Calling Dr. Death (1943)

A doctor’s cheating wife is found dead. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what he was doing at the time due to a black-out. Will hypnosis prove him guilty or innocent of the crime?

Dr. Mark Steele, a neurologist who employs hypnosis in certain cases, has a problem; an adulterous wife. He’s also attracted to his nurse, Stella Madden, and he suspects the attraction is mutual. Returning home from work one evening, he learns from the butler that his wife, Maria, is out. He dines alone, with only his thoughts for company. Then he waits, and waits, long into the night, even phoning his nurse at three a.m., unaware of the time. Maria finally comes home an hour later. Watching from the balcony, Mark sees her impart a kiss to her lover before heading inside.

Entering the bedroom antechamber, Maria starts in on her husband for waiting up. They argue, with the brazen hussy admitting her infidelity but unwilling to divorce; she likes the status and nice things her marriage to him provides. She taunts that he doesn’t have the guts to kill her.

The next evening, when Mark returns home, the butler reluctantly informs him Maria has gone away for the weekend. The enraged doctor heads out in search of her.

Mark wakes Monday morning sitting at his office desk, with no idea how he got there or what he did the last two days. Stella comes in and, concerned, suggests he cancel his appointments for the day. He declines. As he’s finishing his ablutions, two detectives arrive with bad news; Mrs. Steele is dead, murdered. Mark accompanies them to his country house. Not only was Maria bludgeoned to death, her beautiful face was disfigured by acid. It’s clear that the lead detective, Inspector Gregg, suspects Mark.

An arrest is made, not of Mark, but Maria’s lover, Robert Duval. Mark goes to talk to him at the police station. Duval confesses to the affair, but swears he’s no killer. Mark believes him, and says he’ll do what he can to help. A trial via montage and newspaper headlines show Duval convicted and sentenced to death. Insp. Gregg, however, doggedly pursues Dr. Steele, convinced he’s the real culprit. Eventually, Mark resorts to self-hypnosis to discover the truth.

CDD5

This is the first of six Inner Sanctum films by Universal starring Lon Chaney Jr. It’s a fairly tidy little murder-mystery, directed by Reginald Le Borg, with an original screenplay by Edward Dein. Chaney plays Mark Steele and seems to display a little more range in this role than usual. Patricia Morison, as Stella, is Mark’s nurse and dependable right-hand. J. Carrol Naish puts in a good turn as Insp. Gregg, although I wanted to punch the character from time to time for his smugness as he continually harangues, pesters, and needles Mark about being the guilty party, sending an innocent man to death for his crime. As Maria, the beautiful but bitchy wife from hell, Ramsay Ames makes an impression in her very brief appearance. There’s an Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce quality to the character and portrayal, which adds to the fun. I wish she’d had more scenes. David Bruce and Fay Helm round out the cast as the Duvals, with Helm’s role being nearly inconsequential.

There’s a lot of voice-over by Mark in this one, not unlike a radio drama. Incidental music is used sparingly, often only an organ for emphasis. There’s effective use of chiaroscuro in several scenes, lending a noir vibe, as well as the use of a Dutch angle in a key scene. When Mark arrives at his country house to identify his wife’s body, the movie uses his P.O.V. as he walks the gauntlet of photographers and reporters to the front door, momentarily putting the audience in his place. The dénouement raises a couple of questions that aren’t really explained, but a viewer can fill in the blanks. The movie drags a little around the half or two-thirds mark, but overall, it’s an enjoyable hour. My rating, 6 out of 10 (6/10)

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