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Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (Oct. 24, 1946)

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt
Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s mystery programmer Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is yet another wacky outing with Warner Baxter as Robert Ordway, M.D., Ph.D. (a.k.a. the Crime Doctor).

The Crime Doctor was a character created by Max Marcin for a Sunday-night mystery radio show that ran from 1940 to 1947 on CBS stations. Like a lot of radio detectives (e.g., Boston Blackie, the Falcon), the Crime Doctor also got his own series of hour-long B movies.

In the first film in the series, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), a Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan survives a murder attempt, but suffers from complete amnesia, reinvents himself as “Robert Ordway,” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. His past eventually catches up with him, but everything works out all right, and he is able to continue being Dr. Ordway, putting crooks behind bars and helping the helpless.

Crime Doctor is one of the best films in the series. The subsequent films are all a lot of fun, but Dr. Ordway’s checkered past is rarely referred to. Baxter’s performance in the lead role is always top-notch, however, and most of the Crime Doctor pictures are a cut above most other mystery programmers from the ’40s.

In Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt, John Foster (Myron Healey), a young, pencil-mustachioed man suffering from “bomb shock and combat fatigue,” comes to see Dr. Ordway. He’s suffering from fugue states in which he wanders in a daze, always drawn to the same intersection, but he doesn’t know why, and never remembers how he got there. He could get treatment from the Army, but he doesn’t want his fiancée to know about his condition.

His fiancée, Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew), comes to see Dr. Ordway right afterward. (Foster’s attempts to conceal his condition from her were clearly in vain.) Dr. Ordway deflects her questions and tells her that he can’t violate any patient’s confidentiality.

As with most of the Crime Doctor films, things get loonier as the film goes on. We learn that Foster had his fortune cast during a “slumming party” downtown, and was told by a fortuneteller named “Alfredi” (real name “Alfred Hemstead,” played by Ivan Triesault) that he would meet his violent death on the corner of Garth and Davis streets, which is why he is continually drawn there.

There’s also a case of split personality, which I won’t say too much about in order not to give anything away. However, even the dimmer bulbs in the audience will see the “twist” ending coming from a mile away. I’m not even sure it was meant to be a surprise.

Ordway comments at the end of the film that this has been a strange case, first the fugue, then the split personality. “Doctor, I’d like you to come see my wife,” says Police Inspector Harry B. Manning (William Frawley). “Split personality?” asks the doctor. “No personality,” quips the inspector.

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Mysterious Intruder (April 11, 1946)

Mysterious Intruder
Mysterious Intruder (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

“I may not be the greatest detective in the world … but I am the most unusual.”

So says Don Gale, the shady private investigator played by Richard Dix in William Castle’s Mysterious Intruder, the fifth entry in Columbia’s mystery series The Whistler. Based on the CBS radio show of the same name, each film in the series featured Dix in the lead role, but unlike other B mystery series of the ’30s and ’40s, like Charlie Chan, The Falcon, Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne, and the Crime Doctor, Dix played a different character in each. The Whistler, who narrated the radio show but never participated directly in the events of the story, made similar appearances in the film series, walking in the shadows, whistling the haunting 13-note theme music by Wilbur Hatch, and occasionally offering a pithy analysis of the trouble the characters were in. The anthology format and Dix’s strange, arresting performances made The Whistler one of the more interesting series of its time.

In Mysterious Intruder, Gale is an oily operator who employs a “photographic model” named Freda Hanson (Helen Mowery) for dirty work. He also has a secretary named Joan (Nina Vale) who hates him. Clearly motivated by money, Gale walks the narrow line between self-interest and outright villainy. He’s an interesting character to watch, since his intentions remain shadowy right up to the end of the picture. This being a B-level programmer, we’re not treated to a deep character study, but Dix is a good enough performer to make Mysterious Intruder worth watching.

