THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938)
Dr. T.S Clitterhouse-“Crime and research.”
Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse-“The greatest crime of all!” ‘Rocks’ Valentine-“What’s that?” Dr. T.S.Clitterhouse–“Why, Homicide naturally.”
Directed by Anatole Litvak (The Sisters 1938, Confessions of a Nazi Spy 1939, Out of the Fog 1941, Blues in the Night 1941, Snake Pit 1948, Sorry, Wrong Number 1948, The Night of the Generals 1967) With a screenplay co-written by John Huston and John Huxley. Based on the play by Barré Lyndon – Music by Max Steiner lends a dark and dramatic flourish to the sinister & mordant essence of the narrative.
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio (The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932, Lady Killer 1933, The Man With Two Faces 1934, Bordertown 1935, The Story of Louis Pasteur 1936, The Life of Emile Zola 1937, The Sisters 1938, Brother Orchid 1940, The Letter 1940, High Sierra 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942, Larceny, Inc. 1942, Experiment Perilous 1944, Love From a Stranger 1947)
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse converges into several genres–black comedy with deadly dark overtones, crime drama, the gangster movie, suspense & psychological noir with classical horror elements evidenced by the duality of the schizophrenic hero.
Though absurd, it’s enjoyable Litvak’s direction, Huston’s screenplay, and Gaudio’s arousing photography make it an enjoyable film to watch.
While watching Litvak’s film again, it suddenly hit me (smack between my green eyes) there is one significant trope that stood out so obviously, so clearly to me. Strange that I hadn’t realized it during my first viewing.
Dr. Clitterhouse is an archetypal Jekyll & Hyde figure, using his immersion into criminal activity rather than a smoky elixir to drink down his uneasy gullet, that would normally transform his outer appearance into a fiend, Clitterhouse still becomes transfigured as a criminal and a murderer by and because of his endeavors.
The story raises the question of the duality inherent in the protagonist J.T. Clitterhouse, where it is possible to tap into the dark side, the doctor diverges into a classical medical/science horror with personality traits being tainted by the evil/immoral tendencies that people are capable of. When exploring immoral activities that can ‘change a man’s personality’ there is always a fatalistic inevitability. The disambiguation of the situation-there is no horror props, no mysterious mad scientifically developed drug inducement– it is the single act, desire, and curiosity of a scientist seeking answers concerning the criminal mind that literally subsumes the nature of the personality examining the questions. i.e. Dr. Clitterhouse becomes not a monster, but a criminal and ultimately a murderer.
Clitterhouse is seduced by the excitement he experiences and embraces the darker side of himself without the use of a scientific ‘horror’ concoction. While presented as a gangster film, its conceptualization of medical/science experimentation on vicious human nature, aberrations in psychology, and the criminal mind elucidates the clear philosophical themes of classical medical-science horror.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) written by Barré Lyndon stars Edward G. Robinson as a phony mentalist haunted by greed and a sense of impending doom. Co-stars Gail Russell and John Lund.
Film genres’ lines were often blurred in the 1930s & 1940s, in particular a few of Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart’s films which intersected with crime, noir, and horror narratives. In particular director Delmer Daves’s frightening The Red House (1947) and director Julien Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes 1948 starring Edward G. Robinson.
Then Humphrey Bogart’s exploration into the diverging genres was apparent in The Return of Doctor X (1939), and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) directed by Peter Godfrey.
Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Dr. X (1939) directed by Vincent Sherman
As far as science horror goes -from the opening edge of The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse -frames smoky bubbling flasks. Gothic science horrors would be replete with such laboratory paraphernalia.
The film stars the extraordinarily versatile Edward G. Robinson as Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse, and co-stars Claire Trevor as the marvelous self-sufficient crime boss Jo Keller. And Humphrey Bogart is as mean as spit ‘Rocks’ Valentine.
Included in the fabulous cast of characters and actors are many other beloved Warner Bros. stock players. Alan Jenkins as Okay, Donald Crisp as Inspector Lane, Gale Page as Nurse Randolph, Henry O’Neill as Judge, John Litel as the Prosecuting Attorney, Thurston Hall as Grant, Maxie Rosenbloom as Butch, Bert Hanlon as Pat, Curt Bois as Rabbit, Ward Bond as Tug, Vladimir Sokoloff as Popus.
The film Warner Bros. released in 1938 is an adaption of a British play performed on stage in London a few years earlier with Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the title role.
Apparently, Edward G. Robinson wasn’t happy with his role in the film, and Humphrey Bogart liked it even less, referring to it as The Amazing Dr. Clitoris. Both actors appeared in three other gangster films where they played adversaries –Bullets and Ballots (1936), director Michael Curtiz’s Kid Galahad (1937), and Brother Orchid (1940).
Bogart felt that The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse was not advancing his career playing second fiddle to Robinson. Bogart would finally be taken seriously as a leading man in director Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941) co-starring Ida Lupino.
The film stars the extraordinarily versatile every-man who can play it cruel and ruthless or unassuming and weak– Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Clitterhouse brings the perfect measure of a seemingly invulnerable genius driven by his short-sighted crusade to study the criminal mind.
The film also stars the seductive and equally versatile actress Claire Trevor who won The Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the tragic Gayle Dawn in 1948 for Key Largo (Dead End 1937, director Robert Wise’s Born to Kill 1947 co-starring Laurence Tierney, Raw Deal 1948, Borderline 1950 ) As the gutsy crime boss Jo Keller who heads a gang of lovable miscreants. Jo finds herself drawn to Clitterhouse, partly because he’s not the kind of man she usually runs around with.
Humphrey Bogart brings his gruff hardened criminal type and mean as spit ‘Rocks’ Valentine, whose implacable toughness cuts through Clitterhouse’s sterile academic objectivity in the narrative. The two clash at every turn, until the force of their conflict creates a final verdict.
Robinson, Trevor, and Bogart would reunite ten years later in John Huston’s Key Largo (1948) their working chemistry manifests splendidly in the crime genre. While Key Largo is the grittier story, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse lends these three stellar actors a playground to exercise their tremendous adaptability to any role.
