Saturday, November 2, 1974 (Midnight): The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942) / Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961)

Synopsis: A mysterious vigilante called Dr. Rx is killing mobsters and murderers who escape justice via the jury system. Due to the intervention of this sinister character, acquitted men end up strangled, with notes pinned to their chests signed “Dr. Rx”. and bearing a number — a running tally of his victims. The police have been unable to stop the killings, in spite of elaborate precautions.

Detective Jerry Church (Patric Knowles), just returned from South America, gets a lucrative offer from prominent defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who is fearful that his own client will be Dr. Rx’s next victim. Crispin’s offer is “$10,000 to take the case and $10,000 to crack it.” This, of course, was real money in 1942; nevertheless, Church turns it down.

But after he stumbles upon an intriguing clue, and receives a personal appeal from his old friend, police detective Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald), Church decides to take the case after all. Along the way he is reunited with Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne), an old flame, and the two impulsively get married.

Church starts receiving death threats, presumably from Dr. Rx, and after seeing how upset Kit is as a result, Crispin reluctantly advises Jerry to drop the case. Church, believing his responsibilities as a married man must take precedence, agrees. But local mobster Ernie Paul (John Gallaudet) wants Church to stay on, and after satisfying himself that Paul isn’t Dr. Rx (as the police inexplicably suspect) Church agrees to this too.

Due to the careless driving of Shemp Howard (yes, Shemp Howard), Church gets kidnapped by Dr. Rx and taken to his secret lab, where he announces his plan to swap Church’s brain with that of a gorilla….

Comments: The notation “Rx” was once a common sight throughout the United States, but its use has been on the decline for decades, and I’m not sure how familiar it would be to anyone under 30. For the benefit of my younger readers (assuming I have any), I’ll try to explain. “Rx” is medical shorthand for “recipe”, the old-timey name for a prescription. Drug stores used to prominently display the “Rx” logo (often with a symbolic mortar and pestle) to indicate that prescriptions were filled on site. In the early 20th century, most prescriptions were “compounded” at the pharmacy, meaning the pharmacist mixed the raw chemicals by hand to make the drugs based on the prescription the doctor had given them.

So why does the mysterious doctor who is murdering acquitted mobsters use the Rx symbol in tonight’s movie? It’s never explained. Maybe because crime is the disease and this vigilante (presumably with eight years of medical school) is the cure?

Well, maybe not — that sounds a little corny. So is “Dr. Rx” a play on “Dr. X”, the enigmatic medico from Universal’s hit movie a decade earlier? That seems more likely, though there’s no way for us to know for sure.

What seems certain is that this modest programmer was written and produced very quickly. Its best acting talents (Lionel Atwill and Anne Gwynne) are squandered in favor of stuffed-shirt Patric Knowles and his dismal sidekick Mantan Moreland (apparently on some horrible work-release program from the Charlie Chan pictures). Its attempts at humor are dreary, its horror elements tacked on at the last minute, and its rom-com subplot completely exhausted.

As romantic leads, Knowles and Gwynne have about as much screen chemistry as a pair of cinder blocks. The endless appeals to Jerry Church (Take the case! Drop the case! Take the case!) apparently serve no purpose other than padding out the movie’s brief running time. The mad-scientist-in-his-laboratory bit is a welcome touch of the macabre, but comes too late to make any real difference and turns out to be what everything else in this picture is: a red herring.

Even when we cede that Dr. Rx’s entire scheme is idiotic, his plan to swap Jerry’s brain with the brain of a gorilla is absurd on its face — it goes entirely against everything we’ve seen from him so far. Moreover, the only effect it would likely have on Church would be to make him a better detective.

The movie clocks in at a brisk 66 minutes, but it felt like three hours, and by the end of it I was wishing someone would swap my brain with a gorilla’s, just so that I could say something interesting happened while I was watching The Strange Case of Dr. Rx.

Most Dangerous Man Alive

Synopsis: Eddie Candell (Ron Randell) has been moving up in the ranks of high society, earning a cover story in a prominent magazine that breathlessly describes his beautiful girlfriend Linda (Debra Padget), his yacht, his racehorses and other trappings of a glamorous lifestyle.

While the article mentions Eddie’s ownership of a vending machine company as the source of his wealth, we quickly learn that this is just a front: Eddie is, in fact, a high-level mobster. The publicity he’s garnered doesn’t sit well with Eddie’s rival within the syndicate, Andy Damon (Anthony Caruso), who sees Eddie’s high profile as dangerous to the organization — and, conveniently, a way for Damon himself to move up. After he’s voted out of the inner circle of the organization, Eddie punches Damon. One of Damon’s henchmen tries to shoot Eddie, but Eddie kills the man in self-defense.

