erik lundegaard

Friday June 05, 2020

Movie Review: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)


The title drew me in; it’s just so bizarre. Apparently Bogart never much liked the movie nor his role in it—which was like his role in so many late ’30s Warner Bros. movies: the secondary gangster who out of pettiness or ambition screws up the deal and BLAM BLAM. Apparently he always referred to it by its potential porn-title name. Yeah, you don’t have to be James Joyce to see it. It’s so obvious it’s as if they started there and worked their way back.

More fun with words? Or names? The movie is based on a British play by Alfred Edgar, who took the pen name Barré Lyndon, presumably from the Thackeray novel, and stars Emanuel Goldenberg, who was told at drama school that his name was too Jewish, so he went with Edward G. Robinson. The leading lady is Claire Wemlinger, better known as Claire Trevor. Only Bogart is Bogart. 

And yes, sports fans, Bogie, Trevor and Robinson make up three the four principles in John Huston’s great 1948 noir “Key Largo.” (No Bacall; she was just 13 at the time.) Huston has a hand here, too. He worked on the screenplay with John Wexley (“Angels with Dirty Faces”), who was later blacklisted. The director is Anatole Litvak (“The Snake Pit”), who does good work.

Bogart may have been dismissive but “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” is a lot of fun, with a great turn by Robinson. Its premise is basically “Breaking Bad”: What happens when a man of science gets mixed up with the mob?

The movie opens at a swanky estate, where an opera singer regales the swells; then the camera pans outside and rises to the second floor where a cat burglary is in progress. Actually, two cat burglaries. One burglar climbing through the window stumbles upon the other. A flashlight in his face, he’s coolly questioned, ordered to stand with his hands in the air, then becomes the fall guy for the crime he arrived too late to commit. The original cat burglar? He’s one of the guests, Dr. Clitterhouse (Robinson), who returns downstairs just in time to applaud the singer at the end of her aria. No one notices he was gone.

When the burglar is found, the doctor coolly calls the cops. When the burglar is hurt in a shoot-out, the doctor coolly calls for an ambulance, then bandages the fellow under the watchful eye of Inspector Lane (Donald Crisp). Lane, to be sure, is watchful of the thief. Of Clitterhouse, he is deferential. All the other guests, in fact, are searched for the jewels, but the good doctor, an important man with other patients to attend to, is allowed to waltz out under a police escort.

That’s the great joy early in the movie: Watching Clitterhouse use his position and his calm voice of authority to get away with everything. He’s so good he seems to tempt fate. He asks a nurse to fetch his glasses from his medical bag and she’s shocked to find it full of jewels. But he wins her over. He explains he’s involved in a scientific experiment—he is—and then takes her and his bag of jewels to the police station. Not to give himself up. No, on the theory, he tells her, that “the best defense is a bold attack.” He pretends he’s worried about Inspector Lane’s health—and Lane admits he’s under a lot of stress—so he gives him a quick medical exam while extracting information. Lane says the jewel thief has committed three other crimes and hasn’t tried to fence anything. Clitterhouse makes casual conversation while going through his paces. How does the police know that? What is a fence? How would one get in touch with such a person? The laugh-out-loud moment is when Clitterhouse leaves his medical bag behind and Lane fetches it for him. He’s grumbling, “If we could only get our hands on those jewels,” just as he’s getting his hands on those jewels.

(There’s another great scene at the police station just before Clitterhouse arrives. Behind a smoky glass door, the unseen police commissioner reams out Inspector Lane for letting these cat burglaries get out of hand. “I’m not interested in long-winded explanations!” he shouts. When Lane is finally allowed to leave, he spots his captain, and reams him out in the exact same language, whereupon the captain spots a passing lieutenant and … you get it. Ad nauseum, one assumes. Consider it the true trickle-down effect.)

The name of the fence Lane mentions is Jo Keller, whom Clitterhouse assumes is a man. Nope. It’s Claire Trevor, who runs her mob out of a hotel she owns. Her boys are the usual fun Warners crew: Allen Jenkins, Ward Bond, and—in particular—Maxie Rosenbloom as the dopey, sweet, giant Butch. At one point, the cops burst in on their card game, looking for “Rocks” Valentine (Bogart) and making various threats; instead, Clitterhouse, the voice of authority, questions them and sends them on their way. The boys love it. That’s his in. He’s stays, helping plan jobs, because he’s interested in … whatever. The effects of illegal activity on the central nervous system or something. It’s the movie’s maguffin. There’s also shades of a love triangle: “Rocks” likes Jo, who develops a thing for Clitterhouse, who’s too intent on his work to really notice, which pisses off “Rocks” all the more. He’s the one guy in the gang who won’t go along with Clitterhouse’s tests. He’s both tough guy and sourpuss. No one did that combo better than Bogie.

He’s also the one who figures out Clitterhouse’s true identity and tries to blackmail him at gunpoint—one of the few times in the movie Clitterhouse doesn’t have the upper hand. At which point he realizes his research isn’t complete. He missed doing tests on the greatest crime of all! “What’s that?” Rocks asks. “Why, homicide naturally,” Clitterhouse responses. A minute later, Rocks is dead. Upper hand returned.

Again, fun movie. You get a lot of dialogue like this:

Clitterhouse: Now, just relax, counselor. Nothing to be jittery about.
Grant (Thurston Hall): My dear boy, I‘ve had over a hundred clients face the electric chair. I’ve never been jittery.
Clitterhouse: But your clients were.

The tour-de-force is the script, the direction, and Robinson’s performance. Here’s an oddity I just realized. Over the course of his career, Bogie received three Oscar nominations and one win (“The African Queen”), Trevor received three Oscar nominations and one win (“Key Largo”), Litvak would garner two noms, while John Huston, as director, writer and producer pulled in 15 noms and two wins (writing and directing “Treasure of Sierra Madre”). But Edward G. Robinson? Nada. Bupkis. I’m sure there are greater actors who never got nominated, but he’s got to be in the conversation.

Posted at 08:31 AM on Friday June 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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