Review: Doctor X (1932)
In Doctor X, Newspaper man Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) dogs the New York City police as they investigate the “Moon Killer Murders,” a spate of serial killings that leave victims stabbed with a scalpel and cannibalized. When police determine that the scalpel could only have come from the institute of Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), Dr. X receives special dispensation to conduct his own investigation. He retires to his creepy Long Island mansion with the chief suspects, Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), Dr. Haines (John Wray), Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), plus his daughter Joanne (Fay Wray). When the reporter makes a surprise appearance and the wind blown, rain soaked old dark house all the elements are in place for this classic Warner Brother’s chiller.
Doctor X is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie exactly. It’s a pretty silly movie, in fact. In the “comic-chiller” vein of The Cat and the Canary, Doctor X ultimately never rises to being either comic or chilling. But there’s much to recommend this movie – chiefly the two-color Technicolor process, the Pre-Code kinkiness of the dialogue and plot, and most importantly, the direction of Michael Curtiz.
In late 1931, the major studios attempted to foist color movies on the public but were met with apathy from patrons. Doctor X was only the second film shot in the much improved Technicolor process which removed grain and brought more clarity to the print. The earlier The Runaround (1931) used the color process as a novelty, but in the hands of director Curtiz, Doctor X leverages the vivid color for dramatic impact. Several scenes, particularly ones involving candlelight, fully exploit the color for maximum creepiness, and Dr. X’s weirdo experiment involving giant laboratory tubes with rising red liquid would certainly have less effect in black and white. Warner Brothers weren’t fully committed to the color process however, and shot Doctor X in both black and white and two-color Technicolor, only shipping the color prints to larger urban venues. Lost for a bit, a Technicolor print was discovered in the personal collection of Jack Warner after his death. If you’re going to watch Doctor X, make sure it’s in glorious Technicolor.
Made before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code, Doctor X really kinks it up. Not only is cannibalism on the table, there’s a little bit of (implied) rape and a whole lot of sexual perversion from our cast of suspects. From the mundane – Taylor needs to call in his story from a brothel – to the perverse – one of our esteemed scientists reads reads magazines on “French Art” for “relaxation” – the dialogue is fully of cheeky references to the perverse, voyeuristic, and sexual that will become impossible in just a few years. In the case of Doctor X, the sex and the sauce are not the point (it serves mostly as a comic foil) but the climax featuring Fay Wray splayed on a lab table while the disfigured and monstrous Moon Killer looms over her is as disgusting and titillating as any current Cineplex offering.
It is the direction of Michael Curtiz that puts Doctor X on the must-see list. Already into his American film career, Curtiz upgrades this movie from mere seat-filler to interesting by deploying odd camera angles, fully understanding how to use the vivid color to enhance the story, and with his voyeuristic lingering on the weird lab equipment. While the bulk of the movie features too much talkie-talkie repartee between Taylor and Joanne and skeleton gags, the two set piece scenes of Dr. Xavier’s “experiment” are masterful and well worth the price of admission.
Ultimately, Doctor X (“a parcel of thrills streaked with fun” according to Mordaunt Hall at the NY Times) did well with critics and movie patrons alike. So well in fact, that Warners followed up with the sequel-of-sorts Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), also starring Atwill and Fay Wray and directed by Curtiz. Dr. X later made a reappearance, at least in name, in 1939’s The Return of Dr. X, this time looking an awful lot like one Humphrey Bogart (!). Doctor X is a bit hard to pin down, but the full movie is on YouTube (link below).
Watch Doctor X