Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, The (1938)

“I know precisely what I’m doing: valuable research work, in a rather unusual form!”

Synopsis:
A doctor (Edward G. Robinson) interested in studying the physiology of criminals gets involved in a heist ring led by high-level fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor).

Genres:

Review:
This unusual comedic crime thriller deals with one of the eternal dilemmas of science: to what lengths should we go in order to learn more about the human mind and body? The Office for Protection of Human Subjects at any university would have quite a bit to say about Dr. Clitterhouse’s methods, but his blatant disregard for such conventions is what provides the film’s narrative fuel. How far will Clitterhouse (what a name!) go, and when — or rather, how — will he be caught? Edward G. Robinson acquits himself admirably in the title role, and seems the perfect choice to play this recklessly arrogant — yet unnervingly calm — doctor. While the screenplay is overly stagy at times, and the comedy doesn’t always work, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse remains intriguing viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A clever and witty script (co-written by future director John Huston)

Must See?
No. While based on an intriguing premise, this movie isn’t essential viewing for film fanatics.

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One Response to “Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, The (1938)”

  1. Agreed; this is an odd duck. Not a bad film – engaging, often surprisingly amusing, with much up its dense-script sleeve, directed and performed well – but, still, not a must.

    And the premise is unique. However, at the same time, suspension of disbelief becomes necessary on more than one occasion: if Robinson’s character indulged in criminal behavior for the sake of research, why wouldn’t he see to it that whatever he stole prior to the story was returned? (or, due to internal conflict, does he want to be caught?); wouldn’t the brilliant doctor school his assistant in how to deal better with the police?; would Trevor’s hard-as-nails character really become so slavishly enamored? (when it would be more interesting if feelings grew in her but she gravitated more toward the doctor as something of an equal); etc. (And the ending is satisfying, and yet not.)

    That said, the whole thing does seem to come off as a lark for all concerned, and it does hold interest throughout. I do especially like the comic touches: the criminal gang masquerading as musicians (which echoes later in Mackendrick’s ‘The Ladykillers’); the police lieutenant eating out of a bowl of pretzels hiding jewels (which serves to also offer tension); a number of throwaway-dialogue bits, like the one in which Robinson asks a gang member what his brother ‘does’ at Harvard and is told, “He’s preserved in alcohol. He’s got two heads.”

    What might be kind of fun for ffs is to watch this on a double-bill with ‘Key Largo’, just to see the stark contrast of the work of the same leads: Robinson, Trevor and Humphrey Bogart.

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