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Man Without a Body, The

Entry updated 29 January 2024. Tagged: Film.

UK film (1957). Filmplays Ltd. Directed by W Lee Wilder and Charles Saunders. Written by William Grote. Cast includes Julia Arnall, George Coulouris, Michael Golden, Robert Hutton, Sheldon Lawrence and Nadja Regin. 78 minutes. Black and white.

New York business mogul Karl Brussard (Coulouris) learns that his recent health problems – loss of memory (see Amnesia) and delusions – are due to an inoperable brain tumour. However, his doctor has recently read a medical article on Dr Merritt (Hutton), "a young brain surgeon doing experimental work on brain transplantation" in London and suggests he might be able to help (see Medicine). Brussard, who believes "money can buy anything", duly arrives at Merritt's address and enters his laboratory, to find it full of wired-up, living body parts – including an eye held in a retort stand clamp, which looks at him. He also notices the head of a monkey, kept alive by an artificial heart and lung: Merritt explains he had revived a monkey brain that had been dead six years and transplanted it into this monkey. Brussard responds: "So, all you would need for me would be a brain." Dr Merritt mentions that, if the tissues have been properly preserved, even a centuries-old brain could be revived.

The question of Identity is raised, Brussard enquiring, "Won't [the monkey's new brain] ... cause the animal to act differently?". The doctor replies, "Of course: each brain has its own characteristics." Brussard, pondering the idea of "a brilliant brain ... [that] could be made to change its way of thinking, its personality", goes to Madame Tussauds. Here the tour guide speaks of "the oracle, the prophet, the physician, the mathematician, the astronomer – Nostradamus" – and Brussard knows whose brain he wants: "Where's he buried?" Hiring a struck-off doctor, he travels to France and returns to London with Nostradamus's head.

After several weeks' Regeneration treatment at Dr Merritt's laboratory, the head regains consciousness and converses with Dr Merritt and his two colleagues, Jean (Arnall) and Lew (Lawrence), about scientific advances since his death: Nostradamus (Golden) experiences little culture shock, for as he observes, "I have always lived in the future." In a bizarre scene Brussard, now physically and mentally in decline, recites his life and accomplishments to Nostradamus, urging the head to imagine he is him. However, Nostradamus has his own plans and gives Brussard bad financial advice that ruins him. Driven mad, he murders Odette (Regin) – seemingly his mistress, though she describes herself as the daughter of Broussard's late business partner – for having an affair with Lew, chasing the lover back to the laboratory and shooting him in the head; Brussard then attempts to shoot Nostradamus too, but only damages the equipment before he flees.

Faced with the mortally wounded Lew and the dying head of Nostradamus, Dr Merritt decides he must act. Later he asks a fellow doctor, "Would you have done what I did?" and they reply, "Under the circumstances, yes – we must abide by the Hippocratic oath, to preserve life whenever possible." Shortly after, Brussard breaks into the laboratory to murder Nostradamus, only to discover the head attached to Lew's body, lurching towards him. He runs off into the streets, with Nostradamus following at a slower pace and with his arms outstretched (see Clichés). Pursued by Merritt and the police, both end up climbing the same bell tower: Brussard, dizzy and mind failing, falls to his death; Nostradamus hangs himself with the bell rope (it is not clear whether this was deliberate or an accident), the weight of Lew's body separating it from the noose-held head so that it also drops to the bottom of the tower.

Aside from the puzzling conceit – seemingly accepted by the Scientist Merritt – that you can retain your identity despite having your brain swapped for another, by getting the new brain's consent and familiarizing it with your biography and curriculum vitae (see Identity Transfer; Scientific Errors), the film also suffers from a rushed and muddled ending. We can perhaps infer that Nostradamus manipulated events so his head would be grafted onto Lew, but had not foreseen the deleterious effect on his mind (he can no longer speak) and in despair hangs himself. The first sight of Merritt's laboratory is the most effective part of the film, particularly the eye. Despite the body Horror on view, Merritt is not portrayed as a Mad Scientist, though he voices only mild concern over Brussard's turning up with a decapitated head. Otherwise this film is probably best enjoyed for the absurdities of its plot and dialogue. [SP]


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