When the film begins, Gale is in his office, which has a spectacular view of the city and looks as if it should be home to the most expensive lawyer in town, not a small-time bedroom snooper. He’s visited by Edward Stillwell (Paul Burns), a kindly old music store owner who wishes to track down a young woman whom he hasn’t seen since she was 14, seven years ago. Her name is Elora Lund, and he has something he wants to give her. One hundred dollars is all Stillwell can afford to pay, which isn’t enough to pique Gale’s interest, but he changes his mind when Stillwell tells him that Elora Lund will pay any amount for bringing them together.

Three days pass, and Stillwell receives a visitor in his shop. She’s a tall, attractive blonde, and she convinces Stillwell that she is Elora Lund. (She’s actually Freda Hanson, Gale’s blackmail tool.) Stillwell tells “Elora” that among the countless odds and ends that her late mother brought in for him to sell was one item that will bring a fortune if sold. Unbeknownst to Freda, however, she was tailed to the store by a hulking thug named Pontos, played by dependable character actor Mike Mazurki. (Mazurki is always a welcome sight, but he doesn’t have a lot to do in this picture. It’s not too different from the role he played in Dick Tracy; a vicious killer with few to no lines.) Pontos murders Stillwell, and Freda screams and flees the scene.

Meanwhile, we learn that the real Elora Lund (Pamela Blake) is in a sanitarium, recovering from the effects of an auto accident. She’s appears to be uninjured physically, and why she wasn’t recuperating at home is never explained. Ah, the good old days of “rest cures.”

Before he became the premier schlockmeister of the ’50s and the most famous “gimmick” director in Hollywood, William Castle was a dependable director of one-hour programmers, including several Whistler and Crime Doctor pictures. Mysterious Intruder is a tight, entertaining ride that features plenty of twists and turns, as well as one of my favorite plot conceits, the private dick who constantly contaminates crime scenes and tampers with evidence for his own purposes, all while staying one step ahead of the police.

Just Before Dawn (March 7, 1946)

Just Before DawnJust Before Dawn (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

Criminal psychiatrist Dr. Robert Ordway, a.k.a. the “Crime Doctor,” is a fictional character created in 1940 by Max Marcin. Crime Doctor was a Sunday-night program that ran on CBS radio stations for seven years. There are only a few extant recordings of the shows, but the ones I’ve heard are comfortable and formulaic little mysteries, not unlike the long-running Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

Like a number of other popular mystery programs, Crime Doctor was adapted as a series of films. Dr. Ordway was played by four different actors over the course of the radio show, but on-screen, he was always played by Warner Baxter. Baxter had been a matinee idol in the silent era, and had won an Oscar for his role as the Cisco Kid in the early talkie In Old Arizona (1928). By the ’40s, however, he was in poor health, and the Crime Doctor series was an easy paycheck for not too much work. Each picture took less than a month to film, and he made roughly two Crime Doctor pictures a year. Baxter doesn’t seem to be coasting in them, though. While he doesn’t ever run or do any stuntwork, he is a fine actor, and his patrician presence is always a treat.

In the first film, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), we learn the character’s origin. A Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan is shot and left for dead on the side of the road. Suffering from total amnesia, Morgan calls himself “Robert Ordway” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. Eventually, his past catches up with him, but everything works out in the end, allowing him to keep his new name and continue his work as one of the good guys in a series of films released by Columbia Pictures. Crime Doctor was followed by Eugene Forde’s Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943) and Shadows in the Night (1944), George Sherman’s The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945), and William Castle’s Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945). The film series is less cozy than the radio episodes I’ve heard, and delves into noir territory, with all of its shadows, brutal murders, and mysterious characters.

The sixth film in the series, Just Before Dawn, which was also directed by Castle, begins at night, with a shot of a hulking man (Marvin Miller) walking up to the shadowed entrance of the Ganss Mortuary. He is met by Karl Ganss (Martin Kosleck), who gives him a small leather case that contains a hypodermic needle and a vial of something marked “insulin” that’s not really insulin.

In the next scene, we see Dr. Ordway relaxing at home by the fire with a book when Mrs. Travers (Mona Barrie), his new neighbor, knocks on his door. One of the guests at her party has taken ill, and she can’t get in touch with their regular doctor. This was the good old days, when there was no such thing as dialing 911, but any doctor, even one you’d never met before, would drop everything and walk across the street to your house to take a look at someone who had collapsed on your couch. Dr. Ordway isn’t just any doctor, though, and his reputation precedes him. When he is announced as “Dr. Ordway,” the Travers’s butler Armand (Ted Hecht) excitedly blurts out, “the Crime Doctor!”

The collapsed gentleman in the living room is a diabetic (remember that insulin?) named Walter Foster (George Meeker). Dr. Ordway attends to him, and speaks with Foster’s attractive young sister, Claire (Adelle Roberts), who tells Dr. Ordway that her brother must have forgotten to take his insulin. Dr. Ordway unwittingly prepares a hot dose for Foster, and assures Claire and Mrs. Travers that he’ll be fine. While Dr. Ordway is meeting some of the other party guests, Foster drops dead. He has been poisoned, and the murderer has made Dr. Ordway the instrument of his crime.

The police, generally a bumbling lot in these old mystery series, encourage Dr. Ordway to investigate the crime to redeem himself, especially since he lives right across the street from the Travers home, and it will be easy for him to keep tabs on everyone. I don’t know what city the Crime Doctor series takes place in, but its police force must be one of the laziest in the country.

Dr. Ordway investigates the crime in a by-the-numbers fashion. It turns out that a lot of people at the party (and possibly someone who was not at the party) had reason to want Foster dead. There are obviously nefarious things going on at the Ganss Mortuary, but how they relate to Foster’s murder is not immediately clear.

After the halfway mark, the film really kicks into high gear. After an attempt on his life, Dr. Ordway feigns blindness to lull his antagonists into a false sense of security. He also undergoes a fancy make-up job that turns him into a dead ringer for a vicious killer on the lam named Pete Hastings. Things get really nutty by the end, when Dr. Ordway makes himself temporarily immune to poison by lining his stomach with a heavy emulsion of chalk in order to catch the killer. Just Before Dawn is the only movie I can think of that ends with a shot of the protagonist lying down on an operating table to get his stomach pumped.

I’m a big fan of the director. Castle gained notoriety as a purveyor of high-quality schlock with his “gimmick” films of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Anyone who bought a ticket for Macabre (1958) was automatically insured by Lloyd’s of London, and received a settlement if they died of fright during the picture; House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured a gimmick called “Emergo,” in which a plastic skeleton shot out of a box next to the screen as Vincent Price manipulated his own skeleton on-screen; the gimmick for The Tingler (1959) was called “Percepto,” and involved theater patrons getting their spines buzzed by a wire hidden in their seats; and Homicidal (1961) featured a one-minute “Fright Break” at the climax that allowed anyone who was too scared to keep watching to leave and receive a full refund. Of course, they were lighted with a spotlight as they walked up the aisle and then had to stand in the cardboard “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until the film ended and their fellow patrons strolled past, so not too many people took advantage of the offer.

Before he carved his unique place in cinematic history, Castle directed dozens of programmers like this one. Prior to making Just Before Dawn, he directed three entries in Columbia Pictures’s Whistler series, The Whistler (1943), The Mark of the Whistler (1944), and Voice of the Whistler (1945). In general, I prefer the Whistler series. The plots are more varied and interesting. I also liked Castle’s prior entry in this series, Crime Doctor’s Warning, a little more than this one. Its depiction of the Greenwich Village art scene and the crazy beatniks who inhabited it was really enjoyable. But Just Before Dawn is, like all of Castle’s movies, still a whole lot of fun for fans of B mysteries and bottom-of-the-bill programmers.

Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?

This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”

This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.

Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”

The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.

Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.

Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.

Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.