The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) A magnificent specimen of pure viciousness & pure scientific research… by a magnificent Screwball

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 who 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 an 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 obvious, 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.

Edward G. Robinson as Pete Morgan in The Red House (1947) directed by Delmer Daves.

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 are 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. Robsinson and Humphrey Bogart’s films which intersected with crime, noir and horror narratives. In particular director Delmer Daves 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 were 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, co-stars Claire Trevor as the marvelous self-sufficient crime boss Jo Keller. And Humphrey Bogart as mean as spit ‘Rocks’ Valentine.

Included in the fabulous cast of characters 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 like 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 Gallahad (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 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 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 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 on 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 into the nearly black room. Later his identity is revealed as of 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, opening 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 has 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 ‘nothin’. 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 —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 cross fade into the next scene. The psychological noir iconography of the mirror 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 for 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 him 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!!!!!!

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