Following up on his slightly unhinged performance as Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein and his sadistic turn as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Basil Rathbone, took on the title role in this shocker for Paramount. This time out the man best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes plays it romantic with one slight deficiency, he pours on the charm only to wed and then murder wealthy women so that he may steal their fortunes.
The film doesn’t waste time setting Basil up as the title villain when his coconspirator, Martin Kosleck, fetches a country doctor played by Ralph Morgan to pay a visit to the Rathbone home to attend to his dying wife. Morgan arrives too late. Death by pneumonia. Morgan isn’t too sure of that diagnosis but following a rainy funeral let’s his suspicions fade.
Rathbone and Kosleck plot their next move and it’s here that they’ll let the viewer know they’re fugitives from justice in Vienna where Basil was once looked upon as a great mind in the medical field before jealousy and murder derailed his career. The pair are off to New York City where Basil intends to set up a practice as a psychiatrist.
Shortly thereafter he’ll come into contact with a flighty yet wealthy Barbara Allen whose sister, Ellen Drew, is in need of professional help. And that she does. She’s clearly suicidal, not to mention extremely wealthy thanks to the family being in the newspaper business. Miss Drew could fit quite nicely into Rathbone’s next scheme.
Enter leading man and Miss Drew’s beau, John Howard, now on hiatus from the Bulldog Drummond series he fronted between 1937 and ’39 in seven enjoyable adventure films. The plot clearly sets up Howard and Rathbone as two rivals vying for the affections of Miss Drew.
Despite the lurid title, Basil is clearly capable of helping Miss Drew overcome her depression and proves as much to Howard, Allen and Hugh O’Connell who is not only Miss Allen’s husband but runs the newspaper that employs Howard. A star reporter around town.
Howard begins a crusade to prove Rathbone is a phony and will do more harm than good to Drew if he is to continue taking over her will. While he’s off to trace Rathbone’s past, our suave, tender, sinister, terrible villain with the pencil lined mustache is romancing his patient on the dancefloor while talking of dreams and a trip to paradise around the world. What’s a girl to do? She begins to fall for the elder statesman who at one time was indeed a romantic leading man before settling in to villainy in Errol Flynn swashbucklers and committing other atrocities like drowning Vincent Price in a vat of wine in Tower of London.
That suave, tender, sinister, terrible line comes from the film’s movie trailer as it renders it’s description of Basil.
Clocking in at 92 minutes, this isn’t the run of the mill 70 minute B flick on the lower half of a double bill. Rathbone’s character is a complex one and just might go straight. You see he’s actually fallen in love with his intended victim but his past is going to catch up with him thanks to Howard’s digging and locating that country doctor, Morgan. All of which will end in a rather gruesome (off camera) murder orchestrated by Basil who realizes he can’t escape neither his past, his association with the murderous Kosleck or even his future for that matter.
As this was my first viewing of this rather rare Rathbone thriller, I had at first thought Kosleck to be a Renfield character to Basil’s very Dracula like personage over the opening scenes. That opinion changes as the film moves along with Kosleck turning the tables on his partner in crime while the script races towards it’s violent climax. They both have a grip on each other and yeah I can see that sexual thing going on here between the two of them for those that care to really tear apart a film and all it’s complexities within.
I wonder if anything was brought forth by the Hays Code on this relationship?
Rathbone had just starred in a trio of adventures. The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and and finally The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) which had been released by 20th Century Fox. It would be three years until Universal brought him on board to continue his series of Holmes films with 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. In the interim he not only played The Mad Doctor but fenced with Tyrone Power’s Zorro, turned up beside Bing Crosby in Rhythm On the River, stuck around for the reading of the will in Universal’s The Black Cat and played mind games with Lew Ayres and Laraine Day in Fingers At the Window among other titles on his busy schedule.
Ellen Drew who had already appeared with Basil Rathbone in 38’s If I Were King turned up in a number of 1940’s B flicks including cult favorites The Monster and the Girl and Val Lewton’s classic chiller, Isle of the Dead starring opposite Boris Karloff.
Born in Germany, Martin Kosleck, was destined to play villains in 1940’s Hollywood alternating between Nazis and Universal horror titles. You can find him in war time movies like Berlin Correspondent, Nazi Agent and The Hitler Gang. As for the horrors? He turned up in House of Horrors with Rondo Hatton, The Mummy’s Curse and The She-Wolf of London. He’d even tangle with Rathbone’s Sherlock in 1945’s Pursuit to Algiers.
Among the “faces” you might recognize in The Mad Doctor are George Chandler as an elevator operator. George who had a grin a mile wide was on camera from short subjects in 1928 till 1979 when he played his final role in The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. According to the IMDB he had a grand total of 465 acting credits!
You’ll also know that newsboy with the gravel voice and sandy hair. It’s William “Billy” Benedict. A member of the Bowery Boys who in 1940 alone had 16 credits to his name. Among them he’s listed as Delivery Man, Delivery Boy, Teenage Voter, Newsboy, Farm Boy, just plain Boy, Elevator Boy, Ticket Taker, Copy Boy and Clinic Patient. Outside of the Bowery Boys flicks that cast him as Whitey, you’d be hard pressed to find very many character names beyond those I’ve already tossed about. Still, like Chandler he’d stay busy amassing 321 acting credits between 1935 and 1988. Not bad for a boy doing various jobs on screen. I can’t help but chuckle at his character credit on an episode of Hill Street Blues in 1983. He was simply known by this point as Old Man.
Makes sense to me.
Thankfully this above average chiller has been recued from the catacombs where old movies go to rest by Kino Lorber who have put it out for the masses on blu ray. Meaning me which has allowed me to catch up with one of the very few Basil Rathbone movies I’d yet to see.
I believe I did see a little of this one on TCM some time back, not a bad little phycological Horror film. Basil Rathbone is one of top dogs in the field of playing both great heroes and great villains.
Very true, Basil, was a very talented guy on screen and I’ve always thought he was capable of a much wider range but back in the studio days that wasn’t always available to actors once you had your “type” set.
Sounds like a good one…one of my favorites with Rathbone is one you mentioned, ‘The Mark of Zorro’, and I’ve only recently began going through all of his Sherlock Holmes films, none of which I ever remember seeing. I’ll have to add this one to the list.
I love that Holmes series. Some are better than others but overall a very rewarding series. He was great in those sword battles with Flynn, Power and the rest.