HOW NOSTRADAMUS GOT AHEAD: A look at "The Man Without A Body"

By Dr. Abner Mality

"King against King, and the Duke against Prince, Hatred between them, horrible dissension: Rage and fury throughout very province, In France great war and horrible change."--Century 12, Quatrain 56, The Prophecies of Nostradamus

Above is one of the many prophecies of Michel de Nostradame, better known to posterity as Nostradamus. We could easily spend the rest of this article just scratching the surface of the life and times of this amazing man, but that's not really what we're here for. However, it is helpful to know that he was a French healer, philosopher and seer of the 16th century who gained everlasting fame for having many visions of the future, which he wrote down in a huge book called "Le Propheties". Because of the cryptic nature of his writings, many skeptics have questioned his position as the greatest and most accurate prophet of all time.

One thing's for sure. Nowhere in the many thousands of prophecies that Nostradamus wrote is a vision of how he would be portrayed in a bizarre low-budget film of the 1950's called "The Man Without A Body". This is no surprise to anybody who has seen this ultra-obscure film, because it is so off the wall that even modern day moviegoers would have a hard time believing it, much less a man of the 16th century.

The movie was a product of a little-known film company called Filmplays Ltd. It was filmed in London by a cast of mixed British and American actors. The credits say the movie was co-directed by Englishman Charles Saunders and American W. Lee Wilder, the older brother of the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder. Star Robert Hutton recently revealed that the movie was entirely directed by Wilder...Saunders' name was on the credits strictly to fulfill a quota that non-British movies filmed in England have a certain amount of Brits involved. The senior Wilder was known for helming a wide variety of cheap B-movies such as "The Snow Creatures" and "Killers From Space". "The Man Without A Body" emerged as his most energetic and coherent feature. There is certainly nothing else quite like it in movie history.

Many parts of the film can be regarded as camp today...but then, for many people, anything made before 1990 can be considered quaint. The film stood out from the other science fiction/horror films of the period, most of which dealt with stock subjects like giant dinosaurs, big bugs and alien invasions. "Man Without A Body" has nothing to do with any of those tropes and instead provides a crazy mixture of mad scientist transplant movie, mysticism and prophecy and even aspects of film noir. It all comes together in a way that is totally absurd but also completely unpredictable and entertaining.

Strap yourselves in, kiddies...I shall now try to sum up the plot of this oddity. I'll hold off on the biggest spoilers at the end, but beware, minor ones will be scattered throughout!

We are immediately introduced to the character who makes this movie go...the ruthless super-tycoon Karl Brussard. Brussard is definitely the straw that stirs the witches brew, so to speak. As played by veteran British character actor George Coulouris, Brussard is arrogant, brilliant, driven...and crazier than a bedbug. In the very first scene, we see him engaged in a vigorous gym workout where he is interrupted by his doctor and corporate lackeys. Suddenly, Brussard picks up a phone that hasn't rung and begins having an imaginary conversation. Is this a comedy or a serious movie? Answers may differ, but we soon learn the reason for Brussard's bizarre behavior: he is suffering from a major brain tumor, one that will end his life very shortly.

Brussard is a man who gives in to nothing, not even death. He brusquely dismisses his doctor and begins an immediate search for medical help. He eventually learns about the unorthodox experiments of American scientist Dr. Phil Merritt (Hutton) and decides to pay the doctor a visit. Merritt's lab is one of the best in the annals of mad science. It's full of detached body parts functioning on their own, including an eye and surrounding tissue in the middle of a web of circuits. The eye moves on its own and seems to observe the movie's events with oracular wisdom.

Merritt's crowning achievement is the decapitated head of a monkey which he has kept alive and in good condition. One wonders what the practical advantage of having an actual monkey head chattering all day on your lab table is, but Brussard is suitably impressed. Merriitt and his co-workers have found a way to revive dead tissue and infuse it with life. Brussard is fascinated and asks if the procedure could work on a human head. Merritt sees no reason why not. But in another example of the movie's weirdness, Brussard is not interested in preserving his own head. He would rather find the head of a "great man" and infuse his own personality into it, creating a hybrid greater than the sum of its parts but with Brussard's personality firmly in control. The idea is worthy of a man with a giant tumor in his head and one wonders if scriptwriter William Grote had that in mind.

