Sometimes movies pose tantalizing questions, such as: Is the main character off his rocker?
Hamlet is a famous example of a character with ambiguous mental health; so is another lesser-known figure, Dr. Clitterhouse.
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) is a black comedy about a successful medical doctor (Edward G. Robinson) who becomes fascinated by what he calls “the Criminal Mind”. He desires to write a book examining the physiological characteristics of criminal brains, and he’s convinced this research will help law enforcement agents battle crime.
The only way he can do this, he reasons, is to become a criminal himself so he can measure his physiological responses (e.g. blood pressure, pupil dilation, etc.) after committing a crime.
Robinson couldn’t be happier in this new secret life as a gangster – er, we mean his new life as a “scientific researcher”. He continually monitors gang members’ vital signs before and after they stage robberies, and carefully records this data in a thick book for future analysis.
Unfortunately for Robinson, a disgruntled Bogart distrusts his motives, and refuses to participate in the testing. He also doesn’t like Trevor’s growing attraction to Robinson. (What? You didn’t think Edward G. Robinson was a ladies’ man? Get outta here! Dames fall for him all the time.)
A showdown between Bogart and Robinson is inevitable – and it coincides with Robinson’s realization that, in order to have perfect insight into the Criminal Mind, he needs to commit the ultimate crime: Murder.
Robinson’s mental state is the central question in this film. Is he misguided in his pursuit of science? Is he fulfilling secret criminal fantasies? Or is he plain wacko?
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse was originally a short story by British playwright Barré Lyndon before it was adapted as a stage play that ran in both London and New York.
We (as in, yours truly) are very fussy when it comes to transferring plays to the screen. We find there is a tendency for scenes to drag and the dialogue to become onerous. But this is not the case with Dr. Clitterhouse.
Director Anatole Litvak and screenwriters John Wexley and John Huston have created a near-perfect screen adaptation. For instance, in one scene, there is a robbery at a fur coat manufacturer which is as tense as anything you’ve seen in a film noir. As this scene unfolds, you’ll find yourself holding your breath. Guaranteed.
The movie is also perfectly cast, with Bogart as the sneering, sarcastic hoodlum, and Trevor as the ambitious criminal businesswoman. And there is Robinson, a mercurial character who purposely allows us to read into his motives whatever we choose.
This is one of those rare films that lends itself to intense philosophical discussion. What is the role of science in our society? How far should scientists go verify controversial hypotheses?
If you’re keen to see Edward G. Robinson as a lunatic-but-maybe-not-a-lunatic, we recommend The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. This movie will keep you guessing until the end – and even then you may not be sure.
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse: Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, Hymphrey Bogart. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Written by John Wexley and John Huston. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1938, B&W, 87 mins.