Saturday, April 15, 1972: Dr. X (1932) / The Man Who Returned To Life (1942)

 

Synopsis: A vicious serial killer is on the loose in New York, a cannibal who only strikes when the Moon is full. The police realize that all of the murders are centered around the medical academy run by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). The method of killing is strangulation, the bodies mutilated afterward with a unique type of scalpel only used at the medical academy. The cops recruit Dr. Xavier to help find which of the four eccentric surgeons in his employ might be the murderer.

As it turns out, all four of the doctors make pretty good suspects.  We have the sour Dr. Wells, who has studied the practices of cannibals; Dr Duke, whom we may or may not rule out because he is in a wheelchair but who is kind of a jerk anyway; Dr. Rowitz, a researcher of a more lyrical bent, though still a weirdo; and Dr. Haines, who seems to be hiding a number of secrets, including a penchant for lad magazines.  Oh, and he might have taken a nibble or two of human flesh in his day.

Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Lee Taylor  (Lee Tracy) is trying to scoop the competition in getting the facts of the case, and he isn’t above posing as a corpse in the city morgue to get access.  Along the way he falls for Dr. Xavier’s daughter Joanne (Fay Wray).  But as Dr. Xavier hatches a plan to catch the man dubbed the “Moon Killer” by the papers, Lee also has to face the possibility that the killer may be none other than Dr. Xavier himself…

Comments: Like Night of Terror, the horror elements of this First National picture are leavened by a goofball newspaper reporter as protagonist. This device allows the lead character to provide his own comic relief, thus keeping the audience from taking things too seriously (interestingly, the belated – and much cheaper – sequel Return of Dr. X would also employ a stumble-bum reporter as its lead character).

What sets Dr. X apart from those other two films is its relatively lavish production values. Both Night of Terror and Return of Dr. X were unassuming programmers. Only Dr. X comes across as an “A” picture, something the studio would be proud to roll out to the public.

The film’s air of respectability was probably helped by the fact that it was based on a stage play, and director Michael Curtiz does a good job keeping it from looking stagebound. The film opens on a fog-shrouded waterfront set, and both the Xavier lab complex and the Xavier household sets are extremely large and detailed.

The film stars Lee Tracy and Fay Wray, two stars who had similar career trajectories: they were big in the early 1930s, but both quickly faded from prominence. Wray is still remembered today for her turn in Merriam C. Cooper’s 1933 smash King Kong; Tracy has been largely forgotten. The title role is played by Lionel Atwill, at the top of his game as the avuncular head of the research institute that may be harboring a killer. Atwill’s performance is often criticized as overly plummy, but I think he did about as well as he could with it; after all, Dr. Xavier himself is a red herring character, and we know that he must be at least a little nutty — after all, three out of the four researchers on his payroll have experimented with cannabilism. What are the odds?

The Man Who Returned To Life

Synopsis: It’s October of 1941, and George Bishop (John Howard) has a great life.  He has a beautiful wife and a delightful five-year-old daughter and a loyal dog.   He just got a big promotion at work.  He owns a nice-looking house with a white picket fence in sunny Ridgewood, California.  Everything in George’s life is just swell — and in the movies, that can mean only one thing.

Sure enough, as George leafs through the morning paper, he finds a news item that shocks him to his core: a jury in Blissville, Maryland has convicted a man named Clyde Beebe of the murder of David Jameson eight years earlier, and Beebe has been sentenced to hang for the crime.

“Clyde Beebe to hang!” George gasps. “For murdering me?”

Bishop hastily makes plans to leave town, mumbling to his wife that there is “something I need to take care of”. 

Flashback to 1933.  Bishop is living in Blissville, Maryland under the name of David Jameson.  He’s been in the community for five years, but because this is a small town, he’s still a newcomer in their eyes.  He works at the local bank and has nearly paid off the loan on a farmhouse he’s bought in the area. 

Jameson is sweet on pretty Daphne Turner (Marcella Martin), but she is being pursued aggressively by local troublemaker Clyde Beebe (Paul Guilfoyle). Meanwhile, Jameson himself is being ruthlessly pursued by Clyde’s sister Beth Beebe (Ruth Ford).  Some friendly locals advise Jameson to steer clear of the ne’er-do-well Beebes, and Jameson agrees, but in a town this size it’s easier said than done.

Beth has been telling everyone in town that she and Jameson are an item, and she goes so far as to invite herself to social events with him.  One night she brings up the M-word, and Jameson is shocked and appalled, and his rejection sends Beth running away in tears.  Clyde Beebe, hearing about the insult to his sister, confronts Jameson and attacks him with a knife.  Jameson isn’t badly wounded, but it’s clear that the Beebes will be trouble for the foreseeable future.


