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I watch a lot of oddities in my peregrinations around the world of cinema. Some are weird because of plot devices, effects, accidents. Some are weird because of their casting. And that is what brings us to The Return of Dr. X, the sole horror movie credit of one Humphrey Bogart.
The plot will be semi-familiar to folks who saw the original 1932 Dr. X. even though it’s not a sequel. A wise-cracking reporter, Garrett (Wayne Morris, trying way too hard) finds a murdered actress in her apartment, but when the cops come, the body is gone. She also shows up at the newspaper the next day, quite alive, and threatening to sue the paper over the story of her death (this is apparently before the days of “no bad publicity”). The reporter teams up with a surgeon pal, Michael (Denis Morgan) to figure out what happened, and both get embroiled in a series of murders of people with a rare blood type. A second blood type is found at a murder scene, which the police cannot identify. The brilliant hematologist Dr. Flegg (John Litel) and his strange, pale assistant Quesne (Bogart) seem to be somehow involved.
Let me save you some trouble (even at 62 minutes, this thing is too long): the reason the blood can’t be typed is it’s synthetic, an invention of Dr. Flegg. Quesne is actually Dr. Xavier, who had been electrocuted several years earlier for ghoulish experiments that resulted in the death of a child. Flegg was able to resurrect “Dr. X” with the hematologist’s own experimental process and synthetic blood. This process is less than entirely successful, though, and Quesne is now a medical vampire, requiring the rare blood type to live.
If you have seen the original Dr. X, you are definitely going to be pining for Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, though John Litel does sterling work as the conflicted Dr. Flegg. But we’re here to see Bogie, aren’t we? Jack Warner wasn’t above punishing his actors when they acted up, and Bogart had been fomenting for something more than minor gangster roles for some time, and Warner threw him into this “be careful what you wish for” role.
And truth be told, Bogart is actually pretty good, though his part is still small for a title character. Pale, with a shock of white hair, he’s quite striking, and you actually wish we had more of the character. Bogart applies just the right amount of creepiness to the character to make him off-putting, but not particularly evil. Given more screen time – and a lack of punitive casting – he might have been able to do more with it. As it is, it’s not a portrayal to be ashamed of. This strange lack of Bogey won’t be the only disappointment in the movie, either, when our medical vampire is dispatched in a shootout with the police, straight out of any of the gangster movies that had caused Bogart to raise a ruckus in the first place.
Two years later would bring They Drive By Night and High Sierra. Three would bring The Maltese Falcon. This was director Vincent Sherman’s first movie, and it rather creaks in all the wrong places; Mr. Skeffington and The Adventures of Don Juan were still in the future. He inherited the project after months of troubled development which went nowhere. At one point it was to be a 19th century period piece, starring Boris Karloff, which would likely have been more interesting.
And just to be mean, I’ll point out that our comic reporter is easily upstaged in the humor department by Huntz Hall, years before the East Side Kids or The Bowery Boys, as the overburdened copy boy, Pinky.
The oddest thing of all is watching the trailer for the movie after watching the movie itself: it seems to be made entirely of alternate takes and scenes which do not appear in the finished product at all, promising a remarkably different picture.