Doc C.

I always assumed the writers of THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE named it, and its protagonist, with a dirty joke because they assumed none of the ubercatholics at the Breen Office would get it. Co-scenarist John Huston, in his memoir, devotes one line to the film, acknowledging it exists but saying no more. All his other comments concerning Litvak are to do with horse racing — the two men were heavy gamblers, and there are some amazing stories about that, but nothing that really illuminates the A.L. filmography.

Apart from the title, the other mystery here is the ending, which likewise ought by rights to have been forbidden by the censor on the basis of “crime must not pay.”

Asides from these two points, this is a near-perfect film, with surprising fluidity of tone and a straightfaced quality absent in other WB crime comedies, eg A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER or BULLETS OR BALLOTS (though it’s been a while). Edward G. Robinson is very calm throughout, as the scientist who tries to investigate criminal psychology by committing crimes himself (since he naturally doesn’t know any crooks). Once he meets Claire Trevor, Humphrey Bogart and their gang, some broader schtick does ensure — after all, Allen Jenkins, Curt Bois, and other great scene-stealers are around (for Clitterhouse to test). Jenkins’ hysterical mutism is good for some broad yocks.

Then there’s murder, and one of the best trials since Alice in Wonderland. The story is very neatly worked out — minor characters like the nurse, patient and police chief are dropped in early, disappear for the central business with the gang, but come back for delightful curtain calls at the end. John Huston, Barre Lyndon and John Wexley are the writers. Wexley’s name was only vaguely familiar, but he was a Litvak fave, it seems, working on CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, CITY FOR CONQUEST, and THE LONG NIGHT. Only Peter Viertel worked up nearly as many (if you include his uncredited polish on THE JOURNEY).

With Litvak I expect zip pans and expressionistic touches — this movie has one of each, but they’re good ones. The zip pan reveals a surprise Bogie to Trevor, the expressionistic touch is an alarming POV shot from someone who’s received an overdose of sedatives…

Ah-hah! It was a PLAY. So blame the prolific Barré Lyndon.

I think this might be the most Hustonesque — if that is a thing — script job pre-MALTESE FALCON. It’s all about irony, and it’s the story of a kind of failure: a criminal psychologist who becomes both a criminal and a madman in the course of his work.

Ah-hah two! John Wexley, Huston’s collaborator, is interviewed in Patrick McGilligan’s Tender Comrades, which belongs on every cinephiles shelf. On Huston: “Johnny was very verbal. But he wrote strange, jarring things the character never would say. I liked a lot of it, but it didn’t belong. We were dealing with how gangsters would speak and also with a psychologist who joins the gang–he becomes enmeshed and lives a double life–and it never sounded like gangsters or a doctor; it sounded like Johnny Huston. It wasn’t anything great one way or another, but we always had to go back and fix what he did. I had to be awfully discreet about it with [producer] Bob Lord. That lesson may have helped Johnny later; he didn’t do that kind of writing when he did The Maltese Falcon.”

On Litvak: “We became very warm personally. He would tell me all about his problems with women. He had a place in or near Malibu, and we preferred to work at his place.” In fact, Litvak also got a visit from Michael Curtiz, who then modelled the amazing house in MILDRED PIERCE on Litvak’s home.

On Jack Warner: “He was a vaudevillian. I had an argument with him about costs on Clitterhouse. I had a scene where the gang of thieves rob a building to get some minks, and Eddie goes with them. Bogart tries to kill Eddie, locks him in a cold-storage vault. Bogart thinks he’s dead; fortunately, Eddie gets out. We wanted a surprise end to the sequence. It’s a decisive sequence, because next Eddie goes after Bogart. Because I was from New York, I knew that there are elevators that come up on every sidewalk. So in this scene the cops would be standing around, and the top cop would say something like, ‘He must be hiding somewhere.’ The sidewalk opens up, and Eddie comes up in the elevator, debonair, right in the middle of the cops. Eddie says, ‘No one down there,’ lights a cigar, walks off. It would get a big laugh.

“But I got a note from Jack Warner saying ‘We don’t have those elevators [on the lot]. We’d have to dig a hole and get a crank to bring him up. It would cost too much.’ We were already shooting. I called him up and said, ‘What kind of peanut brain are you? Fourteen hundred dollars is all it would cost. I’ll pay it myself.’ That changed his mind. I called Lord and said, ‘Deduct it from my salary.’ Lord said, ‘I’ll pay half.’ Warner finally paid.”

