Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 27, 2013
2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Anatole Litvak’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, starring Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor and Humphrey Bogart. Since no one else will celebrate it, I will. Why? Well, for starters, did you see that title? No one has character names like that anymore nor are they described as amazing unless they’re Spiderman. The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse does something else more common to the thirties of the 20th century than the teens of the 21st century: It goes all over the place, mixing comedy, thriller and crime elements with just a touch of social commentary and class satire. And, for the most part, it succeeds.
Seven years after Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson was comfortable enough playing the non-gangster role that he fit into the role of Dr. Clitterhouse with ease. Clitterhouse is a curious fellow, in both meanings of that phrase: he’s both strange and has an inquiring mind when it comes to crime. So much so that he decides to start robbing people he knows so that he can see what it feels like to commit a burglary. The movie opens in the drawing room of a mansion, with a woman singing an operatic aria to dinner guests below while above, on the second floor, Dr. Clitterhouse empties the safe of its jewels. As he’s doing this, another man enters through the window and Clitterhouse shines a flashlight in his face and tells him to freeze while he continues to calmly empty the safe. The man is a member of a gang run by Rocks Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), who ducks out the window when he sees Clitterhouse detain his man.
When Clitterhouse leaves, the man from the gang jumps out the window and gets caught by the police, headed up by Detective Lane (Donald Crisp). Lane is tired of the rash of burglaries and wants the case solved but can’t make any headway. He’s a friend of Clitterhouse and, naturally, doesn’t suspect him of the crimes even though Clitterhouse has committed each one of them, much to his nurse’s horror, who’s now in on it after seeing the doctor’s bag filled with jewels. With Lane in the dark about the burglar’s real identity, Clitterhouse is free to question him about the crimes and even find out who the top fence is in the area so he knows where to take the jewels to cash them in. Jo Keller (Claire Trevor) is the biggest fence but Clitterhouse thinks it’s “Joe” Keller until he meets her and the sparks don’t fly. What flies is impatience and annoyance at this strange doctor asking too many questions.
Annoyance, that is, until Clitterhouse reveals the jewels and, in an unexpected visit from the police, successfully puts the cops in their place in front of the crooks which impresses the crooks to no end. Well, impresses everyone except Rocks Valentine, who has his eye on Jo and doesn’t like this newcomer coming in and showing everyone up.
Clitterhouse offers his services to the gang. He will set up the robberies and plan them down to the last detail and only ask in return that he be allowed to medically monitor them after each heist. He’s convinced the body emits clues to the criminal mind that come out through the stress of doing a job.
If you’ve followed the story up to now, you might have noticed that it’s a little on the goofy side. And it is. The thing about The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse that I like so much is that it doesn’t let the goofiness of the nutty professor type Clitterhouse get in the way its thriller and crime elements when it needs them most. It even lets social commentary sneak in without coming off as self-righteous or maudlin. In fact, it gets it right to it with a quick, clean on-point statement from Jo when Clitterhouse asks her if she ever feels bad because what she’s doing is wrong. She responds,
The thing is, of course, what she’s doing is wrong and just because she compares it to what other unsavory characters do doesn’t make it any less so. What’s interesting, especially considering that this is well into the production code period, is that she is in no way contradicted nor punished at any point in the film. When the movie ends she’s still a criminal and she’s still free. And happy.
In fact, the whole movie runs afoul of the production code for most of its plot, up to and including a murder that no one really gets punished for and one person connected with it doesn’t even get arrested. What’s most interesting is how quickly Clitterhouse’s sanity comes into question at the very end before ending on a joke after the jury foreman collapses in the courtroom (long story).
Anatole Litvak gets great performances from his actors and isn’t afraid to create some terrific crane shots for what is, essentially, a silly little trifle, except when it isn’t. With names like Robinson, Bogart, Trevor and Crisp, it’s no surprise the performances are so good but there’s also a rapid fire delivery that seems to predate Howard Hawks by at least a couple of years. And the dialogue being delivered so rapidly is perfectly written for each character, no great surprise as John Huston was one of the writers. It was the first time he was connected to Humphrey Bogart on a film but there would be several more higher profile movies to come.
I won’t lie: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse isn’t a masterpiece of cinema nor is it the best movie of 1938 but it is, for me, one of the most enjoyable. Coming in at under an hour and a half but packing in more story than most three hour movies, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is entertainment of the kind they made when they had a lot of different talent and wanted to make a little something for everyone. There’s comedy, satire, drama, crime, violence and a missed opportunity at love as only thirties cinema could do it. It also manages to let most of the criminals go free without so much as a slap on the wrist as well as actively encourage the audience to root for them, several years into the production code period. As Dr. Clitterhouse says to the camera as the story closes, “Amazing.”
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