Although Brussard and Merritt are the driving figures of the movie, there's a quirky set of supporting characters that add depth and strangeness to the movie. We get introduced to Karl's sexy girlfriend/mistress Odette, a French stunner who's the definition of high maintenance. She also has a nymphomaniac's sex drive, which we see almost immediately when she tries to put the moves on Karl's chauffeur. I get a kick at how the chauffeur laughingly puts her off...he's obviously seen her in action before. Unfortunately for poor Odette, Brussard is ultra-possessive and keeps her under virtual lock and key.

Dr. Merritt is assisted in his weird experiments by handsome Dr. Lew Waldenhouse, whose ultimate fate forms the crux of the movie. Another assistant is pretty Jean Cramer, who obviously has a crush on Merritt but the egghead is so devoted to keeping disembodied heads alive he thinks of virtually nothing else.

The plot thickens as Brussard looks for a likely candidate for his whacko "head and personality" transplant idea. He wanders into the legendary Madame Tussaud's Waxworks, where he studies wax figures of history's most famous characters. He is utterly fascinated by the tour guide's description of the 16th century's greatest prophet, Nostradamus. Lightning strikes Brussard's tortured brain. HERE is the great genius that he will force his will upon...not only a man of learning, but one able to foresee the future!

Brussard secures the services of a disgraced, drunken Dr. Charot to help his mad scheme. Charot and some henchmen are to violate the grave of Nostradamus in Paris, secure his head of the prophet and bring it back to London where Dr. Merritt will return it to life. The whole thing is utterly absurd, yet the movie tackles the idea with utmost gravity. Nostradamus' head is smuggled through the airport, encased in a plaster of paris statue's almost discovered during a tense moment, but finally makes its way to Merritt's lab. At this point, only Brussard knows who the head really belongs to...Merritt believes it was just dug up in some old cemetery.

The bearded, leathery head of Nostradamus is hooked up to chemicals and electricity and returned to life. Frankly, the special effect of the waxy, dried out looking head is far from impressive. Yet even so, when the eyes open and the long silent lips murmur "Michel....Michel de Nostradame...", it's an eerie moment.

Merritt now knows exactly who his "anonymous" guinea pig is. But Brussard is still funding his experiments and he is just as fascinated as anyone by the possibility of communicating with the great Nostradamus. The reaction of Nostradamus returning to life as a head in a plate of chemicals is indeed curious. Instead of screaming in horror or cursing his "saviors", he speaks rationally, calmly, in control at all times. One of the first things he does is to ask, "have they burned all my books?" His command of modern English is good, but then who knows the powers of this occult mind? You get the impression that Nostradamus knows exactly how things are going to work out. After all, as he says, "I have always lived in the future."

Brussard's madness is intensifying. He has had a stroke and knows his time is short. In one of the craziest scenes in the history of film, he tries to convince the head of Nostradamus that it is really Karl Brussard. "You are Karl Brussard!" the looney millionaire shouts, leaving Nostradamus to calmly reply "Michel de Nostradame." "No, Karl Brussard! KARL BRUSSARD!" There's never been any movie argument quite like it.

Brussard gets more bad news from his flunkies. His entire fortune is now at risk. It all depends on how his oil holdings perform. Brussard asks Nostradamus for stock advice, which the prophet gives: sell the oil stocks. Who could turn down a stock tip from Nostradamus?

Meanwhile, Odette has managed to start an affair with Merrit's assistant, Lew, who has fallen for her like a ton of bricks. She suggests that if Nostradamus' head is unplugged from life support, it will die...and so will Brussard. Lew agrees to the plot, but when he attempts the deed, Nostradamus is waiting for him and tells him "You want to destroy Brussard, not me. There is one way to destroy Brussard...and I'm doing it!" Lew relents.

