A mystery thriller with overtones of horror and occasional comic interludes, Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X is a remarkably effective pre-code drama.
The Production: 4/5
A mystery thriller with overtones of horror and occasional comic interludes, Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X is a remarkably effective pre-code drama. With astoundingly effective two-color Technicolor now restored to its original brilliance adding to the menacing atmosphere of this wonderful movie, Warner Archive rates another strong wave of applause for presenting another classic from its vaults with audio and video quality of unparalleled excellence for a picture of this era.
With a half dozen murders committed with a particular scalpel known only to the Academy of Surgical Research, Police Commissioner Stevens (Robert Warwick) gives institute head Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill) forty-eight hours to unmask the “Moon Killer” before he and his men begin to dismantle the establishment. Xavier is convinced that one of the Academy’s four research scientists is responsible: Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) who’s an expert in cannibalism, Dr. Haines (John Wray) who specializes in brain grafting, and Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who studies the intense light qualities of the moon with his invalid assistant Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford). So, Xavier invites the doctors to examine a series of experiments in his spacious seaside mansion where he hopes to expose the killer, assisted by his daughter Joanne (Fay Wray), fluttery maid Mamie (Leila Bennett), and creepy butler Otto (George Rosener). Crashing the party is investigative reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) whose employment depends on his getting the exclusive on this story.
The screenplay by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin strikes a crafty balance between humor (provided by Lee Tracy and antic practical joker butler Otto) and horror (with the killer disguised as a ghastly ghoul with a fish-like face and gnarled hands) with the chills downplayed in all of the movie’s pre-release publicity (though why Warners was tentative about its thriller when Dracula and Frankenstein had set box-office records for Universal the year before is puzzling indeed). Director Michael Curtiz handles the balancing act with easy aplomb though it’s occasionally impossible to sustain the movie’s great suspense when Lee Tracy is given an extended comic sequence in a storage closet filled with skeletons and other props for him to toy with right in the middle of another murder. The Technicolor as restored so magnificently by the UCLA Film & Television Archive now adds gloriously in lengthening the menacing shadows and ghoulishly green lighting throughout the movie’s “old dark house” seaside mansion to present a most creepy atmosphere in which to enact the thrills (kudos to Technicolor cinematographer Ray Rennahan), and while red is one of the colors that Technicolor captured so well, the blood and other gore effects don’t overuse it to the point of nausea.
Lionel Atwill is a most effective and believable scientist out to protect his Institute’s integrity (art director Anton Grot has provided him with some terrific laboratory apparatuses to impress the ear and the eye), and Fay Wray (yes, on her first entrance she screams most familiarly) offers a loving and devoted daughter (and how ironic that they’d be paired again soon after in The Mystery of the Wax Museum in a completely different kind of relationship, a pairing that can be viewed now in another sensationally restored Warner Archive Blu-ray release). Lee Tracy’s wisecracking, jokey reporter who eventually saves the day is a role with which he was well familiar, and Robert Warwick as the threatening police commissioner likewise treads familiar turf. The scientists played by Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, and Arthur Edmund Carewe all prove to be worthy suspects abetted by the somewhat shady behavior of George Rosener’s butler Otto. Leila Bennett adds to the film’s comic moments with her nervous maid Mamie.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is retained in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. With a film almost ninety years old, one expects visual problems, but they’ve been virtually eliminated in a loving restoration that captures the details and subtleties of the original Technicolor photography. Anyone who thinks two-color Technicolor can’t be effective need only check out this transfer to have his mind changed. Flesh tones are marvelously true while shadow detail and contrast have been restored to unimaginable depths of quality while missing frames have been cleverly disguised and pass by almost unnoticed. The movie has been divided into 42 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is a marvel, almost unthinkably erasing decades of hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter. Now dialogue is clear and concise, what music is present is more than serviceable, and sound effects crack through the sound field with great effectiveness.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio Commentaries: it’s an embarrassment of riches – two separate tracks that cover the film thoroughly but which remarkably don’t repeat information. Alan K. Rode’s is the fuller and perhaps more engaging track, but Scott MacQueen’s track, while having some pauses, is certainly no slouch, and fans of the film with definitely relish both of them.
Black and White Version of Doctor X (1:17:03, HD): cinematography by Richard Towers
Madness and Mystery: The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz (27:39, HD): a most effective documentary featuring Alan Rode and Scott MacQueen discussing Curtiz’s three Warner horror films: Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and The Walking Dead with clips and stills from each movie.
Before/After Restoration Comparison Reel (7:40, HD): Scott MacQueen narrates before and after sequences showing the astonishing restoration effort on the movie and its brilliant results.
Theatrical Trailer (2:15, HD): for the black and white version of the movie.
Deliciously macabre and engaging, Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X is a marvelously inventive mystery horror film. In its new Technicolor restoration offered on Blu-ray, fans of the movie will likely sense they are seeing it truly for the first time so masterful and effective is it now in the color in which it was intended to be seen. Highest recommendation!
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