The Psychotronic Zone
By Ed Garea
The Return of Doctor X (WB, 1939) – Director: Vincent Sherman. Writers: Lee Katz (s/p), William J. Makin (story). Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson, Vera Lewis, Howard C. Hickman, Olin Howard, Arthur Aylesworth, Cliff Saum, Charles Wilson, Joseph Crehan, Creighton Hale, & John Ridgely. B&W, 62 minutes.
Before High Sierra began to turn his fortunes around in 1940, Humphrey Bogart played many types of roles for the Warner Bros. factory. But his strangest may have been that of a vampire.
A vampire? Strange as it sounds, it’s true. No, Bogart wasn’t running around in a cape with a cheesy Hungarian accent calling himself Count Bogula. This is Warner Brothers, for whom horror pictures do not carry supernatural plots. Bogie is a deceased deranged scientist brought back to life by a living deranged scientist to help him with his research on blood. We hope that’s clear.
Though not a direct sequel to 1932’s Doctor X, The Return of Doctor X does share one small plot point with its predecessor, which we shall see later.
Bogie was billed third behind Wayne Morris (Kid Galahad), and Rosemary Lane (Four Daughters), both of whom the studio was grooming for stardom. As with Doctor X, the hero is a reporter. Morris is reporter Walter Garrett, known as “Wichita” around the office for his Kansas roots. Looking for an easy story he notices that European stage star Angela Merrova (Lys) is in town. He calls her up to arrange an interview, and by the tone of their conversation it seems as if he’s interviewed her before, for she wastes no time telling him to come over. When she hangs up we see a shadow lurking behind her and a gloved hand comes down over her mouth.
When Walt arrives at her hotel for the interview he finds the door unlocked. He enters and looks around, only to find her lifeless body on the floor with a neat, surgical stab wound right above the heart. Does he call the police? Not our boy. He calls his editor (Crehan) to report the incident and gives his story over the phone to the rewrite man. A real scoop.
When the police arrive later, to Walt’s surprise there is no body and the cops, led by Detective Ray Kincaid (Wilson), accuse him of making the whole thing up. But things are about to get worse, for the next day his boss calls him to the office where sitting across the desk is none other than Angela Merrova herself, who, along with the hotel, is suing the paper over the adverse publicity. The boss tells his reporter that he’s fired.
Walt is not the sort of person to take something like this lightly. Things just don’t add up, so he goes over to the hospital to talk things over with good friend Dr. Mike Rhodes (Morgan). Mike tells Walt that he’s getting ready for surgery, but to stick around, even though he tells him that the situation as Walt describes it is patently impossible. However, to placate his friend, Mike will bring the matter up to his colleague, Dr. Flegg (Litel), with whom he’s performing the operation.
But an odd complication arises: the operation calls for a rare blood type and the professional blood donor, who will give the necessary transfusion, has failed to arrive. Flegg is about to call off the operation when one of the nurses, Joan Vance (Lane), steps forward to inform Dr. Rhodes that she has that rare blood type and would be happy to be a donor. The operation goes off without a hitch. As they scrub up after, Rhodes mentions Garrett’s dilemma to Flegg while Flegg, a noted hematologist, is lecturing Rhodes on the importance of blood. Flegg also poo-poohs the notion.
Mike is called to the phone. It’s the police and they want him to come to the blood donor’s apartment. With Walt in tow, Mike arrives and learns the reason why the donor didn’t show up this morning: he’s dead. And what’s more, there isn’t a drop of blood in his body. Not only that, there’s scarcely a trace of spilled blood in the apartment. But Mike notices a few drops on the floor and takes them back to his lab for examination. The blood is determined to be from blood group IV (type O today). But the dead man’s blood was the rare blood group I (type AB). And further, to his surprise, he finds it isn’t human blood. Nor is it animal blood. He tells Walt that if he didn’t know better he’d swear it’s manufactured.
