What a strange artifact this is: DOCTOR SYN (1937) is a rollicking British melodrama similar in some ways to the bodice-ripping romps of Gainsborough Studios — it even features Margaret Lockwood, THE WICKED LADY herself. But in the star role, as pirate and smuggler Captain Clegg, who has assumed a new identity as village priest Dr. Syn, we have George Arliss. The Iron Duke, as he was affectionately known, is a queer kind of film star, and an even stranger action hero. With a face like a feminine skull, nostrils so flared as to be positively bell-bottomed, and a skeletal frame of sharp angles like an elongated swastika, he resembles the mummified corpse of Kenneth Williams, animated by hidden pneumatic tubes. I guess the closest thing there’s been to him since was Peter Cushing, and indeed Cushing played this role in a Hammer remake in 1962.
The whole tenor of the film is pretty theatrical, in line with British cinema of the time generally, but Arliss himself is at times quite subtle. Describing himself as “a strange man,” he is as divided a performer as Clegg is a character, commingling sensitivity with a crisp kind of barnstorming. He’s no Todd Slaughter, though: his work is quite nuanced, and Katherine Hepburn credited him with teaching her film acting. (Come to think of it, Hepburn could have dragged up as Arliss quite convincingly.)
At the helm of the whole venture is Roy William Neill, a British-born director who’d made his career in Hollywood. Lured back to the UK to make a few movie, he was lined up to make the project which eventually became Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, but political problems on location shut the production down. The designer of that film, Vetchinsky, creates an atmospherically angular, overhanging village for the shadowy goings on in Dimchurch.
This story has elements in common with every smuggling yarn the cinema has seen — as with MOONFLEET, the smugglers are mistaken for phantoms. (Neill would use a variation on this gimmick in his Sherlock Holmes movie THE SCARLET CLAW.) Rather than using a churchyard as entry to their secret lair, the criminal gang here use the coffin-maker’s house, and there’s a secret entrance behind a tombstone. As with JAMAICA INN, a pillar of the community is secretly a pirate chief. In fact, this premise seems to go back to the true story of Deacon Brodie, a respected town councillor by day and a burglar by night, a man whose dual nature seems to have played a role in suggesting the story of Jekyll and Hyde to Robert Louis Stevenson.
Asides from the Hammer remake and a Disney version starring Patrick McGoohan (possibly the most atmospheric and accomplished interpretation), the film seems to have inspired CARRY ON DICK, in which Sid James as Dick Turpin has a secret identity as a village vicar, a wrinkle not to be found in previous Turpin narratives, so far as I’m aware.
The strangest and most fascinating element of DR. SYN is the character played by Hungarian actor Meinhart Maur (a refugee who had worked for Fritz Lang in Germany). Known only as “the mulatto,” he’s disturbingly presented as a mute, subhuman creature who is used by the customs and excise officials as a kind of sniffer dog. As the story goes on, his unfolding backstory invites more and more sympathy, and the racist overtones recede slightly: we lean that he was mutilated and left to die by Clegg, his ears and tongue severed. He’s still portrayed as a horror movie monster (women scream at his appearance), but he actually has our sympathy. Only at the very end do we learn that Clegg was avenging his wife, whom the mulatto had “attacked” (an obvious code-word for something cinematic mulattos have a long history of attempting), clearing the way for a happy ending where the ethnically and physically handicapped avenger is blown to bits by dynamite.
British cinema can be creepy.