Any film in which Lionel Atwill is the least creepy mad scientist is a very special one indeed. Such is the case in the spooky and wonderfully campy (yet flawed - more on that later) Doctor X from 1932. This rarely seen pre-code technicolor horror gem has a lot going for it. From the early autopsy scene, in which the removal of a pectoral muscle from the murder victim can only mean one thing - cannibalism - I pretty much knew the film would be a really good time.
Lionel Atwill stars as Doctor Xavier (I guess this is before his mutant days) who is assisting the police in solving a series of grisly murders. As the murder weapon is a scalpel that is only used within the medical school Atwill runs, and the students are all on holiday, the police know the killer must be a member of his staff. This medical college is one of the best things I've seen in a movie in a long, long time. It's supposedly situated somewhere in Manhattan, but looks more like German Expressionist Gothic City to me. I'm also unsure as to what they teach. Atwill introducing the police detectives to his staff one by one, may be one of the most entertaining 20 minutes or so I've seen in a while. Each is creepier than the next, and has a disturbing back story to match. Two were shipwrecked and it is implied they ate a third companion. One (who also has a prosthetic hand he screws on and off) is an expert in cannibalism. Another has bizarre facial scarring and his medical coat is covered in blood splatters (unexplained). The next is first seen in a Satanic silhouette. The last zips by in his Strangelovian wheelchair. I can only assume that graduates of the school receive their MSD degrees (Doctorate of Mad Science).
The scene soon shifts to Dr. Xavier's Long Island mansion. Look. I grew up on Long Island, and I promise you that nothing like this place ever existed. The rocky coast evokes Cornwall and the building itself screams Castle Dracula. Guests arrive via hansom cab. It's wonderful and entirely inexplicable. While there, Dr. Xavier concocts the most bizarre sting in the history of film. It involves elaborate wax figures, 40 foot tall glass beakers full of green liquid, the Doctor's spooky butler pretending to be the killer, heart monitoring devices attached to the suspects, and a dramatic reveal of the full moon outside the window. It's basically the most complicated lie detector test ever devised. It's absolutely wonderful to watch and completely ineffective.
I think I should now write about the one major, crippling flaw in the film. This would be the newspaper reporter protagonist (I saw Doctor X as a part of Film Forum's program of newspaper themed films) played by Lee Tracy. I have a strong suspicion the character was fine at the script level, but as played by Tracy, he's inappropriately comic and slapsticky. He bumps into stuff, stammers broadly, spit takes and expresses fear with all the subtlety of Abbott and Costello in the face of Dracula. His performance has nothing to do with the rest of the film and I can't imagine what anyone was thinking. There are other laughs in the film, but they fit in with the sophisticated look and feel evoked by the German Expressionist sets and the old-style mad doctor performances by the largely European cast. As with the drunken publicist in Murders at the Zoo (which also starred Atwill) played by Charles Ruggles, it's as if this reporter has wandered in from a different movie being shot in a neighboring lot. The love interest is the lovely and gorgeously gowned Fay Wray playing Atwill's daughter, and when she bafflingly falls into Tracy's arms at the end, it is far more disturbing and confusing than any of the violent murders or dismemberments seen earlier.
The movie looks great and is well directed, which makes the Lee Tracy aberration even stranger. Again, as with Murders at the Zoo, I'm guessing front office meddling. The director, Michael Curtiz, was no slouch. He went on to direct films such as Captain Blood and Casablanca. He knew how to work with actors and get funny, believable performances out of them.
The ending of Doctor X is beyond satisfying. I won't spoil it for you, but Synthetic Flesh has lots to do with the crimes!