The Body Snatcher from 1945 was directed by Robert Wise (The Haunting, West Side Story), produced and co-written by Val Lewton (The Cat People) and based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It that wasn't pedigree enough, it also starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, in what would be their last film together. The trailer, which I have included below, makes it seem like The Body Snatcher is a two man show, but this isn't really the case. Lugosi maybe has 10 minutes of screen time, 5 of which are with Karloff. He was still a marquee name in 1945, and I found his performance quite good (no one agrees with me, but I thought he played a fearful, cowardly man quite well, who seems as surprised as the audience at his fate.).
Set in 1831 Edinburgh, the events of The Body Snatcher take place shortly after the real life horrors of Burke and Hare. It is suggested that the two main characters, the cab man Gray (Karloff) and Dr. Wolfe "Toddy" Macfarlane (Henry Daniell) knew the infamous Dr. Knox, who paid Burke and Hare for bodies. Gray and Macfarlane have a past which is never fully explained. Macfarlane hates Gray. He calls him a "cancer." Yet, he employs him to procure bodies for his anatomy students. Gray is obsessed with Macfarlane, taunting him with the nickname "Toddy" and showing up at inopportune times. It is a very strange relationship. They are both dependant on one another, and they have this love/hate relationship with each other.
Into this twisted relationship enters sweet, naive Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), one of Macfarlane's students. A favorite of Macfarlane, Fettes gets promoted to assistant and learns where the bodies really come from. Although he pretends to be shocked, he quickly accepts the arrangement. When a young girl is in desperate need of spinal surgery, Fettes begs Macfarlane of operate. Macfarlane refuses, claiming he needs a cadaver to practice on first. Fettes visits Gray and begs him to get a body. Gray does, and it sure is a fresh one! In one of the best scenes in this highly atmospheric film, we see Gray calmly make the decision to free a beggar girl from the burden of living. When Gray delivers the body, Fettes recognizes her and realizes what Gray had done. Macfarlane talks him out of going to the police, pulling Fettes into their spiral of madness.
I love Karloff's performance in this film. He is menacing, but only to Toddy, whom he hates. He is sweet to the little girl and and a gentleman to everyone else (well, with the exception of Lugosi's character.) He is really driven mad by his obsession with the Doctor. Again, we never really find out what went on between these two but I bet it was juicy.
In the finale we learn that Gray isn't the only mad man in this scenario. After all the carnage only Fettes walks away relatively unscathed. But he has certainly lost his naivety and his desire to join the medical profession. Enjoy the trailer!