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DOCTOR X (director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriters: Robert Tasker/Earl Baldwin/based on a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller; cinematographers: Ray Rennahan/Richard Tower; editor: George Amy; music: Bernhard Kaun; cast: Lionel Atwill (Dr. Xavier), Lee Tracy (Lee Taylor), Fay Wray (Joan Xavier), Preston Foster (Dr. Wells), John Wray (Dr. Haines), Harry Beresford (Dr. Duke), Arthur Edmond Carewe (Dr. Rowitz), Mae Busch (Madame), Leila Bennett (Mamie), George Rosener (Otto), Robert Warwick (Commissioner Stevens), Willard Robertson (Detective O’Halloran); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hal B. Wallis/Darryl F. Zanuck; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1932)
“Disappoints as it plays like your average Charlie Chan crime thriller with some rather lame comic relief, a hardly puzzling mystery story and mostly stilted acting.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A lively but nonsensical B film whodunit that’s based on the play by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller and filmed in the early “two-strip” Technicolor process (colors are limited to varying shades of green and orange). It’s scripted by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin and directed by Michael Curtiz (“The Sea Hawk”/”Captain Blood”/Mystery of the Wax Museum). The film is good at providing chilling details on some highly suspicious research work in the lab and some stylish sets influenced by German expressionism, otherwise it disappoints as it plays like your average Charlie Chan crime thriller with some rather lame comic relief, a hardly puzzling mystery story and mostly stilted acting.

Lionel Atwill stars as the titular Dr. Xavier; he’s head of a research medical academy, Academy of Surgical Research, located near the waterfront of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The well-dressed Dr. X is secretly escorted into the Mott St. morgue by Detective O’Halloran and Police Commissioner Stevens to do an autopsy on an elderly scrub-woman found strangled and mutilated near his workplace. She’s the sixth victim of a serial killer responsible for what the tabloids call the “moon murders.” They are odd murders involving cannibalism and take place under the full moon, and as Dr. X suggests the murders are the result of a fixation by the neurotic maniac killer. Nervy reporter on the “Daily World” Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) spots them going in and is able to gather that Dr. X will be allowed forty-eight hours by the police to conduct his own investigation to see if one of his esteemed staff members is the killer. Both the police and Dr. X wish to avoid further publicity and Dr. X moves his staff to his cliff-side estate, Cliff Manor at Blackstone Shoals, in Long Island. There, he arranges the second reenactment of a murder to unmask the identity of the killer and has the researchers handcuffed to his innovative long tube gadgetry. But the good doctor’s plan goes awry when the actual killer takes the place of Otto the servant, playing the killer, by strangling him, and threatens to kill the doctor’s daughter, Joan (Fay Wray), who is playing the part of the vic who was strangled in her hospital bed. It’s lucky that the obnoxious snooping reporter stuck around, because he ends up as the only one who can save Joan.

The suspects all seem suspicious, but if you don’t get who it is before the third act you are just not into B film crime thrillers. The killer will reveal himself in the climactic scene by coating his body with “synthetic flesh,” giving the film a horror film flavor and allowing the madman to possess powers he would not have under ordinary circumstances. The oddball faculty of researchers consists of the one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), a researcher of cannibalism; Dr. Haines (John Wray), who is suspected of cannibalism when he was shipwrecked for a long time in the waters off Tahiti; Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmond Carewe), who was shipwrecked with Haines and another who never returned; Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), a wheelchair-bound paraplegic and assistant to Rowitz, and a researcher on the effects of lunar rays.

Fay Wray who would become known later as cinema’s “scream queen” from King Kong (1935), does a fine scream in the opening act. Curtiz’s dramatics are overblown, but could be enjoyed if not taken seriously and if the viewer should be bowled over by all the Dr. Caligari Germanic influences.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”