Dr. Crime

I’m rapidly buying up all John D.MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, and almost as rapidly burning my way through the CRIME DOCTOR series of Columbia B pictures with Warner Baxter. The McDonalds are better, but the Baxters have a comforting cosiness — not noir, though they’re shadowy thrillers all right. Every one of them has a somnolent scene of WB wandering around a dark interior by flashlight or candlelight. But they’re neat and unambiguous.

Michael Gordon, whose career makes no sense, did the first, in which the character’s radio origin story is replayed, and forgotten about thereafter. Like Arnie in TOTAL RECALL he goes from being a bad guy to a good guy by having his memory wiped. Seems like the prisons could save a lot of money by reforming prisoners with a simple blow on the head.

Olin Howland as a rogue phrenologist, COME ON!

The most cinematically important film of the series — which isn’t really important at all, but bear with me — is THE CRIME DOCTOR’S MAN HUNT, directed by William Castle. One can’t imagine that the directors of this series had much script input, but it’s a curious fact that Castle’s later fondness for publicity gimmicks and trick processes went hand-in-hand with a passion for tricksy plots. It’s sensibility that makes sense, unlike Michael Gordon’s (CRIME DOC, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, PILLOW TALK?). It even fits with his rep as a bit of a con artist. Narrative tricks and pranks. Remember also that he produced LADY FROM SHANGHAI and ROSEMARY’S BABY, and imagine how prosaic those movies would look if he’d been allowed to direct them.

Oh, we also watched THE WHISTLER, another radio spin-off directed by Castle and co-written by CRIME DOC scribe Eric Taylor, which borrows the “kill me” plot from Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China, a wild variation on which turns up again in LADY FROM S. Decades later, Marc Behm would sell that plot to the Beatles as basis for their second film, with Ringo as the depressed man who hires a hitman to off himself — but then the team found out Belmondo was filming the same storyline, though Richard Lester didn’t know it was stolen from Verne until I told him…

But back to CD MAN HUNT, which isn’t about a man hunt at all — the titles to these things are pretty random, and a couple don’t even mention the Crime Doc, Robert Ordway, in the title. This one has a story by Taylor but script by Leigh Brackett. It’s no BIG SLEEP but it’s decent. There are signs of haste, like a character’s real name being revealed as Armstrong, seconds before a reference to “strong arm men.” A reference to “the Benway house” which clashes bumpily with the lead character’s name. But it’s a neat story. Major spoilers follow, but are you really going to watch the film? If so, use the embed above.

Ellen Drew appears in an apparent dual role as sisters, one good, one evil, but after that’s revealed (and it’s not too surprising, as Drew uses the same tragic delivery whether she’s wearing the bad sister blonde wig and specs or not), a new wrinkle is added: one sister is dead and the other has developed a split personality in order to replace her. After the mystery has been solved, Warner B. delivers a dollarbook Freud mansplaining that feels very familiar, but the film it’s recalling, PSYCHO, hadn’t been made yet.

It’s really kind of touching that Castle directed a film which seems to provide a template for PSYCHO — did Robert Bloch see the movie, I wonder? — and then later be reduced to copying Hitchcock with HOMICIDAL, which reverses the gender disguise element. And, again, gives us an insight into how prosaic PSYCHO might look if Hitch weren’t directing it.

Having watched about half the CD movies now, I am resigned to running out soon, but Eric Taylor has forty-odd other credits, including (ulp) BIG JIM MCLAIN, SON OF DRACULA, a bunch of Ellery Queen pics, BLACK FRIDAY…

11 Responses to “Dr. Crime”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    MichaelGordon’s career, which includes everything from “Cyranode Bergerac” to “Pillow Talk” may not nake sense, but his grandson’s does.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    And here he is with the sublime Zoe Deschanel

  3. bensondonald Says:

    30s-40s programmers should be prefaced with a cartoon and a serial chapter of compatible vintage. And maybe a live action short subject: Hal Roach two-reeler, Traveltalk, dance band short, or one of those lunatic mini-epics like “Good Morning, Eve”.

    Added attractions were meant to be experienced as part of a larger show. Serials especially benefit when viewed thus, as opposed to binges or contextless viewing.

    Classicflix has released much of the non-Laurel & Hardy Roach product, including Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Harry Langdon and the oddly hapless Streamliners. Stan and Babe are of course represented by various box sets. Columbia has released the Stooges, plus sets of their late-period Keaton and Chase shorts. Warner Archive has put out several sets of MGM, Warner, and RKO shorts including Traveltalks, Robert Benchley, Believe It or Not, Bobby Jones on Golf, Pete Smith, Dogville and the aforementioned lunatic mini-epics.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Oh, and serials: a company called VCI entertainment has put out nice editions of numerous serials, mostly Republic and Universal titles. Columbia has released a few of theirs, including the two Batman chapterplays. Columbia’s two Superman serials have been released by Warner, which took ownership at some point. The first two Flash Gordon serials from Universal reverted to Hearst, owner of the comic strip, and have been released under various labels.

    VCI recently released “Pirate Treasure”, a 1934 Universal serial about modern-day tussles over a remarkably sturdy old treasure map. It’s pristine and surprisingly fresh, made before serial conventions calcified.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’s the trailer for my favorite serial

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Whoops. Here’s the right one

  7. We have been presaging Crime Doctors with Looney Tunes, on occasion. For secret work-related reasons. What’s Up, Crime Doc?

    I don’t know why the Doc doesn’t have a box set, the movies are fun in a low-key way. May try some of Eric Taylor’s Ellery Queens next, Ralph Bellamy! Has to be good.

  8. Rawdon Crawley Says:

    That sounds like an interesting concept.

  9. Oh my God, yes, Jim MClain working for the House Undead Activities Committee. Or the House of Dracula Unamerican Activities Committee, I can’t decide. Could the Duke me the son of the Count?

  10. Looks interesting :-) Where can I find this series? Any DVD available?

  11. All on YouTube, never released commercially as far as I know.

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