As a result, Eddie is put on trial for murder. Linda, who is now sleeping with Damon, testifies against Eddie, and his fate is sealed: he soon finds himself being transported to San Quentin for a date with the gas chamber.

But a funny thing happens (well, a few funny things) on the way to the death house. First, the police car that’s transporting him to San Quentin is in an accident of some kind (it happens offscreen and we’re never told the particulars) and Eddie, still in handcuffs, wanders through the desert with a gun.

Second, his wandering leads him into the middle of an atomic test site, where he happens to find himself at ground zero for an experimental explosion of a low-blast, high-radiation weapon.

In case you’re wondering what kind of maniac would detonate an atomic bomb within walking distance of a state highway, relax — this is the 1950s and we have to assume such shenanigans were a daily occurrence. Incredibly, Eddie (along with his extremely durable necktie) survives the explosion and discovers that his body has absorbed the handcuffs he is wearing. He begins to absorb metal that he comes in contact with, which makes his body immune to any sort of attack. His body is impervious to bullets and he gains enormous strength.

Damon and his mob, certain that Eddie will come back looking for revenge, hatch a plan to kill him. When Eddie does return, however, they are unable to handle him and he begins to methodically dispatch Damon’s henchmen. The police, led by Capt. Davis (Morris Ankrum) are hunting for Eddie as well.

Meanwhile, nuclear scientist Dr. Meeker (Tudor Owen) sets out with good girl Carla (Elaine Stewart) to make contact with Eddie with the hope of finding a cure for the atomic disease that has afflicted him….

Comments: Bill Warren, in his landmark book on 1950s sci-fi movies Keep Watching the Skies, talks about the curious origins of Most Dangerous Man Alive. The final film of prolific master craftsman Allan Dwan (who directed Brewster’s Millions, Sands of Iwo Jima and many other solid films), this one was produced by Benedict Bogaeus, who tried to cheat his production crew while making the movie and wound up paying a premium for his efforts.

Under the union rules in Mexico at the time, television crews were paid significantly lower rates than feature film crews. So Bogaeus simply split his script into two parts and told everyone at Mexico City’s Churubusco Studios that he was making a two-part pilot for a TV series. This was a clumsy ruse and easily sniffed out; and he wound up having to pay his crew the standard feature film rate. As a result, director Dwan had only a week to shoot his movie, rather than the five weeks he thought he had originally.

And it shows: the film has a desperate, rushed look about it. There’s little to suggest an experienced director is at the helm: scenes are shot in a static and perfunctory way, and are blocked and lit with apparent indifference. The results aren’t quite as bad as what you’d expect from a novice director, but they aren’t what you’d expect from an old pro with over 400 films to his credit either.

Maybe this is why the film languished on the shelf for two years before being picked up by Columbia, which distributed a lot of independently-produced dreck in those days.

But let’s not be too hard on Dwan. The movie is about average for a second-feature, the sort of thing you’d expect to find on the bottom of a double bill at a drive-in ca. 1960.

For most of its running time, Most Dangerous Man Alive comes across like an undistinguished crime thriller. Eddie is betrayed by the mobsters he associates with; they think they’ve killed him but he escapes; he swears revenge on his former associates; his heart-of-gold love interest begs him to get to safety rather than throw his life away; the cops corner him just as he exacts his revenge; he winds up dead.The gimmick here is that Eddie wanders into an atomic bomb testing site and get irradiated with some novel form of radiation. Like a character in a comic book, he gains superpowers as a result: he can absorb steel into his body and he becomes impervious to bullets. As a side effect, he no longer has any interest in the smokin’ hot Debra Padget. I’m not sure if the trade-off is worth it.

The movie plays a bit like the Boris Karloff vehicle The Walking Dead: Eddie comes back for revenge, and nothing on Earth can save the mobsters from his wrath.

Australian Ron Randell is pretty good as Eddie, or at least as good as the script allows. He was a busy actor who played no-nonsense types but was perhaps too colorless to win many leading roles. Anthony Caruso was perhaps more recognizable, a character actor who specialized in playing mobsters. That got him a lot of work in the 1950s and 60s, particularly on television, where he seemingly did guest shots on every scripted series of the era.

Debra Padget is fondly remembered today as an actress who came to prominence as a teenager in the 1940s. She starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in Broken Arrow and had a memorable turn in The Indian Tomb. 
Part of a show-biz family, she worked steadily until marrying a wealthy man and retiring in the mid-1960s.

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