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31 Days of Halloween: Doctor X

Published Wednesday, October 13, 2021 at 11:42pm

The problem with basing a movie on exciting, modern science is that the more science you invoke, the more likely it is to be outdated in a few years. The sins against all forms of science are well documented, but I'd bet that the flexible nature of psychology makes it more prone to abuse than others. I have to wonder how Doctor X was received by the scientifically literate in 1932; there's not that much science in it, but I can imagine a psychologist squinting at the screen through the whole movie and occasionally saying "that's not how any of this works!"

Wisecracking news reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is following a series of murders. Each killing has taken place during a full moon, and the bodies have all been cannibalized. As the movie opens, Taylor is waiting at a morgue near the waterfront for the police to arrive with Dr. Xavier. The group arrives and Lee is barred from entry because a journalist has no business intruding in the morgue.

The renowned Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) owns a local medical academy and has been brought in to give his opinion, but the police are less interested in his expertise than his reaction to the corpse; the murders have been committed with a scalpel exclusive to Xavier's institution. I'm trying to imagine what that means; as far as I know, a scalpel is a scalpel.

At any rate, all of Xavier's staff are under suspicion for flimsy reasons: Dr. Wells has studied cannibalism, Dr. Rowitz is studying the effects of the moon on the mind, Dr. Haines is a voyeur, and Dr. Duke has a bad attitude.

The police give Dr. Xavier 48 hours to conduct his own investigation before they come in and start ham-fisting things. Dr. Xavier's method involves strapping the suspects into chairs and monitoring their heart rate while the murders are reenacted before them, which sounds to me like something they should report to the academy's HR. Anyway, the experiment does nothing to exonerate any of the suspects, so Xavier commits to another night of reenactment and monitoring. Taylor hides out in the hopes of getting a big scoop, but manages to run into Xavier's daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray), who is initially hostile but warms to him by the time the movie ends. In between, Joanne ends up roped into a second night of reenactments and almost ends up a victim.

Critical consensus at the time was that Dr. Xavier was good enough; not great, but not a waste of time, either. I agree with that; I liked it but it was nothing special. Atwill and Wray are fun to watch, and the spooky expressionist sets keep things interesting. The Lee Tracy character is so annoying you'd like to punch him. The film is presented in a two-color format that Warner Bros. experimented with in the early '30s but dropped because it didn't seem to excite audiences. The two colors, it turns out, are peach and industrial green, but the movie looks fine if you're not thinking about that.

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