Bigger than Life, Nicolas Ray’s melodramatic masterpiece in a brand new print, bright as the dawn of the nuclear age, is playing for one more day at the Film Forum. Saw it last night. James Mason, with his voice like brown butter, tears up the widescreen. I’ve always liked him, the perfect Captain Nemo and a suitably creepy and putupon Humbert ("poets never kill") Humbert. The compositions, the color (the reds!), the clothing. Also, a young Walter Matthau... who knew?
Afterwards, I was reading Roughead on Burke and Hare to an appreciative audience. I find a lot of people don’t know about Burke and Hare, even though they gave a verb to the language (burked: to be dry-gulched permanently) and inspired R.L. Stevenson’s great story, “The Body Snatcher,” which has been turned into at least one movie. Burke and Hare were resurrectionists, suppliers of bodies to the surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the birthplaces of modern medicine in the 1820s. The medical students needed bodies to practice their anatomy, and their teachers paid very good money for fresh corpses. Burke and Hare realized that killing people themselves meant they could skip the messy bits involved with digging corpses out of cemeteries (a practice much frowned upon). During 1827-28, they killed sixteen people, mostly by getting them drunk and choking them to death. Some of the medical students recognized the victims, but their teacher, Dr. Robert Knox, kept paying for them.
Well, all good things come to an end, and Burke and Hare were eventually caught. Hare ratted on Burke, who was executed, anatomized in public, (but wait, it gets wilder) and flayed, his skin tanned into leather, his bones hung in exhibit. Roughead owned a one inch square piece of Burke’s hide that his grandfather had purchased. Because Hare gave evidence, he was not prosecuted. He barely escaped a couple of lynch mobs and disappeared. Significantly, Burke was convicted of only one of the murders, the others, more directly connected to Dr. Knox, were let lie by the noble gentleman (burke the bastards!)of the court. However, Knox, who also just missed an appointment with an enraged mob, did end up pushed out of the legitimate medical business.
There’s a near-perfect summing-up of the infamy, probably Scotland’s most notorious crime, in this popular couplet:
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
Knox the boy that buys the beef