Mike tells Walt that he’s calling it a night and will pick up tomorrow, but he takes a cab to Dr. Flegg’s home. Walt trails him without his knowledge and spies through a window into Flegg’s office. While waiting for Flegg to return, Mike meets a strangely pale man with a white streak through his hair petting a white rabbit in his arms. He introduces himself as Dr. Flegg’s assistant, Dr. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Kane”). Thus, after the film is nearly halfway through we finally see Bogart as Quesne. When Flegg returns Mike gives him the slide for examination. Flegg looks at it through his microscope and declares it to be nothing more than ordinary group IV blood. As Mike discusses the blood with Flegg, Quesne becomes noticeably distressed, and when Mike describes the blood as “artificial,” Quesne becomes so worked up that he crushes a beaker in his hand, cutting it and is reprimanded by Flegg.
After Mike leaves, Walt gets ready to depart when he spots none other than Merrova coming into Flegg’s building. He rushes to tell Mike about it and the next day they visit Merrova at her apartment. She confirms Walt's story and promises them that she’ll elaborate more on it the following day, as she’s waiting for Dr. Flegg to minister to her. But after Mike and Walt leave, it’s not Flegg who comes to see her, but Quesne. Uh oh. And the next day she is reported as not merely dead but really most sincerely dead.
This, and the nagging feeling he has that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, gets Walt to thinking. Cajoling Pinky (Hall), the keeper of the paper’s morgue, to let him in, Garrett begins going through past clippings before finally coming to a picture and story of Quesne from two years back. He discovers that Quesne’s real name is Dr. Xavier and was put on trial for starving a baby to death in an experiment. Found guilty of first-degree murder he was electrocuted in the chair.
When Walt and Mike visit the cemetery and find Xavier’s grave empty, they pay a visit to Flegg. Confronted with the evidence, Flegg confesses. He had been working on a technique for the reanimation of the dead at the time of Xavier’s execution and realized this was the perfect opportunity to test his theories with Xavier as the ideal guinea pig. If successful, Xavier’s vast knowledge would help him perfect the technique. He stole Xavier’s body, hooked it up to his machines, and was successful in restoring the doctor to life. However, he ran into a hurdle when he discovered that a complete change of blood was necessary for the process to work. Flegg, a noted hematologist, developed a synthetic blood he hoped would do the trick. It brought Xavier back to life but also created a need within him for fresh blood to stay alive. He has become, in a sense, a technical vampire. The only blood that will keep him going is the rare blood type that only one in 10 people has. Angela Merrova had that exact type and Quesne killed her to obtain it. He doesn’t drink it in the sense that a normal vampire would, but rather transfuses it into his body.
Flegg goes on to tell them that when he discovered what Quesne had done to Merrova he used a new experimental version of his synthetic blood to save her, but ultimately the new version proved no better than the older one. Mike’s “professional blood donor” also had blood compatible with Quesne’s, and he was the next victim.
After Mike and Walt leave, Quesne, who had been spying at the window, appears. Flegg tells him that he confessed all to the duo, but the only thing Quesne is interested in is Flegg’s book of donors. Flegg refuses to surrender the book and Quesne shoots him to get it. The sound of the gunshots brings Mike and Walt back to the office. Flegg is barely alive, but has enough time to tell them what Quesne was after. They realize that Joan’s name is in the book and they rush out to grab her before Quesne gets to her. But it's too late. Quesne has tricked her into a cab and is taking her to his secret laboratory for dinner. They try to figure out where Quesne could have taken her before Walt remembers that in the articles he’s read Quesne had a secret laboratory in the swamps outside Newark. Contacting the police, they race to the scene, where Quesne is just about ready to link Joan up to his equipment. A gunfight breaks out, and as Quesne attempts to escape over the roof, he is shot down and killed.
A film buff who has never seen this before has probably been warned that it’s one of the worst movies ever made. At least, that’s the opinion of many critics and bloggers. Truth be told, it’s not a good movie, but it’s far from the worst. It is what it is: a B-programmer, made in a hurry and on the cheap. It’s Bogart’s only horror/science fiction movie and I think the reason why many people downgrade it so radically is the bizarre makeup Bogie wears. With that pasty face and white streak through his flattop he looks positively ridiculous. One would surmise that considering the movie and his role therein that he would either ham it up or walk through it. He does neither, actually turning in a good performance.
