Movie Review: The Return of Doctor X (1939)
“HE ROSE FROM THE DEAD…TO HAUNT THE LIVING!!!”
The Return of Doctor X (1939)
Director: Vincent Sherman
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris
Synopsis: A reporter and his doctor friend investigate a series of murders involving a doctor who has returned from the dead.
The Return of Doctor X is a little-known horror movie that would be completely forgotten today were it not for the presence of a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart as the titular character, a doctor returned from the dead who must drink the blood of the living in order to survive. Just two years before the part of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon would ensure him a place amongst the ranks of Hollywood greats, Bogart found playing the cross between a zombie and a vampire (Vambie? Zompire?) in a cheap B-Movie horror picture so demeaning that he demanded a pay rise from Warners as compensation. The unhappy actor later said of the role, “I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood, or Harry’s, or Pop’s, maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”
The silly plot sees Wayne Morris (Desert Pursuit, Paths of Glory) playing maverick reporter Walter Garrett. Garrett’s one of those irritatingly chipper types who wears the brim of his hat up and chases any piece of skirt unlucky enough to cross his path. The way he wears his hat should be enough to get him sacked, but to suffer that indignity Garrett has to mistakenly report the death of famous actress Angela Merrova after finding her body, only to have her turn up in the office of his boss the day after the exclusive headline of her death is published. Merrova is played by French-German actress Lya Lys, whom some might recognise as the girl with a taste for sucking the toes of statues in Luis Bunuel’s surreal classic, L’âge d’or.
Garrett might be intensely annoying, but he’s not stupid. He knows what he saw, and so enlists the aid of his doctor friend, Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan – Raton Pass) to investigate further. When the police find that one of Rhodes’ blood donors has made a fatal donation of all his blood to an unknown assailant, the trail eventually leads to Rhodes’ colleague Dr. Flegg (John Litel – Cass Timberlane, The Sons of Katie Elder) and his creepy assistant, Marshall Quesne (Bogart – Casablanca, The African Queen).
Bogart was right – The Return of Doctor X does stink, although it’s a relatively inoffensive odour for those who only have to watch it. The film’s biggest problem is it’s inability to establish a suitably oppressive tone for a plot which might seem like a tired old cliché today but was still relatively fresh back in 1939. The reason for this is the character of Garrett, who really belongs in a comedy, and foils any attempt by novice director Vincent Sherman to create some atmosphere. Although The Return of Doctor X is remembered today for the ghoulish appearance of Bogart in his only horror picture, his is only a supporting role, with lead duties shared by Morgan and Morris. He certainly makes an impression, though: with his deathly pallor, streak of white hair and spectacles he’s a far cry from the rugged leading man with whom we’re all familiar. The Return of Doctor X also provides an unusual role for Dennis Morgan, a light leading man who achieved moderate stardom when he appeared opposite Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle a couple of years after this clunker. It’s worth a look if you’re a Bogart fan, but those who aren’t should steer well clear.
(Reviewed 24th May 2016)