Edward G. Robinson plays T.S. Clitterhouse an esteemed Park Avenue physician who is invited to some of the city’s most affluent cocktail parties. What the polite set doesn’t know about their charming intellectual guest is that he is acting as a cat burglar stealing fortunes in jewels (not for money, he is quite well off financially) but for the purpose of conducting his research and gaining insight into the pathology of the criminal mind and the physiological changes in the active criminal’s physical and mental conditioning during the commission of a crime which he hopes to publish in a medical tome that will help inform both psychologists and law enforcement.
To indulge in the criminal atmosphere to the fullest, he insinuates himself into the city’s toughest gang and the head of the organization that is able to fence such expensive quality jewels. Jo Keller (Claire Trevor) is the high stakes fence in charge of her gang of thugs and miscreants led by the gruff and vicious ‘Rocks’ Valentine (Bogart) The gang pulls jobs all the while trying to evade capture by one Clitterhouse’s acquaintances, Police Inspector Lewis Lang played by the wonderful character actor Donald Crisp (Jezebel 1938, Wuthering Heights 1939, How Green Was My Valley 1941, The Uninvited 1944.)
The film opens with dramatic music by Max Steiner, on the title screen there is a laboratory with smoking, bubbling flasks behind the credits to invoke the feeling of science, cut away to…
There is a woman singing opera as she is accompanied by a piano at a high-brow cocktail party. The camera pulls back and through a window, we see a flashlight and someone taking jewelry out of a safe, the flashlight is the only source of light in an otherwise pitch-black room. During Mrs. Updyke’s party, it is Dr. Clitterhouse himself who manages to crack the safe full of priceless gems beating one of ‘Rock’s Valentine’s and Jo Keller’s gang to the vault. He examines the expensive jewels and loads them into his medical bag.
A second man enters the nearly black room. Later his identity is revealed as a thief called Candy (Billy Wayne) who climbs into the already open window and Clitterhouse’s flashlight shines on his bewildered face. He is told to put his arms up and turn around and face the wall. He assumes that it is the police. Then Rocks Valentine (Bogart) appears in the window, and is stunned to see what’s going on — he ducks down then climbs back down to the ground.
Clitterhouse’s (Robinson) distinct voice in the darkness tells him to remain with his hands up, as the first intruder (Dr. Clitterhouse) leaves the room, opens the door, and moves toward the sound of the opera singer.
Dr. Clitterhouse appears amidst the guests now as the opera singer finishes her aria. Mrs.Frederick R. Updyke (Georgia Caine) tells him that she’s in good voice this evening- he humors her “Inspiring, simply inspiring Mrs. Updyke.”
As Clitterhouse takes a snoot full of brandy and walks away rolling his eyes because the caterwauling vocalist has decided to grace the guests with another moving soprano rendition, he makes a phone call to check in with his service, he’ll be going to the hospital to check in on one of his patients soon. Suddenly he hears a scream from upstairs.
Apparently, the maid has discovered the safe has been cracked. He remains on the phone calmly giving some prescriptive advice to his nurse, while the rest of the guests head toward the stairs like a herd of well-dressed antelope. The maid, “A burglar -your jewels -he came in through the window.” While the guests and Mrs. Updyke are hysterical, Clitterhouse has an amused and knowing smile on his face, finishing his phone call composed and unaffected by the sudden chaos.
The next phone call Clitterhouse dials –police headquarters – “Hello, Good Evening, I want to report a robbery at Mrs. Frederick R. Updyke’s house.”
The third phone call Clitterhouse makes is for an ambulance– the butler has shot Candy one of Jo Keller’s gang and is now the suspected burglar. The comedy of Clitterhouse’s calm, collected, and calculated phone calls is subtle and farcical.
Mrs. Updyke- “Are we all going to be frisked?” Officer-“Yes Ma’am I’m sorry.” Mrs.Updyke answers giddily–“Oh don’t apologize, I think it’s thrilling.”
Laying on the stretcher Candy who was shot in the shoulder insists he didn’t do ‘anything. Clitterhouse examines the bullet wound and Candy looks at him strangely and says “Say didn’t you and me meet someplace before?”
Clitterhouse’s pedigree shows-“I hardly think so.” Candy asks a guest standing over him –“Who is this fella?” The guest-“Why, Dr. Clitterhouse of course.” There’s a hand on Clitterhouse’s shoulder, the doctor looks up and it’s Inspector Lane (Donald Crisp) he looks up at him- “Oh, Inspector Lane, Isn’t this a prosaic case for you to be on?” Lane-“It may look like nothing to you, but I’m hoping it’s the end of all my headaches these last few months.” He tells the suspect Candy to hand over the ice, but Candy tells Lane he’s never seen any ice. “I ain’t got no ice on me, your dicks’ll tell ya.” Lane’s officers tell him that they searched him but found nothing. “I’m telling you I never saw it, I never had a chance, somebody beat me to it,” Lane asks him who he’s working with. “Just a lone wolf. What about Rocks Valentine?”Candy tells him-“I never worked, (knowing pause) Rocks who?” “Don’t act dumb you slipped that jewelry to somebody. Come on spill it.”
Lane instructs his men to search everyone, the servants and even the guests. Clitterhouse for a moment looks worried. Lane keeps interrogating the suspect, who insists there was somebody else in the room who was already going through the wall safe when he climbed in the window. “That’s on the level.”
Clitterhouse gets a call, he needs to be at the hospital already for emergency surgery. Lane even gives Clitterhouse a motorcycle escort. Clitterhouse takes his medical bag that was on the floor of the closet from the butler who was certain he had placed it on the shelf above when Clitterhouse first arrived. And as he walks out —the butler pauses as he ponders a second thought at what just transpired. He knows the bag was on the top of the shelf before the robbery. Curious…
Clitterhouse evades Inspector Lane’s suspicion, all the while holding onto the goods in his medical bag which he brings with him to surgery. His devoted Nurse Randolph (Gale Page) finds the jewels and winds up discovering that it’s been Dr. Clitterhouse who is responsible for all the Park Avenue jewel thefts in order to conduct his research, where he records his blood pressure, pulse, pupil reaction, during and after he commits the crimes.
