Thursday, May 15, 2014

In short: Calling Doctor Death (1943)

Popular neurologist Dr. Mark Steel (Lon Chaney Jr.) might have a wonderful career but when it comes to his private life, he’s a rather unlucky chap. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames), you see, has only married him for his money and social position, and really likes to rub his nose in it too. Of course, she doesn’t agree to a divorce. It’s enough to make even somebody as exceedingly mild-mannered as Steel think about murder.

As luck will have it, Maria is found dead soon enough, hit with a blunt object and mutilated with acid. Curiously, it is the exact same weekend Maria is murdered when Steel has a nice little blackout followed by amnesia. Why, a neurologist might think there’s a bit of repression going on here! The investigating Inspector, a certain Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) is all too interested in Steel a suspect, even after Steel’s loving secretary, bookkeeper and nurse Stella (Patricia Morison) decides to give her boss an alibi. Gregg isn’t even happy after Maria’s lover Bob Duval (David Bruce) turns up, making just as nice a suspect as Steel himself.

Steel, stricken by feelings of guilt and hounded by the cop, isn’t happy with the situation either. Perhaps hypnosis will make things clearer to him?

I have already gone on record as not a great admirer of Lon Chaney Jr., despite his fine casting as Universal’s original wolfman. Turns out, I quite like his performances in the films based on the popular (and often excellent) Inner Sanctum Mysteries radio show. These films gave Chaney an unexpected opportunity to play characters a bit more suave than typical for him while, still providing enough room for his hangdog expression and general air of being hopelessly beaten before he even begins a fight. And because at that point in his life, he wasn’t quite the alcoholic wreck he’d become all too soon, Chaney actually made good use of the opportunity, turning out likeable and effective performances.

The first Inner Sanctum movie, Calling Dr. Death, is a case in point, with Chaney giving his successful doctor as someone it is difficult not to have sympathy with, while not overdoing the whole helplessness shtick. Cleverly, the script even makes a point out of the contrast between his abilities in his profession and his dire private life.

At its core, the film is of course a comparatively cheaply made programmer, a mystery more than bordering on the field of the noir with the plot and many of its elements (predatory women, amnesia, hypnosis) certainly belonging into the genre. One could, of course, argue Reginald Le Borg’s direction to be a bit too straightforward (with a handful of choice exceptions) for everyone’s favourite non-genre, and I wouldn’t even be able to disagree very much, but when a film’s every idea is this deep inside the well of a certain genre, I’m inclined to place it there as a whole.

Wobbly genre definitions aside, Calling Dr. Death is certainly a fine little film that may be rather obvious, but doesn’t outstay its welcome, and provides Chaney as well as J. Carrol Naish with opportunities to show themselves from their best sides. As an added bonus, there’s also a head in a crystal ball starting the film with a narration that has little to do with anything that comes after (and the same speech then was also used as an intro most of the following Inner Sanctum movies, with just as little connection to the actual films following it there).

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