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Tag Archives: The Crime Doctor

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (Nov. 27, 1947)

Crime Doctor's Gamble
The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s 66-minute mystery The Crime Doctor’s Gamble was the ninth film in the series of programmers from Columbia Pictures.

Based on Max Marcin’s radio series Crime Doctor (1940-1947), the films starred Warner Baxter as Dr. Robert Ordway, a former amnesiac and reformed criminal who now works as a psychiatrist and solves mysteries in his spare time.

Every entry had a little something special to distinguish it from all the other entries. The gimmick of The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is that it takes place in Paris, which is a step up from the hillbilly setting of the last entry in the series, The Millerson Case (1947), which was my least favorite of the Crime Doctor features so far.

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble opens at the Institution Psycho-Pathologique des Invalides Mentaux, where Dr. Ordway is lecturing on crime deduction, modern psychiatry, criminal tendencies, and crime prevention to a roomful of old white-haired gents.

Dr. Ordway is in Paris for two weeks, and has three lectures to give. He’s also visiting his old friend Inspector Jacques Morrell (Marcel Journet), but he doesn’t intend to become involved with any police matters during his time in Paris.

Good luck with that plan, Crime Doctor.

After a champagne-soaked night on the town, Inspector Morrell and Dr. Ordway go to a little hole in the wall club with a rooster on the door, where they watch a couple of very acrobatic dancers — a man and a woman whose act includes such spectacles as the woman being swung around by her hair.

The dancers are followed on stage by a man dressed all in black who wears an executioner’s hood and throws knives at a woman wearing a white porcelain mask. Inspector Morrell muses how ease it would be for a trained knife thrower to commit murder and Dr. Ordway asks him if they’re on a busman’s holiday.

Morrell denies it, but the next morning, back at the Préfecture de Police, Morrell invites Dr. Ordway to talk with murder suspect Henri Jardin (Roger Dann), whose father threatened to cut him out of his will after his marriage to Mignon Duval (Micheline Cheirel), the daughter of the knife thrower they saw the night before.

Jardin remembers going into a rage the night his father was stabbed to death, but doesn’t remember what happened after their argument.

Morrell has a personal interest in Henri. The two men spent time together in a concentration camp during the war. After the war, Henri spent six months in a psychoneurotic institution, but Morrell doubts his guilt.

The mystery in The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is well paced and fairly involving. There’s a good collection of suspects — the Jardins’ butler, Theodore (Jean del Val), who overheard an argument the night of the murder, but thought nothing of it; the Jardins’ attorney, Jules Daudet (Steven Geray) who has never practiced criminal law, but who feels it is his duty to defend Henri for his father’s murder; Anton Geroux (Maurice Marsac), an expert painter of reproductions, or forgeries, depending on who’s doing the buying; the knife thrower, Maurice Duval (Eduardo Ciannelli), who says nothing good would have come of his daughter’s marriage to Jardin, and then says that even though Jardin was stabbed, that’s not how a knife thrower would kill with a knife, and drives his point home by throwing a knife into the door next to Ordway’s head; and, of course, Mignon and Henri … could one of them be guilty?

Despite its soupçon of Parisian flavor, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is obviously all filmed on the Columbia sound stages. The signs in the film are in French, but all the actors speak English, even when they are not speaking to Dr. Ordway.

If you can overlook the cheapness of the production, however, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is a good mystery. It’s also the type of series programmer that was on the verge of extinction with the coming popularity of television.

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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.

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.

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.