THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (1948)
(Ambassador) 78mins. BW. UK.
Aka: HORROR MANIACS (US).
Credits: Dir: Oswald Mitchell; Prod: Gilbert Church
& J.C. Jones; Sc: John Gilling; Ph: D.P. Cooper & S.D. Onions; Ed: John F. House;
Mu: Charles Dixon.
Based on the exploits of graverobbers Burke and Hare.
Cast: Tod Slaughter,
Henry Oscar, Patrick Addison, Jenny Lynn, Mary Love, Winifred Melville, Arnold Bell, Ann
Trego, Janet Brown, Denis Wyndham, Hubert
Woodward, Edward Malin, Aubrey Woods.
The age old profession of
bodysnatching has always held a morbid fascination for us in Britain. Countless stage
adaptations, films, radio plays and television productions over the years have thrilled
and horrified audiences as the grisly trade of the "resurrectionists" unfolds.
Evidence of bodysnatching exists as far back as Ancient Egypt, but the most active era was
in the early years of the Nineteenth Century before Parliament introduced the Anatomy Act
in May of 1832 that prevented anyone from supplying cadavers to the medical profession
unless they were licensed.
seemed to be a hotbed for bodysnatchers, and in the early 1800's the practice was so
commonplace that people were becoming increasingly alarmed when the graves of their loved
ones would suddenly become empty. Robert Louis Stevenson's tale "The
Bodysnatcher" successfully captures the atmosphere of the ghoulish trade that seemed
to flourish in the dark alley-ways of Edinburgh, and although a fictional work, many
elements had the ring of truth about them as the legacy of the notorious William Burke and
William Hare were and still remain household names.
Burke and Hare originated from
Ireland, but found themselves living in a poor section of Edinburgh during the 1820's and
began their notorious exploits in the foul-smelling, narrow passageways of West Port when
one of William Hare's lodgers, an old soldier, died owing him £4 in back rent. To recoup
the outstanding sum, Hare sold the corpse to the laboratory of surgeon Dr. Robert Knox and
received £7 for the delivery of the cadaver at Number 10, Surgeon's Square .
It soon became apparent to the Irishmen that easy money could be made by luring victims
back to their home, suffocating them and then packing the bodies into a sack or tea chest
ready for delivery to the surgeon. Dr. Knox would be extremely pleased with the freshness
of the goods he received and presumably would not ask as to how the subjects were
Ultimately Burke and Hare's ghoulish crimes brought them into confrontation with the law
after the mysterious disappearance of a local half-wit came to the attention of the
authorities who soon discovered that the duo were responsible for sixteen deliveries to
the surgeon's laboratory.
Dr. Knox, although never charged with any conspiracy, was shunned by the medical
profession and ended his days by writing books on anatomy to supplement his income.
William Hare turned King's Evidence, implicating Burke as the main perpetrator of the
crimes and then headed south on a train. The general belief is that he later died back in
his native Ireland.
William Burke on the other hand became a sensational cause celebre and was
executed on the morning of January 27th. 1829 at Edinburgh's Landmarket before an
estimated 25 000 men, women and children. Burke's body was publicly dissected and pieces
of his tanned skin were sold for high prices. Reportedly author Charles Dickens possessed
one of these grisly souvenirs which he used as a bookmark.
for the Devil's work..."
Ambassador's 1948 release THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART adheres close to the
recorded exploits of Burke and Hare and successfully captures the essence of the infamous
tale. No locations were used, all filming took place at Bushey Studios in Hertfordshire
where the dark claustrophobic sets and minimalist design, combined with an imaginative use
of lighting creates an appropriate ambience to the nefarious deeds of the terrible
The film was certainly a return to form for its star Tod Slaughter who had performed as William Hare regularly on stage
since the turn of the century.
Although made in 1948, the film manages to convey, intentionally or not, an atmosphere
that belongs to the creaky productions of the 30's, but on this occasion the effect works
towards the credibility of the story despite the fact the the character names have been
changed from Burke and Hare to Moore and Hart.
Sporting a slew of poor Border accents, the first scene establishes
the squalid and disreputable conditions surrounding Swanson's Tavern situated somewhere in
the maze of Edinburgh's alleyways. Outside the tavern Mr. Moore, (Henry Oscar), is arguing
with his wife Helen, (Jenny Lynn), establishing the low esteem with which both Moore and
Hart hold their wives. Sergeant Fisher, (Denis
Wyndham), arrives to investigate the commotion and is promptly informed by Moore that
it is none of his concern. William Hart, (Tod
Slaughter), appears after deftly smacking his own wife Meg, (Winifred Melville),
around the chops despite the fact she is pregnant, followed by half-wit "Daft"
Jamie Wilson, (Aubrey Woods), who occasionally helps Moore and Hart transport their
"merchandise" to the Dr. Cox's laboratory.
Moore and Hart conspire to procure another corpse for Dr. Cox's Medical School when the
inebriated Mary Paterson, (Mary Love), enters the tavern accompanied by her friend Janet
Brown, (Ann Trego). Moore proceeds to ingratiate himself with the drunken Mary and
convinces her to come with him to his lodgings at Gibbs Close. Janet promptly asks
"Daft" Jaime to alert her friend Hugh Alston, (Patrick Addison), a staunch
do-gooder whose ship is in port for a month, to help her find Mary.
Meanwhile Meg Hart tries to revive the now unconscious Mary and get her out of the house
before the inevitable happens, but Helen arrives and informs William Hart who threatens to
"beat the breath out of [her] fat hide". The two women
are ushered out of the room as Moore and Hart roll up their sleeves and snuff out the
candle. "Devil's light for the Devil's work, eh Mr. Moore?"
