Vincent Sherman, 1939
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane
Based on a short story, William J. Makin’s “The Doctor’s Secret,” this is not in fact a sequel to Doctor X, though it is thematically somewhat similar. A reporter, Walter Garrett, goes to interview a beautiful, reclusive actress, and finds her dead on her apartment floor, stabbed through the heart. When he summons the police, the body has disappeared and she later turns up alive, to Garrett’s confusion and his boss’s outrage. A number of other odd murder occur around the city. He consults with a doctor friend, Mike Rhodes, and the trail leads them to hematologist Dr. Flegg, who has been performing a number of interesting experiments with blood. His assistant, Quesne (pronounced “Cane”) disturbs the men and bears an odd resemblance to the infamous Dr. Xavier, who was executed for performing fatal experiments on children. It seems that Flegg brought Xavier back from the dead, though he didn’t come back quite right...
The Return of Doctor X is really only worth seeing because of Humphrey Bogart. His first appearance pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film. He shows up in a dark suit, boasting some very white, waxy skin, carrying a bunny rabbit and sporting a Bride of Frankenstein-like white lock in his hair. This was his only horror (or sci-fi) film and he absolutely hated it, but there is something truly delightful about watching him ghoulishly ham it up for a couple of scenes. Of course, I am a huge Bogie fan and would probably watch a DVD of him watching paint dry.
The main issue is that Bogart doesn’t appear until about a third of the way through and isn’t in it nearly enough. Wayne Morris (Paths of Glory, The Smiling Ghost) as the reporter and Dennis Morgan (Kitty Foyle) as the doctor are really the focus of the plot. Though they are dull and bland for most of the film, they become more likable towards the conclusion, which probably means the issue is with the slow, talky script and not the actors. John Litel (who looks remarkably like Ben Kingsley) is good, if a little bland as Dr. Flegg. Flegg isn’t quite a villain, but like Henry Frankenstein bit off far more than he could chew in the reviving dead bodies department. As with Morris and Morgan, he comes to life a bit more in the final act, though that is probably due to the script finally livening up and become less dialogue heavy.
Director Vincent Sherman was better known for the Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), noir films Nora Prentiss (1947) and The Unfaithful (1947), and a few Joan Crawford vehicles, such as The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950). He got his start with The Return of Dr. X, where his obvious preference for noir and crime films is definitely felt. Aside from the title, the connections to Doctor X are scant. While both films are blends of sci-fi and horror that focus on bizarre murders and a mad scientist, outside of the journalist protagonist and feeble attempts at humor, they are totally different animals. Doctor X has some dull, talky moments, but it is definitely a horror film, while The Return of Dr. X only touches on horror and clearly favors crime drama.
There are also some other genre tropes that squeeze their way in: annoyed cops who regard Garrett and Rhodes’ crime solving and supremely irritating and what is supposed to be a romantic subplot with a pretty young nurse who just happens to fit Xavier’s blood type and is next on his list of victims. She of course has a crush on Dr. Mike and he has to rush to save her.
There’s not a lot to recommend about The Return of Dr. X, but as I mentioned, evil Humphrey Bogart carrying around his bunny friend is a wonder to behold. You can find the film in the Hollywood Legends of Horror collection that includes The Devil-Doll, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Mad Love, Doctor X, and Mark of the Vampire.