The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I think the chief interest in this movie is that it comes across as a light-hearted crime drama.  In a real sense I think it could be considered a comedy.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Edward G. Robinson is the eponymous Clitterhouse, a surgeon with a keen and inquiring scientific mind.  When we first meet him in the opening scene, he is in a darkened bedroom rifling through a wall safe.  Just then a burglar enters through the second story window.  Clitterhouse trains a strong flashlight on the burglar and convinces him that he’s being covered by a gun.  He gets the burglar to stand facing the wall with his hands up.  Just then a second burglar who’s on the ladder looks in.  It’s Bogart playing Rocks Valentine (some name, huh).  He sees the situation and heads back down the ladder to escape.

Clitterhouse leaves the burglar in the bedroom and reenters a society party that’s going on downstairs.  A coloratura soprano is singing an aria.  Clitterhouse accepts a brandy from a butler, calls one of his associates about a patient he is treating and then calls the police and an ambulance just as a woman screams from upstairs and someone in the house shoots the burglar as he attempts to exit the house.  Clitterhouse treats the wounded burglar but he is recognized by his voice.  But Police Inspector Lane played by Donald Crisp laughingly allows Clitterhouse to be on his way to a surgical appointment without even inspecting Clitterhouse’s medical bag filled with the pilfered jewels.

Thus, the scene is set.  Clitterhouse is engaged in research on the physiological aspects of crime.  For this experiment he has committed four burglaries.  Now to expand his research he is reaching out to a jewelry fence, Jo Keller (played by Claire Trevor) and a gang of burglars headed by Rocks that includes such familiar character actors as Ward Bond, Vladimir Sokoloff and Burt Hanlon.  Clitterhouse identifies the victims and meticulously plans the heist.  The gang and Keller provide the manpower and the connections to perform the thefts and sell the loot.

In the final crime, a theft of furs from a warehouse, Rocks tries to double-cross Clitterhouse by locking him in the refrigerated vault.  But one of Keller’s men saves him.  At this point Clitterhouse has completed his research.  He has taken blood samples, blood pressure and other diagnostic tests on the gang members and now he wants to end his association with the underworld.  But Rocks figures out Clitterhouse’s true identity and tells the doctor that he will be forced to continue his criminal activities indefinitely.

Clitterhouse seems outwardly to agree to Rocks’ ultimatum but actually he doctors Rocks’ drink with a deadly dose of a drug.  Rocks falls asleep and then Clitterhouse and Keller dump the body in the river.  Eventually the police discover Clitterhouse’s guilt in Rocks’ murder and he goes on trial for murder.  His lawyer uses an insanity defense.  The prosecution gets Clitterhouse to testify against himself by stating that his scientific study is completely accurate and therefore the work of a sane man.  But the jury finds him insane based on the idea that only a madman would knowingly admit his sanity when he knows it would cause his own death.

Despite the fact that Clitterhouse murders Rocks in cold blood I see this movie as a comedy.  Throughout the story the atmosphere of the whole thing is light-hearted and I find it impossible to take any of it seriously.  There are a number of silly moments when the various gang members come off more as clowns than criminals.  The only menacing character is Bogart’s Rocks.  And as we see he is no match for Robinson’s genteel madman.  So, what can I make of a whimsical film noir?  Well, not too much.  It’s not a great movie but it is amusing in its own way.  I’ll recommend it to fans of the 1930s.  If we need a serious movie with Bogart and Robinson we’ll have to wait for their rematch in Key Largo