doctor x | michael curtiz | robert tasker | earl baldwin | lionel atwill | fay wray | lee tracy | comedy | crime | mystery | sci-fi | thriller | based on | play | howard warren comstock | allen c. miller | united states | preston foster | john wray | harry beresford
Film: Doctor X
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy
This would be a movie that I first heard about thanks to the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It went on a list as I wanted to see all the science fiction movies from that song. I haven’t been good at doing so if you were curious. This movie also appeared in the Horror Show Guide encyclopedia that I’m working through. I made this movie a Trek through the Twos pick as I continue to work through the year of 1932. The synopsis for this one is a wisecracking New York reporter intrudes on a research scientist’s quest to unmask The Moon Killer.
For this, we start at the docks. Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is out looking for a story and we see him spooked by the full moon. This is important as there is a serial killer working that strikes when the moon is like this. He has been dubbed as the synopsis told as The Moon Killer. Lee talks with a beat cop, bums a cigar off him and notices that a bunch of police officers going into the morgue. He is denied access.
The detectives in charge of this is O’Halloran (Willard Robertson) and he’s working with the commissioner named Stevens (Robert Warwick). The latest victim was a woman and she was strangled. The killer has strong hands and it is also believed that they are a doctor of sorts. There is meat missing so they’re suspected to be a cannibal. There is a laboratory nearby that is run by Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill). He is consulted as the police want to interview his staff as he believes the killer works there.
Dr. X is reluctant but makes a deal with the police. He will allow them to meet the other doctors that are there. His compromise is that they allow him 48 hours to conduct an experiment that will figure out who the killer is. It is from there that we meet Dr. Wells (Preston Foster). He wrote a book on cannibalism and that makes him suspect. He also has muddy shoes drying on a register in his office. The issue is that he only has one hand which would make strangling the victim difficult. There is Dr. Haines (John Wray) who was shipwrecked and delirious when he was found. Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) was with him. There was a third survivor that they claimed to have thrown overboard when they died. There is also Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford). They’re all suspects, but Dr. X doesn’t think it could be any of them.
The police agree to Dr. X’s terms. They’re not the only ones looking into this though. Lee sneaks into the morgue and overhears things. He also goes to Dr. X’s house where he meets his daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray). She throws him out when she learns that he wrote the article about what he heard the night before. Due to that report, Dr. X is forced to his creepy, country home to conduct his experiment. Lee isn’t far behind.
That should be enough for the recap and introduce us to our characters. The only ones that I left out are the house cleaner, Mamie (Leila Bennett) and Otto (George Rosener) who is the butler. Many of these characters converge on this old house. Once we get there, it feels like a play since we have one location. Dr. X’s laboratory would most likely be the set that we see on stage. It is from there that this becomes a murder mystery and figuring out who the killer is before it is too late.
What is interesting is that this movie came out before the Hayes code was enforced. It has concepts like cannibalism and our killer potentially being a doctor. What I like about this latter concept, Dr. X cannot believe it. He is convinced that all his colleagues are too intelligent to be a killer, despite having two of them shipwrecked for a stretch where there are whispers that they ate the third survivor with them. There is another doctor who went to Africa to study cannibalism. We also get the evidence that a weapon was used to remove flesh and meat, which would take a steady hand as well as medical training. It feels like this movie is borrowing a bit from Jack the Ripper. I also learned later this came out around the time that Albert Fish aka the Moon Maniac, was killing. Once I found that information, it is more likely that is the inspiration.
I want to continue delving into this killer, but the other aspects are a bit tamer. One doctor that is at the house is studying the effects the moon has on people. He brings up the idea that the term lunacy comes from lunar. What he is exploring is that the sun can give people a heat stroke or burns. He wonders if moon beams can have similar ailments to people. I thought this was an interesting idea to study. There is the adage that during full moons, odd things happen. This is more causation than correlation as people notice a busy night and that the moon is full. They aren’t connected though. Before I move away from this, we see that the killer does have two hands. We see they are almost monstrous. I won’t reveal who the killer is, but I like what they do there with the explanation. It makes sense with things that have been brought up.
Next, I want to briefly explore the murder mystery aspect. I’ve already said that Dr. X doesn’t fully believe that one who is fellow scientists could be a killer. This movie is using quite a few red herrings, including the doctor himself. There are different things we see and learn that helps to rule someone out, including some of them being killed. At the reveal, it was someone that I thought it couldn’t be. As I said previously about things getting brought up, I think we have good writing here as I was wrong on who I thought. I give credit for that. Even though this movie is 90+ years old, I’m not going to spoil it.
The last part of the story that I want to go into is social commentary that is still relevant today. Lee breaks into the morgue to learn more about what is happening with this investigation. What he did is illegal. He is right that the people have the right to know. There is also the issue of leaking information through the news that the killer could use it to get away. They have Lee as a bumbling guy too. I didn’t care for that. It feels like it was written that way to find him endearing. He does well in the end, but I don’t necessarily like his methods either. The commentary as well here is that newspaper or the news in general use sensationalism to sell papers. That is seen even more today with news outlets being able to release information that isn’t necessarily factually correct.
Where I want to move next would be to the acting. I thought that Atwill was good as Dr. X. What is funny about him is that he says he will work with the police, but he rushes the detectives through and not letting them do their investigation. I don’t find it believable for them to let him do what he does, but it is the 1930s and movie logic so I can let it slide. Wray was attractive, but to be honest, I don’t think we need her. She is only there to be the love interest for Lee and they can banter back and forth. I thought that was fine, but I didn’t need it. I also didn’t care for Tracy. His portrayal was fine, my issue is more with the writing of the character. Other than that, I thought all the scientists were good. They all have different motives and that helps with them being red herrings. Other than that, the rest of the cast was solid to round this out for what was needed.
The last things then to go into would be the cinematography, effects and the soundtrack. For the effects, we are a bit limited on them. What I will say though is that we get a transformation scene for the killer. I wasn’t expecting that. It worked for the era. I did like the look of the killer as well. What I’ll give more credit to though would be the cinematography. I’m guessing we used time lapsing and overlying images to make it work. The editing there also helps. Aside from that, the cinematography was fine for the era and the soundtrack fit for what was needed without necessarily standing out either.
In conclusion, this movie wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting. We are getting a murder mystery with a tinge of sci-fi mixed in there. Some of the concepts we are exploring were interesting. I thought that Atwill along with the rest of the scientists were solid. Wasn’t the biggest fan of Wray or Tracy, but that is more with the writing. We get an interesting transformation scene. There is cinematography and soundtrack that were fine for the era. I would say that this is an above average movie that is just missing out on being good in my opinion.
My Rating: 7.5 out of 10