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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Crime Doctor series (1943-49)

My notes on the Crime Doctor series mysteries.  NB: some spoilers!

Crime Doctor (1943)

Though based on a radio series (created by Max Marcin), this self-contained drama is more concerned with its hero’s unique position than the sidelines which sustained him on the wireless.  The show had two formats, one with the hero as head of a parole board assessing cases of the week, one with him as a psychiatrist-detective solving more familiar mysteries.  This gives him an origin story for both strands of his practice.

It opens in 1930 with an amnesiac (Warner Baxter) taking the name Robert Ordway and being mentored by Dr Carey (Ray Collins, who played the lead on radio).  He gets through depression and a spell as a hedonist (the decidedly mature Baxter is supposed to be a wildly handsome guy, as per the dialogue) so he can train as a shrink and become the respectable head of the parole board, leading to a sub-plot about an army officer (Leon Ames) with a manslaughter conviction who tries to break out to re-enlist in the time of war but turns himself around as a drill instructor for the other cons.  However, various crooked types – Emilio Caspari (John Litel), Nick Ferris (Don Costello), Joe Dylan (Harold Huber) – recognise Ordway as their old associate Phil Morgan, who ran out on them after a heist and stashed the loot.

Though it’s mostly the story of how the hero gets his memory back, there’s never a threat that the old evil Phil personality will reassert itself and the robbery plot is resolved offscreen without much suspense.  Baxter has nice repartee with his chic girlfriend Grace Fielding (Margaret Lindsay), who sadly didn’t stick around.  Director Michael Gordon (Pillow Talk) was later a blacklist victim.  A few elements in the script (by Graham Baker, Louis Lantz and Jerome Odlum) could be seen as progressive as Ordway takes a liberal, sympathetic approach to criminal reform.  That doesn’t carry over to the conventional gangland story, in which criminals are lowlife creeps who deserve little understanding.  Notably, the hero reforms thanks to amnesia rather a sincere desire to go straight.  With Betty Blythe (the silent She – now an uncredited bit player), Adele Mara, Harry Strang, Ray Teal, Anthony Warde, Dorothy Tree (one of Dracula’s wives in 1931) and other familiar players.

The Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943)

In his second big-screen outing, Warner Baxter’s Dr Ordway has quit working with the parole board but is still concerned with ex-cons or people who’ve been in trouble with the law.  Here, his help is sought by Jimmy Trotter (Lloyd Bridges), who’s been controversially acquitted after the poisoning of his wealthy employer.  Given another job by bedridden big shot Walter Burns (George Lynn), he is perfectly placed to be a patsy when his boss drinks poisoned coffee.  Ordway investigates and discovers everyone in the household has reason to kill Burns, including a trophy wife (Rose Hobart), a nasty brother (Sam Flint), a cook who is in disguise (Gloria Dickson), a songwriter who keeps starting fires by mistake (Jeroma Cowan), a weaselly hanger on (Reginald Denny) and a housekeeper (Virginia Brissac) who used to be the star attraction in a dancehall Burns owned thirty years earlier.

Writer Eric Taylor (Black Friday, Ghost of Frankenstein) muddies the waters acceptably, even making the heroine (Lynn Merrick) a suspiciously clumsy sort who drops and smashes a fingerprint-bearing clue with nary an apology.  The solution involves the murderer being killed by someone else who then tries blackmail, a skeleton found in the disused dancehall and 1909 flashbacks; in fact, it’s so complicated the hurried explanation at the end doesn’t fully tie up all the minor strands of mystery.  Baxter, who was in poor health, isn’t quite up to suave fast-talk and his detective comes across as a busybody rather than an intrepid seeker of justice.  With Barton MacLane as yet another bad-tempered cop humiliated by a presumptuous amateur sleuth, Creighton Hale (star of the silent Cat and the Canary – now an unbilled doctor) and Thomas E  Jackson.  Directed by series mystery specialist Eugene J Forde (Charlie Chan in London, Michael Shayne: Private Detective, Inspector Hornleigh).

Shadows in the Night (1944)

‘Perhaps I’m not so indifferent to death as you. I didn’t commit fifteen murders.’

