Saturday, February 2, 1974 (Midnight): Mystery of the White Room (1939) / The Crime of Dr. Hallet (1938)

Synopsis: It’s evening at a busy metropolitan hospital, and an ambulance brings in a new patient, a newsie struck by a car on a city street. Dr. Finley Morton (Addison Richards), eager to leave for a rendezvous with a young paramour, palms the case off to Dr. Norman Kennedy (Roland Drew), who is on duty. Dr. Morton’s departure raises the ire of nurse Lila Haines (Joan Woodbury), who had previously been Morton’s lover.

Dr. Kennedy looks at an X-ray of the patient and despite seeing a serious skull fracture, decides to delay surgery until the following morning, against the objections of nurse Carol Dale (Helen Mack). Carol believes that Kennedy won’t proceed with the delicate surgery because he is fearful of botching the operation, which would ruin his chances of being chosen as Dr. Morris’s assistant.

Carol brings her objections to her boyfriend, Dr. Bob Clayton (Bruce Cabot) and the experienced Dr. Amos Thornton (Frank Reicher). Cabot looks at the X-ray and decides to operate immediately. When Kennedy accuses Cabot of showboating and trying to make him look bad, Cabot offers to work as Kennedy’s assistant in the surgery. At this, Kennedy stands down, allowing Cabot to proceed.

The next day Morton calls Cabot into his office. He first congratulates the young surgeon on saving the newsie’s life, but then admonishes him for his showboating and for taking over Kennedy’s patient without authorization. He indicates that Cabot will be denied promotion for violating the protocols of the hospital. Cabot angrily storms out.

That night, Morton is the chief surgeon in a delicate eye operation, surrounded by Kennedy, Cabot, Thornton and many others. Inexplicably, the lights go out for a moment. When they come back on, Morton is lying on the floor dead, stabbed through the heart with a scalpel….

Comments: Crime Club was a Doubleday mystery-of-the-month imprint that enjoyed a good deal of success in the 1930s. Among the hits it scored was Leslie Charteris’s The Saint series. Like the Inner Sanctum book series, Crime Club spawned both a radio anthology series and a string of Universal film adaptations. A total of eight Crime Club mysteries made it to the screen, and three were later folded into Screen Gems’ storied Shock! TV package: The Witness Vanishes (1939), The Last Warning (1938) and tonight’s feature Mystery of the White Room. This is the first Horror Incorporated broadcast for any of them.

The book carried the title Murder in the Surgery, which gives you a better idea of what to expect. It’s a straightforward whodunit in which a smart doctor-turned-amateur-sleuth constantly upstages the unimaginative police detective assigned to the case. It plays very much like The Death Kiss, set in a hospital rather than a film studio, with Bruce Cabot playing the David Manners role.

Despite being an almost generic murder mystery, Mystery of the White Room is a decent little time-waster that provides the usual hospital drama tropes and a fair number of suspects for us to choose from. Its comic relief bits come almost entirely from ambulance driver Hank (Tom Dugan) and goofball receptionist Dora (Mabel Todd).

Bruce Cabot is best-remembered for his (ahem) less-than-stellar performance in King Kong but he’s actually much better here. A tall, rangy actor with a blunt Great Plains accent, Cabot’s career as a leading man never really took off and he spent most of his later years playing supporting roles in westerns.

Helen Mack had a durable screen career, and like Cabot and Frank Reicher, she also had a connection with King Kong, playing the lead in the disappointing sequel Son of Kong. She’s just fine in a straightforward “concerned nurse” role, but the role doesn’t call for much from her. We’ve seen Roland Drew before on Horror Incorporated; he appeared in The Invisible Killer and is probably best remembered for playing Prince Barin in the Flash Gordon serials.

The actor who has turned up most frequently on the show is probably Frank Reicher, who appeared in both The Strange Mr. Gregory and Night Monster. He also played Capt. Englehorn, skipper of the Venture, in both King Kong and Son of Kong, appearing in the latter with Helen Mack. Frank Puglia has also been in a couple of Horror Incorporated entries: he was Dr. Leonardo in 20 Million Miles to Earth and the nutty Italian P.O.W. in The Boogie Man Will Get You.

