The Crime Doctor's Courage (Hint: He Buys It by the Case)

So I'm at a press day for the Museum of Modern Art's IberoAmerican films series, which started last night (and which I'll discuss in more detail either tonight or tomorrow, sleep depending, but let me say right now that it's an exciting collection of films, including a terrific reworking of Medea by Arturo Ripstein and a new documentary by Fernando Solanas). Friend and colleague Daryl Chin and I get into a discussion of the pleasures of the B series mystery. I mention that for me the greatest attraction is to see how concise and compact a conventional narrative can be. As I've probably said in this space before, in recent years I've become more interested in how narrative "works" as we've reached the point of diminishing returns in the search for still-undiscovered auteurs.

Of course when I get home the b.w. and I watch one of the several Crime Doctor Bs that TCM showed in an mini-marathon last week. For those of you unenlightened I'll merely say that Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, is a psychatrist played rather nicely by Warner Baxter who solves mysteries. The first film in the series, Crime Doctor, gives you all the backstory, with Ordway an amnesiac who eventually investigates his own past and finds out that he was a criminal mastermind. These epics were drawn from a radio show created by Max Marcin, who is probably best remembered as one of the toilers on Dashiell Hammett's script for City Streets (1931), although he also directed a half-dozen potboilers in the early '30s.

We're watching The Crime Doctor's Courage (1945), the third film in the series, directed by George Sherman and written by Eric Taylor. Taylor is a hack of no great consequence; he wrote several of the Ellery Queens and other Crime Doctor pics. Sherman, on the other hand, is a solid B westerns director who made a couple of decent films (including a very underrated Jock Mahoney-Gilbert Roland vehicle Last of the Fast Guns, well worth seeking out if you can get it letterboxed.

Now here comes the part I find fascinating. The entire first third of the film is a red herring. Seriously. The film, which only runs 70 minutes, opens with a couple on their honeymoon; we learn that the husband's first wife died on their honeymoon and he has a spirited, er, discussion with wife number two before the rocks under her feet crumble, sending her plummeting to her death. Then the brother-in-law from marriage number one turns up at the local sheriff's office to piss and moan about this dead sister and this second supposedly accidental death. Flashforward to Hollywood, where Ordway is on vacation. A former patient of his (Hillary Brooke of Abbott and Costello fame) importunes him to examine her fiancee -- guess who -- to see if he is actually crazy. And so on. The first murder occurs at the dinner party and after that the entire backstory about the two honeymoons essentially disappears.

For sheer nonsensical stupidity, this is hard to beat. And it flies in the face of everything I know about the B series mystery. But it gets worse from there, because the film has more red herrings than all the Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen and Mike Shayne films combined. Frankly, when the murderer's identity is revealed, you are utterly flummoxed primarily because he's a character we barely recall. Add to that the ineffable presence of Lloyd Corrigan as some kind of comic relief-cum-possible suspect and you are sitting through the longest 70 minutes since your last dentist visit.

I only mention this entire fiasco because it is such a vivid reminder that for all the obvious strengths of the studio system (even at the Columbia B level of near-poverty), there are plenty of obvious weaknesses as well. The irony of it is that I suspect Taylor's motivation for this mess was that he wanted to try something that would be a slight break with the series formula. It certainly was.

Anyway, haul yourself over to the Museum of Modern Art for some of the IberoAmerican films -- at least to their website to check out the schedule.

And while you're at it, check out my latest reviews at Jewish Week, of Alexsander Ford's unusual 1949 film Border Street and a charming new documentary about a dying Yiddish theater company and its stalwart leader.

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