Reusing music in b movies isn’t uncommon, but to reuse music from a movie with the same star? It kind of gets distracting.
Almost everything about Calling Dr. Death is distracting, actually.
The movie opens with a head in a glass sphere ominously describing the film’s setting (Dr. Death is a filmic episode of Inner Sanctum Mysteries–a radio program). It’s nowhere near as distracting, however, as what the first scene reveals… the hair-styling.
Lon Chaney’s hair is absolutely amazing, perfectly molded in each shot, even when it’s supposed to be messy. It’s a styled, gelled (or whatever) messy.
Then there’s his voiceover narration. Chaney’s neurosurgeon psychotherapist–I really don’t think screenwriter Edward Dein knew what a neurosurgeon did, he just liked the sound of it–describes all his thoughts. There’s a long section of it at the beginning, almost five minutes of it, with Chaney walking around his office talking to himself about himself, then more later, just in smaller doses.
Chaney’s actually pretty good in his role. He seems out of place in the apartment scenes–he’s a neurosurgeon with a butler and a high rise apartment with an ornate dining room–but he does well as the doctor, which kind of surprised me. He doesn’t exactly get any help from the supporting cast.
Neither of his female costars is effective. Ramsay Ames is hilariously bad, but Patricia Morison is lousy too. Ames is–taking screen time into account–better, just because her role is smaller. It isn’t simply a matter of lack of chemistry, it’s how amateurish their performances come off opposite Chaney. He might have be in a crappy b movie without a single competently written moment, but he’s still a professional. Ames and Morison look like deer caught in headlines whenever it’s time for them to deliver lines. You can even watch Ames do something with her hand, flexing it or something, to aid in her delivery.
It doesn’t really help director Reginald Le Borg is mind-numbingly boring. He’s got a couple bad shots, but nothing atrocious. Nothing good either. There’s a well-produced montage (unfortunately uncredited). It’s fairly well-lighted, with Virgil Miller bringing small points of light into previously dark shots. The costumes–Vera West did the gowns, which look competent, but I’m not talking about those–are hilarious. Chaney’s running around his apartment in a silly, sort of flower-patterned set of pajamas for a while. It’s something to see.
The problem’s the script. Not just the mechanical failure of the narration, but the lack of compelling situation. Why should we care if Ames is lousy to Chaney, because he can narrate a voiceover explaining it? Calling Dr. Death opened in December, which means moviegoers weren’t in search of air conditioning. Heat, perhaps?
Directed by Reginald Le Borg; written by Edward Dein; director of photography, Virgil Miller; edited by Norman A. Cerf; music by Paul Sawtell; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Dr. Mark Steel), Patricia Morison (Stella Madden), J. Carrol Naish (Inspector Gregg), David Bruce (Bob Duval), Ramsay Ames (Maria Steele), Fay Helm (Mrs. Duval), Holmes Herbert (Bryant, the Butler), Alec Craig (Bill, the Watchman), Frederick Giermann (Marion’s Father), Lisa Golm (Marion’s Mother), Charles Wagenheim (Coroner), Mary Hale (Marion), George Eldredge (District Attorney) and John Elliott (Priest).