Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Mysterious Doctor (Warners, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the next film on the tape, The Mysterious Doctor, though far more sensibly plotted, was pretty much a mediocre wash — one of those films that just drains an hour out of your life without either being good enough to be memorable entertainment or bad enough to be actively displeasing. It’s a Warners “B” (just 56 minutes, though so sluggishly paced it seems 12 minutes longer than The Mask of Fu Manchu when in fact it’s 12 minutes shorter!), directed by Ben Stoloff in 1943 from a script by Richard Weil, set in the Welsh mining country in contemporary times, and within five minutes Weil has dropped us enough hints that we can tell the so-called “headless ghost” that’s terrorizing the village in which the thing takes place is going to turn out to be an all-too-natural human being and the plot will have something to do with the war.

The title character, played by Forrester Harvey (the father of the young girl the monster drowns in the original Frankenstein) [actually, he wasn’t, though Forrester Harvey IS in the movie — M.G.C., 10/23/08], is an agent of the British government sent to the Welsh town to reopen a tin mine whose products are needed for the war effort, only to find that a centuries-old superstition has made the local villagers determined never to work in the mine or allow it to produce again.

The star is John Loder, playing a (seemingly) beneficent aristocrat who turns out to be a German “sleeper” whose family settled in Wales in the time of King George I and opened the mine in the first place; according to the last-minute explanation he was called back to Germany by Hitler and ordered to make sure the mine never reopened. Eleanor Parker, playing the only significant female role (the girlfriend of a British army officer who’s determined to get the mine reopened), plays with the kind of authority that made it clear she deserved (and eventually got) better assignments than this, and Matt Willis (who played Bela Lugosi’s werewolf assistant in the Stoloff-produced, Lew Landers-directed Return of the Vampire at Columbia the following year) is genuinely moving as the local retarded man who helps Ms. Parker unravel the plot. Warners filmed it in all-out imitation of the Universal style — lots of on-set fog and gnarled tree trunks, shadowy lighting and characters wandering around either expressing or forestalling sinister motives — but at least at Universal the film would have had a stronger, more ambiguous plot! — 10/25/03


The movie was The Mysterious Doctor, the companion piece to The Return of Doctor “X” on the DVD I’d just recorded from TCM, and it was a pretty good piece even though it got boring after a while. It was a 57-minute Warners “B” set in Cornwall (which one commentator made the mistake of putting in England instead of Wales), in which a mysterious man named Dr. Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews) shows up at the town of Morgan’s Head while doing a “walking tour” of Cornwall — in 1943 (when this film was made), in the middle of World War II! Morgan’s Head gets its name from a legend that two families were squabbling over control of the local mine (the synopsis identifies it as a tin mine but I don’t recall anything in Richard Weil’s “original” screenplay that stated exactly what mineral they had been mining there), the Morgans and the Lelands, and Leland killed and decapitated Morgan, but Morgan survived as a ghost and walked around in search of his missing head.

Ever since then, the townspeople have assumed the mine was haunted and have refused to work it — with the result that it’s been sitting idle — though it’s not at all clear how the townspeople have been surviving in the meantime except it does seem to involve the largesse of the surviving Leland heir, Sir Henry Leland (John Loder, top-billed). The one inn in Morgan's Head is owned by Simon Tewksbury (Frank Mayo), who dresses in an old-fashioned executioner’s hood — apparently because his own face is badly scarred underneath, though I couldn’t help but think it was because he was a member of a Wars of the Roses re-enactment society. There’s also a mysterious man who parachutes down from the sky near the town and is suspected of being an enemy agent infiltrated by the Germans, but he’s never found and the only purpose of this plot twist is to give the townspeople an excuse to suspect Dr. Holmes of being the enemy paratrooper.

Most of the film consists of a lot of aimless running around on a quite good studio soundstage-“exterior” set by Charles Novi with great, billowing banks of fog that made one wonder how Warners got so much dry ice diverted their way during the middle of the war. Director Ben Stoloff shows much more of a sense of atmosphere than he had in his previous low-level potboilers for RKO, moving his actors (including the young Eleanor Parker as the female lead, town girl Letty Carstairs, who inevitably falls for British lieutenant Christopher “Kit” Hilton, played by a personable fellow named Bruce Lester) efficiently around Novi’s stunning set, but it’s a pretty aimless movie all in all because all that seems to happen is that various people run around the sets, presumably either chasing each other or in search of some valuable secret. The eventual payoff, which was far less surprising than Richard Weil seemed to think it was, was that Sir Henry Leland was really a German agent assigned to keep the tin mine (or whatever it was) from reopening and thereby helping the British war effort, and in order to do so he had donned a costume making himself look like Morgan’s headless ghost — while Dr. Holmes (ya remember the mysterious doctor?) was really an agent of the British government there to get the mine reopened so it could contribute whatever it was to the war effort.

In the end, the real heir to the mine turns out to be the half-witted Bart Redmond (Matt Willis, who a year later would play the werewolf sidekick of Bela Lugosi’s Count Armand Tesla in Columbia’s The Return of the Vampire — and he was actually quite a good horror actor, expert at pathos and essentially channeling Dwight Frye in both those roles), and Letty, seemingly acting as trustee, gets him to reopen the mine and the workers sing a song and sound like they’re about to go all socialist-realist on us as they return to work it and extract … well, whatever. The Mysterious Doctor had the makings of a quite good little atmospheric quasi-horror film (one could imagine what Val Lewton could have done with a concept like this!) but too much of it seemed like aimless running-around and the actors, though personable, were nothing special — though I give John Loder points for being as credible as a villain as he’d been as a hero in Hitchcock’s Sabotage and other films! — 10/23/08