Black Friday (Universal 1940)
Universal’s Black Friday, released in 1940, is a slick, science fiction thriller starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Much has been made over the years of the top billing of both stars while Lugosi is supposedly relegated to a minor role. It’s hard to see why this criticism is levelled so cruelly, as Lugosi’s portrayal of gangster Eric Marnay is nothing short of superb, and it’s hardly a bit part.
The fact that he has no scenes with Karloff actually adds a dimension to the picture which renders it more believable, and while the Englishman undoubtedly gets more screen time overall, it is Lugosi who still manages to steal the limelight. Quality edges ahead of quantity in this case.
Needlework: Dr Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) prepares to engage in a little brain surgery in Black Friday (Universal 1940)
Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor’s screenplay for Black Friday, deftly directed by the competent Arthur Lubin, tackles the taboo subjects of mixing mind, personality and what we perceive as the soul in this shocking foray into brain transplantation.
Reality has to be suspended a little to completely accept the premise of the hybrid of emotions that results, but the dual role of Professor George Kingsley and Red Cannon, undertaken by Stanley Ridges, is both stunning and pathetic. It is truly Ridges who runs away with the film.
Black Friday gets able support from its two female leads; Anne Gwynne as Karloff’s daughter Jean Sovac is both sympathetic and feisty, and Anne Nagel invests the part of sultry nightclub singer Sunny Rogers with strength and tragedy.
Pacy throughout, Black Friday hurtles towards its tragic conclusion with an exhilarating countdown littered with the undoing of its myriad miscreants, but the twisty, frenetic denouement tugs at both the heart and one’s sense of justice. We are morally outraged at the destruction of Kingsley, and are knowingly manoeuvred into resenting Karloff by Lubin’s careful handling of the script; this is an undoing too many, and its unfairness bites hard and fast.
Handy work: Sunny Rogers (Anne Nagel) is about to pay the price for double crossing gangster Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi) in Black Friday (Universal 1940)
That a film the age of Black Friday can still pack such a punch, with Karloff’s selfish Dr Sovac holding fast to his obsession, and a bedraggled Lugosi meeting his gritty, claustrophobic demise, is testimony to the combined skills of its cast and crew. It is one of a handful of Universal’s support pictures that truly shines as brightly as any of the studio’s major releases.
The part of Ernest Sovac was originally earmarked for Lugosi, with Karloff slated to take on the dual role of Kingsley/Cannon, but studio executives felt the star couldn’t do the part justice, thus shunting Lugosi to the more reduced role of the gangster, and giving Ridges an unexpected opportunity.
It is easy to feel the injustice of such machinations but, as with everything, Black Friday is what it is. It’s hard now to imagine it could have been any better if things had been different; perfection is often a matter of course.