Nothing hints at the duality of Clitterhouse’s conscience and his Jekyll & Hyde personality more than this crossfade into the next scene. The psychological noir iconography of the mirror is symbolic of the dual personae and his conscience represented by the police reflected in the glass.
In the surgical arena, Dr. Clitterhouse is about to perform surgery on Counselor Grant who has a serious back problem. Clitterhouse is shown as a highly regarded surgeon having friends in high places, which is convenient for insinuating himself into the investigations of the 4 inexplicable robberies.
Dr. Clitterhouse tells him to relax and not be so jittery. The cantankerous and agitated counselor argues with Clitterhouse- “My dear boy I’ve had over a hundred clients face the electric chair I’ve never been jittery yet.” Clitterhouse-“But your clients were.” Clitterhouse needs his glasses and asks Miss Randolph to fetch his glasses which happen to be in his medical bag.
Nurse Randolph looks in the bag, while the counselor is giving Clitterhouse a hard time about his operating. Randolph finds the bag filled up with a glittering fortune of jewels, she has opened Pandora’s Box. Nurse Randolph watches as Clitterhouse discusses with another doctor how without the elliptical surgery on the counselor’s back, it might result in paralysis. “Oh, Miss Randolph… (he sees her with the bag) What are you doing?… aren’t you getting my glasses?” “Yes, indeed I have them right here.” “I’m sorry if you had any difficulty finding them?” “Not at all doctor only your bag was unusually full.” Counselor Grant (Thurston Hall) interjects. “Can I interrupt that big medical conference to ask for a cigarette” Clitterhouse-“Oh nurse you won’t forget to keep an eye on my bag.”
He’s already established that Nurse Randolph is an ally, who isn’t planning on turning him in. She is showing her loyalty and respect for him. Nurse Randolph will keep Clitterhouse’s secret.
Give this crank a cigarette, please!!!!!!
While riding back to his office, Nurse Randolph “I know it’s impertinent of me doctor but shouldn’t these jewels be kept in a secure place?” Clitterhouse-“They were in a secure place until I took them out.”
Reading the paper, Clitterhouse remarks to Nurse Randolph how the jewels are insured for $100,000 “Quite a haul. Yes, indeed quite a haul.” Nurse Randolph read the description in the newspaper of each of the jewels that were stolen. “Doctor, these jewels aren’t the same as this list,” Randolph says in astonishment. “Doctor you can’t actually mean that you stole these jewels.” Clitterhouse-“They are the proceeds, let me see… Richardsons, Sutherland, Challing Updyke, my fourth burglary.” Randolph exclaims!–“You a burger!?” Clitterhouse swiftly answers- “Well, not professionally. And never from any of my own patients. That would be taking enough sporting advantage.” “But Doctor they’ll put you in prison for years,” Clitterhouse instructs his chauffeur to drive to Inspector Lane’s office. Nurse Randolph is shocked he’d want to even talk to the police. Clitterhouse is operating “On the theory that the best defense is a bold attack.”
They arrive at the Commissioner of Police’s office. There are outbursts and yelling behind the doors. “Give me some action I want’ results!!!” Inspector Lane backs out of the office while the Commissioner is still barking demands at him. Lane then transfers the outburst to his other Lieutenant as the stress trickles down through the ranks, with the fevered frustration and urgency to solve the burglaries. He doesn’t want explanations he wants results. Everyone in the department is under pressure. “Give me some action Lieutenant.”
Inspector Lane forcefully-“Give me some action Lieutenant.”
“What are you doing here?! Why aren’t you working on the Updyke case!!!”
Clitterhouse visits the Inspector under the guise of being concerned about the stress he’s under and his nerves. He tells Lane he’s worried about him. Lane Dr. Clitterhouse he’s going to wind up losing his mind- “I’ll get a padded cell first.” Lane is feeling the pressure to solve the case. Clitterhouse “I had an idea I’d find you a bundle of nerves that’s why I came by.” He inquires about the Updyke case. Lane doesn’t believe that Candy ever had the jewels. Maybe the story about somebody else being there is true. Clitterhouse adds –“Oh an early bird who caught his worm”
All the while Nurse Randolph is uncomfortable with the conversation knowing that Clitterhouse is himself the thief. She asks how many burglaries there were. “Four last month and all the same style.” Clitterhouse-“Oh… You recognize the style.” “You knew when, but you didn’t know where.” Clitterhouse shoots Nurse Randolph a look. “It sounds rather clever.” “Lane remarks-“He’s a rank amateur.” Clitterhouse disagrees–“Well never the less, this rank amateur has kept you crime experts guessing for over a month. I should think these terms amateur and expert might very well be reversed.”
Dr. Clitterhouse is obviously enamored by the power he feels, keeping the police in the dark, and having gotten away with four burglaries right under their noses. This is one example of the question the film raises about the dilemma of ends justifying the means. Clitterhouse’s objective scientific examination of criminal behavior seems to be eclipsed by his vast ego. He’s personalizing his involvement in his research, and losing his objectivity.
Lane- “Now, Doc you’re gonna start the scientific approach again.” “No, I’m afraid it’s too late. But someday, I hope I’ll be able to convince you with conclusive evidence.” Nurse Randolph asks about the severity of the thefts, and how much was taken. “Quite a bit and he’s holding onto it, plenty tight.”Well, how can you know that?” “Well, we checked all the fences he hasn’t tried to sell anything yet.” Clitterhouse becomes curious-“Fence.. hhm, oh you mean receiver.” “Fence, receiver, it’s all the same racket. Somebody who buys hot stuff.”
Lane has given Clitterhouse something to think about, in terms of finding a fence. But Lane assures Clitterhouse that sooner or later, he’ll try to peddle the stuff and they’ll jump on him like a load of bricks. Clitterhouse inquires- “Well then the crook would be double-crossed by the fence.” Clitterhouse is using this vital information gleaned from their conversation to help guide his next move. Lane explains that they have all the fences covered and a fence would never take a chance on a crook he doesn’t know. He might figure him to be a stool pigeon. Clitterhouse digs for more helpful information. “Perhaps there are some fences that he could trust.”
