To those of you reading this on your smartphone or tablet while waiting in line with other early-bird bargain hunters, Black Friday greetings. Nowadays, of course, the term refers to the unofficial start of the Christmas retail frenzy, but to movie audiences in the spring of 1940, Black Friday meant Universal Pictures’ twin titans of terror, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, teaming up for an offbeat little “B” thriller. How offbeat? Well, the two actors are never featured on the screen at the same time, and neither Boris nor Bela plays the film’s supposed “man-made monster.”
Black Friday opens, not at a crowded shopping mall, but at a state prison, where physician Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) sits on Death Row, awaiting a final walk that night to the electric chair. As the official procession passes the reporters’ gallery, Sovac hands a notebook detailing the events that led him to this unenviable position to a sympathetic young newsman (an unbilled James Craig). And thus, through Boris’s diary and the magic of flashbacks, we’re transported back to the title Friday–a Friday the 13th, no less, in June. Sovac is driving his good fiend, mild-mannered college English professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), to a job interview with a prestigious university. A stop along the way at the local cleaner to pick up his hat proves to be a costly sartorial choice for the academician, as he is caught in the middle of a rolling gunfight between rival gangsters and run down by one of the cars, driven by notorious hood “Red” Cannon (also Ridges). Cannon was on the losing end of the gun battle and, with his spinal cord severed, gets taken to the hospital alongside Kinglsey, who suffered fractures and a serious concussion and has just hours to live.
As luck would have it, Sovac has been conducting secret experiments on brain transplants on animals. But does he dare try to perform the highly risky–and illegal–procedure on Kingsley, even if it’s the only way to save his life? One quick surgical montage later, the doc has managed to put part of Red’s gray matter into George’s noggin. His friend is alive, Cannon is presumed to have died from his injuries, and the experiment seems to be a total success…right?
Well, this is a late ’30s/early ’40s Universal horror film–kinda, sorta, anyway–so you just know something is going to go wrong. In this case, that means that snippets of Red Cannon’s personality and instincts survived the transplant and are taking root in Professor Kingsley’s mind. This development intrigues Sovac: at first, out of simple scientific curiosity, then considerably more when he learns that Cannon was shot by his former colleagues because he had hidden away $500,000 of the gang’s loot…$500,000 that could buy the doctor a lot of test tubes and lab equipment. Sovac soon takes the convalescing Kinglsey from their small town home to Manhattan, hoping that revisiting Red’s old haunts will bring out more of the hood’s memories and reveal where the money is stashed.
His plans succeed better–or worse–than he hoped, as Cannon starts taking control of the prof’s body (sirens, reminiscent of the ambulance ride the two men shared, help trigger the changes). With the anonymity his new identity gives him, Red sets out to hunt down and eliminate his former colleagues in crime. Broken backs are good enough for the first three, but he saves a special death for the chief mutineer, suave European Eric Marnay (Lugosi), leaving him trapped in a kitchen closet to suffocate (they really made those closet doors airtight back then). With his vengeance complete, Cannon retreats back into Kingsley’s subconscious, and the professor and Sovac (who’s managed to hold onto the money that Red recovered) return home. It only takes a passing ambulance during an English class, however, for Red to take over one last time and come looking for the double-crossing doctor.
The story goes that Universal originally planned for Karloff to star as Kingsley/Cannon and Lugosi as Sovac (which would explain the doctor’s not-very British-sounding surname), then decided before filming started that Boris would be less than believable as a gangster (I guess they never saw their own 1932 version of Scarface). Another version is that Boris himself didn’t feel up to the “double performance” and opted instead for another of the “mad scientist” parts, à la The Invisible Ray or The Man They Could Not Hang, that he was tiring of but had trouble avoiding. Whatever the reason, with Karloff cast as Sovac, nobody expected the Hungarian-born Lugosi to play a professor of English literature and a New York mobster. This meant moving Bela, who still got second billing, into the relatively minor role of claustrophobic criminal Marnay. And so it was their fifth and final horror picture together for Universal was the only one in which the two actors who practically defined the genre are never in a single scene together.
What nearly makes Black Friday work is, surprisingly, not the (separate) presence of Karloff or Lugosi, but the performance of Stanley Ridges in the dual roles of the teacher and the mobster. Just by removing his professorial pince-nez glasses and slicking back his hair with his hands, the British-born stage and film veteran (perhaps best known to classic movie buffs as Professor Siletsky in the 1942 Jack Benny comedy To Be or Not to Be) manages to effectively convey the physical changes that overwhelm Kingsley when the persona of Cannon takes over, with Ridge’s voice and mannerisms adding to the Jekyll/Hyde-like dichotomy. Frankly, he’s a lot better at this sort of make-up-free metamorphosis than Spencer Tracy would turn out to be the following year in MGM’s remake of the actual Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The supporting cast–among them Anne Nagel as Cannon’s less-than-loyal moll, Anne Gwynne as Sovac’s daughter, and Paul Fix and an unbilled Raymond Bailey as two of Red’s old gang–are “B” movie-adequate, and the screenplay co-written by Curt Siodmak, who also penned 1941’s The Wolf Man, offers enough pseudo-medical authenticity to make the main premise at least a little plausible (certainly as plausible as a story about werewolves). Director Arthur Lubin, another studio mainstay whose diverse resumé included 1943’s The Phantom of the Opera as well as comedy work with the likes of Abbott and Costello and Francis the Talking Mule, did a yeomanlike job given the film’s even-for-then miniscule budget (around $130,000) and tight, 21-day shooting schedule.
An oddball item sitting on the back of the Universal horror library shelf, Black Friday offers some bargain basement thrills, its fittingly dual personality coming from the “mind swap” sci-fi angle that was stitched onto plot elements that could have come from a Warner Bros. gangster drama. The performances of Ridges and Karloff help to carry the story along, but anyone looking for the sinister tone of such earlier “Boris and Bela” pairings as The Black Cat and The Raven–or Boris and Bela together, for that matter–will be disappointed.
Oh, and one last thing; When Black Friday was first released, Universal trumpeted the news that Bela Lugosi had been put under hypnosis on the set by his friend Dr. Manly P. Hall in order to heighten his reactions during his death scene. This fascinating sidenote, which included publicity photos (see above) of Bela going into a trance in front of his co-stars and some on-set reporters, was later revealed to be pure studio ballyhoo (what’s worse, the “hypnotized” Lugosi is hardly shown in the film). Boris Karloff, for his part, said at the time that he totally believed the story…because he had never seen his old pal Lugosi “keep his back to the camera for so long.” Meow, Boris.