Like The Falcon and the Co-Eds, Shadows in the Night shows how influential Val Lewton was on low-budget Hollywood in the early 1940s.  The likes of Charlie Chan and Perry Mason had tackled old dark house mysteries since the beginning of the whodunit craze, which really took off when the talkies allowed detectives to explain mysteries out loud, almost always with Cat and Canary-style humour between spooky moments.  The plot here is just as absurd, but doom-haunted and shrouded with melancholy after the fashion of The Seventh Victim (an influence on the Falcon film too).  The heroine is haunted by dreams and calls in the psychiatrist sleuth Dr Ordway (Baxter again) to investigate the possibility that there are real bodies lying about her old dark clifftop mansion.

Ordway has dropped the parole board/social conscience angle , and comes across as a more ethical version of Tom Conway’s Dr Judd in Cat People and The Seventh Victim (down to the thin moustache).  Lois Garland (Nina Foch – then Columbia’s go-to haunted woman from Cry of the Werewolf and Return of the Vampire) is the client, whose nightmares turn out to be caused by ‘hypnotic gas’ that makes the victim sleepwalk (naturally, near a cliff).  As often, George Zucco is a pop-eyed red herring – a scientist trying to live down the deaths of fifteen people who took his inadequately-tested pills.  There are enough other suspects and incidental deaths to keep the plot boiling.  With Charles Halton as the dimwit doctor who doesn’t believe in sleepwalking gas but gets dosed with it.  Writer Eric Taylor and director Eugene Forde are held over from The Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case, a title that probably shouldn’t have been squandered on a regular whodunit plot – Shadows in the Night is considerably stranger, and the next movie would be stranger still.

The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945)

‘Impersonating a vampire should be some sort of crime but I don’t know what it is.’

Perhaps the least-known vampire-themed film from Hollywood’s golden age, though – of course – there turns out to be a rational explanation.

Dr Ordway (Warner Baxter), sunning himself poolside in Los Angeles, is approached by elegant Kathleen Carson (Hillary Brooke).  She’s just become the third wife of wealthy Gordon Carson (Stephen Crane), whose first two wives died mysteriously days into their honeymoons.  At a dinner party, Carson is annoyed that a waiter (Dennis Moore) turns out to be the brother of his first wife, and is angrily stalking him and accusing him of murder.  When Carson is shot in a locked room, it would be ruled as suicide by the dim cops, repped by Captain Birch (Emory Parnell), only Ordway is on hand to diagnose murder.  Among the suspects are Spanish dancers Miguel (Anthony Caruso) and Dolores Bragga (Lupita Tovar, of the Spanish-language Dracula).  Their act involves Dolores seemingly becoming invisible in mid-air, they’re never seen in the daytime, Miguel paraphrases Dracula dialogue to explain why they live in a ruined gothic castle, a seventeenth-century portrait of them hangs in their front room, they claim to have been doing their dance for three hundred years, are found asleep in padded coffins in the cellar and don’t drink wine (mostly because this particular goblet has knock-out drops in it).  In the end, with a slight echo of Mark of the Vampire, this turns out to be a publicity stratagem dreamed up by comedy sidekick Jeff Jerome (Jerome Cowan), exploited by the actual murderer.  Part of the plan is to convince the heroine that the Braggas are real vampires, though admittedly this gets a tad confused.  The usual book of mystic plot explanation and bagful of wooden stakes, as seen in every Hollywood vampire movie, are trotted out.

Scripted again by Eric Taylor, it’s full of decent, weird red herrings and oddball characters like Lloyd Corrigan as the heroine’s harness-manufacturing pedant father (who pompously explains gun-barrel grooves to the detectives).  Director George Sherman (London Blackout Murders) piles on the mysterioso for the vampire red herrings, but gets away from the Lewton manner of Shadows in the Night to go for a more traditional, wisecrack-and-raised-eyebrow style of ghost-busting.

The Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945)

A lot goes on in Eric Taylor’s script for this series entry, though it’s one of the least tied-together-properly whodunits ever put on film.  The identity of the culprit is blatantly obvious on the usual grounds that the most helpful, polite, uninvolved middle-aged character actor in any B mystery is liable to be the killer, but his motivations are so complicated and convoluted that it’s almost impossible to sort them out.  On a scene by scene basis, it’s an entertaining watch – but no one troubled to make sense of it in production, so why should you hurt your head seventy-five years later trying to put the pieces together?

Dr Ordway (Warner Baxter) is called in by Inspector Dawes (John Litel) to consult on a murder case which has a psychological aspect – the killing of a new-in-town artists’ model – and also takes a private patient, neurotic artist Clive Lake (Coulter Irwin), who’s having mental blackouts that conveniently coincide with crimes being committed in his arty circles.  A second model, Connie (Dusty Anderson), is killed, and a lot of suspects are paraded … a male model (Eduardo Ciannelli, unbilled but grabbing a lot of attention) rants about his great career being sidelined now artists just want to paint girlie pictures, a couple of suspect struggling genius artists (John Abbott, Franco Corsaro), and Clive’s smothering wheelchairbound wealthy mother (Alma Kruger) … while we also meet two elaborately innocent art dealers, which would perhaps blur the certainty of who the killer is if one (J.M. Kerrigan) weren’t an unbilled Scots comedy stereotype (he admits he’d ‘swim to Glasgow for a shilling’) while the other is reliably culpable Miles Mander.

We get scenes of shadow-faced figures creeping in the dark while Clive is having one of his blackouts, a fetishised clue about a safety deposit box key that goes nowhere, a bizarre mcguffin in a missing painting of the two dead models plus another missing girl, a few sops towards an artistic milieu (it’s obligatory for Clive to throw a party when he sells a painting), and a finale in which dealer Malone turns out to have a wax figure of the missing dead girl – a model of a model – in a bier in his backroom (rather like the one seen in the Karloff vehicle The Climax).  William Castle didn’t put as much into his Crime Doctors as some of his other second feature assignments, but this does look forward to the likes of Homicidal and The Night Walker in its macabre/psycho aspects.  The nasty, manipulative, wheelchairbound mother – flanked by lawyers and tame doctors set to send her innocent son off to an asylum for life, and responsible for his cracked brain the first place since his blackouts started when she locked him in a cupboard as a punishment and forgot about him – is a sketch of a character type which would show up in many 1960s psycho movies.

 

The Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946)

‘Say, Manning, this has been a strange case … Armstrong with fugue and the Carter girl with a split personality.’

I always wonder how these B mysteries came up with their titles – things like Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police or The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance could be applied to almost every entry in their respective series with equal irrelevance.  Here, the Crime Doctor isn’t even looking for a man: it’s known almost from the outset that the culprit is a woman, though there’s a (transparent-ish) twist at the end that makes this a precedent for Psycho, Fight Club and many other two-characters-are-really-one mysteries.

Shellshocked veteran Armstrong (Myron Healey) is weirdly drawn back to a carnival where he once had a very ominous fortune told.  He’s Ordway’s initial patient, but gets shot in the head with an air gun and dumped by a couple of lowlife creeps working for shoulderpads-sporting, blonde-wigged, dark-glasses-wearng Natalie Cotter (Ellen Drew), who seems to be the disowned elder daughter of Gerald Cotter (Francis Pierlot) … but Natalie is dead, and Ordway whips off the killer’s wig to reveal that she’s Armstrong’s apparently normal fiancee Irene (Natalie’s sister)!  Ordway explains that she projected herself into the other personality when her real domineering sister left.  The motive for the killings is that she doesn’t want her neurosis to come out.

There are eccentric red herrings – Olin Howland as a tousle-haired phrenologist, Ivan Triesault as the crooked fortune teller, Leonardo Scavino as an excitable Cuban who threatens to sue everyone and Minerva Urecal as a landlady.  With William Frawley as the plodding cop who becomes Ordway’s sidekick.  Regular Eric Taylor provided the story, but the script was by an overqualified Leigh Brackett.  Another of William Castle’s early B directorial credits, it intriguingly prefigures Homicidal, which was often tagged as a Psycho imitation.  There’s mysterioso stuff in an abandoned house and the carny, and though the imposture is obvious Drew is fun to watch as the contrasted sisters, one cheery but meek, the other hard but devious.

