Wednesday, November 3, 2021

DOCTOR X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)


The Full Moon Killer strikes again, his diabolical lunacy and cannibalistic urges unleashed upon a frightened and desperate city. Police narrow their search to the local Medical College: headmaster Doctor Xavier utilizes his latest invention, a rather nightmarish Art Deco “Lie Detector” machine with giant glass tubes and transformers haloed by arcs of electricity. Dr. X is given 48 hours to unmask the killer out of the five suspects (inclusive), each of whom are conducting research into strange tangents of science. And each suspect is obviously foreign and non-conformist to good old-fashioned ideals especially when compared to the hard working and All-American ace reporter who is hot on their trail. 

Michael Curtiz and his DP Ray Rennahan tell this pulp parable with lurid use of two-strip Technicolor which imbues the film with a dream-like reality; low-key lighting, skewed and looming monolithic close-ups and taught editing add to the fiendish enjoyment! Curtiz doesn’t cut-away (so to speak) from the final revelation and the gooey lunatic and his synthetic apparel is truly horrifying and must have given quite a shock to contemporary audiences like Karloff’s reveal in Whale’s legendary film! Lionel Atwill is excellent as the titular character and though his daughter Joanne is merely window-dressing and doesn’t contribute much to the plot, Fay Wray is beautiful in her Technicolor close-ups with full red lips and bright blue eyes. We do however get a trifecta of shrieks from the future scream queen! The quick talking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracey) develops his own physical obsession with Joanne and offers comic relief for balance: he actually gets locked-up in a closet full of skeletons. 

The final test includes all of the suspects attached to the strange machine as Doctor X (whom we expect to be the murderer since the film is titled after him) manipulates the controls like a demented concert pianist. He creates a reenactment of the most recent murder to stimulate their emotional responses. When one Doctor is strangled during a power-outage another test is completed with the titular doctor and the remaining suspects handcuffed to their chairs. The denouement reveals that the one-handed amputee Dr. Wells is indeed the killer even though the murders were done by manual strangulation which, of course, requires two hands! But his secret experiments with synthetic flesh have given him the power to grow a second hand in order to further his nefarious hypothesis. 

A few questions: how does this synthetic flesh grow bone and nerve endings? He slathers this gooey substance on his head and face to hide his identity (I guess) yet doesn’t change his clothes. Why reveal himself now? Maybe his crazed obsession has taken control of his reason and senses. This story takes place over approximately three days which is the time that the moon seems full to the naked human eye. A full moon is technically instantaneous as it reaches apogee for that specific moment. But why ask questions? Let us just enjoy this horrific Pre-Code tale that happily ends with Lee and Joanne tying their own knot in holy matrimony. 

Final Grade: (B+)