Lionel Atwill Administers the Chloroform…

…as only he can.

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“No, not in MY EYES!”

From THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET. Joseph H Lewis (known as “Wagonwheel” Lewis for his supposed fondness for having the camera peep out behind from big foreground objects such as wheels) directs with thrusting zeal, propelling the camera in at sinister moments in that style which has become overfamiliar today via Spielberg but which must have looked pretty fresh in the ’40s. Unfortunately, the script he’s tethered to is lumpy and hobbled — everything is thunderously atmospheric in Market Street, where “Pinky” Atwill is experimenting with suspended animation, but after five minutes he’s a fugitive from justice en route to New Zealand on a liner populated by B-movie simps (the punchy boxer! the dippy woman!) who are not only tiresome, but their clearly labelled comedy relief status prevents them, by tiresome genre rules, from falling victim to the mad doctor’s sinister research. This is very bad news, because a few moments in their company had me praying for their early deaths.

Still, whenever “Wagonwheel” and “Pinky” join arms to serve up some creepy medical malpractice, things assume a modicum of class and vigour. But not a patch on Lewis’s superior and demented Lugosi vehicle, THE INVISIBLE GHOST (in which there is no ghost and nobody is invisible… or are they?)

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20 Responses to “Lionel Atwill Administers the Chloroform…”

  1. Lewis is of course a wonder forGun Crazy and The Big Combo. And don’t forget his last theatrical feature Terror in a Texas Town where Sterlingn Hayden plays a sheriff equipped with a harpoon!

  2. GUN CRAZY is a real masterpiece and an immense sensation even in it’s day. Billy Wilder kept pestering notre Wagon Wheel on how he did that legendary long take of Dall and Cummings driving the car and holding up the bank and getaway all-in-one-take. What I love about that scene best is the end where Peggy Cummings clearly breaks character and stares back at the camera and grins at the crew off-screen. Very New Wave.

    I also like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS. He’s a really talented natural film-maker and who had very refined taste. His favourite film-maker was William Wyler.

  3. It’s fascinating how Lewis really comes alive on certain movies. On most of those early westerns he’s hardly involved at all. On the later big studio films, very little personality comes through. But Mad Doctor has personality in the good parts, My Name is Julia Ross is a little gem, and in Gun Crazy and Big Combo and Terror in a Texas Town he explodes all over the screen in a shower of genius. He’s truly imaginative. The Invisible Ghost is an early example of him managing to bring boundless enthusiasm to really shoddy material. A comparison with any of Lugosi’s other poverty row films shows what dedication and inventiveness can do.

  4. Christopher Says:

    If it weren’t for Lionel,creatures from off the table might be ordinary citizens..He was Satan for every man-made monster!….I need to see this film again sometime..I didn’t know it was available.I haven’t seen it since childhood and high school days when it was a fixture on late night horror host programs and I’d see it in bits and pieces and wonder..theres a Ship..theres an Island..theres natives..theres Mala..what and where is Market Street?

  5. Yeah, Market Street barely gets a look in, but it’s the best bit of the film. Of course, they could have called it The Mad Doctor of Blood Island just as easily.

  6. During a Lewis-obsessed period of my life, I managed to see all of the above-named films as well as the utterly bizarre meta-whodunnit, So Dark the Night, which is a visual and narrative treat. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mad Doc yet but that should happen soonish. I do love a bit of Atwill.

  7. So Dark is great, smashing sympathetic central perf and some bold and smart directing choices, coupled with a terrifif central conceit.

    Mad Doc isn’t great, except when it is. About 10% of the time, maybe. That opening sequence could so easily have lead into a totally different, better movie.

  8. Christopher Says:

    Mad Doctor of Blood Island!..perfect..;o)
    just so happens to be my favorite Blood Island film too..

  9. kevin mummery Says:

    Wouldn’t it be great to have a Joseph H. Lewis boxed set containing all his best films, like the sets for Val Lewton, Preston Sturges, and numerous others I’m too ignorant to remember? He really did some fantastic work…in the late or middle 1980’s, I attended a showing of Gun Crazy at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts Theater. It was hosted by William K. Everson, and Joseph H. Lewis was available to take questions from the audience. He was very informative, and had some funny anecdotes about the film, most of which I’ve forgotten.

  10. He seems like a funny guy in the Bogdanovich interview.

    Sturges and Lewton had the advantage that most of their best work was made at Paramount and RKO respectively, whereas I think Lewis moved around a lot more. But I get the impression each of the studios he attended could probably put together a set of three really good ones, or at least one great one, an OK one, and a crappy one (as is often the policy with box sets).

