|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Nov 09, 2004)
THE RETURN OF DR X
Alternate Title: THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X.
RT: 62 mins
Pro Co: Warner Bros Pictures-First National
Dir: Vincent Sherman;
Pro: Bryan Foy (uncred)
Wr: Lee Katz; orig st: William J. Makin.
Phot: Sid Hickox;
Film Ed: Thomas Pratt;
Art Dir: Esdras Hartley.
Dial Dir: John Langan.
Tech Advis: Dr Leo Schulman.
Cast: Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Lya Lys, Charles Wilson, Huntz Hall, Joe Grehan, Cliff Saum, Creighton Hale, Olin Hayward, Glen Langan.
Although they had produced two key genre works in the form of Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), both directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros and the First National production arm’s contribution to horror cinema had been very sporadic throughout the 1930s, especially when compared to Universal or even Paramount. In fact, The Return of Dr X was its first such production in three years, since Curtiz’s The Walking Dead (1936), which appeared at the same time that the first wave of horror movies effectively ended. Vincent Sherman’s work appeared at roughly the same time that the genre was being revived with Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein, and like that film its title suggests a direct link with earlier productions, although in this case the relationship is tenuous.
Walter “Wichita” Garret, a reporter with the New York Morning Despatch, arranges to meet famous actress Angela Merrova at her hotel suite. Just as she finishes taking the call from Garret, she is seized from behind by an unseen intruder. Later, Wichita arrives Merrova’s suite. While waiting for a response to his knocking the door, he leans on the handle and falls into the lounge. Wandering about, he discovers the actress’s body lying on the bedroom floor. Rather than contacting the police, Garret phones his newspaper with the scoop. The police and the hotel management eventually find out about the death from the press and make their way to the suite and find the reporter sitting outside. A thorough search of the suite reveals that there is no body and that nothing appears to have been disturbed. Garret is accused of wasting police time, despite his pleas that he found a corpse with a deep stab wound next to the heart. Dejected, he returns to his newspaper where he scours the press cuttings room for information about the actress, all to no avail. He is then summoned to the editor’s office where he is told that he is fired. Wichita is further shocked to find Merrova in the room, along with her lawyer, apparently none the worse for wear. His boss informs him that Ms Merrova is suing the newspaper for $100,000, while the hotel is suing for $50,000. As he leaves, he apologises for any trouble caused. Garret then goes to visit a friend at a city hospital, Mike Rhodes, a surgeon, to whom he tries to explain recent events. He tells Walter to wait for him in his consulting room while he makes preparations for an operation to be carried out by the renowned Dr Flegg. Rhodes is worried that a professional blood donor has not kept his appointment at the hospital, and has the head nurse phone him to check. The donor has in fact slept in and has started to make his way in. The surgeon and the reporter discuss whether the purported death of Angela Merrova, with the former of the opinion that such survival of such a deep knife wound near the heart would be very unlikely. Garret comments on the fact that the corpse’s skin was almost white, the same colour as when he met her in the editor’s office. Mike says that he will try and get an opinion from Dr Flegg, an expert on haematology, after he has assisted him on an operation. He is then informed that the donor has still not appeared, and it is only a very short time until the operation is due to be carried out. One of the junior nurses, Joan Vance, tells Rhodes that she is the same blood type as the patient and would be willing to help out. The surgeon agrees and Joan prepared for the transfusion. After the operation has proved a success, Mike and Flegg discuss the subject of blood and how important is has become in the evolution of medical science, with the latter obviously very passionate about the subject. He is asked his advice about the Merrova case and dismisses it out of hand. Rhodes goes to comfort Ms Vance and they immediately strike up a friendship, with the surgeon making a date to take her out dancing the following evening. He then disappoints Garret with Flegg’s opinion, before being informed that he is required to go to the address of the missing donor. There, he finds the police already in attendance and none too happy to see the reporter. It turns out that the donor has been murdered, drained of blood with a deep incision just below his heart. The coroner’s report states that although no blood was found in the victim, there were drops found nearby. These turn out to be a different group from the donor’s…
One of the most prominent features of Warner Bros contributions to the horror cycle of the 1930s was that, while they may have had gothic and expressionist trappings, the movies were still firmly set in the urban environment of 1920s and 1930s America. The Return of Dr X is no exception, featuring largely naturalistic, art deco influenced surroundings of a large hospital, an up-market hotel and a busy newsroom.
Lee Katz’s screenplay also features two very contemporary characters that became stapes of Warner Bros crime melodramas and gangster movies from the period, the wisecracking newspaperman, and his surgeon friend, played by Wayne Morris (The Smiling Ghost 1941) and Dennis Morgan respectively. In fact, their relationship in the movie, each with differing personalities and working as a team to investigate a mystery, makes this in effect a proto-buddy movie, the precursor of the type of movie which would become popular on film and television from the end of the 1960s onwards, the prime example being George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Director Vincent Sherman, here making his debut following a career as both an actor and screenwriter, and already well versed in the conventions of crime melodramas and thrillers, both in his acting and his writing capacities, adopts the style and tone of a thriller to tell his story. This involves a rapid narrative pace, achieved with the well-judged use of rapid camera tracks and pans, tight editing courtesy of Thomas Pratt, and a very lively script which places a lot of emphasis on the rapid fire dialogue of many of the characters, particularly between Garret and his fellow newspapermen.