The Crime of Dr. Hallet

Synopsis: Dr. Paul Hallet (Ralph Bellamy) and his colleague Dr. Jack Murray (William Gargan) are medical researchers in a remote region of Sumatra, where they are seeking a cure to the “Red Plague” that has been sweeping the area. The conditions are primitive and as the movie opens, they are burying a third researcher, who has fallen victim to the disease.

Months pass and the tropical disease institute that funds them has not sent a replacement for their fallen comrade. At last they receive word that a Dr. Saunders will be joining their team and is en route. Hallet is elated at the news, knowing of a Dr. Saunders who, though elderly and near the end of his career, is nevertheless an eminent scientist who specializes in the study of tropical diseases.

But the Dr. Saunders who has set out to meet them is not whom they expect. Dr. Philip Saunders (John King) has recently graduated from Harvard medical school, and at his going away party in the United States, no one seems to understand why he he wants to go to a disease-infested jungle on the other side of the world — least of all his posh wife Claire (Barbara Read) who confides to a friend that when Saunders returns from his trip she plans to divorce him.

When Saunders arrives at the camp Hallet doesn’t pretend to hide his disappointment. Not only is the new scientist inexperienced, but he’s also a Harvard man (Hallet, we learn, is a Yalie). He puts Saunders to work doing menial tasks around the lab — cleaning test tubes and feeding the test animals.

Saunders is unhappy at the frosty reception but is determined to prove his worth. On his own time he begins researching the disease and develops a test vaccine which he begins using on a set of monkeys he houses in cages some distance from the camp.

But just as Saunders believes he’s made a breakthrough, Hallet beats him to the punch, developing a test vaccine that appears promising. Saunders volunteers to be the first human test subject; he takes an injection of the deadly virus, then Dr. Hallet’s vaccine. But the test vaccine fails, and before long Saunders is dead.

It’s only then that Hallet discovers Saunders’ promising research, along with $4,000 in travelers checks (worth about $175,000 today) — indicating that Saunders had self-financed his role in the expedition. Guilty at the way he treated his younger colleague, Hallet decides the research is too important to abandon. Determined to prove the worth of Saunders’ research, he forges Saunders’ signature on the travelers’ checks so they can continue working. Furthermore, he wires back home that Hallett, not Saunders, died of plague.

Before long a new scientist comes to work in the camp – but this one is even a bigger surprise than Saunders was. Dr. Mary Reynolds is a young, beautiful woman, and before long she and Dr. Hallet fall in love — though she believes Hallett is Saunders.

To complicate matters further, once it’s established that Saunders’ vaccine is a success, Claire Saunders basks in her husband’s new-found fame, and decides she will travel to Sumatra to be with him….

Comments: When I was a kid my dear departed mother sorted films into two broad categories: “women’s movies” or “men’s movies”. Women’s movies had romance and dancing and beautiful clothes and people having conversations. Men’s movies featured fistfights and people getting stabbed in the stomach with swords and men sweating a lot. The Crime of Dr. Hallet tries to keep a foot in each camp; there’s a medical melodrama, a good deal of sweating and some manly competition between Drs. Hallet and Saunders. As the movie goes on, though, there’s a romance between Dr. Hallet and the strong-willed Mary Reynolds. It’s a B-picture suitable for both the average 1930s Joe and his date.

The best thing about this movie is the presence of a young Ralph Bellamy, who really sells Dr. Hallet as a man who is pretty complicated, even if he doesn’t make much sense. As in The Man Who Lived Twice, Bellamy really gives his all in this little picture, and his performance raises things a few notches above where it rightfully ought to be.

Hallet is at first arrogant enough to make his new colleague wash test tubes and feed monkeys after traveling thousands of miles to join the expedition, then guilty enough to assume his identity in order to give him credit for finding the cure to a pandemic.

It’s not entirely clear how Dr. Hallet plans to get away with faking his own death and posing as Dr. Saunders, a man who has living friends and relatives who can identify him. But who can judge the motivations of a guy who’s been in the jungle for the last few years?

It’s a pleasing storyline, if a little convoluted, and my initial feeling was that this film just has too many moving parts to work; but I was surprised to find it was remade in the following decade as Strange Conquest (1946).

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