It’s fascinating that Lane doesn’t find his line of inquiry curious. “No, I know ’em all from the petty larceny guys like Benny the Gouge to Jo Keller the biggest of them all.” Bingo, Clitterhouse just found out what he needed to know. “Jo Keller that’s very interesting. Oh tell me inspector how does a criminal get in touch with a fence?” “Through other criminals.” “But supposing he doesn’t know any other criminals?… I mean this is just a matter of curiosity – But where do fences hang out?” Lane- “Everywhere, jewelry shops, drug stores, night clubs. Now this Jo Keller owns a hotel.”
Clitterhouse and Randolph hear the sergeant over the intercom that the suspect Candy who got shot the night of the robbery can positively identify the thief who was at the safe when he climbed in the window.
Clitterhouse hands Lane a prescription for some sleeping tablets. Lane is excited that they might be getting somewhere with the investigation. As they are leaving Nurse Randolph tells the doctor that he forgot his bag, he left It on the table in Lane’s office. Lane goes in to get it and becomes animated.
“Yes sir- if we could just get our hands on those jewels.” He hands Clitterhouse his bag.
“Mustn’t forget our bag of tricks.” Clitterhouse-“Oh- no doctor -no tricks.”
The tongue-in-cheek comedy flows like good champagne, as Crisp (as Inspector Lane) is always wonderful to watch with his quiet elegance and dignified demeanor playing off Robinson’s swiftly delivered cheekiness.
Clitterhouse asks Lane to phone him and let him know who the prisoner identifies, Yet another one of those curious questions. Lane asks why. “No reason except scientific curiosity.” Nurse Randolph and Clitterhouse are led out by an officer. Nurse Randolph quietly warns Clitterhouse –“Next time we’re escorted by an officer we’ll probably both be in handcuffs.”
Clitterhouse is taking his own blood pressure. “Unfortunate was our interruption in Mrs. Updyke’s boudoir … it would have been a perfect moment for a blood pressure during the actual robbery.”Randolph says–“I still can’t get over it, you deliberately committing a robbery.” He corrects her holding four fingers up –“Four, four perfect crimes in four weeks…
…And the inspector calls me an amateur.” Nurse Randolph wants to know what he wants with all that jewelry. “I don’t want it. Frankly, it’s a nuisance. But for some time now, I’ve been profoundly interested in crime and criminals. And the jewelry is sort of a by-product.” “Then you’re experimenting with criminals doctor.” With glee he tells her- ”I’m being one.”
It would have been so much more interesting to see how far writers Huston and Huxley and director Litvak could have gone with the narrative, stretching the boundaries outside of the scrutiny and the death grip the PCA had on the project.
Dr. Clitterhouse continues -“Inspector Lane believes that the only way to prevent crime is to catch the crook and put him behind bars… My theory is you must start long before that.” Nurse Randolph asks– “Like psychologically?” “No- now listen carefully, Miss Randolph. Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why criminal activity should change a man’s personality?”
Dr. Clitterhouse asks her if she’s ever thought about the criminal mind. Nurse Randolph tells him she’s never thought about it, but Clitterhouse tells her that he’s been thinking about it for a long time. “I’m planning a book on the medical aspects of crime.” Randolph still seems mystified by the recent revelations.
“Showing how the criminal life produces such extreme nervous tension that it changes his entire mental and physical makeup… I’m convinced that there are medical reasons for these changes. Changes which manifest themselves in the blood pressure, in the altered ratio of the blood corpuscles in the heightened activity of the nerves and the glands. Do you understand Miss Randolph? I want to analyze scientifically the precise nature of these changes. But of course, I can do it only by studying criminals while they’re at work. Not after they’ve been put away behind bars…
… Proper subjects for such research are naturally difficult to find. So of necessity I began these experiments on myself. I planned these series of burglaries. As accurately as I could I observed my own reactions. Pulse, respiration blood pressure. Well precisely as I’m doing now. Incidentally, Nurse, I find it very fascinating.”
Nurse Randolph-“But doctor have you considered the horrible risk your running.” “My book can help criminologists deal more intelligently with the terrible rate of crime in this country. Isn’t it worth some risk?… If I accomplish my purpose I believe I’ll be making a very important contribution to society. Worth the risk it may entail. Do you understand Nurse?” She backs away from him as if she thinks he’s gone mad. She tells him yes, but she appears to be frightened by the divulgence of his experiment in crime.
“Just a moment Miss Randolph we’ve been associates for almost 5 years now. And you’ve been an invaluable assistant. However, if you feel that you can not continue under the present circumstances that you’d much rather leave me….”
“Dr. Clitterhouse, I wouldn’t think of leaving you no matter what you did.” She catches herself. Looking down and a bit hesitant she tells him “No matter any circumstances.” Perhaps Nurse Randolph is a bit smitten with our good doctor? At least she’s respected him these past five years. “Well then, Good night Nurse.” Clitterhouse is so clueless about the people around him unless it’s of scientific curiosity to him. Unaware of how Randolph may feel about him. Before she leaves. “Doctor tell me have you been thinking about this very long?” “For quite sometime now.” “Isn’t it possible you have it all in the wrong perspective?” “Are you hinting that I have a slight, mental aberration?”
“You have been overworking” “I know precisely what I’m doing… valuable research work. In a rather unusual form. Crime and research. Not a bad title for my book when it’s done.”
Randolph says goodnight, and he asks her if she’s been thinking of phoning Professor Ludwig in the morning. She asks why he’d think that. “We called when we thought old Mr. Carlisle began to behave strangely didn’t we?” He shakes her head and tells her not to do it. “This is a professional matter and a very confidential one.” “Naturally you can depend on me.” Suddenly the phone rings and it’s Lane, He got the prisoner Candy to talk.
He identified Dr. Clitterhouse. “He’s quite certain it was my voice he heard? Well, perhaps it was I inspector.” Nurse Randolph starts looking through the medicine supply-“I’m looking for a sleeping tablet.” Clitterhouse asks her, “For me?” She shoots him a tired look –“No, for myself.”
