“Have you seen THE CRIME OF DOCTOR CRESPI?” asked Shadowplayer Paul Duane on a visit to Edinburgh. I admitted I hadn’t. “It’s GREAT! Dwight Frye gets the girl!” This was indeed more than enough of a recommendation.
The 1935 horror begins with a claim in its opening credits to have been “suggested by the story The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe.” They needn’t have bothered crediting Baltimore’s sepulchral bard, since he didn’t invent the concept of accidental living internment: medical mishap did that. But filmmakers always seem to have liked sticking Poe’s name in the credits, even when it doesn’t belong there.
The titular Crespi is Erich Von Stroheim, doing his usual thing of quirky low-key understatement and intense, puffed-up overstatement, with plenty of dead air in between. Make no mistake, Von can suck the air out of a room and blow it out his ass in the twinkling of an eye. He has rather a lot of very good moments here, though, and unlike in THE GREAT GABBO he isn’t required to convince you he’s a funnyman. In fact, however, his perf is oftentimes v. witty, in a sly, malign way.
The plot grinds on at a rate analogous to continental drift, but eventually we surmise that Crespi’s hated love rival, Dr Ross (not George Clooney), has been brain-injured when his auto “turned turtle” and only Crespi can save him. This Crespi does, but only as part of an insanely cunning and cunningly insane plan to drug Ross with a chemical that fakes death, so he can be buried alive and perish in miserable agony.
Put-upon Dr Thomas (Frye) figures out the poison part and threatens to denounce Crespi, who throttles him into unconsciousness and ties him up in the closet until after the funeral. But with his foe underground, he assumes wrongly that Dwight poses no further threat, and releases him with a stern warning. (The plotting here is more vigorous than convincing.)
Of course, Dwight reverts to type and turns bodysnatcher, determined to prove that Dr Ross was envenomed — what he finds is more startling still! I’ve always liked the idea of combining grave-robbery and premature burial in one story, you get a happy ending but with a great deal of horror. Turns out somebody already thought of that.
It’s probably a mistake shoehorning both Stroheim and Frye into one horrorshow, since both need more time than most to get up to full sepulchrousness. Frye’s casting here is hilarious, though, since it depends on simultaneously accepting him as a mild-mannered medico, and embracing his sudden urge to exhume a freshly-buried supporting player. I realize that all of this may constitute “spoilers”, yet part of the pleasure of our viewing was anticipating the moment when Dwight would indeed get the girl, a moment made all the more delicious because of his complete lack of romantic interest through nine-tenths of the movie. And when he does get a “yes” from his honey, his childlike grin, displaying a set of teeth glinting like cold steel, would warm the heart of the coldest cadaver.
Fiona, who has perhaps shall we say unusual taste in men (no, really?), does rather admire Dwight Frye, and insists that I include the following ~
(All credit to 30sDame, who made it)