Burke and Hare (1972, Vernon Sewell)
The closely-related subjects of grave-robbing and anatomy murder were long thought of as so controversial as movie subjects as to necessitate compensatory homiletics if filmmakers were ever to deal with either the West Port murders or Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Body Snatcher. Hence, the talk about knowledge vs. understanding in the 1945 version of the Stevenson or Peter Cushing’s final invocation of the Hippocratic Oath in John Gilling’s 1960 film The Flesh and the Fiends. It seems appropriate therefore that a reversal of this policy should have been effected in 1971 and then by a veteran filmmaker like Vernon Sewell, his career having begun in the early sound era, who had lived through decades of changing public taste and censorial standards. His Burke and Hare indeed not only dispenses with the moralizing but, almost as if in revenge for decades of enforced sermons, treats its subjects with a perversely jolly cynicism that is characteristic of much cinema of the late sixties and early seventies.
The film, indeed, is very much of its time in that it treats its central pair (and their respective wives) as embodying an upwardly mobile lower middle class, a topic more germane to the film’s date of production than to the period it portrays. Much the same goes for the downgrading of authority figures and the casting of reprobates as protagonists. If Peter Cushing’s Knox, in the Gilling film, was a product of lofty passion overriding scruples, the same character, as portrayed here by Harry Andrews (physically closer to the real thing, incidentally, is lack of scruples, pure and simple, made decidedly non-lofty by a sarcastic, slightly unsavory demeanor and opportunistic hypocrisy (On learning that one of his students frequents the brothel from where several of the bodies are drawn, he admonishes him by saying “haven’t you read the scriptures?” ). At the same time, Darren Nesbitt’s Burke is written and played in the manner of a contemporary youthful anti-hero, audiences being encouraged to identify with his plight as he insecurely spirits away his very first corpse for sale away from Hare’s boarding house. And to top it all, the story of two despicable murderers , whose career
That the storyline should emerge as blandly episodic and inconclusive has less to do with errors in execution than with the course the filmmakers find themselves having to follow as an outcome of their predetermined policies, which include accommodating influences as disparate as Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Richardson’s Tom Jones, 1960s British horror cinema and the then-current spate of British sex comedies. The idea of sticking, by and large, to the facts and still treating the story as a bawdy, life-affirming tale is similarly self-defeating. It means, for one thing, that the film must suddenly darken in tone when depicting the murder of Daft Jamie (surely the pair’s most detestable deed) and that the brothel scenes should be lengthened to the point of digressiveness – and this is exacerbated by the harsh lighting of these moment, which differs from that found elsewhere to the point of making them seem like scenes of another film. Also, the whole approach affects the ending, which arrives suddenly with the arrest of the two murderers, which should in fact be the centerpiece leading to the variously grim fates of Burke, Hare and Knox. A representation of the subsequent events, however, would have spoiled the fun, so the aftermath is entrusted to a perfunctory voice-over explanation. But then, Sewell may well have been less interested in rigor than in amusing himself while getting ready for a thirty-year retirement in his very long life.