Monday, April 16, 2007


A B-movie detective series, with a bit of a twist on the gentleman/ex-con sleuth formula. Based on a radio serial, the first film is an "origin" story, telling how Warner Baxter becomes the Crime Doctor. We first see Baxter being dumped unconscious from a speeding car. When he comes to in a hospital, he has amnesia, though otherwise he makes a good recovery, and he's taken in by a kindly doctor (Ray Collins) who inspires Baxter to turn from the temptation of a self-pitying life spent in drunken dissolution to making something of himself by going to medical school. He has a successful career as a psychiatrist, taking the name Ordway, but he occasionally finds himself shadowed by John Litel, a figure from his past whom Baxter does not recognize. We find out that Baxter was a mastermind thief named Morgan who crossed up his own gang, leading to the beating and dumping of the first scene. Baxter hid some money from the gang, and Litel wants it back, though he also realizes that the amnesia is real and not an act, so he bides his time. Because Baxter has a good influence on prisoners (we see him work his wonders on convict Leon Ames), he becomes a member of the local parole board. Eventually, of course, Baxter does confront his past, is put on trial, and makes a speech to the jury saying that if they convict the guilty Morgan, they'll imprison the innocent Ordway. In typical B-film fashion, the ending is rushed but satisfactory. Margaret Lindsay is Baxter's romantic interest.

The second film, STRANGEST CASE, is a straightforward mystery involving a murder in a houseful of suspects. Lloyd Bridges plays an ex-con who was charged with poisoning his employer until Baxter's testimony got him released. Bridges' new job is very much like his previous one, secretary to a rich man, and soon that rich man is found dead from poison. Bridges goes on the run but there are plenty of other suspects for Baxter to hound: Virginia Brissac is an odd, almost otherworldly housekeeper whose surreal dream, which we see depicted on screen, may or may not hold a key to the mystery; Gloria Dickson is a cook who is most assuredly not who she seems to be (and she gets a wonderful unmasking scene); Rose Hobart is the dead man's young wife; Reginald Denny is the dead man's nephew; Jerome Cowan is an eccentric songwriter who is also a firebug (to both serious and comic effect). Baxter, with some help from cop Barton MacLane, discovers an abandoned nightclub which plays a crucial role in bringing up buried secrets from the past. The movie, with its long roster of colorful suspects and intertwined relationships, is a little underwritten, with a rush of information just told rather than developed. But it's still a lot of fun, less like a Boston Blackie cops & thugs crime thriller than an old-fashioned Philo Vance mystery, and the sometimes wooden Baxter is perfectly adequate here, especially with the colorful supporting cast around him.

By the time of WARNING, the fifth in the series, things have gone decidedly downhill in writing and production values. Here, Baxter is trying to help sensitive struggling (and handsome) artist Coulter Irwin with his bouts of memory lapses, especially when Irwin becomes the chief suspect in the murder of two lovely models he had worked with, one of whom he wanted to marry. John Litel, the chief baddie from the first movie, is Baxter's cop buddy in this one, and the suspects, all from the lower echelons of the New York art world, include John Abbott as a silhouette artist, Eduardo Ciannelli as a gruff male model angry that women are getting all the good jobs, Miles Mander as a museum curator, and Alma Kruger as Irwin's smothering mother. There is promise in the set-up but so much information is delivered as tedious exposition that practically nothing actually happens on screen (except for one creepy moment when the second model is killed). The sets look cheap, though William Castle, in an early directorial effort, tries to conjure some mysterious atmosphere to hide that fact. It's fun to see a Hollywood version of a 40's Greenwich Village milieu, with a roomful of artists almost looking like before-their-time beatniks. Most of the acting is fine, but Baxter, though only in his mid-50s, seems old and tired, and a couple of his flubbed lines are left in. Much as I enjoyed the first two, this one left me not anxious to see any others. [TCM]

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