Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Doctor X

1932, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

This gig must have been a set designer's dream: the lab sections in Doctor Xavier's research institute have the expected retorts and bubbling flasks, but even his library is impressive, the shelves stretching up to the high ceiling, while Doctor Xavier's home on Long Island is a veritable gothic gallery, filled with bizarre scientific equipment.
Both locations allow Michael Curtiz ample room for the use of expressionistic shadows to create an atmosphere of dread, with every element of the house in particular becoming a threat at times, although Curtiz also makes effective use of sound, whether it's the teacup trembling in a terrified maid's hand or the pervasive, grating sound effects as the film reaches its climax. I don't know what the two-strip Technicolor effects would have looked like to a contemporary audience but in the version I saw, they contribute effectively to the off-kilter feel of the film, particularly in the lab sequences, with unexpected textures and flashes of colour.

Unfortunately, the overall mood is frequently thrown into reverse by Lee Tracy as the comic relief; it's hardly the actor's fault, but his fast-talking, double-taking newspaperman seems to have drifted in from a different film entirely (perhaps Blessed Event, given his character's approach to journalistic ethics). The various professorial types, by contrast, are a terrific gallery of creepy character acting, one more suspicious than the last, although the actual murderer isn't hard to discern, and indeed the plotting only makes the outcome more apparent.
Although the X in the background here during Lee Tracy's explorations of the old dark house might seem to be a reference to the eponymous doctor, I couldn't help but wonder whether it was in fact a discreet tip of the hat to Howard Hawks's Scarface, which came out during the filming of Doctor X; the symbol disappears when the camera cuts back to this perspective a few seconds later (the reference, if that is indeed the intention, is a little more subtle than Martin Scorsese's tribute to the Hawks film).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States