In my intermittent look at Humphrey Bogart’s early career, here’s the intriguing “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” from 1938.
At first glance, this seems like one of Warner Brothers’ biopics of the 1930s, like “The Story of Louis Pasteur” or “The Life of Emile Zola.” As the credits roll, the opening reveals a research lab with things boiling, which is reminiscent of Universal’s monster movies.
But Dr. Clitterhouse is not a mad scientist nor a prominent figure. He’s a doctor who is also a criminal in order to research and write about the medical aspects of the criminal mind. Edward G. Robinson plays the good doctor, with Bogart as one of the criminals. The story opens with Clitterhouse and a jewel robbery; he’s calm, cool and collected as he manages to leave the scene of the crime undetected. He then asks his nurse to keep an eye on his bag and meets with Inspector Lane (Donald Crisp), who tells the doctor that he “mustn’t forget his bag of tricks” without knowing the jewels are in that bag.
Dr. Clitterhouse eventually sets up a criminal clinic in London with a group of thieves that includes Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), Rocks Valentine (Bogart) and Tug (Ward Bond). Of Rocks it is observed that his “entire personality is distorted.” Dr. Clitterhouse gains the trust of everyone except Rocks, who believes he should be in charge and begins to plot against Dr. Clitterhouse.
One of the screenwriters is John Huston, and there are some elements – particularly in a tense showdown between Dr. Clitterhouse and Rocks toward the end – that feel like a Huston film because of the wordplay between the two.
However, there’s not much to say about this film except that it’s surprisingly entertaining with a good cast, led by a cool Robinson who’s filled with charm and guile as Dr. Clitterhouse.
As for Bogart, in watching the progression of his career during the 1930s, it would be easy to wave your hand at yet another tough guy role. But he’s growing as an actor. These portrayals have similar elements but I really liked how Bogart handled his showdown with Dr. Clitterhouse with a coiled intensity rather than an expected flashpoint explosion of anger.
Unfortunately, the film’s climax is odd, going for a broadly comic tone that doesn’t fit with the rest of the story and jarringly ends the film.
Several radio broadcasts of “Dr. Clitterhouse” aired during the 1940s with Robinson reprising his role, a testament to the popularity of the piece. It’s still an enjoyable film today and one I would recommend.