 

Just Before Dawn (1946)

Presumably, the series was running down.  It’s seldom a sign of confidence in your detective hero when his byline is dropped and he gets stuck with bland, meaningless titles like this.  I suppose some crucial event must happen just before dawn, but the Eric Taylor script doesn’t make a thing of it.

It’s a backwards-constructed whodunit, with Dr Ordway (still Warner Baxter) called across the street by neighbours when a guest (George Meeker) falls ill.  The patient is a diabetic and someone switches his insulin bottle for poison, making Ordway himself the instrument of murder and annoyed enough to get on the case.  The cops even know his pride is hurt and willingly let the amateur conduct the investigation.  All the folks at the party are suspect, of course, and it seems that the victim’s sister, heiress Claire Foster (Adele Roberts), is being schemed against.  The apparent heroine is abducted by goon Casper (Marvin Miller) and crooked undertaker Ganss (Martin Kosleck) and murdered offscreen barely a reel into the movie … a shocking pre-Hitchcock development which is thrown away because it doesn’t seem to upset anyone, including her gym-owning fiance (Craig Reynolds).

The real culprit is a plastic surgeon who specialises in giving crooks new faces and is built up as a masked bogeyman (an actual criminal doctor pitted against the crime doctor!) – but the insulin trick is ludicrously elaborate.  The villain has a couple of perfectly capable abducting-and-murdering goons on his payroll who could much more quietly snatch and disappear the blackmailing victim without exciting any suspicion (they favour the old trick of shoving the extra corpse in a coffin).

Towards the end, Ordway goes undercover as a crook who needs a new face (Thomas E. Jackson takes over the role rather than Baxter donning disguise) then pretends to be blind after another weird murder attempt goes awry.  Here, Casper brings a neurotic (the inimitable Skelton Knaggs) into Ordway’s office and goads the patient into attempting to kill the shrink by saying he’s sure Ordway will have him committed – tidying up by tossing the little creep out of a high window when he bungles the shooting.  Again, a direct method would have been more effective.  With Byron Foulger as a make-up man, Charles Lane as a jolly doctor, Egon Brecher as another medical man and Mona Barrie as a chic suspect.  Directed again by William Castle.

The Millerson Case (1947)

‘Inspector Manning is counting on you to give an insanity test to that young matricide.’

Unlike Charlie Chan or the Falcon, the Crime Doctor tended to stick to his big city milieu throughout his series – so this backwoods vacation makes a refreshing change, with a complicated mystery – though a sub-plot about who took a shot at ‘the clinic doctor’ is weirdly never resolved, despite a Robin Hood-style flush-out-the-culprit sharpshooting contest).  There’s also a rare attempt at depicting poor rural folks as slightly more than Li’l Abner caricatures – though there are a lot of characters with names like Jud Rookstol, Ezra Minnich, Link Hazen and Zeke Zilch.

Dr Ordway (Warner Baxter, as usual) leaves New York for a fishing vacation and lodges with Doc Millerson (Griff Barnett), who is intolerant of new-fangled medicines and jealous of his position as dispenser of herbal curatives.  He pooh-poohs an outbreak of ‘seasonal complaint’, which turns out to be a typhus epidemic.  Deadly rivals from the modern clinic move into town to vaccinate, with a checkers-playing ring of geriatric local know-it-alls pitted against younger, slicker, blander modern types.  The philandering local barber (Trevor Bardette) dies, but it turns out he was poisoned and everyone in town has a handy motive for murdering him.  Later, Millerson – the prime suspect – is shot dead too, and Ordway flushes out the killer, then has to pull a trick with a burning newspaper to establish that he’s faking insanity and will face trial.

A lot of character actors with whiskers and dungarees do aw-shucks dialogue and seethe with proto-Deliverance resentment at the townies – while fiddle-playing and other country pursuits to add colour.  With Paul Guilfoyle, Nancy Sauncers. James Bell, Addison Richards and Russell Simpson.  Scripted by Raymond L.  Schrock (The Secret of the Whistler), from a story by Gordon Rigby and Carlton Sand; directed by George Archaibaud (a Hopalong Cassidy regular).

