British horror icon Boris Karloff had attained acclaim as the eponymous monster in James Whale's “Frankenstein” (1931) several years earlier and “The Ape” didn’t go into release until 1940. Karloff’s performance is sterling, and “The Man Who Changed His Mind” boasts an outstanding supporting cast, including John Loder, Anna Lee, Frank Cellier, and Donald Calthrop. “Frankenstein” scenarist John L. Balderston, “The Lady Vanishes” scribe Sidney Gilliat and “Seven Sinner” writer L. du Garde Peach cram this trim 65-minute melodrama with romance, tension, humor, and horror. While Stevenson confines the action primarily to studio interiors, this sense of claustrophobia creates considerable atmosphere. The laboratory with its crackling bursts of electricity and all those knobs, gears, and sliders is adequate, believable, and never as outlandish as the one in “Frankenstein.” Stevenson’s energetic direction eliminates any lulls of the action.
The Karloff movie begins in a surgical suite as two doctors complete an operation and clean up. Dr. Gratton (Cecil Parker of “The Saint’s Vacation”) observes to Dr. Clare Wyatt (Anna Lee of “King Solomon Mines”) with an air of finality, “Well, that’s the last time we shall operate together.” Clare is leaving the hospital to join Viennese brain specialist Dr. Laurience (Boris Karloff) out in the boondocks at his manor house to assist him with his eccentric experiments. Another doctor reminds Clare that Laurience is “a little unorthodox.” Gratton describes Laurience’s ideas as both “queer” and “impossible.” Clare reminds him that geniuses are a bit queer. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s indefatigable boyfriend Dick Hastlewood (John Loder of “The Gorilla Man”) wants to accompany her. Repeatedly, she has refused to marry Dick. When he tells her she needs somebody to take care of her, Clare points out that she “specializes in looking after herself.” Nevertheless, Dick follows the independent minded Clare. She travels by train and then by coach. The coachman drives Clare to the edge of Dr. Laurience’s manor house but refuses to escort her to the door. This driver’s paranoia about Laurience’s home recalls the coachman in “Dracula” (1930) refusing to take Harker to Dracula’s castle. Laurience’s wheelchair bound companion Clayton (Donald Calthrop of the 1929 movie “Titanic: Disaster in the Atlantic), who always has something snide to say, greets Clare at the door. Clayton describes himself as “one of the doctor’s more hopeless cases.” He suffers from an intracranial cyst and says about himself “most of me is dead; the rest of me is damned.” The use of profanity in an early British film is singular.
Laurience is overjoyed to see Clare. Laurience was once a leading authority on the human brain before his colleagues alienated him because he “told them something about their own brain.” Clare wonders why Laurience chose her as his colleague. Laurience applauds Clare because she “has faith in what is new” and “the courage to face things.” “I shall show you strange things about the mind of men,” he assures her. Laurience works around the clock. No sooner has Clare settled into the creepy manor house than Dick pulls a Romeo. He climbs up to her window and begs her to leave. She sends him packing after he warns her that the servants quit Laurience because he frightened them. Meanwhile, Clayton expresses a low opinion of Clare, and Laurience threatens to withhold an lifesaving injection that would mean death for Clayton. Clayton really doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. Clayton reminds Laurience that he is “the only person who understands” him.
Meantime, Dick pens a newspaper story about Laurience’s mysterious scientific experiments. Dick's father newspaper baron Lord Haslewood (Frank Cellier of “The 39 Steps”) likes the story and wants to finance Laurience’s research since scientific success is front page news. Back at the manor, Laurience demonstrates with the use of his elaborate apparatus on two different monkeys that he can extract the thought content of one mind and switch it with another. When Laurience raves that he could switch the thought content—which he designates as ‘the soul’--in people, Clare tries to dissuade him. “No, I can’t do that,” whispers a clearly unhinged Laurience to himself.
Eventually, Lord Haslewood recruits Laurience to conduct experiments at his world renowned Haslewood Institute Laboratory. When Haslewood prods Laurience into presenting his premature findings to his peers, Professor Holloway (Lyn Harding of the unfinished 1937 version of “I, Claudius”) derides Laurience’s research as that of a lunatic. Haslewood takes umbrage more at Laurience than the snobbish Holloway. Not only does the press baron oust Laurience from his Institute, but he also refuses to let the doctor take his research because it belongs to the Institute. Laurience overpowers Haslewood, straps him into one chair, and switches Haslewood’s mind with Clayton’s mind. The deception succeeds for a while, until Clayton discovers Haslewood’s heart condition. Laurience strangles the uncooperative Clayton-as-Haslewood and incapacitates meddlesome Dick Haslewood. Laurience swaps Dick’s mind with his own by means of a remote control process. Since Laurience has already incriminated himself as the killer, he hopes that the authorities with arrest himself, but by then his soul will occupy Dick’s head and vice versa. Laurience almost gets away with his scheme in this thrilling little exercise in nail-biting suspense.
Director Robert Stevenson endows “The Man Who Changed His Name” with more subtlety and nuance than you might imagine. He likes to move his cameras for maximum dramatic impact and Jack Cox’s lighting adds a sinister quality to proceedings. He turns the heat in the final fifteen minutes. The Balderston, Gilliat, and Peach screenplay contains a number of good lines and the scenarists have done a splendid job foreshadowing the outcome. The cast is called on to behave as if they had transferred their bodies from their souls. Stevenson does a great job of pacing the action. Pretty Anna Lee hustles her hindquarters off throughout this chiller. Ironically, the first and final scenes offer an interesting juxtaposition to Dr. Gratton’s first words. If you call yourself a Karloff enthusiast, then you must watch “The Man Who Changed His Mind.”