting the brain for his own. As it turns out, Nostradamus himself isnít exactly willing to comply with this insane scheme once heís awakened from his centuries-long nap.
What follows sounds a bit like a screwball comedy plot: since Brussard canít have Nostradamusís brain, he attempts to get the prophet to predict the future for him so that he can make a fortune. And since Nostradamus thinks Brussard is a bit of a dick, he decides to foil him by giving him intentionally bad advice. I always suspected Nostradamus would be a prankster. Anyway, itís all pretty silly, obviously, and The Man Without a Body is only kind of amusing in its wacky science; really, calling this ďpseudo-scienceĒ is being generous, as I canít quite wrap my head around the main plot. Apparently, the film postulates that one can not only resuscitate a brain thatís been dead for a few centuries, but also steal it and merge it with another one. So, apparently, Brussardís plan is to keep on living as himself, but heíll be augmented by Nostradamusís fortune telling prowess, or something. This is delightfully absurd stuff that reveals the quaintness of an age where people genuinely believed we might be on the verge of these types of discovery.
In fact, the flick treats so much of this as a matter-of-fact; even Nostradamus doesnít seem to be all that amazed to have been awakened after all those years, though one might argue that he saw it coming all along. Heís even quite chummy with the doc who revives him and seems rather fascinated by all of this. More interesting, however, is his antagonism with Brussard, which is kind of funny, particularly when the businessman tries to convince Nostradamus that he actually isnít Nostradamus. Isnít this akin to trying to hypnotize a hypnotist or something? While this doesnít seem to be intended comedy, itís hard not to chuckle at the sight of the flustered Coulouris engaging in a battle of wits with a severed, absurdly bearded head. There is some drama operating in the background in the form of a lurid affair involving Brussardís wife and his doctorís assistant; eventually, this forces the issue into the last act, which is where all the good stuff is.
Itís here that Nostradamus finally gets a body and lumbers around like Frankensteinís monster. Somehow, this is an oddly creepy sight, as his head is buried beneath some giant plaster, so he kind of looks like Gumby or something. For the most part, The Man Without a Body is a quick and painless 80 minutes with some inspired moments of lunacy peppered in to keep you somewhat interested. Iíve always been somewhat fascinated by Nostradamus, so this one held some natural intrigue for myself, though I was admittedly disappointed to see him relegated to a disembodied foil for Coulouris, who somehow stumbled all the way from Citizen Kane to this (not unlike his Kane co-star, Joseph Cotton, who similarly found himself relegated to B-movie schlock). The set of actors surrounding Coulorious arenít bad, with Hutton being one of the more congenial mad scientists Iíve ever seen. His lab has some ghoulish sights, though, what with all the severed heads and ominous test tubes strewn about.
Speaking of B-movie schlock, the directing duo that produced this one is sort of worth point out. Both Charles Saunders and W. Lee Wilder churned out their fair share of this stuff, with the latter actually being the brother of Billy Wilder, whose output was much more impressive. As gloriously nuts as The Man Without a Body is, itís no Double Indemnity. What it is, however, is a decent obscure 50s flick thatís been lost through the ages; even DVD hasnít rescued it yet, so itís stuck on Netflix Instant, which is the new home for somewhat lost movies of this ilk. Iíd be surprised to see it pop up on DVD (Iíve been combing through the quatrains to see any possible references, but no dice so far) , so, in the meantime, cozy up to it one night once youíve seen the other dozen or so movies like this one. Rent it!
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