Calling Dr. Death

09/18/2023 09:57

Film: Calling Dr. Death

Year: 1943

Director: Reginald Le Borg

Writer: Edward Dein

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish



This was a movie that I discovered when searching for horror films from 1943. I found this streaming on Vimeo. What I learned before watching was that this was part of a series called Inner Sanctum Mystery. These started as novels that were adapted to radio plays and then came to the screen after Universal obtained the rights. This was the first of series from what I found.

Synopsis: a doctor is not sure if he murdered his beautiful, but wicked wife, and has his attractive nurse try to find the truth by hypnotizing him.

This starts with a talking head in a crystal ball giving us a warning. I believe this one was involving murder and everyone is capable of it. It is from there that we follow our lead, Dr. Mark Steele (Lon Chaney Jr.). He is a neurologist who uses hypnosis. We see him help a patient who was in an accident and hasn't spoken since. He can get her to talk, while under hypnosis, and then gives her parents the hard truth of how to help her.

That was a good introduction to show how good he is at what he does. His life isn't perfect though. Mark is in love with his nurse, Stella Madden (Patricia Morison). They can’t be together though as he is married to Maria (Ramsay Ames). She doesn't want to give up her lifestyle or the money, even though there is no love between them. She is also dating Robert Duval (David Bruce).

Things take a turn when Mark discovers through his butler, Bryant (Holmes Herbert), that Maria went away for the weekend. He then blacks out and comes out of it in his office. Stella is concerned. She wants him to go home to get rest. He is unable though when Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) shows up. Mark must be careful. He is the prime suspect as his wife was found murdered. He is ready to turn himself in, but Stella doesn't believe he did it. Mark not remembering where he was and not having an alibi doesn't help his case. There is more to this story though that must be uncovered before it is too late.

That is where I'll leave my recap and introduction to the characters. I went short here since this runs 63 minutes. My goal was to give the gist of what the story is without going into spoilers. Where I'll then start for my breakdown is with our lead, Dr. Mark Steele. Chaney does an excellent job in this role. What I read was that he was hoping to break his typecast of being different monsters. He wanted to showcase his talents. I do think we get that here. His guilt for what happened to his wife makes him question if he did it. That and he blacked out. I didn’t think he was the killer and at the reveal of who it is makes sense. Having watched more of these since starting the podcast, it felt too obvious.

Let me then delve into this part of the story. We have the classic set up. A wife is murdered and the husband is the prime suspect. She was seeing another man so there is a motive. We also have our secondary suspect since she has a lover who wants her to leave her husband, but she won't. Both have easy, built-in motives. Jealousy and money is a big one. There is also the hardened inspector who is pushing against our lead to confess. What is interesting is that these cases are solved by whoever killed the person not being able to keep it quiet and telling the wrong person. The other is that the detectives push until the point where they get a confession. This last bit bothers me to be honest, as there are false confessions made this way as well. Another thing though, this does hurt this movie as all this we've seen before.

There is a different twist though with Mark being a neurologist and being able to hypnotize people. He is well educated. He is smart enough to commit a crime like this and get away with it. This could also make him too smart for his own good. Being able to use hypnosis adds a dimension as well. This doesn't make it the up and front focal, but it does play in with the reveal and outcome. I do like that it is set up that it isn't admissible in a court of law.

That should be enough for the story so over to the acting. I've already said that Chaney is great. Morison is also good as his counterpart. She tries to protect him and we see that she is stronger than we originally thought as this goes on. I thought she had solid performance and wasn't outshined. Naish is good as well as this shrewd inspector who is out to find the truth. Bruce has a solid secondary role that helps build tension. I'd say that Ames, Fay Helm, Herbert, Alec Craig and the rest of the cast also rounded this out for what was needed.

All that is left this is filmmaking. The pacing here was good. They told a complete story in my opinion with the short runtime which is impressive. The cinematography is also good without necessarily standing out. That isn't meant as a slight. This doesn't need the use of effects and we don't get anything that in that department. What was good was the editing, especially during the hypnosis sequences. That was well-done. Other than that, the soundtrack fit for what was needed without necessarily standing out.

In conclusion, this is a solid little murder mystery. I wouldn't necessarily put it into the horror genre, but with the era that it came out, I understand why it is. We got a good performance from Chaney and Morison. Naish is solid as the inspector pushing for the truth. Other than that, this was well-made. They tell a complete story in its short run time, so credit to that. This to me is worth a watch if you like films from the era and what I'm saying is interesting. I'd call this a hidden gem for sure.


My Rating: 7 out of 10