Tuesday 11 February 2020

Movie Review: The Return Of Doctor X (1939)

A science fiction suspense thriller, The Return Of Doctor X is a stiff low-budget mystery featuring bloodthirsty murders and corpses that refuse to remain dead.

Newspaperman Walter Garrett (Wayne Morris) scores an interview with theatre star Angela Merrova (Lya Lys). He is shocked to find her stabbed to death in her hotel room, but even more astounded when the next day her corpse disappears, and then Merrova shows up alive, if a little pasty. Garrett turns to his friend and blood expert Dr. Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) for some amateur sleuthing.

Suspicion soon centers on Mike's mentor Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) and his creepy, pale assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart). Flegg is experimenting with blood transfusions and the development of synthetic blood. Soon another murder is committed, and then Mike's new girlfriend nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) is threatened.

The Return Of Doctor X is a curiosity due to the presence of a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart in one of his least favourite roles. He plays a dead-eyed ex-physician with memorable makeup and hair, in a role better suited to Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. The film is also the first to be directed by Vincent Sherman.

As a B-movie clocking in at 62 minutes, The Return Of Doctor X is not a total loss. The potential benefits of blood transfusions and synthetic blood as a life-saving scientific advancement are among the topics discussed. The Lee Katz script also features some wry humour, Garrett maintaining his sense of investigative fun despite losing his job and finding himself at the centre of multiple murder scenes.

But otherwise this is a standard monster-in-human-form cheapo production, heavily inspired by Frankenstein but with plastic characters, rushed delivery, and a plot designed for bargain thrills rather than any logic. The three lead performances from Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan and John Litel belong in local amateur theatre productions, while the character of Joan Vance hangs around on the margins for the sole purpose of becoming a final act damsel in distress.

Bogart looks suitably ghastly and aghast at having to endure the rampant nonsense. His roles had already started to improve with appearances in classy productions like Dark Victory (also from 1939). Within a couple of years High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon would make him a star, consigning Dr. X to embarassing footnote status.

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