Doctor X has pretty much the wrong prescription for everything. After a genuinely creepy first act, which has police autopsy consultant Lionel Atwill telling the cops the only place a monthly serial killer could get a particular scalpel is at Atwill’s school and then giving them a tour and everyone there being in some way familiar with cannibalism, the movie becomes an old dark house picture before going off the rails with its finale reveals. But it’s also a lousy gag comedy, with reporter Lee Tracy bumbling around—a lot of bumbling—and then a weird romance with Tracy unintentionally wooing Atwill’s daughter, Fay Wray. Sometimes it seems like the wooing is intentional, but then it’s the opposite during other scenes.
Robert Warwick plays the police commissioner who’s investigating the case. Atwill takes back to his medical school to introduce all the suspects, but then Warwick disappears from the main plot. It’s a real bummer because, without Warwick, there’s room for so much bad acting. Bad acting and weird decisions from the screenwriters and director Curtiz.
The most annoying weird bit is George Rosener as Atwill’s creepy butler. Roesner spends the first quarter of the movie just looking suspicious—according to a witness, the murderer’s really ugly, and Roesner’s creepy dude fits the bill. For the audience, anyway. See, when Atwill takes all the suspects out to his Long Island house to hook them up to blood pressure monitors and try to get them worked up watching murder reenactments, it’s pretty clear Atwill’s not good at his job and isn’t going to be able to catch the killer. Especially not since, based on the nonsensical resolution (which turns movie-long clues into plot holes), none of his ideas about catching the killer would’ve worked. There’s a lengthy fight scene at the end, and as it drags on, one has time to reflect on how little the bad science makes sense given the reveal.
So it would help if Doctor X had a bunch of good acting to make up for the script.
It does not.
Best is Warwick, then Atwill (after a lackluster first half, he recovers well in the second), then Wray. And Wray’s not particularly good; she’s got a terrible, silly part and no chemistry with Tracy because he’s a pest. But she’s not bad. And there’s a lot of bad. The worst is Preston Foster. He’s atrocious.
Oh, wait, I got sidetracked talking about Roesner. Who’s also got a terrible part because he’s not actually a creepy butler; he’s just a regular dude who no one in the movie knows is a creep. There’s a whole scene where he teases maid Leila Bennett (who’s good, but barely in it), and you think he’s intentionally being mean, but then he’s weirded to Wray later, and she’s okay with it, taking it as concern. Who knows how it’d play if director Curtiz weren’t entirely checked out regarding his cast’s performances.
The color photography from Ray Rennahan is just okay but charming. He’s trying harder than almost everyone else, who’s not trying at all. And why would you with the script? But, still, someone had to realize Tracy shouldn’t be just bumbling for long scenes, all by himself.
It’s not the worst, but it’s still a reasonably comprehensive fail.