On adapting the play: “The play had an ending, but I invented a trial at the end of the film and a bewildered jury–was Clitterhouse sane or insane? People would leave the theater with that humorous question in their minds.” A smart move: I imagine the Breen Office was as perplexed as the film’s jurors, and so they couldn’t condemn the film’s blatant immorality because it’s not precisely clear whether or not crime pays. Brilliant.

CLITTERHOUSE channels the Warner house style very nicely, but it isn’t realy like any other film I know. Just a really unusual tone, or tones. Another Litvak film I wholeheartedly recommend.

THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE stars Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Gaye Dawn; Fred C. Dobbs; Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke; Battling Burrows; Pearl Fabrini; Doctor Treating Knute; Carson Drew; Inspector Crane; Franzi Kartos; Detective Tom Polhaus; Paul Cezanne; Mrs. Truesmith; Detective Bates; the voice of Drake McHugh; ‘Slapsy’ Maxie; and Angelica ‘Angie’ ‘Angel’ Evans Conway (scenes deleted).

12 Responses to “Doc C.”

  1. Battling Burrows is Donald crisp from broken blossoms, correct?

  2. Yes, he’s the detective in this one. Loooong career!

  3. I was tremendously moved when I was a kid by his death in “How green was my valley”. He really was the heart and soul of that family of Welch coal miners My favorite movie that features him is a very very dark western called the Man from Laramie

    I eagerly read every post that you send out. Your knowledge is breathtaking

    Bryce

  4. Thank you! It’s trivia, mostly… and I’ll confess now, I’ve never seen How Green…

  5. When I was in my early teens ABC channel 7 in Chicago ran a series of great movies on Sunday night. That is when I first saw nightmare Alley, Citizen Kane, how green was my valley And the lady from Shanghai,. It was strictly a local offering

    You know the shot of the seated crowd which Kane is addressing? I was in complete awe of that shot. I had never seen anything like it.

    Similarly, I remember the scene In nightmare alley were Tyrone power is part of a circus and is now featured as the geek. The camera shots Resembled expressionist film making and looked like something out of a nightmare.

    And of course I remember the elevator coming up to the surface out of a mine and Roddy McDowall has the head and body of his Dead father lying on his lap. The shot resembled Michaelangelos Pieta

    Last of all there was the mirror Room sequence in the Funhouse where Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane shoot it out

    I think it was around that time that I realized how wonderful movies were

    Bryce

  6. chris schneider Says:

    Barre Lyndon will always be, for me, the writer of the ‘50s WAR OF THE WORLDS and the play filmed as THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. Turns out that his career as screenwriter also included HANGOVER SQUARE and SIGN OF THE PAGAN … not to mention THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.

  7. I revered Dave Kehr’s blog-site (it led me to SHADOWPLAY, among many other favors done); it ended when he took a dream-job programming film for MOMA. But Kehr lost me in his adulation of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, which he enshrined. No need to rush crossing it off your to-see list.

  8. Lyndon has weird credits! I can only assume Cheat Death lost something in both screen adaptations as it always seems a snooze. Hangover Square is a travesty of a terrific tragedy/potboiler, a real shame because it was perfectly cast.

    A lot of people love How Green Was My Valley! Kind of ridiculous that I haven’t seen that one.

  9. A wonderfully entertaining and unconventional film. Part of what makes Robinson’s presence here so delicious is that, while the gangster milieu around him is familiar from several of his earlier triumphs, he’s playing a suave, cultured character who has more in common with the real Robinson than with the likes of Little Caesar. That ending is a delight, and makes one wonder why more writers didn’t come up with similiar devices with which to finesse the censors.

  10. Robinson and Trevor had a radio show together at the time, which I’d like to check out.

    I guess that kind of ending was risky, and expensive if you couldn’t get it approved, but I equally guess it must have been OK’d by the Office before production…

    Just enjoyed Litvak’s Out of the Fog, which deserves a better rep, and it has a similarly outrageous conclusion.

  11. bensondonald Says:

    Apropos of something: I found a used copy of one of Kino’s “Lubitsch in Berlin” discs, featuring nice prints of “The Oyster Princess” and “I Don’t Want to Be a Man”. They’re described as romcoms when it’s safe to say, for all their charm, they’re anything but.

    I checked and saw you had a fun post on “The Oyster Princess” already. Glad I saw the movie first, because it’s a wonder to go into it blind, expecting a conventional movie. Have you covered “I Don’t Want to Be a Man”? Not as extravagant, only 45 minutes, and the story and gags could have been a safe American two-reeler. But even then it must have been obvious that Lubitsch was Up to Something.

  12. I’ve seen it but somehow I don’t seem to have written about it. I did, however, write an essay for the Masters of Cinema version of that set — I drew the short straw and got Anna Boleyn, though.

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