Doctor X (1932)

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*. That most famous of all scream queens, Fay Wray, introduces herself with a scream, her first in a horror film (King Kong was a year away). But why does she scream?
*. She immediately tells her father that she came into the library “just to say good night to you.” Then the very next thing she does, just a few seconds later, is to ask him why he’s in the library. Huh? Why would she be frightened by finding him there, even if he was in the semi-dark (obviously it wasn’t fully dark because he was looking for something) when she went there to find him?
*. Strangely enough, this scene is repeated nearer the end when Joanne (Wray’s character) again goes looking for her father, finds him inspecting Rowitz’s body, and . . . screams. Perhaps there’s just something about her father that frightens her.
*. Yes, that’s beautiful two-colour Technicolor washing the screen in a diseased-looking hue dominated by browns and greens. I love it. I love looking at all the early colour films. There’s something both authentic and otherworldly about them, even in films (like this one) where not a lot is made of it.

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*. The story, however, is a spectacular mess, which is a bit surprising given that it’s based on a stage play (something that usually suggests a minimal level of coherence).
*. Things just don’t hold together well. This was a romantic comedy-thriller, with the three elements failing to gel. In particular, the romance and comedy come courtesy of the unbelievable attraction between Joanne and reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy, in what was a recurring role). There’s never a hint of chemistry between these two, and Tracy’s snappy newsman patter isn’t funny or smart at all. His hand buzzer is juvenile, and if they played the gag where he backs into something and scares himself one more time I was going to yell something at the screen. He does it two or three times in the same room!

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*. The horror-mystery part, however, is pretty interesting. Cannibalism! Well, not quite. The Moon Killer isn’t someone who accidentally acquired a taste for human flesh, but rather seems to be partially motivated by altruistic reasons. “I’ll make a crippled world whole again,” he declares. We may doubt him, but then when he says this he has no reason to lie. Of course, he is considering the ends and not the means.

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*. Pauline Kael: “The director, Michael Curtiz, plays things too straight; he doesn’t have the perverse comic sense of a James Whale.” Well, few directors at the time did. But point taken. Curtiz is known as the source of many funny anecdotes but doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour himself. And this was a comedy. Not a good match.
*. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Xavier pronounced Ecks-ah-vee-yay before. Is that supposed to be French? It’s not consistently pronounced any one particular way in the film, which may have been intentional but was more likely the result of the different actors not being on the same page (as hard as that may be to believe). Even Scott MacQueen pronounces it different ways on the commentary.
*. Unlike Professor X from the X-Men, whose name is also Xavier, I’m not sure if Doctor Xavier here is meant to be the Doctor X of the title. Doctor X may just mean the mystery doctor who is committing the crimes. But then calling the lead Xavier just confuses things needlessly, doesn’t it?
*. The rest of the cast are a well-introduced set of weirdos. I’m particularly fond of Dr. Haines. He’s such a perv with his naughty magazines and his understandable desire to see a threatened and underdressed Fay Wray perform as the victim.

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*. I wonder what the first film was to do a series of quick cuts of close-ups of a gallery of reaction shots from possibly guilty faces. It’s a cliché now, but it’s still quite effective here, and even humorous the third or fourth time around.

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*. The plot is jaw-dropping nonsense. I guess Dr. Xavier has seen Hamlet a few too many times, as he wants to borrow the idea of the play-within-a-play being used to catch the conscience of the killer with an elaborate re-staging of his crime (complete with waxwork displays of all his victims). Only this time the guilty heart will reveal itself through science.
*. And what science! MacQueen notes the “embarrassing pseudoscientific gobbledygook” Lionel Atwill has to spout and it really is so good I’ll give it you in full here: “Gentlemen, I am now turning on the 100-milliampere, high-frequency coil. Your pulses are connected with the magnetic rotators, and each variation of your heartbeat reaction is amplified 4,000 times. The rotor of the electrostatic machine is connected in multiple series with a bank of glass-plate condensers, and the discharge causes irradiations to the thermal tubes, which, in turn, indicate your increased pulse rate and nerve reactions.” A killer may be able to pass as normal, but he can’t conceal his insanity “from the eyes of the radio sensitivity”!
*. Alas, even a plan as well-thought-out as this fails in spectacular fashion as the killer just turns out the lights and murders one of the innocent doctors (rather needlessly, since the experiment had just demonstrated that the victim was in fact the killer!).
*. But if at first you don’t succeed, try again! Why waste such a wonderful set? Next time we’ll handcuff the suspects to their chairs. Except for Wells. Isn’t that perhaps dangerous, trusting Wells? Not at all, since he couldn’t be the murderer as he only has one hand! Dr. Duke may be a much older man, in a wheelchair, but he’s more suspicious.
*. And anyway, Dr. Xavier has made provision for Dr. Wells being the killer. Otto will lock the manor doors when the experiment starts so no one can get in. That will stop Wells from trying anything!
*. This leads to what may be one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in any horror film. Though I’m still not sure how unintentional the humour was. Fay Wray is presented as the sacrificial victim and the killer comes out to dispatch her while the assembled audience of scientists can only hop about yelling at her to “fight back!” and “run!”
*. Now here’s a question: why doesn’t Wray run or fight back? She isn’t drugged, or tied down. But she does absolutely nothing!
*. The finale is pretty impressive, what with the killer being turned into a human torch and then being thrown out the window and falling to his death. But when Tracy says he got his throwing skill from his time spent as a first baseman tossing “that old peg over to third,” the screenwriters must be confused. A first baseman rarely throws all the way over to third. The old peg would be a third baseman throwing over to first, a far more common throw.

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*. The Moon Killer’s transformation into a fish-lipped conehead by way of “synthetic flesh” is creepy and all, but as MacQueen asks, why is he doing it? Does he like wearing such an elaborate mask? And what is it about the moon that inspires him?
*. For some reason I couldn’t help thinking of the scene where the guy turns himself into a jellyfish monster in Sting of Death. But I’m sure there was no question of influence there.
*. So the love story and comic elements don’t work at all, the mystery is contrived and the science ridiculous. The horror is just over-the-top enough to be both grotesque and funny, and the colour is a delight. It may not be a movie to come back to much, but it is a novelty item worth experiencing.

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