In addition to the very contemporary setting that The Return of Dr X takes place in, the film is littered with characters from the other genres mentioned previously including the cynical detective (Joe Grehan, The Phantom Thief 1944), Charles Wilson (The Face Behind the Mask 1941) as Morris’s exasperated editor and Huntz Hall (Spooks Run Wild 1941) as a sarcastic copy boy. Of course the characters are played by very familiar members of Warner Bros stock company, adding to the impression of a film displaced from another genre.
The finale of Sherman’s production suddenly veers off into the preserve of gangster picture after villain Humphrey Bogart abducts the heroine (Rosemary Lane), whose rare blood he craves, and makes off for a remote hunting lodge in New Jersey with the police in hot pursuit. This sequence starts with a fairly energetic car chase trough the streets of New York, with screeching tyres and police sirens wailing. It then switches to the lodge with armed officers surrounding the place and firing tear gas into the derelict building. They then storm it, guns blazing, and a single shot kills Bogart. This of course is an entirely suitable ending for the type of film Bogart is normally associated with, but is rather mundane for a horror item, and those expected a suitably grotesque demise for the character, or the expected conflagration will be disappointed.
Overall, the horror and science fiction elements contained within the plot are handled in a decidedly low-key manner. Sherman chooses to rely on atmosphere, rather than overt shocks or set-pieces to stage the film. While large sections of the production feature the art deco influence of the period, other show a distinct expressionist tendency, with cinematographer Sid Hickox (The Gorilla 1930) making very effective use of low-angled camera shots, deep focus and lighting which throws giant shadows onto walls. This is particularly true of scenes set in the home of Dr Flegg (John Litel, Invisible Agent 1942), including where he gives Angela Merrova a blood transfusion, and where Morris and Morgan confront the doctor about Bogart’s activities. Other sequences showing the influence of expressionism include those taking place in the hospital operating rooms and laboratories, along with a nocturnal visit to a deserted graveyard.
The abandoned hunting club, at which the climactic battle takes place, with its twisted architecture, bizarre perspectives and surrounded by a blasted forest, is not only highly expressionist in its design, it would fit quite nicely into the universe of EC Comics, such is its unusual appearance. New York City, as presented in The Return of Dr X, while immediately recognisable (although obviously a studio mock-up) with will-known elements such as newspaper vendors and cab drivers, is only ever seen at night and is strangely depopulated, adding an extra layer of mystery to the proceedings.
Dressed mostly in dark attire, with jet-black hair and a single streak of white hair, alongside the awkward gait that the character adopts, Humphrey Bogart’s Dr X would not seem out of place in a German Expressionist movie of the 1920s. Bogart’s entrance is particularly effective, with him lit and shot from below and walking steadily towards the camera, which quickly tracks away from him. Also quite striking is the image of a deathly pale Dr X staring in through a window of Flegg’s hosue.
Although touted as a sequel to Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X, the link between this work and Curtiz’s is tenuous to the point of non-existence, since the X portrayed by Bogart is a completely different character than that played by Lionel Atwill in the earlier production, with the events there taking place in another era. In the 1932 picture, the plot revolved around a character working on creating artificial flesh, which needed to be sustained by obtaining the blood of unwilling donors, while Bogart’s errant doctor is the recipient of artificial blood created by Litel’s Doctor Flegg, found to imperfect and needing to be topped up with regular supplies of human blood mixed with a serum. A particularly gruesome, for its time, plot point is that Dr X was originally executed for experimenting on babies, during which they were starved to death. Hollywood’s uneasy view of scientists is illustrated by Flegg’s assertion that Dr X was seen as a martyr to science, which is why he was resurrected.
Usually the highlight of mad doctor movies, the laboratory revivification sequence show in The Return of Dr X is rather a let down, with little in the way of pyrotechnics or style. Instead of a human being revived, as was often the case, here a rabbit is brought back to life. Although Morris and Morgan’s characters seem impressed by the event, it isn’t particularly notable, although Sid Hickox tries his best to inject some atmosphere.
Fortunately this, and most other shortcoming are largely obscured by the film’s brisk narrative pace, and ensuring it works best as a thriller with macabre overtones, rather than an outright horror movie.
Sherman is very well served by his cast. Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan make an effective double act, with Morgan acting as the straightman to Morris’s livewire journalist, while supporting performers like Huntz Hall, Joe Grehan and Charles all provide good value. There are also a couple of excellent cameos by Creighton Hale as the fraught hotel manager, and Olin Hayward as the effete, yet mildly sinister undertaker.
Rosemary Lane, as the vivacious nurse heroine, is sadly underused in the film, ultimately appearing only as a damsel-in-distress, which is unfortunate as both the actress and her character show real spirit. It is possible that in the original cut of the film, featuring actors such as Howard C. Hickman who are listed in the credits but were edited out, Lane was given more to do. German actress Lya Lys is suitably sultry as femme fatale Angela Merrova.
Although he disowned The Return of Dr X in later years, Humphrey Bogart (then eighteen months away from long-term stardom), reportedly took his role in the film in his stride, it being one of several diverse projects that Warner Bros installed him in, as they struggled to find suitable parts for him outside of gangster flicks. Director had actually worked with Bogart before this, as a writer, and would work with him again on a number of occasions during the 1940s, while they were both contracted to the studio.
A resolutely minor work, both in terms of its position within studio that made it, and the horror genre, the film has attracted a sizeable cult following over the years, thanks to the presence of Bogart in his only role in that field, and an undeserved reputation for campness, something which the picture easily rises above.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
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