The Man Without a Body (1957)

Here we have one of those great Fifties stereotypes:  the world famous genius scientist and doctor, immensely respected in his profession, acclaimed as one of the greatest experts of his age; a sober, dedicated man trying to find new ways to save the lives of his patients; a deeply ethical and responsible researcher who puts his patients first.

But then we walk into his laboratory and find it full of bits and pieces kept alive in jars.  And the living severed head of small monkey.  And, best of all, two eyes suspended off a stand, which occasionally look around to see what’s going on.

Okay…

The “science” here, for want of a better word, has a particularly strange edge to it.  That isn’t just any living, severed monkey head, but one that was dead for six months.  He’s found a way to restore dead tissues almost indefinitely old, as long as they were kept in the right environment.  This brain can then be put into another body where it will quickly take on the body’s original personality.

Which inspires a Billionaire with a inoperable brain tumor to have him revive the dead head of the famous occultist, Nostradamus to replace his brain.  After all, what’s four centuries between friends?

I’m not even sure where to start here:  the low key, British crime thriller vibe of the film?  The classic mad scientist lab, complete with gruesome living body parts and a roomful of scientific looking equipment, in the hands of the sanest man in the whole story?  The assumption that the brain is just a replaceable bit of hardware — like swapping out a distributor on your Ford — and will adopt the personality of the original occupant?  Or, for goodness sakes, all this talk about Nostradamus as the most brilliant man of his age?

I’ll concede that last one grates just a touch.  And particularly when it’s being spouted by scientist characters.  For all the hype, Nostradamus’ prophecies are coached in the vaguest terms and can (and have!) been twisted to mean almost anything you want them to.  While the film does at least call him an Astrologer, it misses the fact that Nostradamus himself talked about using the occult – although, as one might expect, in very cautious language.

But it is surprising how many people take him seriously – even if they don’t necessarily believe his prophecies, he’s still treated as a credible figure.

And he remains one of the staples of SF.

I suppose one might see how a talent for prophecy would come in handy for a businessman, but Karl Brussard’s (George Coulouris) choice of Nostradamus still seems strange.  But then, what do you expect from a guy who goes brain shopping at Madame Tussaud’s?

What isn’t as obvious is that this is yet another (strictly unofficial) take on the classic brain-in-a-tank story, Donovan’s Brain.  Only, in this case, Brussard is the powerful industrialist trying to impose his will on an unwilling victim – even if he isn’t the one in the tank.

This is an odd, little film, which doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with its discordant elements.  You can’t really call it mad scientist film – and it is too strange to really call it a brain movie, tank or no tank.  It really needed to be a little crazier – or perhaps, a bit more straight-faced serious.

Or if, instead of Nostradamus they’d picked…

Well, almost anyone else.

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