DOCTOR X, directed by endlessly exhausted motherfucking Michael Curtiz — oh, did you know he also directed a little film named CASABLANCA? Also, well over a hundred other films? — is mostly notable for its technical details as opposed to its plot, which is wildly chaotic.
If you are older than 12, you’re probably familiar with the traditional Technicolor film look; it’s all vividly colorful and eye-popping and glorious. THE WIZARD OF OZ would be nothing without Technicolor.
That’s not how Technicolor started out. While it was one of the first non-hand tinted color film processes — in the early days of film, folks actually hand-colored individual frames, or entire reels were dunked in dye — it started as a two-color rendition, which was rather garish, mostly a glowing green and a ruddy red-brown.
While those hues were novel, they didn’t quite suit most dramas or comedies being produced by Warner Bros. who had signed an exclusive agreement with Technicolor. Then they realized: “Hey those Universal horror films seem to be doing well, and they’re just black-and-white. Let’s give that a go!”
As a result, the world received DOCTOR X and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (which was later adapted as HOUSE OF WAX). They didn’t set the world on fire like Universal horror films, but folks did take note of them.
For a long time, the only way to watch either of them were via shit transfers of deteriorated prints. The vibrancy of the Technicolor process? Nowhere to be seen. Two-color Technicolor? More like one-color Technicolor. When I said they were shit transfers? They were shit-colored, all brown and muddy and not at all appealing.
UCLA, as they often do (along with significant backing) took considerable measures to restore both films to their prior glory. The two colors glow in a singular way that you simply don’t see in films. It’s a very specific look. However, if a film isn’t shot with that in mind, if it’s shot thinking ‘oh, this is full color’ then, well, it’ll look ill-designed and flawed.
That isn’t the case with DOCTOR X. This film was shot by Ray Rennahan, an early master of the Technicolor process. His deft handling of lighting and hues is what makes DOCTOR X exceptional. Plot-wise, DOCTOR X is definitely bizarre and intriguing while at the same time being more than a bit staid and boring. While it’s essentially the tale of a Jekyll-and-Hyde serial killer mystery sussed out by cops and scientists, the means of how they do so are rather twisted and involve a lot of handcuffs and chairs and re-enactments for what I can only deduce as dramatic intent. However, it’s also injected with a lot of pratfalls, poorly conceived attempts at humor, stuttering pacing, and a terrible romantic subplot that even scream queen Fay Wray can’t make work.
While the use of color is the star here, the sets bolster the film. They’re all angular, stark and all over-powering in a German expressionist way. They’re mesmerizing and striking and compelling and draw you into a scene in ways the script fail to do so.
In other words: this is a film where the production values justify its existence, and this restoration does the film justice and returns it to its former glory.
I’ll note that, even when Technicolor finally mastered full-color, it was mostly via extremely complex and very heavy cameras that shot scenes on three reels — one red, one green, one blue — and it was optically combined in post. Think about that when you see push-ins in films of the late 30s and 40s.
Yeah, and you think CGI FX artists have it rough.
Lastly: I had this film slated for Horrorclature 2023 before I noticed that my local favorite art house theater — the Music Box — would be screening a 35mm print and, of course, I attended. A lot of the finer production details noted above are because of the introduction the programmers at the Chicago Film Society provided. They always do great work and, if you’re in the midwest? They program films not just in Chicago, but all around!