Saturday, January 20, 1973: Dr. X (1932) / The Walking Dead (1936)

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: Tonight we have two films directed by Michael Curtiz, the talented and prolific Hungarian director who made Warner Brothers his home and who worked in just about every genre imaginable. The first offering, Doctor X, was filmed in two-strip Technicolor and starred the lovely Fay Wray, in her only film to date on Horror Incorporated.

Modern audiences are quite familiar with the police procedural subgenre of crime film. For them, Doctor X is going to seem a bit peculiar. A whodunit that strives for some measure of scientific verisimilitude, this thriller establishes that one of the researchers in Doctor Xavier’s institute is a serial killer — but the police, instead of trying to establish alibis for each man on the nights in question, turn the entire investigation over to Dr. Xavier himself. They warn him that his institute will receive a lot of bad publicity if he doesn’t come through with the identity of the killer. Since Dr. X himself is a suspect, I’d feel less than confident in his reliability as an investigator. Nevertheless, he gets 48 hours to unmask the killer.

Doctor Xavier attempts to identify the culprit via a complicated mechanism that detects stress levels; higher stress levels send a red fluid up to the top of a long glass tube. This is the first depiction of a polygraph machine that I’ve seen in film. The earliest attempts at building a polygraph machine date to the early 1920s but they had not yet penetrated the public consciousness by 1932. Call Northside 777 (1948) helped to popularize the so-called “lie detector”, as did a number of light entertainment television programs of the 1950s.

Lee Tracy was a popular screen actor of the early 1930s whose heavy drinking and partying hastened his exit from the major studios. His stumble-bum leading man schtick is tiresome, and the most improbable plot element in Doctor X is the fact that Joanne is supposed to fall for him.

Fay Wray’s star dimmed almost as quickly as Tracy’s, but in her case it’s unfortunate — she is always a joy to watch, and plays her scenes with Lionel Atwill quite well. Atwill plays the father figure here, as he did in Secret of the Blue Room; unlike Lee and Wray his most interesting parts still lay in the future, at Universal.


The Walking Dead

Synopsis: Mob attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is dead certain he’s got Judge Shaw (Joe King) scared — so scared that he’s sure to acquit Nolan’s underworld client.  But to his surprise, Judge Shaw doesn’t knuckle under, and the man is sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing.
For the mob, this is intolerable. Shaw has to be taken care of, or future mob threats won’t carry any weight.  The trouble is, any action against Shaw will implicate Nolan and his associates.  

A solution is found in one John Ellman (Boris Karloff) a quiet man who’s just finished a stretch in prison, thanks to Judge Shaw. Mob fixer Loder (Barton MacLane)  arranges for Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to bump into Ellman, strike up a conversation, and offer him a job. Posing as a private detective, Trigger tells Ellman that Shaw’s wife, suspicious of an affair, has hired him to shadow the judge. He wants Ellman to stake out Shaw’s house and take notes on his comings and goings.

This, of course, establishes Ellman’s presence outside the judge’s house for several successive nights.  And on the last night Ellman returns to his car to find a body lying in the back seat — that of Judge Shaw.  But as luck would have it, a young couple — Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are passing by and witness the shady characters planting the body in Ellman’s car.

Soon Ellman is on trial for Shaw’s murder — and just to make sure he’s convicted, Nolan himself is representing the unlucky ex-con.

Nancy and Jimmy debate whether to get involved in the case, knowing that the reach of the mob is quite long.  In the end they decide to come forward with what they know — but it’s too late, and Ellman is executed for the crime.

But the young couple’s employer Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) himself steps forward with a radical suggestion: with the experimental technique Beaumont has developed, Ellman can be brought back to life….

Comments: Boris Karloff’s stint at Warner Brothers was originally supposed to include The Return of Dr. X, the sorta-kinda sequel to tonight’s first feature. But Karloff had fulfilled his contract and left the studio long before that one got made, and his role instead went to a woefully miscast (and famously unhappy) Humphrey Bogart. One of the films Karloff did make at the studio was this interesting little gangster / horror hybrid. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it makes good use of its star, who cut his teeth in these sort of underworld roles before hitting it big in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931).

Watching it again I was reminded of the old E.C. Comics, which often featured stories of some hapless schmo who suffers a cruel death by nasty types and then metes out revenge from beyond the grave.  Ellman’s punishments aren’t as ironic as those dreamed up by E.C., of course, and none of it has E.C.’s pronounced mean streak, but it kind of has the same vibe. Each of the hoods gets a visit from Ellman, who shuffles morosely forward. The murderers, desperate to get away, stumble out in front of moving trains, or fall out open windows, or accidentally shoot themselves while trying desperately trying to unholster their weapons. I’m not sure if it’s even meant as humor, but there is something grimly amusing about it. Cinema in the 1930s wasn’t known for a lot of dark humor, but this seems to have it.

Ricardo Cortez is pitch perfect as the smooth-talking mob lawyer Nolan, and Barton MacLain and Joe Sawyer are agreeably rough around the edges as hoods. I’ll watch anything Marguerite Churchill is in, and Edmund Gwenn makes sure that his slightly-befuddled-but-good-hearted character meter is dialed up to 11.


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