Friday, April 9, 2010

Doctor “X” (Warners as “First National,” 1932

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Doctor X — a 1932 science-fiction horror job with a good cast (Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy and Preston Foster), taut direction by Michael Curtiz and subtle, effective use of the two-strip Technicolor process (by Ray Rennahan) — holds up quite well, though Charles pointed out that there was a gaping hole in the plot line: they never explained why the murderer (Preston Foster as a one-armed scientist who had perfected a form of “synthetic flesh” to replace his missing arm, but needed a monthly infusion of living flesh into his formula to keep it effective) had to work by the light of a full moon. [At that, Charles pointed out that more recent movies, like the 1987 Black Widow, had had much more outlandish plot holes — and I pointed out, in what isn’t an original line with me but whose source — from another context — I can’t remember, that the 1987 Black Widow was the sort of movie that didn’t end, it just stopped.]

Aside from one scene in which Lee Tracy and Fay Wray go to the beach in broad daylight — and there’s a great closeup of Wray silhouetted against an off-white sky — the screenwriters of Doctor X managed to overcome the limits of two-strip Technicolor (mainly its inability to depict blue) by staging most of it at night and avoiding the depiction of any object one would expect to be blue. The process was biased towards browns and greens (it also could show red effectively, but Curtiz and Rennahan mostly avoided red in this film), and the result in this movie was a beautiful, subtly sinister atmosphere (I’ve heard two-strip Technicolor described as “dreamlike,” by a critic reviewing the recently restored 1931 musical Follow Thru, and it takes on a dreamlike — or nightmarish — quality in Doctor X as well) that set off the rather wild plot line and the interesting performances (especially Atwill’s, a subtly nuanced piece of work that made him seem like the most sane, sensible member of the “Academy of Surgical Research,” around which the plot revolved — Charles referred to it appropriately as a “mad scientists’ think tank”). … — 10/19/95


One was Doctor “X,” a quite remarkable 1932 horror film from Warners in “First National” drag that benefits from the sinister atmosphere of two-strip Technicolor. It begins on the New York waterfront, where the police come upon the body of a scrubwoman who’s just become the sixth consecutive victim of the “Moon Killer,” a serial murderer who strikes only during a full moon. The killer strangles his victims to death and removes the deltoid muscle of each victim after death with a surgical scalpel (pronounced “scal-PEL,” with the accent on the second syllable). The police call in Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), head of a research institute that comes off as Mad Scientist Central — its other inmates, I mean doctors, are Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), a student of cannibalism; Dr. Haines (John Wray, who played Lon Chaney, Sr.’s original role in the 1932 remake of The Miracle Man), who may have engaged in cannibalism to survive while stranded on a South Pacific island (three people went out on their team and only two returned); Dr. Rowitz (played by Arthur Edmund Carewe, who also had a Lon Chaney, Sr. connection — he was the police detective in The Phantom of the Opera), who was the fellow survivor of Dr. Haines’ expedition; and Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), Rowitz’s assistant and a student of the effect of the moon on human behavior.

Also living at the institute is Joan Xavier (Fay Wray in her first of many horror roles, including two others with Atwill, Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat), Xavier’s daughter, who after one of those hate-at-first-sight meetings beloved of screenwriters in the 1930’s (this was written by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin based on a play called The Terror by Howard D. Comstock and Alton C. Miller) she falls in love with a singularly obnoxious reporter character, Lee Taylor (played by his near-namesake, Lee Tracy), who’s neither believable as a serious journalist or as comic relief. There’s a quite lovely scene on a beach with the two of them (the American Film Institute Catalog said it was shot at Laguna but it looked like Malibu to me) in which the limits of two-strip mean that the sky registers as beige and the sea as a kind of off-grey-green (Charles thought the sequence looked like it was shot on black-and-white and the human figures were tinted), but for the most part Tasker and Baldwin confine their script to nighttime settings to obviate the need of showing sky or anything else one would expect to be blue, the one color two-strip could not photograph.

The gimmick is that the scalpel used in the murders is of a unique, imported kind and the only people in the U.S. who use it are the members of Atwill’s institute — so one of them must be the killer — and when the police threaten to arrest all of them Atwill asks for 48 hours during which he can investigate his crew and find out which of them is the killer. To do this he stages a re-creation of the last murder, with his maid (Leila Bennett) as the victim, and hooks all his staff except Dr. Wells — who he reasons can’t be the killer because he’s missing his left arm and the victims were strangled with such force that the killer must have two fully working arms — to an elaborate machine that’s supposed to be a sort of high-tech lie detector but also is similar to the equipment that created the Frankenstein monster over at Universal. Atwill tries this twice — the second time it’s his daughter (at her suggestion) that plays the patsy — and in the end it turns out that Dr. Wells is in fact the murderer: he’s invented a form of synthetic flesh (drawing it from the remains of cannibalism victims) and plugs it into his left arm, and he also slathers himself with makeup to turn him into a super-powerful monster. (Max Factor got credit for the makeup — a far cry from the sort of glamour treatment of women Factor was known for.)

The climax is one of the most powerful scenes of its type ever put on film, mainly because everyone in the scene except Dr. Wells and Joan is handcuffed to their chairs, and as they realize who the killer actually is their panicked reactions as they try to work free of their bonds to save Joan from the madman who’s about to kill her up the suspense and terror of the sequence. Doctor “X” is burdened by the silly reporter character — it cries out for James Cagney, who could have made him obnoxious and sympathetic instead of just obnoxious — but otherwise it’s a quite good horror effort and indicative of the way that in the early days of color green was considered “The Color of Fear” (even Frankenstein, though shot in black-and-white, was released early on in a few green-tinted prints), only when color production became standard for all movies in the 1960’s red, the color of blood and gore, replaced green, the color of fear, as the basic hue for horror. The director of Doctor “X” is Michael Curtiz (who also did the followup the next year, Mystery of the Wax Museum, also starring Atwill — as the villain this time — and Wray), and like Mystery it’s a superbly directed film that expertly uses the strengths and limitations of two-strip Technicolor to good effect. — 4/9/10