Terrifying Tuesday: The Return of Dr. X (1939)

"This is one of the pictures that made me march in to Jack Warner's office and ask for more money again. You can't believe what this one was like. I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner's blood, or Harry's, or Pop's, maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie."- Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart had already established himself as a player in the gangster movies made popular by Warner Brothers such as his turn opposite James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). This was a spectacularly prolific time for Bogart (probably because Jack Warner worked actors like dogs), and in 1939 he made seven more films. Most of these roles were more of the same tough guy parts, but this film was far and away different from anything he's done.

In 1932, Michael Curtiz, who worked with Bogart in Angels and the classic Casablanca, directed Lional Atwill and Fay Wray in the proto-slasher Dr. X. Then in 1939, first time director Vincent Sherman took over the reigns and brought to the world the unconnected sequel......

The Return of Dr. X (1939) starring Humphrey Bogart, Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane. Directed by Vincent Sherman.

Bumbling reporter, Walter Garrett (Morris) stumbles across the dead form of a noted socialite, but by the time the police get there there's no body to be found. The socialite even goes so far as to show up at the newspaper the next day to prove she was still alive, and to file suit against the paper. Needless to say Walter soon finds himself unemployed.

He seeks out the help of his surgeon friend Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to unravel the mystery of how a dead girl could just get up and walk away. Mike agrees to help, but first he has surgery with his mentor Dr. Flegg. Unfortunately the blood donor needed for the operation doesn't show up and they have to enlist the help of the new nurse, Joan (Lane).

After the operation, Mike gets called by the police to investigate the scene of a crime. It seems the blood donor has been found dead without a drop of blood in him. Mike does find some other blood on the scene, and it has some rather strange properties. He consults with Dr. Flegg and his skunk haired assistant Dr. Quesne (Bogart). As Dr. Rhodes and Walter begin to dig deeper into the mystery they find that Dr. Quense may be hiding something. Quense is a dead ringer for the deceased Dr. Maurice Xavier, the diabolical Dr. X!

Film Facts

-- Boris Karloff was supposed to star as Dr. X.

-- Vincent Sherman would go on to direct 31 more feature films, and he has several television shows to his credit.

-- John Litel, who played Dr. Flegg, would appear in a series of films featuring the adventures of newsman Henry Aldrich. The first film was Henry Aldrich, Editor (1942). Litel would go on to play the role seven more times.

--Dennis Morgan was originally slated to play Rick in Casablanca, but he took a part in Thank Your Lucky Stars Instead.

The Bug Speaks
This is a film that I came across while watching a documentary on the Warner Brothers gangster films. When they rolled a clip of Bogart, with a stripe of white hair, emerging from a lab while cradling a white rabbit, well, how could I not be sold? I think I got what I expected with this one, and my expectations were not very high.

The film itself is pretty shaky in the plot department. What it boils down to is that Dr. X needs blood, and he can get it while killing people. Apparently Dr. Xavier was a scientist of the mad variety even before he was put to death for "seeing how long babies could go without food." Wow, that's some science experiment. So Dr. X goes to the chair, Dr. Flegg brings him back filled with artificial blood, and now X has found a taste for older victims, and he don't wait around for them to starve to death either. The great thing is at a run time of only sixty two minutes, there's not much time for plot so it's compacted style bulks up the thin story.

The actors in this film are obviously trying their damnedest to make something out of nothing. Wayne Morris plays the bumbling reporter to the hilt with each bug eyed double take, and not only is Litel's Dr. Flegg an excellent red herring, he gave me great enjoyment as I pondered the eternal question, "Should a surgeon wear a monocle?" Dennis Morgan is probably the weak link in the flick, but even his character has tons of fodder for amusement. After all it's important to learn that you should always give crazy acting guys any girls address and phone number they ask for. After all as your reporter friend will tell you, "This is no time for dames." Speaking of dames, it's too bad we don't get to see more of Rosemary Lane as Nurse Allen., but she does have one of the worst first dates ever with the clueless Dr. Rhodes.

Of course the reason to see this film is Bogart. From head to toe, he completely commits to being this character that he didn't even want to play. Gone are the tough guy mannerisms, and they are replaced by a skiddish, weak little man. Sure we do get a glimpse of the bad ass when Dr. X's motives come to light, but even then Bogart fills the role with a kind of creepy that can only be compared to his turn as the nutcase Lt. Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. This film marked the first real glimmer that there was something more, something deeper, to Bogie as an actor. While he didn't have the material to make anything classic really happen, he still gave it his best shot.

The film is nothing special really. It really is a middle of the road horror/sci fi film that never rises above what was hastily written on the page. Even the presence of Bogart in such an offbeat role can't manage to build it up beyond mediocrity. That being said anyone who likes old horror and Bogie owes it to themselves to see this one. If you're like me and have a couple of like minded friends to watch it with, invite them on over and have a great time with this nonsensical tale.

The Bug Rating


  1. The original Doctor X, which has absolutely nothing to do with this movie, is definitely worth seeing for its grisly pre-code horrors and early two-color process from technicolor. I have it in the same set with this film (I'm going to get around to reviewing all six films in the set one of these days).

  2. Hey Ryan, thanks for stopping by, it's been a while. The disk I had with Return of Dr. X also had the original on it, and I did get a chance to give it a watch. It is surely a pre-code gem on it's own.

    Glad you liked the review and stop on back by anytime!


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