Morally Confusing?

Food for thought, Heavy duty topic and a tough call, though murder can't be justified, the case of the Little Girl makes one think...

Love The Oldies


Actually that´s really the way many physicans got their bodies for research in this era. I´ve been at a graveyard in edinburgh where a lot of graves where covered with heavy iron grids and a sign at this graveyard said that relatives of people who had passed put them on the graves to prevent the bodies of their loved ones getting snatched for this purpose.

The most famous body snatchers of edinburgh have been William Burke and William Hare. After they couldn´t steal enough bodies they started to kill people to sell them.

Here you can read more about it:


There are some good moral questions that the film doesn't make enough of. I didn't get a feel where Fettes stood exactly on these matters to make me think. It all moves along too quickly.

Actually, Burke and Hare were not grave robbers. In his book about the pair Owen Dudley-Edwards completely dunks this legend. He surmises that their first body was of a man who probably died of natural causes and when they made some money with it decided to suffocate one of Burke's tenants. After the first body they were all victims of the pair.


I really enjoy this film, and I admire it's smart screenplay that does try to address the moral issues raised.

But you're right, the film makers had to move the action along. Had they produced fifteen more minutes dealing with the moral quandaries faced by Fettes and McFarland then plenty of critics and viewers would complain that the movie was too slow, or stalling out.

This discussion does highlight, unfortunately, the annoying inconsistency of Fettes. He's appalled at grave robbing at the outset, then wants a subject so McFarland can operate, then he's appalled when Gray kills the streetsinger, then he helps McFarland rob another grave...he's a weak schumck, and Russ Wade's performance doesn't help matters.

Thank goodness he is more than counterbalanced by the strong work of Karloff and Daniell. Still, as good as"The Body Snatcher" is, there's still some missed opportunity there.


I have a problem with the last scene. Why is Fettes there? Shouldn't he have said he wanted no more part of the grave robbing? He only gets out of the carriage because Dr. MacFarlane tells him to not out of any moral choice and is spared. Was he there so we could see him walking off at the end? Other than that I though it was a great scene, very chilling.

Russ Wade made me laugh with his pronunciation of Edinburgh.


I think the Fettes character is meant to be our surrogate, the person we're supposed to relate to, as opposed to the cold doctor or the lethal grave robber. That's why his timidity and vacillation is so damn frustrating. You made a great point -- Fettes should have gotten out of the carriage in the process of standing up to McFarlane, as opposed to just being told to. And yes, it feels like a misstep for Fettes to agree to accompany McFarlane, but as he is an extension of the viewer he has to be there when the medico rides to his doom.

All in all though, "The Body Snatcher " is still a fine movie, my favorite of the Lewton films and one of the last true classic films in Karloff's career.


I think the whole thing with Fettes being inconsistent in the film is a side-product of both the original story and the Hays Code, one of the rules of which is that no criminal should be seen to profit or get away with their crime. The film differs from the original story in many respects (Fettes and McFarlane are both assistants to another doctor who is implied to be Dr Robert Knox; Grey only appears once; a framing device; etc), but the biggest difference is with regards to Fettes' general character. In the original short story, Fettes is much more easily convinced that grave-robbing and murder are a necessary evil for the medical work they are doing and is far more eager to go along with it all. In short, it's natural for him to be present in this last scene in the original story because he wants to be there.

Since the film retains the use of Fettes as a point of view character (albeit less so than in the original story where it's being told from his perspective, but there's a reason why he's the first major character we meet and there's only a handful of scenes that he's not present for), the narrative needs him to be there in certain scenes - such as the final trip to the graveyard. However, thanks to the dictations of the Production Code he couldn't be seen to be going along with it with the enthusiasm he has in the original story because otherwise he would have to pay for it. And since the film already had an out-and-out villain in Grey, it was fairly natural that McFarlane should fill the moral ambiguity role...which left Fettes to be the "moral centre" of the thing - a role the character was absolutely not designed for in the original story. As far as I can tell, the film was probably going for the idea that Fettes would be so intimated by both Grey and McFarlane that he was helpless to try standing against either of them, and there are certainly moments that hint to that, but I think they could have done a better job at conveying it.