Nineteenth century resurrection men William Burke and William Hare have quite the cinematic legacy. Over a ten-month period in 1828 the pair switched from grave-robbing to murder as they sought to supply the Scottish surgeon Dr. Robert Knox with fresh cadavers for his anatomy lectures. There were 16 victims in all, for which Burke hanged and Hare escaped prosecution, and slowly their tale crept from folk songs and folk tales into works of literature. Most famous was Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story for Pall Mall, The Body Snatcher, published in 1884. It would be adapted for the big screen in 1945, as part of Val Lewton’s series of low-budget horror films for RKO, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi occupying the lead roles. Over the decades they would be joined by a host of equally familiar faces taking on either Burke or Hare (or variations thereon), among them Donald Pleasence, Derren Nesbitt, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. They’ve also cropped up on television quite a bit, in episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the British anthology series Mystery and Imagination, plus Alastair Sim memorably portrayed Knox in 1956’s The Anatomist, which screened on TV in the UK but was deemed of a sufficient quality to play theatrically in the States, as did Patrick Stewart in 1980.
The Greed of William Hart was made in 1948 and renamed each of the principal characters. Dr. Knox became Dr. Cox and was portrayed by Arnold Bell, while Burke and Hare found themselves played by Tod Slaughter and Henry Oscar under the monikers William Hart and Mr. Moore. Slaughter, of course, is the main draw and, by 1948, was coming to the end of his career. He’d been acting since the 1900s, essaying a particularly ripe brand of villainy in Victorian melodramas that would make the transition to cinema screens during the thirties. The likes of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) were made as quota quickies yet attracted such attention that MGM stepped in towards the end of the decade to provide both finance and distribution. During the war years Slaughter kept himself busy on the stage, playing Jekyll and Hyde and Jack the Ripper among others, and saw a number of his earlier pictures re-distributed by Ambassador Films. It was they who financed his post-war efforts, notably The Curse of the Wraydons (1946, about the Victorian urban legend Spring-heeled Jack) and The Greed of William Hart.
Perhaps keen to maintain the successful formula, there is little to separate The Greed of William Hart from Slaughter’s previous efforts. His performance style has in no way changed since the melodramas of Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn (1935) or The Face at the Window (1939), say, and the rest of his co-stars follow suit. He acts just as he would have done onstage – broad, barnstorming, without even the slightest hint of subtlety – and that proves to be terrifically entertainment, especially with everyone else joining in. (Slaughter and Oscar make for a particularly good double act, each as hammy as the other.) Furthermore the theatricality extends elsewhere: The Greed of William Hart is incredibly stagy, with even the fog-shrouded exteriors clearly captured in the studio, and makes do almost entirely without a score – only the opening credits and closing title card come with any form of accompaniment.
This shouldn’t be too surprising given Slaughter’s theatrical background or, for that matter, the presence of Oswald Mitchell as director. Mitchell had made a career out of bringing various stage and music hall talents to the big screen, most notably Arthur Lucan’s Old Mother Riley character, though he had little inclination to make them more cinematic. Films such as Variety (1935) and Stars on Parade (1936) were just that – point and shoot affairs that sought only to record the performances. To an extent, The Greed of William Hart is much the same, though the energy of Slaughter and his fellow cast members (including a very young Aubrey Woods) and the pace of John Gilling’s screenplay at least ensure proceedings never become dull.
Gilling would later remake his own efforts as The Flesh and the Fiends in 1960, a decidedly more cinematic take on the tale. (It was in widescreen for starters and had the ever-dependable Peter Cushing in the equivalent of the Dr. Knox role.) In fact, he’d do quite a bit of horror filmmaking once he made the crossover into direction, among them The Gamma People (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Night Caller (1965) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). His final film was a Spanish genre entry which he co-wrote with Paul Naschy, La cruz del Diablo or The Cross of the Devil (1975). With that said, he was incredibly prolific as both a writer and director, putting his name to all manner of movies throughout his five-decade career, but it’s the horror pictures which remain the most widely seen and for which he remains best known. If this suggests an affinity for the genre then perhaps that’s true, though The Greed of William Hart succeeds just as much for Gilling’s typically no-nonsense approach – which is evident in everything from 1959’s Anthony Newley vehicle Idol on Parade to his 1963 Brit noir Panic – as it does any macabre touches. (Hart at one point declares the murder of seemingly unloved drunks as “safe as killing pigs”.)
Slaughter was clearly impressed and would work from Gilling’s screenplays on a further three occasions, all of which were crime thrillers. He effectively saw his career out with the man (save for a handful of television appearances prior to his death in 1956 at the age of 70) and you can fully understand why. The post-war films may not be quite so well known as those from Slaughter’s heyday in the thirties, but their punchy, unfussy approach suited his talents well. He was allowed to do his thing – The Greed of William Hart boasts a particularly over-the-top drunk scene – and the films were allowed to breeze by at a handsome pace. They were never great cinema (indeed, even the better-known effort of the 1930s were never great cinema), but they can prove to be perfectly entertaining.
The Greed of William Hart, at just 71 minutes in length, sits perfectly comfortably on a single-layered disc. Encoded for Region 0 and in the PAL format, this new DVD from Renown Pictures is extras-free but comes with a mostly decent presentation. The film comes in its original Academy ratio and is in a mostly clean condition. There are some instances of tramlining, the occasional specks of damage and the odd bout of instability though nothing which proves too distracting. With that said, the image isn’t quite so sharp as it could be (I did wonder if it had been scrubbed or softened a touch so as to lessen the evidence of the tramlining, etc.) and there is definite evidence of contrast boosting throughout. Again, it’s nothing too distracting, though some may be disappointed with the tinkering. Also be aware that there are the occasional missing frames causing slight skips in dialogue and, at one point, a very brief repeated segment in which we hear the same line twice. As for the soundtrack, there is an element of background crackle throughout, but for the most part the dialogue remains sufficiently clear. A crowd scene towards the end comes across a touch distorted, yet this is the only sole instance. It perhaps helps that the original mono soundtrack is decidedly primitive – just talk, no score or foley work. There are no optional subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise.
The tale of Burke and Hare, Tod Slaughter style.