The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)

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*. Clitterhouse? Are you kidding? No such name apparently existed in England (where the story originated) or the United States. Were the censors asleep or was “clitoris” not a word (or part of the anatomy) familiar to many at the time?
*. In fact, and as you can well imagine, the censors did have problems with the story. That a movie such as this could have been made in 1938 is its main claim to fame and source of interest.
*. The problem is Dr. Clitterhouse. He’s a bad guy. At first a mere burglar but later a cold-blooded murderer. And yet he’s made into a sympathetic figure who ultimately gets away with it, merely remanded to the State Lunacy Commission for examination. Which isn’t even a slap on the wrist.
*. Joseph Breen wanted the script to make it very clear that Clitterhouse is insane. Somewhat ironically, this would be the central ambiguity in the film, unresolved by the farce of the trial. But I think it’s clear Clitterhouse knew what he was doing all along.
*. Compounding things, Clitterhouse not only escapes punishment by due process of law, but that process is treated as a joke, with buffoonish, yokel jurors incapable of figuring anything out and the expert testimony of Professor Ludwig treated as bafflegab and nonsense. As for the rest of the gang, they are presumably picked up at some point, though Jo appears to have got off as well.
*. Somehow (because it was pitched as a comedy?) Warners managed to get around all this and made a movie with a very dark set of morals: the ends justify the means; crime can be fun and pay as well; with enough money you can buy the justice system. What makes it even worse is the fact that Bogart’s Rocks Valentine is not that bad a fellow. Sure he tries to kill Dr. C., but he’s been forgiven that. And his plan on using the doctor as a front for his gang isn’t a bad one. As he says to Clitterhouse, the information he’s collected against the gang is only enough to send them up for life. He isn’t a candidate for extra-judicial execution.
*. It’s based on a popular stage play of the time. Surprised? I was. There’s nothing about this movie that gives such an origin away. Most movies based on plays have a stagey look and sound to them, but aside from some of the dialogue here there’s none of that.
*. It was purchased by Warners specifically as a starring vehicle for Robinson (though Robert Lord wanted Ronald Coleman as a more romantic lead to play opposite Claire Trevor). It must have made the star happy. Edward G. Robinson was a refined, highly-cultured, intellectual man whose breakout role as Rico in Little Caesar typecast him pretty much forever as a lowlife immigrant gangster. He would have preferred parts like Dr. Clitterhouse, even though the love triangle here is downplayed considerably because it was felt no one would buy it. Which is tough without being realistic, but nevertheless very Hollywood.

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*. All of the actors on Warners’ “Murderers Row” were struggling with the same typecasting. Bogart was the heavy again here, a role he’d played over and over since The Petrified Forest. Clitterhouse co-writer John Huston would be the one to finally rescue him with The Maltese Falcon, but that was still a few years away. Here, Rocks Valentine is just a caricature, shining his ring on his tie and generally looking like a guy with a chip on his shoulder.

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*. Whoa! Check out the size of the “special blend” of whiskey that Dr. Clitterhouse gives Rocks. Is that a triple? A quadruple?
*. The basic conceit is interesting — upper-crust doctor slumming it with gangsters in order to study them but himself becoming mentally and morally compromised as a result. As Richard Jewell remarks on the DVD commentary, it’s an inversion of the story of A Slight Case of Murder: instead of a gangster trying to reform his ways and enter high society, we have a stalwart of high society who descends to becoming a gangster.
*. But how do you play it? As social commentary? Comedy? Right from the time of its release reviewers didn’t know how to classify it. It resisted labels and pigeonholes, and usually that’s a good thing. Usually. But not here.
*. Why? I think mainly because it’s not funny. Of course comedy dates, and there are lots of movies from this period that must have been hilarious at the time but don’t crack a smile today. But there’s nothing remotely funny about any of this. I only thought there were a couple of scenes that were trying to be funny (and failing).
*. The result is awkwardness. We don’t know how we’re supposed to view Dr. Clitterhouse: as a naive intellectual or homicidal monomaniac. We don’t know how we’re to take the question of insanity: seriously or as a source of humour. We don’t know how to view the abridged relationship between Dr. Clitterhouse and Jo: is it impossible or just frustrated by circumstance?
*. So it’s an oddity, a weird movie that is remarkable for having been made rather than anything else. In terms of tone it’s a total mess. The leads would re-assemble for Key Largo.

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