Wednesday 16 December 2009

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Director: Vincent Sherman
Stars: Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane and Humphrey Bogart
TCM's star of the month for Dec 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, to celebrate what would have been his 110th birthday on 25 Dec, at least according to Warner Brothers.
It's been a while since I've seen Doctor X, the 1932 Michael Curtiz horror movie with genre legend Lionel Atwill as Dr Jerry Xavier, and a cast that included Fay Wray and Lee Tracy. I remember it as one of the best non-Universal horror movies of the era, only partly because of the early use of two strip colour. It's also been a while since I've seen The Return of Doctor X, a sequel mostly in name only that for some reason took First National seven years to get around to. This time it's Humphrey Bogart playing Dr Xavier, though a different one, complete with a Bride of Frankenstein white streak through his hair. I remember it being a pretty embarrassing affair, most obviously for such an astoundingly bad casting choice, but not entirely.

It's actually better than I remembered, though it's certainly not in the same league as the original. It has a cast of capable supporting actors, recognisable names if not stars, including Rosemary Lane and John Litel, not to mention Bogart whose star was about to rise but hadn't quite got there in 1939. The story scoots along at a decent pace, and while it never rises to power and does stoop to cheap jokes and conveniences on occasion, it compares reasonably well with other films of the same ilk and era. Its theme, that of artificial blood for use in transfusion, is an interesting one but it's sadly ignored for the most part in favour of the standard resurrection from the dead chestnut.

The lead character is a journalist by the name of Walter Garrett, though he's usually known as Wichita for the same reason I'm known by some as English. Now Doctor X had Lee Tracy to play its token journalist and he was the best wisecracking pressman of them all, but The Return only has Wayne Morris, who comes across less as a lead and more as a supporting character, something akin to a western sidekick. The character who really stands out as the lead is Dr Mike Rhodes, played by Dennis Morgan, who's an up and coming surgeon at the Jules Memorial Hospital and a friend of Garrett's, to whom he goes with a strange medical story.

He's found a corpse, you see, completely drained of human blood, something pretty common in thirties horror movies but apparently not that common in his town. She's Angela Merrova, a prominent stage actress who he was planning to interview, but when he arrived at her apartment he only found her pet monkey flitting around because she was dead on the floor, murdered by a mysterious intruder. If that wasn't strange enough he waits outside the door for the cops, but by the time they turn up Merrova has vanished, with all traces of the struggle removed. He endures the jibes and barbs of the cops and his co-workers, hardly surprising given the circumstances and because one of them is played by Huntz Hall from the East Side Kids, but the real kicker is when he next meets her in his editor's office, suing the paper for a hundred grand in damages for reporting her death on the front page.

Rhodes finds the story interesting but of course he really can't do anything because there isn't a single scrap of evidence and after all, the corpse is walking around. Fortunately for Garrett a second victim is soon reported and he's in the right place at the right time when Rhodes is summoned to the crime scene. Victim number two was Stanley Rodgers, a professional blood donor, who was due at the hospital that very morning to take part in a transfusion, one which Rhodes was involved with. Rodgers is a popular man because he has Group 1 blood, the rarest of them all, and all of it has been drained from his body, leaving only a few stains on the carpet, ones that turn out to be of no group at all, let alone the Group 1 that the hospital has samples of to hand.
The story is phrased like a mystery but there's no mystery to be found because of course we all know whodunit from the moment the villain introduces himself to us a third of the way into the film with the sinister words, 'Looking for something?' He's Humphrey Bogart of course, playing Marshall Quesne, the assistant to the monocled Dr Francis Flegg, the haematologist who had conducted the transfusion that Rodgers should have taken part in. He's a real character in a film full of stereotypes, as is evident from the first moment we see him, posing in a doorway and stroking a sickly white rabbit. Anyone who doesn't pick him as the villain of the piece just isn't paying attention, not only to this film but to any classic horror film ever made. It's no surprise to find out that he's really the Dr X of the title, Dr Maurice Xavier, who had been put to death in the electric chair some years before for child murder, having performed starvation experiments on children. The cad.

He wears glasses that fail to hide wild eyes and he has that Bride of Frankenstein white streak in his hair that is impossible to forget. You can feel him shivering at us, hesitating at us. He crushes a test tube in his palm and just looks at it while everyone else looks at him. He has a slight lean, a subtle limp and an utterly white pallour like Chaney's version of The Phantom of the Opera. There's a hint of an inane grin, a hint of an permanent orgasmic state and a hint of something flagrantly queenish. These are all utterly uninentional puns, but he feels like the only colour character in a black and white film, not because he's well fleshed out but because he's built out of every freaky characteristic in the book and then some. He's the sort of character that you might expect Jeffrey Combs to play, or maybe Johnny Depp, but utterly not Humphrey Bogart.
You can write the rest of the film yourself, from the reasons behind it all to how the love interest becomes the next potential victim and all the way down to the melodramatic finale in a dilapidated duck shed in the middle of a fog enshrouded swamp. Really none of it matters because we're just stunned at the sight of Bogie, already established as a gangster and a heel but soon to become immortal as the epitome of the hard boiled detective, playing something you'd never have expected in your wildest fever dreams. While he would never be more uncomfortable in a film than in Swing Your Lady, this was the wildest miscasting of his career and he well knew it.

At least he was willing to go whole hog with the part, so much so that if he'd been hit by a truck before ever seeing the scripts for The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca and thus become nothing more to posterity than an underrated thirties supporting actor, he'd still be by far the most memorable thing about this picture. It's interesting to hear his take on the affair. 'You can't believe what this one was like,' he said. 'I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner's blood, or Harry's, or Pop's, maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.' It's easy to picture Lugosi or especially Karloff in the role, but almost anyone in Hollywood would have fit it better than Bogart, from Joan Crawford to Mickey Mouse. Who knows what the casting folks were thinking.

No comments: