Saturday, September 1, 1973: Calling Dr. Death (1943) / The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934)

Synopsis: Dr. Mark Steele (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a neurologist who uses hypnotism to cure clients of their deepest psychological traumas. In the opening scene, we see Dr. Steele cure a young woman who has been mute since a recent car crash. The girl’s parents are amazed that Steele can identify the psychological root of the problem so quickly. Steele finds his work deeply satisfying; he is a wealthy and respected man, and clearly the top practitioner in his field.

Yet for all his success on the job, Steele is miserable at home. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) makes no attempt to hide the fact that she is cheating on him: he confronts her after she returns home at 3 am, only to have her laugh in his face. She tells him that she enjoys the money and prestige that comes with being a famous doctor’s wife, and for this reason will never consent to a divorce.

Adding to Dr. Steele’s unhappiness is the fact that he is in love with his devoted assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison). He has kept his passion for her a secret, but the next day, Steele can’t help himself. He gives Stella the old “let’s stop pretending” speech, and though she indicates that she feels the same way, the fact that he is married makes any relationship between them impossible.

Arriving home on Friday evening, Steele finds that his wife is gone, having told the servants that she will be away for the entire weekend.

For Steele, this is the last straw. He gets into his car and drives around, trying to find her. He awakens in his office on Monday morning, with no recollection of what transpired in the intervening time.

When Stella arrives she commiserates with him and he begins to feel better, but soon word reaches Dr. Steele that his wife has been brutally murdered.

His wife’s lover, Bob Duval (David Bruce), is charged with the crime and eventually sentenced to die in the electric chair. But police detective Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) is convinced that Steele is the real culprit. And when Steele finds a button from his own suit coat at the murder scene, he realizes that the detective must be right….

Comments: Ever have one of those Friday afternoons where you hear some upsetting news, so you get in your car and drive around, and you hear your evil wife laughing at you and see a blurry montage of dark streets and stoplights shifting around on the road ahead, and you wake up on Monday morning at your office, with no recollection of how you got there or what happened during the last couple of days?

For me, that’s just a typical weekend. But it’s a first-time occurrence for Lon Chaney, Jr. in Calling Doctor Death.

Chaney’s Dr. Steele is very similar to Alex Gregor, the morose mentalist he played in another Inner Sanctum meller, The Frozen Ghost. And in many ways the movies themselves are quite similar: in both films he is involved with beautiful women much younger than himself. In both films everyone — including the protagonist — is convinced that he must have committed a brutal murder during a blackout.

And unfortunately, both films end up feeling padded with redundant scenes, in spite of their brief running times.

Thus we have Inspector Gregg wandering in repeatedly to remind Steele that his guilty conscience is going to betray him — yes, it will — any time now! The guy does everything but quote Dostoyevsky at him (Gregg even appears in Steele’s home, presumably without a warrant, though of course this was 1943).

Improbably, Steele is able to conduct his own search of the crime scene and even finds a missing button from his own suit jacket — suggesting that the police forensics experts are such bunglers they could miss the most obvious clues.

But the biggest plot hole is Steele’s conveniently-timed blackout. It makes no sense, since he hadn’t been drinking, didn’t suffer any trauma, and had no history of such episodes. The screenwriters might have been better off revealing that Steele is suffering from a post-hypnotic suggestion to block the weekend’s events, which would have been a clever way to lead us to the real culprit in the third act.

J. Carrol Naish seems to be enjoying himself here, channeling Edward G. Robinson as he chews the flavor out of every last line. Patricia Morison, alas, doesn’t get much of a chance to prove her acting chops, though pretending to be in love with Lon Chaney, Jr. must have been a stretch. Chaney himself has a part specifically tailored to his narrow acting range, and he carries the movie effortlessly.

Overall, Calling Doctor Death is the kind of mystery that would have been right at home as an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents program. That show’s 30-minute format would have tightened up the pace considerably. As it was, the Inner Sanctum Mysteries were really proto-television shows, their 65-minute running time the absolute minimum for theatrical release.

And like television programs, these mysteries were somewhat ephemeral. They were forgotten by the cast and crew almost as quickly as they were made, and presumably forgotten by the audience almost as quickly as they were seen. Just as you, gentle reader, will forget this post almost as quickly as you have read it. No hypnotism required.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head

Synopsis: In France in the years leading up to World War I, Paul Verin is a writer for an obscure political journal who, despite his poverty, is satisfied with his life. His wife Adele (Joan Bennett) is the most important thing to him, and he greatly prizes his independence and his pacifist ideals.

He is approached by Henry Dumont (Lionel Atwill), an ambitious politician. Dumont tells Verin that he greatly admires his writing and his anti-war sentiments, and offers him a job as a speechwriter. Verin turns him down, fearful that such a move would compromise his integrity. But Adele confesses that she is weary of their poverty and wants to have a better life so that they can start a family. Wanting Adele to be happy, Verin takes the job.

At first, things go dizzyingly well for Verin: Dumont rises to prominence on the strength of Verin’s speeches, which excoriate the munitions manufacturers for egging the nation on from one war after another. People on the streets excitedly repeat the pacifist views that Verin is writing and Dumont is publicly proclaiming.

But while Verin is working overtime to craft speeches, Dumont’s convictions prove to be negotiable. Meeting with munitions manufacturers behind closed doors, he agrees to begin backing their causes. At the same time, he starts moving in on Adele, taking her to the opera and fancy dress parties.

The arms dealers cynically push France into the First World War, and the nation is caught up in war fever. Verin’s ideas become deeply unpopular, and while Dumont easily pivots to be a full-throated supporter of the war, Verin himself ends up serving on the front. But when he discovers that Dumont is preventing him from returning home to see Adele, he races back to Paris with nothing in his mind but revenge….

Comments: Released with little fanfare on Christmas Eve 1934, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head played to mostly empty theaters, and then disappeared for nearly four decades. It resurfaced as part of MCA’s 77 Horror Greats TV syndication package. Horror Greats replaced the venerable Shock! and Son of Shock! packages in 1972, when Screen Gems’ 15-year rights to the titles lapsed.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head‘s bizarre title, the presence of Claude Rains and Lionel Atwill and the fact that it was released by Universal during its fabled Golden Age apparently led many youngsters weaned on Famous Monster of Filmland to conclude that this was a lost horror classic.

It wasn’t, but it’s not the viewers’ fault for thinking so. Even the Rialto, the New York cinema famous for catering to the weirdos who like horror films, tried to trick customers into thinking that The Man Who Reclaimed His Head was another horror shocker from Universal:

In fact, the only horror element in the film is contained in the framing device: in the first scene Verin arrives at the house of a childhood friend who is now a prominent lawyer. He begs his friend for an opportunity to tell his tale. He carries with him a suspicious-looking satchel; and the end of the movie we learn it contains the head of his erstwhile employer. The 1944 Inner Sanctum programmer Strange Confession clearly borrowed this device, as well as much of the plot: in that film, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant but impoverished chemist, rather than a brilliant but impoverished writer, but everything proceeds in the same way, including the boss (played here by J. Carroll Naish) taking credit for the guy’s work and seducing his wife, only to end up with his head in a bag.

But in the main this is an anti-war melodrama that featured as its main villain not only the oily Dumont but the faceless munitions companies that incite war in order to line their collective pockets. It’s an idea that also came up in The Great Impersonation the following year, and seems to have been a popular sentiment in the aftermath of the ruinous First World War. This film takes it a step further and strongly implies that the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was engineered by war profiteers in order to spark a European conflict. It’s a rather simplistic point of view, but the 1930s was a time of intense anti-war sentiment, and it isn’t surprising to find it reflected in movies of the time. While anti-semitism is often found at the root of these sorts of conspiracies, it doesn’t seem to be signaled here, at least in any way that modern viewers might recognize.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head never got a home video release that I’m aware of, and it’s incredibly difficult to find. While the plot is rather perfunctory and relies on too many improbable coincidences, it does feature a very good performance from Claude Rains as Verin, and while Lionel Atwill’s perfomance is a bit plummy it’s a real pleasure to see the two working together. Joan Bennett brings a genuine brightness to the role of Adele, and director Edward Ludwig does a solid if unspectacular job in keeping the proceedings moving along.

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2 comments

  1. CALLING DR. DEATH makes as much sense as a movie title as DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN, and it’s criminal in how the longest locks in Hollywood were wrapped so tightly atop Patricia Morison, Rapunzel indeed. Claude Rains had played Paul Verin in the failed Broadway play, showing its origins in this draggy adaptation. Unbilled appearances from Edward Van Sloan and Valerie Hobson.

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  2. Speaking as a former kid-weaned-on-Famous-Monsters-of-Filmland, you write as well or better than any professional journalist who graced the pages of that magazine. And that’s a rarity in today’s blogosphere. Every post is a delight.

    Furthermore, you have impressive sources. How you managed to view a film like The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is beyond me.

    Reading this blog makes me feel as if I’m reading those old fan magazines again, and that’s a very pleasing experience. I can tell you put a lot of work into this. Please know there’s at least one guy out here who deeply appreciates that.

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