Now at the Hotel Sequin owned by mob boss Jo Keller (Claire Trevor)
In order to insinuate himself inside Inspector Lane’s investigation Dr. Clitterhouse paid a visit to try and learn how much the police know about the past 4 robberies. Innocently Lane informs him that a jewel thief would try and fence his hot loot, going as far as telling him who the most likely dealer in stolen jewels would be. Now possessing that information, Clitterhouse shows up at the Sequin Hotel, owned by the pawn named Keller, who Clitterhouse is pleasantly surprised to discover is a beauty named Jo.
Clitterhouse asks for Jo Keller, but the desk clerk insists there’s no one registered with that name. “But Mr. Keller owns this hotel.” Clitterhouse is approached by two thugs. “Hey Mister Wanna See Somebody?” “Mr. Keller” “And what’s your business?” “Well, I’m not at liberty to divulge” “This gent wants to see Mr. Keller’” They both smirk, as they know Jo Keller is a woman. And what a woman!
“What’s the gent’s name?” “He didn’t say.” Clitterhouse acts cagey. Butch, Jo’s bodyguard says, “Well Mr. Keller don’t live here anymore, ya see.” “Well, he must have left quite suddenly.” “Yeah so will you.” They start to throw Clitterhouse out. ”Say Milton didn’t send ya?” Clitterhouse without fear confronts the big lug–“You know you’re altogether too inquisitive my good man. I have the least notion of who you are yet you have the audacity to inquire publicly about such matters that concern Milton” “Then you are from Milton?” “Who said I wasn’t?” “Well, that makes a difference” “Well how am I to know that.” “I guess the guys okay.” “And who might you be?” The other thug points to him, Okay… That’s his name– Okay.”
“Ah well, it’s all very irregular.” “Forget about it, you want to see Jo Keller.” “Well, I’m not so sure about that now.” “But we’re expecting you.” “Well in that case.”
Butch remarks about the apartment lay out “Class huh.” Clitterhouse takes note-“Man of unusual taste Mr. Keller. Exquisiteness I hardly expected.”
Jo Keller comes walking out into the room, a tough blonde with skin like milk. “You’re from Milton?”Jo has no desire for amenities. Clitterhouse tells Jo, “I’m sorry but I can’t talk to anyone else but Mr. Keller.”Go ahead talk” Where is he?” She says cool-headed- “looking at you… Come on what’s the proposition?”
She lights up a cigarette and has got no time for small talk. “I’d prefer privacy” “This is private enough.” “I’m rather at a loss. You see I hadn’t the remotest idea who Milton is. I just got over my initial surprise at discovering what you are.” Jo sits it up like she’s about to pounce on him.
Stung she asks, “What am I?” Clitterhouse clarifies-“A woman,” Jo asks–“Who sent you here?” “Well to be exact I got your name from a certain chief inspector of police.”
Clitterhouse has no idea that he should be afraid of these mobsters. He is so matter-of-fact about his research that he just expects that things will go along smoothly, as it’s all just academic. Jo says “Oh, you’re a copper eh.” He tells her-“Oh, anything but, it’s simply that my friend the Inspector implied that you were at the head of your profession.” “Inspector who!?” “Inspector Lane…” Then Jo interrupts “Tell Inspector Lane he’s even a bigger fool than I thought.” While Clitterhouse fumbles a bit trying to explain, Jo tells her bodyguard Butch to get him out of there. Butch grabs hold of Clitterhouse’s coat and walks him out the door. “Tryin’ to make a monkey out of me, or monkeys, a friend of Inspector Lane huh!”
Rocks Valentine comes up the stairs in time to see Butch walking the doctor out. He calls Butch over to take a gun from him because he’s a little hot right now. Rocks says hello to Jo she yells at him telling him to stay clear of her place. Especially after he’s been on a job.
He asks if she read the papers. Jo confronts Rocks-“They nabbed Candy, You were along.” “Sure, he goes in a second-story window Candy climbs in first. Somebody flashes a light in his face. Tells him to get his hands up. I see it’s a bad set up so I just climbs right back down to the ground again.” Jo- “You ran out and left him in a tough spot” “He can stand another pinch but not me I’m too hot.”
“Never mind the alibi’s where’s the stuff?” ”We never laid eyes on it, Jo.” They figure maybe someone else got it, maybe the cops got it, but he got a tip that they’re rounded up all the boys. She tells Rocks that everyone needs to lay low. “Well here’s as good a place as any.” Jo looks at him. “Think so Rocks?” “I always did” “I never did…” She looks right through him.
Clitterhouse sticks around and breaks into a game of dice, and Butch wants to throw him out on his ear. He asks for one more roll. Jo opens the door and finds Clitterhouse at the betting table. “Oh, so it is you. How’d he get in here?” “Oh he just walks in here and the next thing he’s taking us all to the cleaners.”
“I was shooting rather nicely til you came in. What’s that platitude about dice and women? It’s possible that my luck has switched from the dice to you. Or my mistake my luck must still be with the dice. “
Butch grabs him by the coat. “Oh, just one more roll… Well, I seem to have lost all my money. But What would you gentlemen allow me on this?” He brings out one of the jewels.
Rocks grabs it to look at it, but Clitterhouse puts his hand out and says “If you don’t mind…
Rocks becomes nastier than usual, “You Telling us You pulled the Updyke Job?” Clitterhouse is cagey-“I’m Telling you nothing.” “Alright cut the double talk. Who are ya? What do ya want?” “What may I inquire does it concern you?” “If you don’t quit this stalling I’ll show ya how it concerns me.”
They hand it to their jewel specialist Popus, who puts on his special jeweler’s lens.
“Take a gander at this” handing him the Updyke broach “Well Popus? (Vladamir Sokoloff) “I could never mistake this Ruby. There is only one thing like this. The Updyke Broach.”
Quite right Mr. Popus. The Updyke Broach. And these are the Updyke earrings. The Updyke necklace.”
