Friday, August 8, 2014

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

Director: Joseph H. Lewis                               Writer: Al Martin
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                              Cinematography: Jerome Ash
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Una Merkel, Claire Dodd and Richard Davies

It’s pretty clear that while Universal’s monster films are very impressive, their lesser horror films are, well . . . very less indeed. Two recent sets of programmers from the studio painfully bear this out. The first is called Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive and contains some of the better of the bottom of the barrel featuring Bela Lugosi and Evelyn Ankers. Further down on the food chain, however, is TCM’s set called the Universal Cult Horror Collection containing the real dregs, with a couple featuring Lionel Atwill. One of those from the later set is The Mad Doctor of Market Street which wound up playing the bottom end of a double bill with The Wolf Man after that horror classic wound up doing extended business at many theaters in the early days of World War Two. In fact, it’s not much of a horror film at all, with the mad doctor played by Atwill doing nothing supernatural, and much of the film taking place on a tropical island. It’s a very odd story, and incredibly brief at just under an hour, but there is one thing that makes it watchable: Lionel Atwill.

The film begins promisingly on a stormy night with Hardie Albright pacing in the rain outside Lionel Atwill’s laboratory on Market Street. Once inside, he has an offer to consider. Atwill will give Albright a thousand dollars to allow him to put the man into suspended animation, a technique he has used successfully on other mammals. Albright, out of work and with a family, is desperate for money and finally agrees. When Albright dies, however, Atwill gets out of the office one step ahead of the police and boards a ship bound for the South Pacific. On the ship detective Byron Shores is certain the killer is onboard, but Atwill makes quick work of him by tossing him overboard. Though Atwill is seen by the ship’s steward, Richard Davies, they are unable to rescue Shores and his identity still remains a secret. Una Merkel is onboard for comedy relief, and her niece, Claire Dodd, is there for romantic interest. Nat Pendleton plays a dim-witted boxer, and Milton Kibbee is the ship’s pessimist. When a fire breaks out on the ship, the passengers are forced to evacuate to a tropical island. The natives capture the boat with the principals and threaten to burn them as evil spirits, but when Atwill brings back a sick woman from death they treat him as a god. His act exposes him to the rest of the castaways, though, and with his power on the island he keeps them captive while he resumes his experiments.

Director Joseph H. Lewis worked primarily on westerns during his career, though he did helm a couple of exceptional films noir, Gun Crazy in 1950 and The Big Combo five years later. While most of his set ups here are fairly standard, he does have some shots that stand out, subjective point of view shots of the victims while Atwill is closing in on them--a device Erle C. Kenton would crib for Ghost of Frankenstein--as well as eerie close ups of Atwill and moving camera shots that are quite distinguished. Cinematographer Jerome Ash had recently worked on the Abbott and Costello picture Buck Privates. The comedy in this picture, however, is anything but relief. One of the best lines about it, from the iconic book Universal Horrors is, “that it only stops being funny when the official comedy relief takes over.” Hans Salter is credited as the musical director but, as Universal did often, the film score was cobbled together from existing material. The theme for the opening credits is a variation of Frank Skinner’s opening for Son of Frankenstein, with a new middle section presumably composed by Salter. The only reason for watching the film at all, however, is the presence of Lionel Atwill. While he’s hampered beyond belief by a script that makes no sense, he’s still a pleasure to watch. The Mad Doctor of Market Street is a poverty row production with glossy production values that is memorable only for the appearance of one of the classic mad doctors of all time.

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