Home Video Reviews
When Robinson started work on The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), he had recently signed a new contract with Warner Bros that gave him unusually great autonomy. Warners was presenting him with gangster script after gangster script, however, and Robinson was getting sick and tired of not being offered something different. After starring in, ironically, the MGM picture The Last Gangster (1937) as yet another crime figure, he did two crime comedies for Warner Brothers: A Slight Case of Murder (1938), in which he played a criminal with a comedic slant, and then The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, in which he played a doctor trying out a life of crime for "research" purposes. Despite still being crime films, in other words, these were comedic ones in which Robinson was able to edge farther and farther away from playing a serious villain. Slight Case is a "gangster comedy," but Clitterhouse is more of a comedy set in a gangster world.
Robinson clearly enjoyed the chance to flex different acting muscles; one can sense it watching Clitterhouse. Robinson's "Dr. Clitterhouse" character is a respectable, wealthy doctor who we see in an intriguing opening sequence clear the jewelry from the safe of his high-society hostess, catching some other "real" crooks in the process, and then casually rejoining the cocktail party downstairs. Soon it's clear that Dr. Clitterhouse is transfixed on studying the criminal mind by engaging in criminal acts himself. He's interested in the criminal's bodily response to crime - the effects on pulse, heart rate, blood content, mental state, etc. After a few robberies on his own, he worms his way into a gang led by Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor and manages to become their leader, known as "The Professor." After each robbery, Dr. Clitterhouse takes blood samples from and conducts exams on each gang member - except for the suspicious Bogart, who is resentful because of his power being stripped away and of the burgeoning romance between Trevor and Robinson. The crooks write off The Professor's bizarre behavior as just an oddity of a man who otherwise is arranging one successful job after another.
Of course the plot is ridiculous, but it succeeds in generating much amusement. When Robinson's nurse urges him not to go ahead with his plan, Robinson justifies it by saying, "If I accept my purpose, I believe I'll be making a very important contribution to society worth whatever personal risk it may entail." At that point, the audience simply has to go along with the craziness.
Bogart, who had just appeared in Racket Busters (1938) and would next do Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), is in full tough-guy mode here and is as enjoyable as ever. Claire Trevor was on the cusp of stardom, but then again, she would pretty much remain there without ever truly breaking through. She'd been in movies since 1933 and had recently been Oscar-nominated for Dead End (1937) - and was still to appear in such smash hits as Stagecoach (1939) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) - but her heart was simply geared more toward theater than film. Nonetheless, she is awfully good here, and her chemistry with Bogart is especially appealing. Rounding things out are the studio's top-level stock company of supporting players: Allen Jenkins, Donald Crisp, Henry O'Neill, Ward Bond and others.
Warner Home Video's DVD comes with many extras: a commentary from USC film professors Drew Casper and Richard Jewell, two shorts, a cartoon, a newsreel, trailers, and two radio versions of the story featuring Robinson. Most of the extras can be viewed a la carte or as a "Warner Night at the Movies" option. The film is only available as part of the entire box set. Each of the other discs (the titles are The Little Giant, Kid Galahad, Invisible Stripes and Larceny, Inc.) has similar extras, and as a whole, the collection lives up to the exemplary standards created by previous releases, including excellent picture and sound. The best bonus is a separate disc for the brand-new, feature-length documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. Even that disc comes with extras: an assortment of more classic Warner Brothers cartoons, gangster-themed.
For more information about The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, visit Warner Video.To order The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold