“You’ll find the specimen in good condition.”
In 1831 Edinburgh Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is a well respected physician. He also runs a medical school where Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is a student. When Fettes tells MacFarlane that he will have to quit school the doctor hires him as an assistant.
John Gray (Boris Karloff) is a cab driver and part time grave robber. He provides bodies for MacFarlane’s school. Part of Fettes’ responsibility is to take delivery of the corpses Gray brings and pay him for them. For awhile Fettes is unaware as to where the bodies come from.
Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) has a daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) who is in a wheelchair. She brings her daughter to Dr. MacFarlane for a consultation. MacFarlane tells her that her daughter needs a delicate operation but he is unable to perform it. His duties as teacher take up all his time. Mrs. Marsh tries to plead with Fettes to intercede on her behalf with Dr. MacFarlane. When Gray finds out he goads MacFarlane into doing the operation. Gray hints that there is something nefarious between him and the doctor and basically threatens to reveal MacFarlane’s secrets.
Ultimately MacFarlane agrees to the surgery, however the next day when talking to Fettes he tries to back out. Fettes goes to Gray to ask him to get a specimen for MacFarlane to use as research. When Gray delivers the body Fettes discovers that it is a street singer that he saw alive an hour earlier. Fettes confronts Gray who denies he killed the girl. Fettes tells MacFarland. MacFarland warns Fettes to keep quiet and not notify the police or he could be arrested as an accomplice.
In the meantime MacFarland’s servant Joseph (Bela Lugosi) has been slinking around eavesdropping on conversations. He overhears the exchange between Gray and Fettes. Joseph goes to see Gray to blackmail him. Gray kills Joseph and delivers Joseph’s body to MacFarlane's lab as a "gift". This sends MacFarland over the deep end. His revenge finally breaks him. His past has come full circle and all his secrets have driven him to desperation.
“The Body Snatcher” was released in 1945. It was directed by Robert Wise and is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. The film was produced by Val Lewton and the screenplay was written by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton. Lewton did eleven movies for RKO. Nine of them were horror movies. Eight of those are considered film noir. “The Body Snatcher” is one of them.
It was the last film that Karloff and Lugosi did together. Karloff is wonderfully despicable. More sinister than Burke and Hare ever thought of being. Unfortunately Lugosi got the short end of the stick and was regulated to a very small part.
Here is what the movie has going for it; an excellent script, talented actors such as Lugosi, Karloff and Daniell, Robert Wise, Val Lewton and Robert Louis Stevenson. And all on a budget of approximately $125,000.