Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (Anatole Litvak, 1938) Warner Brothers programmer featuring Edward G. Robinson, allowing him to stretch his acting chops beyond his gangster type-casting while keeping him tied to the genre that made him a star with Little Caesar. It's a bit different than the play by Barré Lyndon (about a criminologist who invites a bunch of thugs to his house for research); adapted by John Wexley and John Huston, the Warners version is less talky and more action-oriented, with the doctor actively involved in the research.

Robinson plays a brilliant well-to-do physician who becomes fascinated with the criminal mind. Evidently mis-reading the dictum as "Physician, steal thyself," he starts to do some personal tests, committing actual robberies, to see how it affects his vitals. That gives him some information, but only about himself, and that hardly is enough to satisfy his curiosity. Interrupted from one attempted safe-grab at a high-society party by an actual criminal gang, led by one "Rocks" Valentine (Humphrey Bogart, who hated this movie), Clitterhouse, seeing an opportunity to increase his results, seeks an "in" with the crooks, asking to meet their "fence," reputed to be the best in the city. That contact turns out to be a woman (Claire Trevor), who is impressed with "The Professor" and invites him to join the Valentine gang.
"Ooops!"  You do NOT want to meet early Humphrey Bogart in a dark room.
Clitterhouse takes a six-week sabbatical, saying that he is going to vacation in Europe, when what he's really doing is merely going to the wrong side of the tracks...and the law.  As part of the Valentine gang, he sets up a series of robberies with ever-increasing stakes. Pretty soon, the dynamic of the group begins to change with "The Professor" becoming an increasingly more valuable member of the the Valentine gang, even supplanting "Rocks" himself (which the thug does not like in any way, even going so far as trying to kill the doctor in one of the heists). He has more than one reason to do that—Jo and the doctor's mutual respect is starting to turn to affection.
"The Professor" runs some tests—that's Ward Bond holding the lamp.
The six weeks fly by, and "The Professor" announces he's going to quit (it being time to go back to work and write his study), but that's not good enough for "Rocks" (who, if you'll remember, is the same guy that tried to knock off "The Professor" in the last paragraph—fickle). The hood learns the doctor's true identity, and shows up at his swanky Park Avenue office to blackmail him into planning more robberies by threatening to reveal his criminal past to the World, and worse (to Clitterhouse) threatening to keep Clitterhouse from publishing his research. Now, Clitterhouse is a smart man and just might realize that "Rocks" is hardly a credible (or consistent) source of information to The World or Academia. But, he doesn't. He takes "Rocks'" threat seriously. Seriously enough to commit one more crime...
Bogart looks deadly with a gun even lounging in a chair.
Up until that point, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is a pretty standard light drama veering on comedy, due to its central idea and the "lovable lug" nature of the hoods, which Warner did to keep their profitable gangster genre alive, appease the clergy, and keep the Hays Office at bay. But, at the blackmail juncture, Clitterhouse turns a bit perverse with a twist that strains credulity, but is amusing in a cynical kind of way. It's that unexpected final gambit that makes the movie a little more than run-of-the-Warner-mill.

That and the cast. Robinson could play class and squalor, refined or brutish and play it genuine either way. It was the public-at-large that favored him in gangster roles, but his potential was limitless (except maybe for playing basketball players). Bogart may have hated the movie, but he manages to keep "Rocks" a threat and remain true to the story and keep it credible. And Trevor plays her role with charm and a bit of bite, with no hint of the vulnerability that she would show the next year in John Ford's Stagecoach (which would win her a Best Actress Oscar.  Bogart, Robinson and Trevor would reunite ten years later with writer-now-director John Huston in Key Largo.
Bogart and Robinson greet Eleanor Roosevelt on the set of Clitterhouse.

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