While Clitterhouse is checking out Jo Keller and her establishment, and the way things work there, the gang is thrown into a tizzy when Butch comes in and tells everyone the coppers are on their way up to raid the place. Jo is unflappable- “Sure I’ve been expecting them any minute ever since I saw this hardware.”
Enter Lieutenant Ethelbert Johnson (Robert Homans). With Clitterhouse’s quick thinking, he covers up the jewels he brought to the fence and uses his sophisticated manner to make a monkey out of the Lieutenant. This is how Dr. Clitterhouse first meets the entire gang and their ruthless, irascible leader Rocks who isn’t buying his smarts. So far he’s an unknown (Clitterhouse) pretentious guy. But Jo is quite taken with his intelligent maneuvering as is the rest of the gang, Okay, played by Allen Jenkins is hilarious in the role, and Butch (Maxie Rosenbloom) and Tug (Ward Bond) are fabulous as Jo’s band of likable misfits.
Jo’s been expecting the raid. Everyone spreads out and Rocks hides. Rocks who are on the most wanted list. But Rocks warns Clitterhouse that he better not wind up being a stool. Clitterhouse thinks fast on his feet, dumps the jewels into a large bowl, and covers the stash under salty pretzels. The other Lieutenant Johnson walks in questioning Jo. She asks if this is a pinch. Of course, he takes a few pretzels out of the bowl and Clitterhouse winces. Jo plays it ever so composed. He asks what’s become of Rocks Valentine, hasn’t seen him around lately. He tells Jo he’s gonna do her a favor, if Rocks does show up with stuff don’t touch it because it’s “red hot… Hot enough to burn even your fingers.”
Clitterhouse makes his presence known. Johnson turns to size up Clitterhouse- “I don’t think I know you, do I?” Clitterhouse runs verbal circles around Johnson- “I’m sure you’re more capable of answering that than even I. Isn’t it part of your job never to forget a face? Now I have a very poor memory for faces that is most people’s. I’m sure I’d forget your face almost immediately.”
“Come On now who are you? You heard me! what’s your name?” “Suppose I ask what is yours” “Oh you’re a wise guy eh.” Butch watches in awe. “I repeat who are you.?!” Jo pipes in “Everybody knows Lieutenant Johnson.” “I don’t. Have you your police badge and identification card with you?” He begins to school Johnson on the law. Making a monkey out of him., while Butch and Jo laugh. “Say what’s the big idea.” “Merely that you are demanding proof from me without the authority to do so” The boys look on in amusement. The men are impressed, they think he’s got something on the ball. As Clitterhouse reads the lieutenant’s first name, Ethelbert, the men put their heads down shaking with laughter, through their hats, you can see the tittering welling up, as Clitterhouse makes a fool out of Lieutenant Ethelbert Johnson.
Clitterhouse now earns the gang’s trust as they respect his smarts and ability to think on his feet. They get rid of Johnson, Rocks comes out of hiding from, his hidden panel inside the closet and Jo asks Clitterhouse what his game is and Rocks agrees he must be the guy who pulled the Updyke job. Clitterhouse concurs- “That’s a very logical conclusion” “Alright wise guy you’re trying to unload the stuff.” “You’re catching on marvelously.” “Okay make a deal with this guy he’s getting in my hair.” She hands the loot over to Popus to look it all over. And she says let’s talk turkey. “How much do you want for this stuff?” “Now wait you’ve only seen job number 4.” He begins to take out more jewelry wrapped in cloth. “Here’s job number 1 and…” and he continues to bring out the rest of his Park Avenue stolen treasure.
“Say that guy’s got something on the ball.”
Clitterhouse- “I’d prefer privacy” Jo- “This is private enough.”
Jo begins to bargain about price and finally makes a deal with Clitterhouse for $38,000, she tells him, “You’re taking all the profit out of crime. It’s a deal.”
He begins to tell her that he had a psychological advantage over her at first when he showed up with the ice. Jo says “I like your style professor.” He reciprocates- “And I yours.” Jo tells him, “No reason we couldn’t join up professionally.” Clitterhouse triumphantly tickled, “Of course, professionally.”
Rocks had to hide while Johnson was there, he’s a familiar face that shouldn’t be tied in with Jo Keller’s operation, but he’s very suspect of Clitterhouse who goes by the name of The Professor. Feeling his authority threatened and his power usurped, he isn’t thrilled with how easily his gang is falling for this sophisticated exploiter.
Especially since Jo seems smitten with him and starts to talk of a partnership using his brains and her merry gang of thieves. This is a perfect opportunity for Clitterhouse whose identity is only known to this gang as The Professor to completely submerge himself into his research in-depth, with several test subjects to study.
Clitterhouse pretends to close up his practice and go abroad, we see an Item posted in the personals announcing Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse sailed last week for a European vacation. He intends to be gone for approximately six weeks during which time Dr. Davies Fredericks will take over his practice.
While he settles in with his new gang, who use a cover as musicians, they’re pulling jobs that the good doctor has set up for them. In between jobs, the doctor takes tests and makes extensive notes about their reactions during and after they commit their crimes. Robinson is able to play an academically detached scientist surrounded by ordinary criminals, meticulously arranging robberies for the purpose of his experiments.
The announcement in the paper will cover Clitterhouse’s absence from his practice. They open up a cover office in Hampstead Hall Studios as an ensemble of musicians. As The Hudson River String Quartet. The professor couldn’t have picked a better hideout. It’s the only place in the world the police wouldn’t get wise to.
The men are questioning why they keep having to take the professor’s various physicals and blood tests after they pull a job. But Rocks tells them they only have themselves to blame.
“What’s the difference if the professor gets a kick out of it, whats a couple of drops of blood.”
Turning on the noise.
It’s hilarious when Jo’s mob comes piling out of the elevator holding their instrument cases, passing the silhouette of ballet dances, and various musical enterprises that enliven the energy of the building. It’s these little touches that make The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, a better film than it’s given credit for.
The gang plays a phonograph of classical music whenever they want to sound like they’re rehearsing their instruments, while they’re going over their latest job. As they go over their take, Rocks criticizes the silver antiques, he wanted gold pieces.
When it’s Okay’s turn for a blood sample he loses his voice again.
“Why is it that every time I get nervous or scared I lose my voice?” “Paralysis of the larynx caused by fear or any extraordinary emotional tension,” Clitterhouse tells him any time it returns he wants to be informed immediately. “Hey, where’d you learn about all these things.” “In school at University.” “Oh, the University. I got a brother in the University” “Well indeed I must add that to your case history. What’s the name of the University.” “Harvard” “What did your brother do there?” “he’s preserved in alcohol. He got two heads.”
Rabbit (Curt Bois) gets called in next. The gang conjectures whether The Professor did something unethical while he was a big shot doctor, whose license was taken away. “That’s the idea he’s a little screwy” Yeah but he’s got plenty of brains and nothing phases him.” Okay, talks about the time he lost his voice he thought the professor was gonna nearly jump down his throat to find it.
A knock on the door.
Rocks says “Okay snap into it. Turn off that machine.” (meaning the phonograph)
Jo comes in with Butch. The boys are sitting in front of sheet music with their instruments at the ready. She asks if they’ve got all their hardware. “Is the professor still here?” Rocks answers her, “Sure he’s still here, sticking needles into these dimwits. And you can be next if you like. Say a sharp get-up you’re wearing Jo. Getting all dressed up just for us boys or for the professor!” “Cut it out Rocks” Rocks is jealous and threatened by the Professor. “Ritzy clothes, perfume, it’s one way to break him down. Rocks is being cruel to Jo- “Maybe he’ll forget himself and give you a tumble. If you know what I mean. We wouldn’t bud in, would we boys.”
When Jo goes to smack his face Rocks grabs her arm violently- “What’s a matter Jo, what are you so sore about?”
Clitterhouse/The Professor comes out and shows her the jewelry from their recent job and she asks Popus if everything looks good, he tells her perfect.
Jo wants to talk about the fur job planned for that evening with The Professor arranging the whole works. They begin to walk into his room when Rocks smart alecks- “Oh a huddle just for the two of ya ha!” Jo –“Yeah got any objections” Rocks-“By all means. Would you like to have tea served in the boudoir?” Clitterhouse-“Rocks may I remark that your jokes are slightly unhumorous tonight” “Oh you don’t like ’em huh” “Not particularly old man, not particularly.”
The tension between Rocks and The Professor is growing as not only Jo is smitten by him, but the gang gets a kick out of his guts and his smarts even if he is a little screwy. They don’t mind his peculiar ways and they don’t feel threatened or duped by him- “With The Professor us guys is just a past time.“
When Jo and Clitterhouse go inside to talk, the gang breaks down laughing mimicking his latest clash with Rocks. “Not particularly old man, not particularly” Rocks gets riled. “Shut up you ape.” He storms out.
Clitterhouse informs Jo -“I think I’m finally onto something as far as Rocks is concerned.” Jo is curious Yes? She asks. With Clitterhouse it is all academic he doesn’t quite see that Jo is sending out romantic vibes.
“Not only does he have a distorted sense of humor I find that his entire personality is distorted.” Jo answers “Whatever it is, I don’t like it.” Clitterhouse-“Ooh but I do. Rocks is a magnificent specimen of pure viciousness. He’s really worth exploring.“ Jo tells him, “Well watch yourself while you’re doing it. Or you’ll end up with an undertaker exploring you.”
They have a big fur caper planned for that night. Jo asks him to have dinner, He says it would be splendid. But He tells her that he’s got to break down his blood specimens. She walks toward the window. He starts to tell her “Some other time…” Clitterhouse pauses and for the first time, it occurs to him, that Jo is a beautiful desirable woman, whom he may find very attractive, or at least he’s finally picked up on the signal that she has dressed up especially for him- “Oh Jo, I hope you’re not offended.”
Just then Clitterhouse realizes that they had plans to dine out and spend the evening together. “I’m terribly sorry” “What for Professor? I know I’m not the type you wanna be with. And I know that you’re a lot different than the guys I’m used to. Maybe that’s why I could sort of get interested in you if I let myself. It’s okay baby, I’m not going to. Not a chance.”
Clitterhosue looks befuddled. They are interrupted but he starts to ask, “Tell me Jo When did you first begin to…” Is this a hint that he might find the notion tantalizing as Jo is a big Crime boss and he could examine the criminal mind intimately?
There are such wonderful sequences of humor mixed with a seriously dark spirit at times, all the while Rocks is planning to take back his organization from the pompous doctor. By now Jo has actually fallen for The Professor who is too myopic about his scientific research to notice that she’s been swooning over him. Jo realizes that he is unattainable for any woman really, as his work comes first. But she still holds a torch for him which will prove out in the end.
The Professor (Clitterhouse) goes over the plans for the fur heist, with the gang.
Rocks, Clitterhouse and Jo argue over the cut from the fur job.
Okay loses his voice again.
Rocks finally sees an opportunity to overthrow The Professor’s influence with Jo and the gang during the major fur heist. Jo is worried that Rocks might try something, so she sends her bodyguard Butch along to keep an eye on things. In a very harrowing scene Rocks’ hostility manifests in a ruthless moment when he locks The Professor in the safe and sets the cooling unit all the way down low to the point that Clitterhouse nearly freezes to death and suffocates. Luckily the cold helps the doctor’s respiratory system keep him alive long enough for Butch to cut a hole in the safe with a torch before he runs out of air, and the police catch up with them.
Vogue Furs Incorporated-the next big job.
During the heist, Clitterhouse checks the pupils and respiratory responses of the gang.
“Get that light off me! what’s the idea?”
“Pupils react very slowly- quite interesting.”
“I ain’t no guy you can push around like these other dopes.”
Rocks has a thought about getting rid of the Professor…
Clitterhouse is now –Locked in!
Rocks shows no mercy
As the professor pounds on the door, Rocks turns the temperature all the way down.
Jo and the gang back at the studio are panicking about the heist until– and to Rock’s surprise, Butch and the doctor show up at Jo’s. Neither man says a word about Rock’s malicious murder attempt.
