Blinded by science! And no, it’s not a sequel to Donovan’s Reef. Lew Ayres yanks the living brain out of a dying millionaire, plugs it into his mad lab gizmos, and is soon obeying the know-it-all noggin’s telepathic commands to scheme and murder. Gene Evans and Nancy Reagan assist in Curt Siodmak’s creative, compelling tale of possession by mental remote control.
KL Studio Classics
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 83 min. / Street Date March 22, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Reagan, Steve Brodie, Tom Powers, Lisa K. Howard, James Anderson, Victor Sutherland, Harlan Warde, John Hamilton.
Cinematography Joseph H. Biroc
Film Editor Herbert L. Strock
Production Design Boris Leven
Original Music Eddie Dunstedter
Written by Felix Feist, Hugh Brooke from the novel by Curt Siodmak
Produced by Allan Dowling, Tom Gries
Directed by Felix E. Feist
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sci-fi and horror rub elbows in 1953’s Donovan’s Brain, a classy thriller that, thanks to the popularity of Curt Siodmak’s source novel, rests on a higher shelf than most ‘fifties films sourced in pulp fantasy fiction. Although it’s executive producer Allan Dowling’s only real foray into feature film production, it’s a quality effort in all respects. The well-known story attracted good actors, in particular the great Lew Ayres, who knew a showcase role when he saw one. Although the storytelling is more than adequate for 1953 standards, better than many independent productions, all that’s lacking is a little more inspiration in the direction.
Writer Curt Siodmak developed good story ideas for various fantasies, many of them offshoots of concepts he touched upon when working for Universal in the second burst of horror filmaking early in the 1940s. As carefully explained in Richard Harland Smith’s commentary, Siodmak worked in the shadow of a far more successful and possibly dismissive older brother, the famous director Robert (The Killers, Criss Cross, Cry of the City) and was considered a problem participant when he tried to direct. Editor Herbert L. Strock seems to have migrated into directing by taking the reins when Siodmak couldn’t perform in the director’s chair.
But there’s nothing wrong with his story, which is adapted more faithfully than many. In a lab setup in his desert house, Dr. Patrick J. Cory and his assistant Dr. Frank Schratt (Lew Ayres & Gene Evans) perform unorthodox experiments, keeping a monkey’s brain alive after death. Their opportunity comes when a plane crash nearby brings the domineering financier W. H. Donovan to their door. As expected, Donovan dies, and the doctors remove the brain and keep it alive. Pat’s wife Janice (Nancy Davis (Reagan)) helps with the experiments, and as Frank’s friends helps him with his problem with alcoholism. The brain in the tank takes psychic possession of Pat, who begins using his left hand and even walking with Donovan’s limp. He’s soon doing Donovan’s bidding, taking control of the millionaire’s crooked cohorts in Washington and taking steps to make sure that the life support apparatus for the brain can’t accidentally be shut down. Pat/Donovan must also deal with Herbie Yocum (Steve Brodie) a journalist who is blackmailing him by threatening to publish pictures of the brain. Only at certain times is Pat himself; during one of these lucid moments he leaves Janice instructions on how to neutralize the brain if things get out of control. But Donovan’s brain has big plans, to use Pat to extend his financial control over the whole world.
Donovan’s Brain goes against the grain of ‘fifties fantasy — instead of rampaging monsters it gives us a biological Jekyll & Hyde story based on the remote control of a human being. Cinematographer Joseph Biroc works hard to pour expressionistic lighting on that tank with the plastic brain, but otherwise the possession theme is expressed only through the performance of the great Lew Ayres. The fact that Ayres was known as such a gentle leading man makes a difference here. His thoughtful, sensitive doctor in Johnny Belinda goes so entirely against the grain of two-fisted Hollywood heroes, that it is genuinely disturbing to see him playing an even mildly unethical character. As directed by Felix Feist, the dramatics are far more organic than in typical mad doctor movies. Dr. Cory has a wife, and to some degree she’s a complicit enabler. Cory’s colleague has personal problems. And Cory is trusting enough to be trapped in a way that the diabolical Donovan never would, getting compromised by Herbie Yocum’s blackmail scheme.
The form of Donovan’s schemes is also rather adult. Instead of embarking on a series of revenge murders, as did Boris Karloff’s mad doctors of a decade before, Donovan’s aim is to pursue his plan of economic tyranny. Like a latter-day Mabuse, Donovan was a capitalist menace to society before he became a floating brain, and now he has nothing better to do but to dispatch Cory to do his bidding. Cory starts dressing like Donovan, and is soon barging in on Donovan’s old contacts, with orders to keep the old schemes in play, and the threat that anyone who gets out of line will suffer a fatal accident. The only thing that gives Cory, Janice and Frank a chance is the fact that the brain needs to rest every so often, and while it rests they can try to plot counter-moves.
Like I said, the brain in the tank might have been impressive in 1953. It grows and glows and changes in appearance; sometimes it looks like it’s been spray-painted silver, or like a scaly armadillo rolled into a ball. What could they do? Any attempt to make the prop look like a real brain would have been censored as obscenely graphic — even the poster art shies away from depicting a naked brain, settling for a nude skull instead. The brain reminds us how good the acting is. Given good support by Nancy Davis and Gene Evans, Lew Ayres keeps things tense and moving. What’s lacking is a little more oomph from director Felix Feist. We wouldn’t expect an independent American production at this level to invent cinematic devices or to go in for artsy stylistic effects, but Feist and editor Strock don’t even accelerate the pace as the climactic confrontation arrives. A few flashes of light and claps of thunder (on a clear, bright day) don’t add atmosphere. Focus on the performance of Lew Ayres, and Donovan’s Brain comes up a modest winner.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Donovan’s Brain is a very clean B&W encoding of this Academy-ratio production that begins and ends with title cards with the initials of the executive producer. The elements have always been in good shape, and the transfer presents them at their best.
Several trailers are included and also Joe Dante’s Trailers from Hell segment on the show. The winning extra is Richard Harland Smith’s commentary. After doing such good work on the unrewarding Phantom from 10,000 Leagues R.A.H. finally has a worthy title to dissect. There’s the usual lengthy filmographies of every player we see on screen — some of these are big surprises, like finding out that ‘Kyle James’ is really James Anderson from Five and To Kill A Mockingbird. Even stranger is the connection between cast member Lisa K. Howard and conspiracy theories around the assassination of J.F.K. — she became an important news figure and her interviews with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Nikita Kruschev made her an important participant in the President’s negotiations.
We also get more incidental detail on every movie one can think of with a brain, a disembodied brain, a brain guilty of remote-control possession, other movies with remote control possession, and ad infinitum. I think that less sci-fi obsessed listeners might appreciate these connections more than I do. But Richard really excels on the production detail, charting the way various principal creatives got into Donovan’s Brain, and the events that led up to Feix Feist taking over for presumed director Siodmak. It’s interesting that Feist got a break early on, directing RKO’s (now all but lost) post-apocalyptic science fiction epic Deluge and then being busted down to short subjects for ten years, before crawling back up again on modest films noir. Commentator Smith connects the dots between his research and his opinions, being carefult to separate known facts from good guesswork. He’s done everything short of spending a week asking the last surviving participant Nancy Reagan questions about the film. Somehow I don’t think that would be a high priority for her.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Donovan’s Brain Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Trailers, Trailers from Hell with Joe Dante, commentary with Richard Harland Smith
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 28, 2016
Here’s Joe Dante on Feist’s sci-fi thriller:
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson