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The Millerson Case (May 29, 1947)

The Millerson Case
The Millerson Casee (1947)
Directed by George Archainbaud
Columbia Pictures

George Archainbaud’s The Millerson Case is the eighth film in the Crime Doctor series from Columbia Pictures and for my money, it’s easily the worst.

Produced by Rudolph C. Flothow, the picture finds Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter) leaving his Manhattan medical office in the incapable hands of his partner, Dr. Shaw (Walden Boyle), and taking a well-earned vacation in the country for some hunting and fishing.

I’m not sure exactly which remote rural area the film is supposed to depict. Dr. Ordway drives to it from New York City, but it looks suspiciously like California. All I can tell you for certain is that it’s a part of the country where people are always asking, “What fer?”

After a young man named Eben Tuttle (Elvin Field) is shot while carrying a deer on his back, Dr. Ordway comes face to face with the superstitious and uneducated ways of local physician Sam Millerson (Griff Barnett). When an epidemic of typhoid fever breaks out, Doc Millerson dismisses it as “summer complaint” and treats it with “complaint bitters.” He says that he’s been doctorin’ man and beast for 30 years in these parts and he’ll be damned before anyone else tells him what to do.

Three people in the rural community die during the outbreak of typhoid, but one of them, Ward Beechy (Trevor Bardette), has peculiar symptoms. One of the more sensible medical men in the area, Dr. Prescott (Robert Kellard), who’s sent in after the government quarantines the area, isn’t surprised to find evidence of perforated peritonitis in Beechy’s intestinal tract, but he’s never seen a typhoid case with perforations throughout the entire alimentary canal, such as might have been caused by a corrosive poison. Dr. Ordway is unsurprised, since he found no evidence of typhoid bacilli in Beechy’s blood sample and knew something was fishy.

We get a sense of Ward Beechy’s character as he lies dying on his sickbed and he amorously tells his wife’s sister, Belle Englehart (Nancy Saunders), “Sometimes I wish you wasn’t my sister-in-law, Belle.”

This turns out not to be just a typical piece of throwaway hillbilly humor (of which there’s plenty to go around in The Millerson Case). After his death, we learn that Beechy was the local Casanova and had made plenty of enemies — mostly cuckolded husbands and boyfriends who had access to poison. He’s also described as the handsomest man around, which, if you know what Trevor Bardette looks like, should give you some idea of how good-looking the average man in town is.

Doc Millerson, who claims he knows who the guilty party is, receives a note in a woman’s handwriting requesting a meeting at the river bank. He goes there and is killed in an ambush by a rifle shot. With only the note as a clue, Dr. Ordway sets out to find the murderer (or murderers) of Beechy and Millerson and set things right.

I generally like the Crime Doctor series, and while I didn’t hate The Millerson Case, it was the weakest entry yet. There was too much broad humor for my taste, and the mystery just wasn’t very compelling.

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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.

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.

Night Editor (March 29, 1946)

Night Editor
Night Editor (1946)
Directed by Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

Henry Levin’s Night Editor is — to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes — nasty, brutish, and short. Aside from the happy ending, which feels tacked on, it’s the Platonic ideal of a B noir. The protagonist is tough on the outside but weak and conflicted on the inside. The femme fatale is unfaithful not only to her husband but also her lover, and is excited by violent death. In the world of Night Editor, ambulances are “meat wagons,” and dialogue like, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero,” is what passes for pillow talk. And the movie gets the job done in less than an hour and 10 minutes.

I went into Night Editor not knowing anything about it beyond the title and the fact that it was based on Hal Burdick’s radio show of the same name, which ran from 1934 to 1948. The program was a sort of human-interest editorial column on the radio, with Burdick relating a story and providing all the voices. (There were other characters, and an announcer, but once Burdick got going with his tale, it was all him.)

Night Editor takes place in New York City, and opens with a shot of a neon sign that says “New York Star.” It looks more like a diner sign than anything else, but the Star is a fictional rag, so the prop department was probably feeling expansive. A young reporter named Johnny (Coulter Irwin) walks toward the newspaper office like a zombie, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a street sweeper. He hasn’t been home in two weeks. When he stops in the stairwell to take a slug from his flask, we can see by the thermometer on the wall that it’s 94 degrees in the offices of the Star. These were clearly the days before every office building had central air conditioning.

The newsroom at night is presided over by editor Crane Stewart (Charles D. Brown), who sits with a group of chain-smoking, poker-playing reporters who crack wise about death and destruction. At this point, I thought this picture was going to be a hard-hitting drama about investigative journalists chasing down a big story, like Call Northside 777. But it turns out that the scenes in the city room are just a framing device, as editor Stewart reminisces about a tough cop named Tony Cochrane he once knew, who was involved with a story Stewart covered during Prohibition.

From this point onward, Night Editor is a pitch-black noir. Tony Cochrane, as played by William Gargan, is a working stiff with a good job as a police detective, a dutiful wife, and a young son whom he loves more than anything in the world. But Tony made the mistake of falling for a beautiful blond ice queen, and now finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues just to sustain an affair that seems to bring him nothing but misery. When Tony picks up wealthy socialite Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) in his car, their first exchange sets the tone of the picture:

“Tony?”
“What?”
“Kiss me before you go.”
“I told you I’d be right back,” he snaps.
“Kiss me,” she says.
“What do you want, blood?”
“Yes, blood.”
“Don’t boil over yet, Jill, it ain’t time yet.”

Their “sweet talk” continues like this for the entire picture. The only thing they share is lust. Other than that they can’t stand each other. Jill says things to Tony like, “I don’t need you. I can buy and sell you.” Tony tells her things like, “You’re worse than blood poisoning.” In my favorite exchange of the picture, Tony tells Jill, “You’re rotten. Pure, no-good, first-rate, high-grade, A-number-one rotten.” She responds by saying, “Tony, I love you.”

Tony drives Jill down to a lonely stretch of beach. He parks the car and they hold each other tightly, whispering sweet words of loathing to each other. Tony compares Jill to a sickness, then to a nightmare with convulsions. She tells him, “You’ll never get away from me, Tony, I won’t let you. You’re like me. There’s an illness inside of you that has to hurt or be hurt. We were meant for each other, Tony.”

Their tryst is interrupted when another car drives down to the beach and parks near them. Jill and Tony see a man step out of the car. The other person in the car, a young woman, remains inside. The man produces a tire iron, and brutally bludgeons the girl to death with it. Tony flashes his car’s lights. The man runs. Tony draws his revolver but Jill yells at him not to do it, to let the man get away. If he doesn’t there will be a scandal, and Tony could lose everything; his job, his house, his wife, and even his son. With anguish on his face, Tony slowly lowers his weapon. He walks to the other car. The corpse’s stockinged legs are sticking out. He looks down at the body, dejected. He returns to his car, but as he starts to drive away, Jill screams that she wants to see the dead body. “I want to look at her, Tony!” she keeps shouting. It’s clear from her frenzied voice and the maniacal look on her face that her interest in the corpse is prurient.

After the murder, Night Editor really gets going. We’re treated to a relatively realistic depiction of police work, at least in terms of how investigative assignments are distributed (which is impressive for any movie made in the days before Dragnet). The movie also does a good job of showing the symbiotic and cheerfully ghoulish relationship between cops and the reporters on the police beat. For the most part, however, the film focuses on Tony’s interviews with suspects, which is as it should be. Tony is wracked with guilt for withholding evidence, but he’s too afraid of what he might lose if he steps forward.

The performances in the film are great. Frank Wilcox is memorable as Douglas Loring, the bank manager whom Tony suspects is the killer he glimpsed after he interviews him. Their scenes together are fraught with tension. Gargan has the face of an everyman, and believably plays the role of hangdog detective with something to hide. (Interestingly, Gargan is one of the few actors who actually was a private detective in real life. He worked for a New York detective agency for about a year for $10 a day plus expenses, but was eventually fired when he lost track of a diamond salesman he was charged with protecting.) Paul E. Burns deserves mention, too. His character, the Scandinavian-accented, milk-drinking detective Ole Strom, could have easily been a foolish stereotype, but Burns invests the character with a sharp-eyed intellect and a real sense of human decency. Janis Carter’s femme fatale Jill is the most one-note character, but she attacks the role with such sadistic brio that it doesn’t matter.

Night Editor is a must-see for noir fans. Originally it was supposed to be the first in a series, but no other Night Editor pictures were ever made. It’s a shame. I like the idea of a series of programmers based on the kind of stories jaded old newspaper editors tell their reporters during the slow periods of the evening.

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.