Clitterhouse decides he has enough information for his research and needs to stay clear of Rocks. Let him be the leader of his gang again and so he pays the boys well for all their hard work, and goes back home, his work completed and notes compiled.
Rocks who is ruff around the edges, is clever enough to find a simple way to track the phone number where the doctor’s office is and finds Clitterhouse at his Park Avenue address.
Jo tries to warn Clitterhouse before Rocks show up with a gun and a blackmailing plan up his sleeve. Rocks takes the doctor’s research notes which is completely full of incriminating information about each of the gang members’ movements. He tells Clitterhouse that he’s got great social contacts for his gang to pick clean and that his office is the perfect cover for their home base.
Dr. Clitterhouse, a truly inquisitive mind, science first before the fear of life, conceives of a new chapter to his book, which includes the ultimate crime—murder.
In one of the darkest, grim scenes I’ve experienced- even in horror films, Clitterhouse puts a psychotropic poison cocktail of paraldehyde in Rock’s brandy, as we slowly watch the life force drain out of Rock’s field of vision, paralyzing his nervous system and his cognitive powers. There is only one other poisoning scene that has rattled me in quite the same way, and that’s an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Paragon” starring Joan Fontaine and Gary Merrill.
Both scenes are horrifying, eerie, claustrophobic menacing, and vicarious speculations that plunge you into a sense of dread– that is not as graphic yet it is artistically brutal and quite a stunner.
Rocks finds Clitterhouse at his office and blackmails him into turning his affluent client list over to him as partners in a robbery ring that would pick Clitterhouse’s clients clean of their assets.
Rocks thinking it’s Clitterhouse’s finest brandy drinks a horrible poison.
Clitterhouse commits the ultimate crime– murder.
Clitterhouse explains to Rocks what his body is experiencing- “You see me as if you were looking through The wrong end of the telescope.”
There is more to the conclusion of this story but I’ll leave it there, so I do not spoil the ending of this fascinating excursion into crime and the moral question of who is granted the providence of right and wrong.
*From Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema Traces of a Lost Decade-Chapter 9 -“The Murderer’s Ming” Edward G. Robsinosn, Humphrey Bogart, and the Monstrous Psychologies of 1940s Horror FIlm by Mark Jancovich
“THE PLAYTHING OF A FORCE THAT IS GREATER THAN HIMSELF” DOOM, DUALITY AND MENTAL BREAKDOWN IN THE FILMS OF EDWARD G. ROBINSON.
“As we have seen, Edward G. Robinson may seem an unlikely figure to discuss in relation to the horror film but many of the films that he made, particularly during the 1940s, were explicitly, identified as horror by critics during the period. Furthermore, even in cases where films were not explicitly referred to as horror films, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, gangster films, spy thrillers and horror films were not distinct categories but were strongly associated with one another during the period (Jancovich, 2009 and 2010) and one of the primary ways in which they were associated was through their psychological themes.”
What was apparently manifest in both 1930s & 1940s decades was how gangsters were perceived as social problems that evolved from pathological compulsions driven by psychological flaws similar to the personas of horror villains and/or monsters, and as Jancovich points out, many of Robinson’s films were often narratives that featured the “criminal mind”. None as more explicitly merged with elements of horror than his character in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.
“in which Robinson plays ‘an academic man of medicine’ whose investigations into the psychology of criminals result in him turning ‘criminal primarily obtain material for a treatise’ (Nugent 1938). However, if Robinson’s character poses as a criminal to study criminal psychology, the film also plays on a duality in Robinson’s persona, and Clitterhouse is described as ‘a schizophrenic hero.’ In this way, the film plays on a duality within Robinson’s image and, while Robinson often played dominating gangsters, he also specialized in meed and gentle nobodies whose attempts to maintain a safe, simple and ordered life are ultimately thwarted so that they lose control of themselves and their environments, and suffer psychological breakdown in the process.”
The duality of Dr. Clitterhouse’s character exists between his identity as an academic and criminal, in which the question arises, are his criminal activities related to his scientific curiosity, or are they covertly inspired by a desire to indulge in immoral acts?
As David Thompson describes in his review of Edward G. Robinson’s film Dark Hazard (1934) he sums it up succinctly, “Robinson’s familiar style of alternating between shy and snarling moods.”
In contrast to his characterizations where he exerts his dominance, aggression and control over others. As Jancovich explains, “His characters either desire ultimate power or are seen as tragic figures that cannot control their own destiny (Flesh and Fantasy, Scarlet Street, Night Has A Thousand Eyes).”
*Harnessing the Persuasive Power of Narrative Science Storytelling and Movie Censorship by David A. Kirby–Creating Appropriate Stories about Science through Censorship
“The story in the original script involved the prestigious scientist Dr. Clitterhouse deciding that the best way to stop crime is to understand the criminal mind and that the best way to understand the criminal mind was to become a criminal himself. At the heart of the script’s narrative is the ethical dilemma of whether or not the value of Clitterhouse’s scientific findings justified his illegal actions. After examining the script, the PCA informed Warner Bros. that their story was unacceptable under the principles of the Production Code by allowing that scientific progress justified immoral behavior.”
“The only way they (PCA) would approve this story was if the script overtly depicted Clitterhouse as insane. If Clitterhouse was insane then there was no dilemma about the moral cost of scientific progress.The audience would understant that his ations were obviously wrong because they were the actions of a deranged mind. That was a much more appropriate narrative as far as the PCA was concerned.”
3 thoughts on “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) A magnificent specimen of pure viciousness & pure scientific research… by a magnificent Screwball”
This is kind of a strange, uneven film, but it’s also fascinating. I liked what you said about the Jekyll/Hyde quality – so true! I was surprised to hear both Robinson and Bogart were unhappy with this film. You’d certainly never know it by their performances. You’ve got me jonesing to see this one again!
i just found your blog and am making lists of Film Noir’s to watch! Your analyzes are so smart and thoughtful for a nerd like me to enjoy. Thnak you!
Thanks for stopping by The Last Drive In hope you come back again! Cheers Joey