Sunday, December 21, 2008

(Crime) Doctor’s orders

TCM scratched off two more films in Columbia Studios’ popular Crime Doctor series yesterday morning; they ran Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946) at 8:00am followed by Just Before Dawn (1946). The result was a visit with an old favorite…and a first-time glance at a previously unseen little gem.

In Man Hunt, an amnesiac soldier named Philip Armstrong (played by Myron Healey) makes an appointment to see Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), who after briefly talking with his new patient describes his condition as being one of “fugue,” or a sort of “shell-shock” that he apparently contracted during the war. Armstrong leaves and before Ordway can close up The Old Psychiatry Shop for the day, a woman named Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew) urgently needs to see him and asks him for information on the status of his new patient—apparently she’s his fiancée, and she’s concerned that he might be a tad unstable. Ordway can’t reveal what any patient tells him in confidence, of course, and so he gives her the brush-off. But on his way home from a midway’s shooting gallery, Ordway spots two thugs (Frank Sully, Bernard Nedell) roughing up Armstrong—who eventually winds up dead as a doornail—and our hero finds himself embroiled in a web of deceit that would seem to point in the director of Ms. Cotter’s estranged sister Natalie.

Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is considered by many fans to be the best in the series, and while I’ve frequently stated that it’s my favorite I’m not sure I’d award it the top blue ribbon (I think Shadows in the Night and Just Before Dawn are also worthwhile entries as well). But it’s certainly got a lot going for it: a snappy, crackling script by Leigh Brackett; engaging performances; and taut direction by William Castle—who would direct four of the ten Crime Doctor programmers (Crime Doctor’s Courage, Man Hunt, Dawn and Crime Doctor’s Gamble). William Frawley is cast as the top cop in this one (as Inspector Harry B. “Manny” Manning) and of course, his performance alone is worth the price of admission. When Man Hunt calls it a wrap, and the killer is revealed to have had a split personality, there’s this exchange of dialogue shortly before the fade-out:

MANNING: Say, Doctor—I like you to see my wife…
ORDWAY: Split personality?
MANNING: No personality.

One of my favorite actresses to grace many a Columbia comedy two-reeler is also in Man Hunt—Claire Carleton, who plays the owner of a shooting gallery being held as the No. 1 suspect in the Armstrong murder. Claire’s appearances in Hollywood films rarely rose above parts labeled as “waitress” or “switchboard operator”…or my particular favorite, “blonde”—so it’s nice to see get a role with a little meat on it. (She’s really funny as an aspiring actress in a 1948 Schilling & Lane short, Two Nuts in a Rut—in which she tries to land a part in Dick’s new picture by adopting a sexy pose and murmuring “Come wiz me to the casaba…”) Other faces you might recognize in Man Hunt include Jack Lee, Francis Pierlot (the actor who plays firebug Nero Smith in the best of the Henry Aldrich films, Henry Aldrich, Editor [1942]), Olin Howland, Harry Morgan (he’s everywhere!) and Minerva Urecal. Baxter’s Ordway has refined his gourmet tastes somewhat in this entry; inviting Drew to lunch he asks the waiter for Crab Louie for himself and the lady…”and bring some hors d’oeurves.” Oh, and in the Shameless-Self-Promotion Department, Columbia manages to work in a plug for its latest A-picture release, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) when Ordway walks past a poster conveniently plastered near the shooting gallery.

I’ll confess that yesterday was the first opportunity I received to see Just Before Dawn, the sixth of the Crime Doctor sagas, but it was a genuinely nice surprise because this little B-programmer is actually very entertaining. Ordway is relaxing at home (and from the size of the book he’s reading he apparently isn’t asked out much) when his next-door neighbor, Harriet Travers (Mona Barrie), asks for his assistance as one of her party guests has taken ill. Ordway arrives in time to find Walter Foster unconscious on a couch, and diagnoses that all Mr. Foster needs is a shot of insulin—which a guest provides to C.D. from a black bag belonging to the patient. Ordway barely has time to get a cocktail and make conversation with the other guests before Foster is dead—and it looks like Ordway is responsible!

Actually, the audience knows pretty much from the get-go that Ordway is innocent; the first scene in the movie establishes that the persons responsible for Foster’s little poison prescription are the dependably slimy Martin Kosleck (he’s not a Nazi in this one, but he might as well be) and his henchman, Marvin Miller. (Yes, that Marvin Miller—announcer, vocal artist, part-time Whistler and lackey to millionaire John Beresford Tipton. I’ve seen Miller play a bad guy in Blood On the Sun [1945] and a few other pictures; but I really enjoyed seeing him in Dawn.) So Dawn becomes more of a “how’z-he-catch-‘em” than a whodunit—and yet there’s room enough for a surprise at the end, given the large number of suspects. The film also allows Baxter a chance to flex his acting muscles; to get close to Kosleck and Miller he dons a disguise (makeup courtesy of TDOY fave Byron Foulger) as a gangster on the lam. (Ordway is also starting to develop a taste for the good stuff; paying suspect Barrie a visit, she invites him to have a cocktail—even though it would appear to be mid-afternoon.)

The suspects in Dawn include Adele Roberts, Robert Barrat, Charles Arnt, Wilton Graff and Ted Hecht—and you’ll also spot familiar faces in Skelton Knaggs (from the Val Lewton films) and Irene Tedrow (as Ordway’s nurse). Charles D. Brown is the police inspector in this one (he seems to be enjoying the fact that Ordway needs his help to desperately clear his name) and to the age-old question “Did Charles Lane ever play a likable guy in movies?” he does in this one, playing a police coroner who has to pump Ordway’s stomach after C.D. ingests a cocktail laced with poison to trap the killer. “Hurry up, I’ll take out that poison,” Lane assures him, prompting Baxter to respond: “But leave me the drink.”

Next week: TCM wraps up its Crime Doctor salute with The Millerson Case (1947) and The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947). And I’ll also clean up with the two entries they couldn’t find time for: Shadows in the Night (1944) and the final film, The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949).


Vince said...

The Crime Doctor series has eluded me entirely, but I recorded these on your say-so. They sound great.

mike doran said...

They're not showing "Crime Doctor's Diary"? You mean they're going to deny us all the song stylings of Whit Bissell? I mean, why did we fight two world wars? No justice, I tell you, no justice at all...