Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Return of Doctor “X” (Warners, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was The Return of Doctor “X,” which despite its title is not a sequel to the original Doctor “X” from 1932. This was made in 1939 and was a Warner Brothers “B” which has the unusual distinction of being the only horror film Humphrey Bogart ever made. (Yes, that’s right — Alfred Hitchcock made a musical, Waltzes from Vienna, and Humphrey Bogart made a horror film.) Bogart plays Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Cain”), a mad surgeon who two years before the film’s action begins starved a baby to death to see how long it would take to die, was tried and convicted of murder, was executed and then was brought back to life by another mad surgeon, John Litel (so far this has less in common with Doctor “X” than it does with The Walking Dead, a 1936 film in which Boris Karloff was an execution victim who was similarly revived by scientific means — and Bogart’s makeup, including a white, pallid face and a grey streak through his hair, was patterned on Karloff’s in the earlier film).

The good guys are reporter Wayne Morris and junior surgeon Dennis Morgan, who stumble onto a series of murders in which the victims, all with Type One blood (in this movie the blood types have numbers instead of the familiar letters A, B, AB and O), are drained of their blood — by Humphrey Bogart, who needs Type One blood to prolong his already artificially prolonged existence. Bogart actually acts the part with an odd dignity and grace, but that’s about the only positive thing about this ridiculous movie, which is directed by Vincent Sherman (who later went on to direct — and sleep with — both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis) with almost none of the horrific atmosphere required to make such a silly storyline even halfway credible. (Just about any director on the contract list at Universal could have done it better — but then Universal specialized in this sort of movie.) — 1/20/98


The film was The Return of Doctor “X,” which I’d recorded earlier this week and for which I’ve always had a kind of twisted affection even though it’s not a very good film. It was made at Warner Bros. in 1939 and features Humphrey Bogart in his only horror role — as the mysterious Dr. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Cain”), pasty-faced, white-streaked sidekick to blood specialist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) at Jules Memorial Hospital. Curiously, Bogart is billed third in the opening credits but first in the closing ones, though in terms of on-screen time the film’s real principals are Wayne Morris as hotshot New York Morning Dispatch reporter Walter “Wichita” Garrett (the nickname is his home town, where he previously worked) and Dennis Morgan as Dr. Mike Rhodes, Dr. Flegg’s open assistant (as opposed to Quesne, whom he keeps hidden and only works with at home).

The action of this film, written by William J. Makin (“original” story) and Lee Katz (script) and directed by Vincent Sherman with more verve and esprit than a pretty silly plot line called for, begins when Garrett shows up at a fancy hotel to interview star actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys, who looks pretty cadaverous even before the script tells us she is!), who’s just come from Europe to be featured in a big Broadway production — only when he gets to her room, she’s been stabbed just under the heart and all her blood is gone. Accordingly, Garrett phones a big scoop into the Morning Dispatch that Merrova is dead — only the next morning she turns up alive and ready to sue the paper for $100,000.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rhodes is supposed to be assisting Dr. Flegg at the hospital in an operation for which they need a transfusion of Type One blood (for some reason the blood types in this movie have numbers instead of the letters — A, B, AB and O — we’re familiar with today). They plan to call in professional blood donor Stanley Rodgers (John Ridgely) but can’t reach him on the phone — and later they find out that he has been murdered in his room, and his blood, too, has been entirely drained from his body. Dr. Rhodes finds a blood sample at the scene of Rodgers’ murder and examines it under a microscope — and to his astonishment it’s like no blood he’s ever seen before, neither human nor animal.

It turns out that Dr. Flegg has been conducting experiments with the intent of developing a synthetic form of blood that can be used in place of the real thing for transfusions and operations, and after Merrova was murdered he used his synthetic blood to revive her — only it didn’t work for more than about a day or two. It also turns out that the mysterious Marshall Quesne is really Maurice Xavier, who two years earlier did an experiment in which he deliberately starved a child to see how long it would take to die. For this he was arrested, convicted and executed — only Dr. Flegg claimed the body, had an empty coffin buried in his place, and brought him back to life with his blood substitute and various Frankenstein-esque electronic gizmos. However, Dr. Flegg’s synthetic blood was no more able to keep Quesne, a.k.a. Xavier, alive than it had been for Angela Merrova — and as a result he had to go out and kill people (including Merrova and Rodgers) to obtain genuine Type One blood to keep himself alive.

It’s a silly movie for Bogart to have done at this point in his career, and he’s pretty obviously miscast ( claims the part was actually intended for Boris Karloff, who’d done the similarly plotted The Walking Dead at Warners three years earlier and in 1939 was defying the studio system by maintaining non-exclusive contracts at four studios: Universal, Columbia, Warners and Monogram; and Bogart said of the film, “I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood, or Harry’s, or Pop’s, maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie”), but he’s enough of a professional that not only does he manage to come through without embarrassment but he actually brings true pathos to the role.

Though he has surprisingly few scenes, he plays the part as a wounded man of science, genuinely upset and unable to conceive of why people would disapprove of his actions, alienated from the world around him but still wanting to be part of it, and going about his high-tech vampirism with a grim determination not all that different from the Bogart of the gangster films that were his stock in trade at the time: neither enjoying murder nor being repulsed by it but simply accepting it as a grim necessity for his own survival. It’s a remarkable and unforgettable performance even though Bogart hated making this movie and, not surprisingly, never dabbled in the horror genre again — and the title is a “cheat,” promising a sequel to Doctor “X,” the far more accomplished Warners horror production of 1932 with a true horror cast (headed by Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray!) and brilliantly eerie direction by Michael Curtiz (also helped by two-strip Technicolor) but delivering a far less original and interesting movie. Still, The Return of Doctor “X” is a likable movie revealing that Bogart’s acting skills could extend to horror. — 10/23/08