From Here to Obscurity: The Man Without a Body (1957)
Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring George Coulouris, Robert Hutton, Julia Arnall, Nadja Regin, Sheldon Lawrence, Peter Copley, Michael Golden
Directed by W. Lee Wilder and George Saunders
PLEASE NOTE: The movies reviewed in From Here to Obscurity have either never been given an official VHS or DVD release, have been released on VHS but are long out of print and very hard to find, or are readily available in some form but have generally gone unnoticed by most of the general public.
Given that we're currently in the Halloween season and, if news reports are to be believed, on the threshold of economic armageddon, now's as good a time as any to put the spotlight on an obscure piece of schlock from 1957 entitled The Man Without a Body, the engagingly oddball tale of an industrialist dying of brain cancer who seeks out a scientist who has developed the means by which to perform brain transplants and together they end up reviving the severed head of the famous prophet Nostradamus whose powers of foresight the dying man eventually tries to use to make a killing on the stock market.
Now if the notion of bringing the head of Nostradamus back to life The Thing That Wouldn't Die-style - I'm talking living head on a table connected to wires and tubes keeping it alive - wasn't surreal enough, then wait until you hear the reason why. The belief is that the transplant recipient can imbue the transplanted brain with his own life experience, intellect, personality, and ego while still maintaining enough of the transplanted brain's knowledge and characteristics to further enhance his own, in effect extending the dying man's life. Just try and wrap your head around this notion for a moment. Better yet, don't. Trying to make sense of it might short circuit your own brain. But that's what The Man Without a Body is all about and a good reason why this film is one-of-a-kind.
Karl Broussard (veteran actor George Coulouris, perhaps best known as Walter Parks Thatcher in Citizen Kane, here getting his chance to play a Kane type himself) is a self-made millionaire who cannot accept that he has an inoperable brain tumor. After his assistant tells him of a doctor who has been finding success in the field of brain transplantation, Karl ventures abroad to meet with the doc in his freaky lab adorned with disembodied brains, eyeballs, and living monkey heads. Despite his lab having all the earmarks of a mad scientist's laboratory, it turns out Dr. Phil Merritt isn't insane at all. If anything, Dr. Phil's worst characteristic is being a workaholic ... a workaholic who operates in a lab with things in it that would make Morgus the Magnificent think the guy has a screw loose.
After Dr. Phil tells him of his amazing brain transplantation process and how the process can even work on brains that are centuries old, if they've been well preserved, Brussard knows that he very much wants a brilliant brain to compliment his own superior business mind and the more historical the better. What better way to choose your new brain than with a trip to Madame Tussaud's wax museum? He wisely opts not to choose anyone he sees in the section dedicated to history's greatest fiends. Besides, Hitler's brain was already spoken for.
As soon as the tour makes it way to the wax statue of Nostradamus, the 16th century physician, mathematician, astronomer, and prophet with a beard more bitchin' that that of anyone in ZZ Top, Brussard realizes he is the brain for him. Brussard's business intellect combined with Nostradamus' powers of prognostication would make him an unstoppable financial force.
Off to France for a little grave robbing. Dr. Phil isn't happy about Brussard dumping the stolen head from a desecrated corpse on his table but that darned Hippocratic oath requires him to treat his patient to the best of his ability and, as we all know, the customer is always right.
Oddly enough, the actual head of Nostradamus even when revived in the form of an actor in make-up, a wig, and a faux beard will still look more wax-like than the one adorning his wax statue in Madame Tussaud's.
Brussard's condition worsens as the week’s long process to revive the brain goes on. Headaches, forgetfulness, and occasional double vision have given rise to blackouts and increasingly volatile mood swings. Brussard becomes every bit as erratic as the film. With the bringing-back-to-life of Nostradamus' somehow English-speaking head The Man Without a Body goes from a high-minded British chiller with a wacko premise to just downright wacko.
Dr. Phil engages Nostradamus' head in conversations explaining then present day technology and medicine to the long dead man of science. Nostradamus considers the process that has brought him back from the dead to be unethical but doesn't seem to harbor any ill will towards the doctor since he's able to respect him as a fellow man of science.
He's far less forgiving of Brussard, who makes a terrible first impression on the decapitated mystic by bursting into the lab, sees the two conversing, and yells, "It's alive! My brain! It's alive!" Nostradamus has no intention of giving up his consciousness and free will to some power mad millionaire even if he's just a bodiless head on a table. Again, this insane notion that just because you teach someone else everything there is to know about you that someone you can turn them into you so that you can live on is as surreal as it is illogical.
If you need just one reason to seek out this hard-to-find oddity look no further than when egomaniac Brussard tries to dominate Nostradamus' mind by telling him of his life story and business acumen culminating in a heated exchange:
"Your name is Karl Brussard!"
"I am Nostradamus."
When you cannot win a battle of wills with a 500-year old severed head you might as well just call it a life and let the cancer run its course.
Brussard will never get his new brain but he will get his comeuppance. Unable to think clearly due to the tumor fogging his mind, he'll seek Nostradamus' advice for his stock market dealings only for Nostradamus to intentionally give him the wrong advice and bankrupt him. Then Brussard learns that his French trophy wife has been having a fling with Dr. Phil's younger, hunkier, healthier assistant.
Already driven mad with rage over the loss of financial empire, Brussard kills them both and then attempts to sabotage the equipment keeping Nostradamus' head alive. Feeling there is so much more to be learned from his brilliant mind; Dr. Phil hastily transplants Nostradamaus' head onto the body of the dead assistant. If The Man Without a Body wasn't wacko enough already, the sight of Nostradamus' face protruding from a hole in this giant square helmet of plaster and gauze atop the body of another person should be enough to leave viewers in stitches.
Characters all throughout the film had been constantly congratulating each other for being fast thinkers. "You're a fast thinker, Nostradamus," Brussard tells the living head at one point. This scripting quirk peaks when Frankendamus breaks loose and begins roaming the streets looking to put an end to Karl Brussard's reign of madness once and for all; Dr. Phil calls the cops to tell them what has happened and explains the surgical procedure he just performed using the centuries old head of a long dead prophet and a freshly murdered corpse; the first reaction from the policeman on the phone is a very casual "That's quick thinking on your part." Manic Brussard aside, no matter how extremely unusual the circumstances, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to phase anyone in this film.
The people responsible for this piece of nonsense were writer William Grote (his only credit) and the tag team combination of long-time British filmmaker George Saunders, who a year later would make the cult fave Womaneater about a woman-eating tree, and W. Lee Wilder, the less talented brother of legendary director Billy Wilder; his prior credits included helming such noteworthy B-movies as Killers from Space and The Snow Creature. I've never been able to find an explanation as to why it took two directors to make this cinematic lunacy but the pairing of two B-moviemakers working with one of the most demented plots of all time loaded with ludicrous dialogue exchanges, every last bit of it played with a straight face by talented actors... It's mind-blowing.
Just on peculiarity alone, The Man Without a Body does not deserve to be a movie without an audience.
One thing that never gets brought up in the movie: if Nostradamus was really this great prophet who accurately foretold so many events of the future, shouldn't he have seen all this coming?
3 out of 5
Discuss The Man Without a Body in the Dread Central forums!