The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is appropriately named because it is AMAZING! Landing somewhere between a dry Brit comedy and a hardcore gangster movie, the odd-ball gem is hard to categorize. I first saw the movie a few years ago and was delighted when I saw it come up in TCM’s rotation this week. I couldn’t hit record fast enough. I’ll admit that I approached my second viewing with a little trepidation, as often things I thought we’re completely marvelous the first time don’t live up to my expectations the second time. But The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse did not disappoint.
Edward G. Robinson takes the lead as Dr. Clitterhouse, a well respected physician who has decided that the only way to study criminals is to be a criminal. The film opens with Clitterhouse heisting jewelry while attending society parties and boasting about it to his long suffering nurse. She suspects he might be a bit touched, as they say. Clitterhouse proceeds to hook up with an underworld gang, headed up by Rocks Valentine (Humphrey Bogart) and the city’s leading fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor). He takes a vacation from his practice to study these criminals at work, or rather their physiology while criminaling, taking copious notes along the way. Rocks, ever suspicious of Clitterhouse and growing a bit jealous of his releationship with Jo, eventually tries to kill him by locking him in a freezer during a fur warehouse heist. Clitterhouse escapes, publicly chastises Rocks with some snappy dialogue, and returns to his medical practice armed with his notes. Inevitably, Rocks tracks Clitterhouse back to Park Avenue and tries to blackmail him. Clitterhouse, having lost all perspective on his own behavior, murders Rocks with the help of Jo. He’s found out and put on trial, where the only logical defense is insanity.
The conclusion of the movie feels a little rushed, but it’s a quick wrap that moves in the only direction really possible. We the viewers love Clitterhouse as much as crime madame Jo, so it’s not feasible that he gets fried in the electric chair. And the is-he or isn’t-he ambiguity is just enough to feel satisfying without pablum feeding a conclusion. I like to think of this kind of filmic court room shenanigan as “the old Catch 22 defense.” Clitterhouse is devoted to his scientific conclusions and refuses to acknowledge that they could be the ravings a mad man. The jury, understanding that his only defense is insanity, must conclude that he HAS to be insane to insist he’s sane.
Neat, huh? Or as Clitterhouse says to Jo, “You’re logic is devastating!”
The acting in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is supberb. Eddy G. is, always, magnificent and we have a great bit of early-film-career Bogey when he’s still portraying flat-out rotten bad dudes. Claire Trevor gives a marvelous turn as a hard-as-nails, fast-talking wise gal without veering into caricature. The rogue’s gallery of supporting gangster’s provide the bulk of the comic relief that is sometimes over-the-top but never unengaging.
I can’t recommend this movie enough. It’s a fine little film, short and sweet, well performed, and wildly entertaining. I wish there were hundreds just like it, but The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is in a category of it’s own.
Watch Bogey try to blackmail Eddy G.
Check out this Screen Actor’s Guild live radio performance with Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Marsha Hunt.