Friday, June 3, 2016

Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943)

Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case was the second of Columbia’s ten Crime Doctor B-movies made between 1943 and 1949. Crime Doctor originated as a popular radio series. Warner Baxter starred in all ten films.

Crime Doctor is psychiatrist Dr Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter). Apparently there’s a strange backstory about Dr Ordway suffering from amnesia but this isn’t mentioned at all in this particular film. Actually there’s a good deal more weirdness to the backstory than that but I’m reluctant to say more since it might reveal spoilers for the first film in the series. In addition to his psychiatric practice Dr Ordway is a keen amateur crime-solver.

Jimmy Trotter (Lloyd Bridges) is an old patient who comes to ask Dr Ordway’s advice about his upcoming marriage to Ellen (Lynn Merrick). Dr Ordway advises them not to get married yet, at least until Jimmy gets a more suitable job. The job he has at the moment, as secretary to wealthy businessman Walter Burns, is a bit too similar to the job he had when his previous employer died of poisoning. Jimmy had been accused of murder in that case. Dr Ordway had been instrumental in obtaining Jimmy’s acquittal and perhaps Dr Ordway thinks that it is tempting fate for Jimmy to hold exactly the same sort of position again.

Dr Ordway’s misgivings turn out to be well founded. The Crime Doctor’s skills as amateur sleuth will be needed again, in another poisoning murder case with Jimmy caught in the middle.

There’s actually no shortage of suspects although the police naturally focus on Jimmy. There are plenty of tensions in the Burns household and to further muddy the waters there’s a cook who isn’t a cook at all and there’s the elderly Miss Patricia and her disturbing nightmares. Miss Patricia soon becomes another of Dr Ordway’s patients.

There’s a dream sequence that can be seen as an anticipation of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, although it’s obviously much less ambitious and visually bold. It’s still not bad for a B-picture. The movie makes use of flashbacks, also fairly bold since film noir had not yet made this technique so all-pervasive in crime movies.

Warner Baxter had been a big star in the 30s but by the 40s his career was looking slightly shaky and a recurring role in a B-movie series was more than welcome. Baxter was starting to look just a little battered but his performance is enthusiastic enough.

Lloyd Bridges (looking very young indeed) gives a hyperactive performance that verges on hysteria at times but then his character does seem to have a knack for landing himself in trouble. Quite a few of the performances are slightly odd. Or perhaps it’s the script that’s slightly odd, or the actors were just doing what director Eugene Forde wanted. Dr Ordway’s nurse seems jumpy and highly strung to say the least (I’m not sure of the identity of the actress but I think it’s Constance Worth). Ellen is a slightly strange character as well.

The whole mood of the film is rather uncertain, as if the intention had been been to aim for a somewhat whimsical feel but the whimsy ends up being unevenly distributed and sometimes jarring. Eugene Forde was a reliable and competent B-movie director so perhaps it was Eric Taylor’s screenplay that was responsible for the mood swings.

The Crime Doctor movies were quite popular (you don’t make ten movies in a series unless you’re reaching some kind of audience). The central idea is certainly interesting. Personally I love movies of this era that deal with psychiatry - they’re nearly always enjoyably bizarre.

There is a Crime Doctor DVD set that includes all ten movies but I’m not certain if it’s an official release or a grey market release. I haven’t seen it so I can’t tell you anything about the quality. I caught this movie on TCM. Their print is quite acceptable. 

This is very much a B-movie but despite its occasional oddness of tone it’s entertaining. I’m not sure I’d rush out and buy the boxed set but Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case is worth a look if it pops up on cable TV or if you can find it as a rental. Fans of B-movies of this period should enjoy it.

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