BLACK Friday (Universal, 1940), directed by Arthur Lubin, stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together for the fifth time. In this mix of science fixture and gangster melodrama, they share no scenes together, resulting to a Karloff showcase, with Stanley Ridges giving a memorable performance in a role originally intended for Karloff in the role originally intended for Lugosi. More about that later.
The story begins in prison with Doctor Ernest Sovak (Boris Karloff) walking his last mile to the electric chair (on a Friday the 13th) for the murder of his closest and dearest friend, Professor George Kingsley. Before he is to meet with his destiny, Sovak stops for a moment to give his diary to a young newspaper reporter (James Craig) so that he can die leaving the world "the benefit of his scientific knowledge." As the reporter opens the doctor's diary, the scene shifts to an extended flashback where Sovak (offscreen) narrates the events that had lead him to his present state with the camera focusing from time to time on the his written passages written under the calendar date: George Kingsley is a kindly middle-aged but somewhat absent-minded college professor of English literature. He dismisses his class and enters the automobile driven by his friend, Ernest Slovak, along with his wife, Margaret (Virginia Brissac), and Slovak's daughter, Jean (Anne Gwynne). Stepping out of the automobile, Kingsley observes the sound of gunshots before two automobiles approach his way. One runs him down while the other, driven by gangsters headed by Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi), head down another direction, fulfilling their mission by doing away with "Red" Cannon, a rival mobster, now belonging to "the history of crime." Placed in an ambulance along with Red Cannon, who will live only with a spine fracture, Sovak accompanies Kingsley, suffering from a near death concussion, to the hospital. Learning that the gangster Cannon has left behind $500,000 in stolen money, Sovak, in order to save his friend, decides to test his theory of "brain transplantation." He goes through with the operation by placing the gangster's brain into Kingsley's, logging every detail in is diary. Kingsley survives the operation, but goes through the split personality of becoming Cannon, avenging the men who tried to do him in, and resorting back to Kingsley. Several deaths result and the money is found. As Kingsley returns to his classes, the gentle professor cannot control his inner self whenever he hears police sirens, causing him to become the cold-blooded killer Cannon, out to get Sovak, his next-in-line victim.
The supporting cast features Anne Nagel as Sunny Rogers , a night club singer and Red Cannon's girl; Paul Fix as William Kane; Edmund MacDonald as Frank Miller; John Kelly as the gabby taxi driver; with Murray Alper and Joseph King, among others.
BLACK Friday is an interesting film of character study that proves to be a disappointment at times, mainly due to having Karloff and Lugosi working apart instead of as a team. According to Bob Dorian, former host of American Movie Classics, in his 1989-90 profile on BLACK Friday (originally titled "Friday the 13th"), mentions that the original script had Lugosi playing Sovak and Karloff as Professor Kingsley. While Karloff's kindly professor was believable, he wasn't convincing as the gangster. The doctor part went to Karloff, Ridges played the professor and Lugosi, already signed to appear, was reduced to play one of the mobsters. While Lugosi's role is limited, in fact, miscast, he is given one harrowing scene hiding inside the closet, only to be locked in by Cannon after discovering his whereabouts. Cannon places a refrigerator outside the door where the victim (who tried to rub him out) suffocates to death. Marnay's (Lugosi) constant pounding and bitter cry of "Let me out!" remains in memory long after the scene is over. An Academy Award nomination for Lugosi? I don't think so.
BLACK Friday did become part of the Universal Horror film horror collection on home video and later DVD through MCA Home Video. It's cable TV broadcast history consisted that of the Sci-Fi Channel (late 1980s) and American Movie Classics (1989-90, 2000-02). If the underscoring in the closing cast credits sound familiar, it was lifted from Karloff and Lugosi's previous collaboration of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. That score would be used again in other Universal products through much of the early 1940s.
Although Stanley Ridges worked in numerous films over the years, this was one of the few times in which he had a leading role or two. Ridges does a good job here, probably better than anyone realizes. No doubt that BLACK Friday would have drifted to obscurity had it not been for the top names of Karloff and Lugosi heading the cast. In the tradition of many 1940s films, telling its story via flashback, BLACK FRDAY is certainly one not to be taken very seriously. (**)