 

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947)

The second to last of the ‘Crime Doctor’ features (and the third entry directed by William Castle).  Everyone seems all to well aware that the end of a line is close.  Warner Baxter looks tired and jaded as Dr Ordway and finally starts on one of those Charlie Chan-like world tours.  He jokes early on about taking a holiday from murder, but naturally takes over an official investigation when a nasty old rich guy is found killed on the ship.

The dead man’s grudge-holding, to-be-disinherited artist son (Roger Dann) is such an obvious suspect that no one believes him guilty (when it’s established he had a mental breakdown in a German concentration camp, he is elevated from innocence to practical sainthood).  Equally, the friendly, helpful, jolly family lawyer (Steven Geray) so completely fits the profile of mystery villain it’s a wonder it takes Ordway such a long 66 minutes to peg the obvious rotter.  Also in the mix are the innocent man’s long-suffering wife (Micheline Cheirel), her angry knife-throwing papa (Eduardo Ciannelli), and an artist (Maurice Marsac) whose copies of old masters could easily pass for forgeries.

The original gimmick of a detective shrink has long since been forgotten, and the few examples of psychobabble are just for show (plainly written and delivered by folks who have no idea what they’re talking about).  Ordway falls back on tried-and-tested detective methods like tricking all the the suspects with surprise revelations to see who squirms the most and tussling in the dark with a mystery man.  Castle had already directed a breakthrough B picture (When Strangers Marry) and a couple of well-regarded Whistler entries, but his work here would be makeshift and unimaginative even at PRC or Monogram, let alone Columbia – characters stand around muffing their lines, eyeing the camera and going dead when others are speaking, while all the staging is rudimentary, awkward and clumsy.  An Apache dance goes on forever (twice), the knife-throwing act is the least thrilling on film, the fight scenes wouldn’t have passed muster in 1912, and none of the supporting cast (which includes an unusual number of French exiles) show much personality.

 

The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949)

‘If I heard in advance that a seven foot giant named Jones was going to kill a man with an axe would I look for a three foot midget named Brown carrying a bow and arrow?’

An early screenplay credit for Edward Anhalt (The Boston Strangler, The Sniper, Jeremiah Johnson), the final entry in the Crime Doctor series goes back to the original premise of the radio series and has Ordway (Warner Baxter) associated with the parole board.  His advice gets convicted arsonist Steve Carter (Stephen Dunne) let out of jail early, though Carter still insists he’s innocent (a no-no for securing early release in the real world) and simmers angrily about whoever put him away.  The milieu is odd – a rivalry between a hood (Robert Armstrong) who runs a jukebox business and a music-by-wire service which sends requested tunes to bars over telephone lines.  When Anson (George Meeker) – the victim also in Just Before Dawn – is shot dead, Steve goes on the run and does everything to make himself seem guilty.

Anhalt does take a fairly unusual whodunit tack.  The innocent man is torn between devoted gal Friday type Jane (a young Lois Maxwell) and gold-digging moll Inez (Adele Jergens), but it turns out that the nice girl is obsessively jealous and responsible for the arson and murder, giving Maxwell a chance to do some quality mad acting.  A stranger presence is young Whit Bissell as a ‘subnormal psychotic’ handyman who fancies himself as a singer-songwriter always plugging his terrible number ‘Toot Toot Toot’.  Besides the music business insider stuff, there’s a bit explaining pickpocket slang.  Directed by Seymour Friedman (The Son of Dr Jekyll).

 

 

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Film review – The Crime Doctor series (1943-49)

  1. I am definitely going to have to find these! I love movies from the 30’s and 40’s. Great post!

    Posted by Angela | June 17, 2020, 1:20 pm
  2. Your my favorite author .,Anno Dracula is my all time fav novel with Dracula Cha Cha Cha my second fav.

    Posted by Thomas Christian Hirko | July 26, 2020, 11:51 pm

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