“Black Friday” is an odd film for Universal to have included in the new ‘Bela Lugosi Collection’ recently released. This is mainly due to the fact that Lugosi’s role in the film is small, blink and you will miss him. The film really belongs to Karloff. Lugosi’s character, though he gets second billing is minor in the film and on top of that, Lugosi and Karloff do not even have one scene together. Various sources have pointed out that Karloff was originally scheduled to do the dual role of Professor Kinsley and gangster Red Cannon with Lugosi as Dr. Ernst Sovac, the role eventually played by Karloff. Apparently, uncomfortable with the dual role, Karloff switched parts taking on the role of the mad scientist, a part he could play with one hand tied behind his back. Lugosi, for some reason, either chose or was regulated to the minor role of mob guy, Eric Marnay, instead of the larger and more appealing part of Kingsley/Cannon.
Told in flashback, we meet Dr. Ernst Sovac (Karloff) as he walks the last mile to the electric chair for the murder of his friend, the mild mannered college professor, George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges). On his way to the chair, Sovac hands over his notes to the one newspaper man who has been kind to him. From here on the film goes into the past as the story unfolds.
Eric Marney and some of his boys attempt to bump off mob boss Red Cannon. Cannon’s car swirls off the road severely injuring Professor Kingsley. At the hospital, we discover Kingsley has a brain injury and the hoodlum Red Cannon a severe spinal injury. When Sovac learns that Cannon has $500,000 in stolen money hidden somewhere, he begins to think how that kind of money can be used to fund his scientific research. He performs an illegal and dangerous brain transplant, taking Cannon’s brain and replacing it inside that of his friend, the Professor.
The experimental operation is a success and Kingsley soon recovers, almost. Now, I am no scientist but it seems to me that if it were even possible to do a brain transplant, the personality of the brain, no matter what body it was in, would not change, logically gangster Cannon’s brain in the Professor’s body would still act like Cannon. Well, not so fast in movie land… After the operation, the Professor seems to be just like his old self, the gentile mild mannered man he always was. Somehow, Cannon’s personality has been suppressed, at least for now.
Sovac, convinced that Cannon’s brain knows the where bout’s of the half million dollars is going to force his personality to emerge. This should not be too difficult since the Professor’s brain is not there any longer to begin with! Sovac attempts to extract the information by taking the professor to New York City to haunt the places Cannon was familiar with. Amazingly, Cannon’s personality begins to surface, only he is more interested in getting even with his hoodlum associates and his former lover (Anne Nagel), than showing Sovac the money. One by one, Kingsley/Cannon is knocking off his former cronies including Marney, who suffocates in a small closet.
“Black Friday” is a strange brew of sci-fi, mad scientist and small time gangsters. Co-written by Curt Siodmak who seemed to have a thing for “brain” movies previously writing the novel, “Donovan’s Brain” which was adapted three times for the screen, (The Lady and the Monster (1944), Donovan’s Brain (1953) and The Brain, in1962). Siodmak also was the screenwriter for the low-budget 1955 film, “Creature with the Atomic Brain.” The direction by Universal hack Arthur Lubin is uninspiring to be kind. Lubin is probably best known for directing Abbott and Costello movies (Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost), Francis the Talking Mules movies and the Nelson Eddy 1943 version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
By 1940, when this film was made Lugosi’s career had seen better days. While there was still a few good films coming (The Body Snatcher), some fair ones (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) his filmography was becoming filled more and more with poverty row throwaways like “Ghost on the Loose”, “Spooks Run Wild” and “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” with Martin and Lewis imitators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. Stanley Ridges in the duel role of the kindly Professor and the gangster is the real star in this film with his Jekyll/Hyde transformation smoothly done. The change in character is primarily accomplished with voice modulation and facial mannerisms than with makeup. “Black Friday” is a bit messy, totally unbelievable yet remains fun to watch.