The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Directed by Vincent Sherman

The Return of Doctor X (also billed as The Return of Dr. X) is a 1939 American science fictionhorror film directed by Vincent Sherman and starring Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane, and Humphrey Bogart as the title character. It was based on the short story “The Doctor’s Secret” by William J. Makin. Despite supposedly being a sequel to Doctor X (1933), also produced by Warner Bros., the films are unrelated.

This was Bogart’s only science fiction or horror film. He never liked to talk about this film or another film of this period, Swing Your Lady, both of which he felt were among his worst.

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Plot

A pair of bizarre murders occur wherein the victims are drained of their rare Type One blood type. Reporter Walter Garrett (Wayne Morris) consults with his friend Dr. Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) which leads them to Rhodes’ former mentor, hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel). Flegg is initially unhelpful, but when Garrett and Rhodes notice a striking resemblance between Flegg’s strange assistant, Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart) and the late Dr. Maurice Xavier, they confront Flegg. Flegg admits that he used scientific methods to bring Xavier back from the grave and employed a synthetic blood formula to sustain his life. However, the formula is unstable, and therefore, Quesne/Xavier must seek out human victims with the rare Type One blood type contained in the formula in order to stay alive.

A hunt is begun for Quesne, who has discovered that Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane), a nurse and Rhodes’ sweetheart, is a carrier of the rare blood type. He escapes with her in a taxi, professing to be taking her to Rhodes. Barnett and Rhodes, accompanied by the police, track them to their location. Quesne is shot dead, and Joan is saved from the fate of the others.

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Bogie’s only horror film is a hoot.

28 March 2000 | by Arthur Hausner (ahausner16@gmail.com) (Pine Grove, California) – See all my reviews

You’ve got to see it to believe it. Bogie in makeup looking ghostly white with a white streak in his hair, in a combination Frankenstein and vampire horror film. It actually happened, due to knuckleheads at Warner Bros. who put him in this film against his wishes. I was amused as well as amazed throughout, and enjoyed watching Bogie stroke his pet rabbit and playing it all straight. Others in the cast (Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane and Dennis Morgan) were fine, but Bogie is the only reason to see this movie. Be prepared to shake your head in disbelief.

The movie must have gone through some heavy editing, because there were many credit errors. First, the end credits bill Wayne Morris as Walter Barnett, but he is called Walter Garrett in the movie throughout and that name is also printed in newspapers several times. Next, Charles Wilson is billed as Detective Ray Kincaid, but he is called Roy throughout. Finally, many of the actors who were supposed to be in the movie never turn up, including two who were credited onscreen – Howard Hickman and Arthur Aylesworth.

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This film is important because it shows that even Hollywood legends need huge amounts of luck to avoid film oblivion. Bogie had been in Hollywood for four years in the early 1930s, and never hit a good film (although he did appear for his one and only time in that period with the young Spencer Tracy). He went back to his stage work in New York City, appeared in THE PETRIFIED FOREST, and returned to Hollywood with his friend Leslie Howard to make the film version there. After the filming of THE PETRIFIED FOREST Bogie was taken seriously as a supporting actor, getting important roles (though as villains) in films like DEAD END and THE ROARING TWENTIES, but also appearing as the lead in films like BLACK LEGION. But his anger at not getting the roles he felt he deserved led to friction with Jack Warner. Warner was like many gifted studio head – producers: he knew that you groom an actor you admire for the right break-out parts. Bogie would not wait, so Warner would punish him by giving him dreck like SWING YOUR LADY. He decided to give him this film too – Warner’s answer to the Universal horror and science fiction cycle, THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X.

If this film had been made by Universal with Boris Karloff it is possible that the film would have been a 7 or 8 out of 10. Karloff or Lugosi or Atwill were able to project a mixture of scientific interest, curiosity, and sinister twisting to their scientists and their characters. Maybe it was the sound of their voices (with their staginess or their accents). Bogart did not have this. He sounded like an average Joe with a slight lisp. He just did not project a scientific gambler.

The plot of THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X has nothing to do with an earlier film DOCTOR X that starred Atwill and Fay Wray. That film was pretty good. It was about a series of murders apparently connected with a medical center, where Atwill is one of the leading doctors, and one of the suspects. The plot of THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X is about a series of murders connected to apparent vampirism as the victims are drained of their blood. It turns upon the experiments of a Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel – trying to be a crusading visionary, but hampered by poor dialog). Flegg is working on a study of human blood, with a way of possibly making an artificial version of it to extend life. However, he has had only one success – a strange man who works with him named Marshall Quesne (Bogart).

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Bogart’s make-up is the only really interesting thing about him. He has his hair parted in the center, with a white streak of hair in the middle, and wears pince-nez. His face is whitened to look like he is anemic. He tries to act self-deprecating, when talking to others like Wayne Morris (the reporter who is investigating the murders). But he only acts like he is sleep-walking through the lines. Except when he gets upset – at one point he notes part of Litel’s blood experiment is failing (and he is very involved in making the experiment work). He starts yelling at Litel about this, much to Morris’ interest. But those moments are few – too few.

If the rest of the film had anything going for it, Bogart’s failure to make his character live would not matter. But it doesn’t. Rosemary Lane and Dennis Morgan (and Morris) give good performances, but other actors (Fay Wray and Joel McCrae and Lee Tracy come to mind) would have vitalized the roles. Huntz Hall, as a newspaper copy-boy, has one good moment – he keeps teasing Morris for his theories regarding dead bodies of the victims in one scene by singing, “When a body meets a body coming through the rye” over and over again. But that said, the film is too flimsy to make one really care who did well in it. Fortunately for Bogie HIGH SIERRA and THE MALTESE FALCON would soon bring him his stardom, and CASABLANCA and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRES ensured it.

I give the film only a 3 out of 10, for it’s value as a curiosity. The only issue left for me is how would Karloff have been as Captain Queeg or Lugosi as Fred C. Dobbs.

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