After a feeble struggle, Moore and Hart giggle uncontrollable at the ease of their
gruesome achievement. Interestingly the chest that contains Mary's body is actually half
the woman's size, implying that she has been dismembered. Later Moore dryly remarks that
it is a shame that Mary's friend Janet got away as "there was room in the
chest for two!"
The next day, Moore and Hart pay a visit to Dr. Cox, (Arnold Bell), and there encounter
Hugh Alston who they had an altercation with the night before when Alston threatened them
while searching for Mary, and "Daft" Jamie who has arrived to collect his
barrow. Dr. Cox appears and admonishes his assistant David Paterson for his squeamishness
while unpacking the latest delivery, even though the man is the unfortunate Mary's uncle.
Suddenly Dr. Cox marches over to Jamie and remarks, "By thunder, what an
interesting specimen" while looking at the boy's head not knowing that Moore
and Hart are making a mental note of Cox's interest in the half-wit.
Alston approaches the doctor with his belief that Moore and Hart are
murderers only to be met with "Impetuous young fool, can a man who has
once tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge lay it aside to be bound by the petty laws
and trammels of blinkered mortals ?"
Meanwhile Moore and Hart conspire to provide Dr. Cox with Jamie's corpse and lure him to
their lodgings where they administer the boy with rat poison and then store him in a trunk
hidden in a closet. Hugh Alston manages to convince Police Sergeant Fisher
that murder is afoot when Jamie goes missing and together they thump on Moore and Hart's
door. An angry mob has gathered outside while the sergeant discovers Jamie's murdered
corpse. Hart quickly turns King's Evidence when the body is discovered, but while Moore and his wife are taken away, Hart is left to the wrath of
the mob outside.
OF WILLIAM HART is graced with a fine cast. Alongside Tod Slaughter, top honours go to Henry Oscar (1891-1969) as Mr. Moore
who equals Slaughter's treacly malevolence to such an extent that neither actor steals the
scenes over the other. Henry Oscar enjoyed long and fruitful
employment that included work touring the British camps during the First World War. His
career also consisted of directorial duties for numerous plays, performances in repertory
and on radio while also enjoying a fine reputation as a painter. His film debut was in a
minor comedy titled AFTER DARK (1932) and he was soon recognised as a talented character
actor and appeared in many productions including The Terror (1938), Brides
of Dracula (1960) and City
Under the Sea (1963).
It is equally delightful to
see Tod's wife Jenny Lynn in the role of Helen Moore. She had previously worked beside her
husband in countless stage productions since their marriage in 1912 and yet the only other
film she ever appeared in is The Ticket of Leave Man
(1937) as Mrs. Willoughby. In THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART it is fun to watch Tod deliver
such lines to her as "To the Devil with you for a snivelling jellyfish!"
of note is the performance of twenty year old Aubrey Woods (1928-) as Jamie Wilson who
made his cinema debut only a year before as Smike in Ealing's production of NICHOLAS
NICKELBY after being tested by Alberto Cavalcanti who saw him perform in an end of term
RADA production. Later in 1948 Woods appeared in The
Queen of Spades and then continued on a long and varied career that included THE
ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and as the dancing, singing Candy Man in WILLY WONKA AND THE
CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971).
Director Oswald Mitchell was
considered as a journeyman director at best. He passed away only a few months after the
release of the film at the age of 59. His career included direction of the first Old
Mother Riley films of 1937 and an intriguing chiller titled House of Darkness also in 1948 that portrayed the tale of a young man
who brings about his stepbrother's fatal heart attack by destroying the man's precious
violin. However, from that point on the young man suffers from the ghostly sounds of
violin strings echoing throughout the house.
Thirty-six year old
scriptwriter and assistant director John Gilling remade the same story ten years later as Flesh
and the Fiends starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, the splendid Donald Pleasence as
William Hare and George Rose as William Burke. Gilling became known for his work in the
horror genre despite his contributions to films from all genres.
Originally THE GREED OF
WILLIAM HART was scripted and filmed under the title "BURKE AND HARE" when
solicitors representing a surviving relative of William Hare contacted the producers and
demanded that they used a fictitious name in the place of their client's ancestor. The
cast were re-convened at a London recording studio to redub the soundtrack and substitute
not only Hare's name, but Burke's and Dr. Knox's as well. The result almost spoils the
film completely and the moments of substitution are easy to spot as the sound quality
suddenly changes when the names are spoken. Ironically Tod's stage companies had performed
the tale without alteration many times throughout the provinces with no legal wrangling
THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART is
often referred to as Tod Slaughter's final
film, but after an absence of four years, Tod returned to Ambassador Films at Bushey Studios in two rarely seen
films KING OF THE UNDERWORLD and MURDER AT SCOTLAND as ruthless criminal Terence Riley.
Both of these were condensed together and then released as a series of featurettes.
Lastly, Tod appeared in a short film titled MURDER AT THE GRANGE (1952) and then in A
GHOST FOR SALE (1952) for Majestic Films as a sinister caretaker of a manor house who
relates the tale of Philip Wraydon who haunts the house. Liberal portions of 1946's The Curse of the Wraydons were used in the film.
These are amongst Tod's lesser known works which are a world apart from his popular and
bewitching performances as the razor stropping barber in Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
and as the wicked Squire Corder in Maria Marten, or
the Murder in the Red Barn.
THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART may
have been made at the nadir of Tod's film career, but it is one of his finest portrayals.
Unlike many films of the period, this doesn't fail to thrill and Tod shines while at times
things are not going too well in the background. As an actor, Tod Slaughter revelled in
his villainy and never failed to play up to an expectant audience by chuckling, nudging
and goading them into hissing at the screen while all the while he was secretly creating a
special place in our hearts.
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