Over the years it’s been said that The Return of Doctor X was a punishment film for Bogart; that it was Jack Warner’s way of getting back at him for all the complaining Bogart did about the sorts of movies he was in over the years. And there may be some truth to that. Bogart was under contract, and to those under contract it’s either ‘my way or the highway,’ the highway being a suspension without pay and the added suspension time added to the end of the actor’s contract. Bogie may have been assuaged by the fact that good friend Vincent Sherman was making his directorial debut. Later in life, Bogart was quoted saying about the vampire role, “If it had been Jack Warner's blood maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”
There’s also a rumor that Bela Lugosi was offered the role, and when he turned it down, the studio turned to Bogart. I’m not buying this for two reasons: (1) Lugosi may have been in England at the time, filming Dark Eyes of London; and (2) Lugosi would never turn down a role offered by a major studio. He was not renowned for carefully choosing his projects; he went where the money was, and if it was coming from Warner Bros., with the promise of future roles if the film did well, he certainly would have signed on.
What makes the film so much fun to watch, besides Bogart, is Vincent Sherman’s direction. Incidentally, he was almost canned after his first day. Even though he was working in the B-movie unit with veterans like producer Bryan Foy and cameraman Sid Hickox, Sherman began by shooting the film as if he was making an A picture. When he took 10 takes for a simple 45-second shot, Jack Warner sent Foy a memo that was a short, but not sweet: "If he does this again he won't be on the picture any longer.” But when the picture made a handsome profit Sherman was forgiven his past sin and added to the roster of Warner directors, going on to make such notable films as All Through the Night, Old Acquaintance, Mr. Skeffington, and Nora Prentiss.
With The Return of Doctor X, Sherman keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, not giving the audience time to rest, lest they consider the holes in the plot. For instance, consider that Walt (who is a friend of the cemetery’s caretaker) suggests breaking into Dr. Xavier’s grave to Mike, and without taking any time to think it over, readily agrees, as if Walt was inviting him to the local saloon for a drink or two. Then after they exhume the body, they walk away, telling the caretaker to fill it in. I suppose this was supposed to pass as a lighter moment.
But with the help of cinematographer Sid Hickox, Sherman crafts a film with loads of stylish but unreal atmosphere. Hickox and Sherman do an excellent job in using underlighting for almost every medium shot and close-up to project the characters in our minds. Litel, for instance, is shot in such a way that he seems sinister, with his goatee and lectures on the nature and importance of blood, though as soon as we get a load of Bogart we know right away who the bad guy is, but is he working with the mysterious Dr. Flegg? And what about Angela Merrova? Shot in this way, she comes across as an otherworldly vamp. Huge shadows are seen on the walls, especially in violent scenes, such as the murder of Merrova. Though shot on an obvious studio set, Sherman takes pains to give it a sort of surreal quality.
As noted before, Bogart gives a wonderful performance as the bizarre Dr. Xavier. John Litel also shines as Dr. Flegg, keeping us guessing to the last about his true involvement with Xavier. And Dennis Morgan gives a performance that promises better things – and bigger roles – in the future. Wayne Morris, on the other hand, plays his usual “Gee Whiz, Aw, Shucks” type of character, and Rosemary Lane is given little to do other than to be a plot device, despite her second billing.
Although we’re somewhat led to think this is going to be a sequel to 1932’s Doctor X, the fact is the plots have almost nothing in common save for the fact they are murder mysteries cantered around a reporter-hero, and both are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But there is one small plot point both movies share. As I mentioned earlier: Doctor X was concerned with synthetic flesh while The Return of Doctor X was concerned with synthetic blood. But the real fun of the sequel is to watch Humphrey Bogart, long before he became a mega-star, vamping it up in the role of an undead bloodsucker.
Watch closely for future psychotronic stars Glenn Langan (The Amazing Colossal Man) and William Hopper, here billed as “DeWolf Hopper,” using his middle name (20 Million Miles to Earth).
From the Life Imitating Art Department: Japanese medical researchers are working on perfecting an artificial blood to be used in operations and lessening the need for frequent donors.