Nostradamus deliberately gave Brussard the wrong advice...the financier is now completely ruined. An enraged Brussard tries to unhook Nostradamus from his equipment, but Merritt stops him and throws him unceremoniously out of the lab. The fallen tycoon's next stop is Odette's hotel room, where he finds the floozy packing her bags and preparing to leave him. This is more than Brussard can take and he finally snaps, strangling Odette with her own jewelry.

Lew finds Brussard at the scene of the crime and flees. Brussard pulls out a gun and shoots Lew in the neck, then leaves himself. One of the richest men in the world is now penniless, insane and a fugitive on the run with police on his tail. Merritt and Jean find Lew...he is still alive, but his cranial nerves have been completely severed, killing his brain completely. A crazy idea begins to form in Merritt's mind...

You don't have to be Nostradamus to figure out what Merritt's idea is. The head of the 16th century prophet is grafted onto the otherwise healthy body of Lew Waldenhouse. The resulting monstrosity is goofy looking in the best low budget 50's tradition. Lew's body is topped by an enormous white plaster of paris cast, with the scowling dead face of Nostradamus stuck in the middle. One reviewer likened the creature's head to a giant tooth with the face being a cavity.

At any rate, the bizarre operation proves too much for the hybrid creature. Nostradamus' reason is blasted at last. With a growl, the monster tears loose of the tubing surrounding it and stalks out of Merritt's lab. It now prowls the darkened streets of London like another misfit of science, the Frankenstein Monster.

What happens from here I will leave you to discover. Suffice it to say, the "Nostra-monster" and Karl Brussard finally meet up and the resolution to the story is grimly satisfying, as well as gruesome and ironic.

As if you couldn't tell from the above synopsis, "The Man Without A Body" is one of the wildest, most original SF/horror movies of the 1950's. It certainly owes a debt to the classic tale of "Donovan's Brain", where the brain of an evil financier is kept alive in a tank and exerts a malevolent influence on people. But "Man Without A Body" throws so many twists into that concept that there's no way it could be called a rip-off.  Brussard is the "Donovan" of the story, but his brain, while diseased, remains firmly in his skull. The idea of putting Nostradamus into the story was a stroke of loopy 1957, the prophet was not as well known as he is today and no doubt this was many moviegoer's first encounter with him.

George Coulouris has a field day as Karl Brussard and runs away with the movie. Coulouris appeared in another movie about a ruthless less than "Citizen Kane"...and in many ways, "The Man Without A Body" is "Citizen Kane" in the Twilight Zone. He plays Brussard with such vigor that he really becomes the hero of the piece....much more so than the cold, emotionally clueless Phil Merritt. Coulouris career stretched from the 1930's until his death in 1989.

One wishes that Nostradamus would have gotten more dialogue in the final film. His speaking parts were provided by Michael Golden and were relatively few. But they were also unforgettable. It would have been fascinating just to hear the prophet discussing his peculiar situation with the scientists. It's a theory on my part, but I believe that the seer foresaw all the events that take place in the movie even before his "first" death in the 16th century. He was outraged at being revived as a disembodied head and took steps to make sure things unfolded as they did...even his final reincarnation as a "monster" joined with Lew Waldenhouse's body. In the end, Lew and Nostradamus both are avenged and can rest.

The movie has a crisp black and white look that is by no means shoddy. During some parts of the movie, a definite film noir vision is obvious. The scenes of the "Nostra-monster" stalked darkened, foggy London, pursued by barking dogs, are drenched in atmosphere if you can get past the bizarre appearance of the monster. The grave-robbing scenes are also spooky. Odette is certainly a film noir femme fatale in classic tradition. She was played by Nadja Regin, who would wind up being a "Bond Girl" in "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball".

I think there are hidden subtexts in the movie if you look for them, but they are certainly not necessary to appreciate this whacky piece of 50's fear cinema. It's not a great work of art, but even the harshest critic has to admit that "The Man Without A Body" is unpredictable, original and unforgettable. It totally deserves a DVD release, but if you can't wait (like me), head to YouTube, where the movie is now available in its entirety!

Some things are so strange that even the prophets cannot foresee them!