Jameson and Daphne Turner begin to grow closer.  Daphne has been helping sketch designs for improving the farmhouse, and as they talk excitedly about what the house needs they realize they are making future plans together.  Jameson proposes to her, and she accepts.  When Beth hears the news she is devastated, unable to leave her room for days. 

One afternoon Jameson is walking down Blissville’s main street when Beth Beebe pulls up in a car.  She seems very calm and even cheerful, congratulating Jameson on his wedding plans and offering him a lift.  Jameson, relieved that Beth is taking it so well, accepts — but once they are underway he discovers that she has a sinister plan.  She has already told everyone she knows that the two of them have eloped, and she has arranged for a witness and a justice of the peace to marry them at the Beebe place.  Jameson makes clear he wants no part of it, but Beth will not be deterred — she is clearly off her rocker.  The car is now hurtling along the highway at 70 miles an hour, so Jameson can’t jump out.  Fighting Beth for the wheel, the car goes off the road and Beth is killed in the resulting crash. 

Jameson is arrested, and charged with murder.  Everyone in town seems to think he is guilty; and when the charge is reduced to manslaughter,  Clyde Beebe rounds up a posse.  Released on bail, Jameson returns to the farmhouse, but through the darkened front window he can see that someone’s rigged a shotgun to kill the first person who walks in through the door….

Comments: 1942 was a busy year for director Lew Landers. He was averaging a picture a month for Columbia in those days, including this little programmer. The Man Who Returned To Life clocks in at just over 60 minutes, but spends so much time setting up its central conflict that it races around in its last few minutes trying to tie up loose ends.

The movie sports a premise that’s intriguing, but difficult to execute.  From the outset we’re treated to hefty plot contrivances and bouts of extremely unlikely behavior from the characters.  For example, why would a newspaper in California report the pending execution of a murderer in Maryland?  If the case were so sensational that it would warrant nationwide press coverage, wouldn’t he have heard of it before now?

Why would anyone believe that Jameson murdered Beth?  What was the alleged motive? On what basis would the prosecutor charge him with manslaughter, let alone murder? Why would Jameson, upon discovering Clyde Beebe’s plot to kill him, jump on a freight train and travel to California as a hobo, abandoning his property and fiance?

And really, why should Jameson feel so much guilt about Clyde Beebe being charged for his murder in the first place?  Granted, Beebe didn’t succeed in committing the crime.  But he fully intended to succeed, thought he had succeeded, and in fact did kill someone  – the hobo from the railroad camp (amusingly, after Jameson exonerates Beebe for his own murder, one of the swirling headlines in the final moments indicates that Beebe was charged with the murder of the hobo – a crime for which he will presumably hang).

Interestingly, it’s never clear to us how much — if anything — Jameson’s wife Jane knows about his past.  After reading the newspaper headline he tells her that there is “something I need to take care of”.  We see stock footage of a commercial airliner flying cross-country (an extremely expensive way to travel in those days, but handy if you’re racing to stop an unjust execution).  After Beebe is cleared of the crime, we get a series of swirling headlines, indicating that Jameson has been cleared of the manslaughter charge.  More stock footage of an airplane flight follows, and an image of a telegram, telling his wife he’s on his way back.  Then he is reunited with his loving family.  Is he still George Bishop, or has he reverted to David Jameson?  Did he tell his wife who he really is, or did she know all along that he was a fugitive?  We’re never told.

John Howard makes Jameson / Bishop a likable and sympathetic fellow, and Lucille Fairbanks makes a fetching Jane, though she is hampered, as many women of the time were, by a paper-thin characterization.  She is a Saintly Wife and that’s all we get to see of her.

But by far the most interesting character is the delusional Beth Beebe, played with a convincing aura of nuttiness by Ruth Ford.  Ford conveys slightly off-kilter with tremendous skill.  She never overdoes it, which somehow makes her all the more frightening. The scene where she’s about to crash the car is the highlight of the movie; with nothing more than a facial expression we buy completely that Beth has lost her marbles and feels she has absolutely nothing to lose.  It’s a splendid and understated performance.

 

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One comment

  1. DOCTOR X is elaborate, done in early 2 strip Technicolor (like its follow up MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM), and is chiefly remembered as Lionel Atwill's horror debut, and yet I always seem to fall asleep while watching it! A precode shocker containing so many unsavory elements, but lo-o-o-ong stretches of dialogue and unfunny comic relief make for a disappointing viewing. THE MAN WHO RETURNED TO LIFE had aired July 24 1971, and still sounds intriguing, a Columbia title that followed THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU but preceded THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. I found only one IMDB review of this film, and that it was not a remake of anything from previous decades. As John Howard's child, little Carol Coombs played Janie, George Bailey's oldest daughter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, while John Howard's next film would be THE UNDYING MONSTER at 20th Century-Fox.

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