  11. Well, Ulmer’s been well served in recent years, so I imagine there’s no reason Lewis would be any more difficult to package? He filmed some great material that was screened by I think the BBC around Gun Crazy one night many years back, explaining how the bank heist was shot (and if I recall correctly retracing the route). I can’t remember if it was a Moviedrome or something similar, maybe a Film Noir night – they used to do a lot of that sort of stuff. He came across as a funny, no-nonsense kind of guy.

  12. I just saw THE BIG COMBO for the first time and it’s pretty much one of the best damn films of it’s kind ever made. The thing is I didn’t know what to expect from the film. I thought it’d be a sub-Jules Dassin endeavour instead it’s this cool, witty, romantic and sharply critical film about cops and criminals and the bit where the incomparable Richard Conte reads Cornel Wilde’s cop character correctly pointing out “you want to be” and that being a gangster is all about personality is very Proto New-Wave as well.

    Only in the B-Film would you find a henchman agreeing to squeal on his boss after he weeps at the sight of the body of his fellow hitman and partner-in-crime alongside a smooth Swedish businessman called Nils Dreyer and then that stunning execution scene of Brian Donlevy(incidentally the wall he’s lined up against has a Wagon Wheel at the side).

    It’s a great example of director-as-smuggler, the screenplay is by Philip Yordan and at the risk of auteurist heresy, I must say his signature is quite apparent in the multiple character narrative where each character has his own cards waiting to get the upper hand very much in line with JOHNNY GUITAR and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and even THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Quite obviously inspired by Marlowean dramas.

    Here Cornel Wilde’s cop is quite openly equated with Richard Conte, he offers his witnesses protection(the same choice of words) is driven by sexual jealousy and macho attitudes. And his showgirl friend(of the “with benefits” kind) is more astute and smart than he is although Wilde certainly makes him more complex as the story goes along, not unlike Glenn Ford in THE BIG HEAT, an obvious comparison with this film being the definitive Revenge Tragedy of American Film Noir.

  13. Also in The Big Combo Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are my favorite movie gay couple.

  14. Mingo and Fante. Holliman’s Mingo, in hiding for an inordinate amount of time, at one point whines, “I can’t swallow no more salami!” I’ve read that at the time Holliman was totally oblivious to the implied relationship. There was a gay couple in The Sopranos too come to think of it, two violent punk hoods who came to a violent end after trying to kill Michael Imperioli’s Christopher.

  15. I agree about So Dark The Night, it is a great little film and well worth seeing. I believe it’s the one and only time Steven Geray got to play the lead in a film.

  16. Philip Yordan’s an interesting guy. He wrote some great stuff and some bad stuff, and the problem is he also fronted for blacklistees. When the time came to restore credit to those who had really done the writing, I’ve read that Yordan only cooperated in some cases. If he’d fallen out with the blacklistees, he refused to name them so their credits could be restored. So it’s a little hard to be sure which films he wrote.

  17. Interestingly I just read about the one other thing Wagon Wheel Joe Lewis slipped past not only the censors but also producer Cornel Wilde. That scene in that parlour between Jean Wallace and Richard Conte culminates in a very erotic close-up of her face while Conte kisses her at the back and sinks behind her. Apparently Lewis intended that to be implied as oral sex and told Jean Wallace to play it that way. The issue is that she was Cornel Wilde’s wife at that time and she was at first aghast but agreed because it helped the character. Somehow the censors let that past.

    I didn’t get that when I saw it but seeing it again it’s fairly clear. So a gay couple, and cunnilingus. Smart guy, Joe Lewis.

  18. “He’s just gone down to tie his shoelace!” said one of my students. But it is a shockingly overt bit of cunning linguistics from the Conte cruelle. In the Bogdanovich interview Lewis says he told the censors that it was all in their filthy imaginations, and they believed him.

  19. Randy Man Says:

    The opening reel of Mad Doctor of Market Street is Lewis in literally a nutshell (there’s even a wagonwheel in the openng shot!). Bam, bam, bam! Not a wasted frame – visual storytelling as if by electroshock. It makes a great preliminary short for an all-Lewis program, provided you can find it. I ran it in a class devoted to Low-Budget filmmakers as an appetizer before Gun Crazy. They ate it up!

  20. That’s exactly how it should be used! It’s a shame the rest of the film doesn’t live up to it, but it does indeed form a hyper-intense summation of all Lewis’s tropes and techniques. And it’s a great intro to Atwill for those who haven’t had the pleasure.

    I wrote somewhere here about Atwill’s revolutionary approach to acting: the enantiodromic school…

    Must write up The Gorilla soon, that’s possibly the best example of it.

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