Calling Dr. Death - 1943
"Not murder, Doctor. You haven't the courage..."
Lon Chaney, Jr. is Dr. Mark Steele, a neurologist and hypnotist who spends a portion of this short film (63 minutes long) talking to himself within his mind in a hushed voice of soliloquy, arguing with himself whether he has somehow murdered his wife (Ramsay Ames) but just can't remember doing so. Police Investigator Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) at first is sure that Dr. Steele has done the deed and that the doctor's memory loss is a dodge to escape responsibility, but soon, Gregg also has his eyes on the rest of the cast (Patricia Morison and David Bruce in particular) and he makes a few comments that makes us wonder if even Gregg could have done the killing.
In this first film from the Inner Sanctum series of six films based on the popular radio program, the tangle of conflicting thoughts inside of Dr. Steele's head doesn't help the audience figure out what has happened to the cruel-tongued, adulterous wife that Dr. Steele loathed. Instead, his interior-editorials just add to the confusing overlapping clues that point in several directions at once. When the dead wife's lover is arrested, tried for the death and then slated for execution, the pressure on Steele really begins to bear down on his guilt-soaked mind. Patricia Morison as Steele's loyal and sympathetic nurse (and the closest thing the alienated Dr. Steele has to a friend) looms up as more and more important as the story winds up toward a climax moments before the execution.
The influence of 1940s cinematic psychology (like Lewton's Cat People, Hitchcock's Suspicion and Bette Davis's Now, Voyager) hovers over Calling Dr. Death. The hushed whispering voice inside of Steele's mind is reminiscent of the "inner voice" that deaf-mute sailor Finn (Skelton Knaggs) used in Val Lewton's Ghost Ship.
Exploring the interior world of the mind in this cinematic way obscures the usual dry clue-gathering work we expect from a murder-mystery, and with Dr. Steele being in the dark about what's going on in his own head (and his own activities) opens up a lot of space for guessing who is the culprit behind the death of Mrs. Steele, with Dr. Steele just happening to be at the top of the list.
Lon Chaney, Jr. carries the conflict of Dr. Steele forward with the tortured angst that marked so many of the characters Chaney played during his career, but in Calling Dr. Death he is aided by the script by Edward Dein which deliberately alludes to the hidden compulsions that emanate from out of known, and unknown, motivations in the human psyche.
From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page July 9, 2021