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Lionel Atwill's reputation as the rising horror actor of the forties increased significantly after his memorable turn as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939), one of his finest creature features, and Man Made Monster (1941), in which he is the epitome of the mad doctor, delivering dialogue like "Mad? Of course I'm mad! So were Galileo, Archimedes, Newton, Pasteur and all those others who dared to dream!" As a result, Universal designed The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) as a showcase for Atwill and he delivers a lip-smacking, over-the-top doozy of a performance.
At the time tropical island adventure films were popular with the public and Universal contributed to the genre with such low-budget, profitable releases as One Night in the Tropics (1940), South of Tahiti (1941), Moonlight in Hawaii (1941) and Pardon My Sarong (1942). In fact, The Mad Doctor of Market Street began as an exotic romp entitled Terror of the South Seas. The movie, however, opens in San Francisco, which explains its final release title.
Dr. Benson (Atwill) is conducting experiments in suspended animation and needs something more substantial than laboratory animals for his tests....like human subjects. Promising great sums of money, Benson lures a destitute man to his laboratory but the experiment is a failure, the man dies and the doctor is forced to flee the city with the police on his trail. Bound for Australia with a new identity, Benson is shipwrecked on a remote Pacific island with a handful of survivors. Faced with certain death from the hostile islanders, Benson convinces the tribal chief he is the "God of Life" when he revives the leader's comatose wife with an adrenalin injection. The ruse works and Benson begins enjoying the status of a deity, worshipped by the natives and able to command them to do his bidding. Part of his master plan includes Patricia (Claire Dodd), a fellow shipwreck survivor whom he intends to marry despite her devotion to her fianc Jim (Richard Davies). "Just as the natives worship me so will the whole world." But as Dr. Benson's enormous ego rages out of control, so do the suspicions of Elan (Noble Johnson), the tribal chief.
Filmed on the Universal backlot with a less than three week shooting schedule, The Mad Doctor of Market Street was a low-budget affair that utilized the studio's contract players and gave rising director Joseph H. Lewis an opportunity to demonstrate his versatility with little production money. Lewis, who would later acquire a reputation as an auteur with film critics for stylish B-movies such as Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955), brings a lively visual flair to The Mad Doctor of Market Street and designs some striking set pieces such as the luxury liner disaster sequence and the tense final scene when Benson's alleged godlike powers are put to the test.
According to a wire service story, released during the making of the movie, "Atwill was doing an operating scene in this film when he himself called a halt to the action. He explained that he had just realized that his steps in applying cotton, needle, sponge and stethoscope to his patient were wrongly sequenced. Calling for another 'take.' Atwill did the scene in his liking, then jokingly asked for an extra check for being his own technical adviser!"
Richard Davies, who plays the luxury liner's steward in The Mad Doctor of Market Street, remarked in an interview that Atwill "was the star of the picture and we just had a speaking acquaintance. He was a good enough actor so that his personal problems did not affect his performance." Davies' mention of Atwill's personal problems was probably referencing a recent accusation against the actor for showing pornographic films and hosting an "orgy" in his home, a charge he denied. However, his testimony was later disproved and he was charged with perjury, resulting in a sentence of five years' probation.
The Mad Doctor of Market Street might not be one of Universal's finest horror entries or even Lionel Atwill's best mad doctor performance, but it's an entertaining, fast-paced programmer which holds up much better than you'd expect. Geoff Andrew of the TimeOut Film Guide delivered this contemporary critique of the film: "Lewis at his low budget looniest, and barely the worse for that. The material is preposterously absurd... Everything is cheap, tacky and infantile, but you can't help but admire the way Lewis balances his evident, slyly humorous disdain for the script and production values with a surprisingly professional pretence at some sort of commitment. Zomboid fun."
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Al Martin
Cinematography: Jerome Ash
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Film Editing: Ralph Dixon
Principal Cast: Una Merkel (Aunt Margaret Wentworth), Lionel Atwill (Dr. Ralph Benson, posing as Graham), Nat Pendleton (Red Hogan), Claire Dodd (Patricia Wentworth), Anne Nagel (Mrs. William Saunders), Hardie Albright (William Saunders), Richard Davies (Jim), John Eldredge (Dwight, Ship's Officer), Ray Mala (Barab), Noble Johnson (Native Chief Elan).
by Jeff Stafford
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver (McFarland)
Horror Film Stars by Michael R. Pitts (McFarland)