The Mad Doctor (1940)

After the death of his wife, a Bluebeard psychiatrist sets his sites on a wealthy, but psychologically fragile, young woman. His plans begin to go awry when he falls in love with his intended victim, a reporter starts digging into his past, and his partner in crime begins voicing objections.

The Mad Doctor is a crime thriller from Paramount studios starring Basil Rathbone, Ellen Drew, John Howard, and Martin Kosleck. On a stormy night in the town of Midbury, Dr. Downer (Ralph Morgan) is summoned to the home of Dr. George Sebastian (Basil Rathbone), whose ill wife has taken a turn for the worse. Upon arriving, Downer is met on the veranda and told he’s too late, the woman is dead, having succumbed to pneumonia. After the funeral, on an appropriately rainy day, George heads home and discusses his future plans with his live-in companion and friend Maurice Gretz (Martin Kosleck). George’s wife didn’t die of illness, but was murdered, and the two men have a criminal history that goes back some twenty years to Vienna. Once the estate is settled, George declares, it’s on to New York. Dr. Downer, meanwhile, can’t shake the feeling that something nefarious took place, but since he has no proof, he decides not to pursue his hunch.

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Several months later, George has established himself in New York. The ditzy wife of a newspaper publisher, Louise Watkins, calls upon Dr. Sebastian to interpret her dreams. Impressed, she’d like the charming doctor to talk with her sister, Linda, who is apparently neurotic. Louise is hosting a charity bazaar and arranges for the doctor to meet Linda who will be working a booth. At the bazaar, Gil Sawyer (John Howard), a reporter for Lawrence Watkins’ newspaper, is covering his boss’ wife’s event, and stops to chat with mopey Linda (Ellen Drew). It seems they’ve been seeing each other romantically. George arrives, and has a brief conversation with Linda that angers Gil; the reporter rails to Louise that psychiatrists are frauds and quacks and steal people’s souls.

Once George leaves, Gil and Linda step onto the terrace. With crazy eyes, she tells him she’d never be happy married to him.

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When Gil walks off to make a phone call, Linda climbs over the railing intending to jump. He stops her just in time and takes her home, with her sister calling Dr. Sebastian. Gil bitches again about evil headshrinkers, he’s going to write an exposé about them! Watkins refuses to print it, so Gil says he’ll shop it to a competitor. Upon returning home, George informs Maurice he’s going to marry again, only when this one dies, they’ll be rich. That sounds good to Maurice.

For an unspecified amount of time, Linda has been seeing Dr. Sebastian to get her head straight. Leaving his office one day, she happens to meet Gil in the elevator. He’s been writing his anti-psychiatry articles, as promised, and convinces Linda to spend the afternoon with him, all she needs is to have fun! They go to Coney Island and the races. That evening, George shows up at the Watkins’ for a formal dinner engagement. Linda and Gil arrive and Sawyer begins to bitch at George again about his chosen profession. Dr. Sebastian (in one of the best scenes of the movie) then proves he’s not a charlatan by hypnotizing Linda and having her reveal the traumatic childhood experience that’s been plaguing her subconscious. The information she imparts is confirmed by her sister and brother-in-law. Humbled Gil departs.

Sawyer heads down to Midbury to talk to Dr. Downer about George. It seems Dr. Sebastian is a two-time widower. Gil discovered that, prior to living in Midbury, George lived in Savannah, where his wife died of pneumonia. Dr. Downer holds off on revealing any information, he wants to verify Gil is who he says he is first.

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George and Linda have begun seeing each other and eventually become engaged. The only problem is that George has truly fallen in love with her, she’s not just some hapless victim in his eyes anymore. George informs Maurice he’ll be moving to Ecuador with his bride, and he’s not invited to join them. Maurice is less than pleased. In addition, Gil’s journalistic sleuthing is starting to uncover some of George’s past.

I really liked this movie. I forgot how wonderfully silky a villain Rathbone could be, and he always does it with panache. He’s great in this. Unlike some other crime thrillers of the era I recently watched, this movie is neither convoluted nor overpopulated, which works to its advantage. Director Tim Whelan keeps things moving relatively well throughout. The only thing that started to feel trying was an extended game of cat-and-mouse in the third act, although part of my irritation with it may stem from the copy I was watching. This film doesn’t have a proper video release, I was watching a DVD-r made from a print in a personal collection. The picture is a bit soft, night scenes disappear in blackness (only a few, thankfully), it suffers from extremely low volume audio, and the audio went badly out of synch in the third reel, a maddening distraction.

The aforementioned hypnosis scene is a highlight of the film. Setting a metronome in motion, George sits at the piano and begins to play a tune. Linda falls into a trance and the melody being softly played on the piano is the perfect accompaniment for what transpires next. A wonderful scene, as is a later one, again with Rathbone and Drew, talking on the balcony where she had earlier attempted suicide. It’s then that we get some backstory on Dr. George Sebastian.

The greatest mystery of the movie, however, revolves around the relationship between George and Maurice. At the start, one could say Maurice was a servant to George and his wife, he’s the one dispatched to Dr. Downer. Later, however, it’s obvious he’s not a servant, the relationship between the two men is much more. Obviously they’re partners in crime and long-time friends. Lovers? Perhaps. During a contentious argument, Maurice complains that George was always “the brains,” implying George is the dominant personality in their relationship. Dr. Sebastian may be the professional with a degree, but Maurice has pragmatism, street-smarts, and cool grit on his side, which he uses to shift the dynamic, so who’s really the dominant personality?

The acting overall is good, although early on, Ellen Drew’s wide, darting eyes to signal the crazy was a bit over done. Since it’s mainly set in New York City among the well-to-do, we see women in long gowns and men in tails interacting in swanky apartments. And let’s not forget the fascinatingly louche duo of Rathbone and Kosleck casually lounging on couches while discussing their next crime.

In spite of the problems with the copy I watched, I give The Mad Doctor a solid 7.5 out of 10. (The audio file below is a full synopsis with spoilers. Raw notes made immediately after viewing)

The Mad Doctor synopsis/review

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