Thanks to Lolita at Lolita’s Classics I am now the proud owner of The Mad Doctor. And a few days ago I watched it for the first time. So, here’s what I think of it….
It’s a very strange film indeed.
Imagine it’s 1940 and a director working inside the Hollywood studio system goes insane and decides to try and intercut the B-thriller he’s making with a European arthouse study of disturbed psychology with a gay/straight “love triangle” in the middle of it, and the studio, not only lets him do it but ships the resulting chimera into the movie houses without anyone seeming to notice.
What you’d get would be something very like THE MAD DOCTOR
It’s actually two completely different films spliced together.
One standard issue 40s “thriller”…
…one bizarrely taboo-busting psychological study…
John Howard and pretty much everyone else is in the first of these; Basil Rathbone and Martin Kosleck are in the taboo-buster, and playing it to the hilt, while luckless Ellen Drew has to be in both, and try to bring credibility to a suicidal depressive who suddenly cheers up mid-movie because Howard takes her to Coney Island and buys her an ice cream, only to become the depressive again in the very next scene so that Basil can diagnose her.
There’s a cheeky office boy who thinks he’s in The Front Page…
And a cliche genial country doctor straight out of Kapra…
There’s also an interminable sequence in which everyone is getting in and out of taxis and failing to find people they’re chasing. It lumbers on forever, going nowhere, and for some reason Whelan made Rathbone carry his hat, stick and gloves throughout, which must make it the most well-dressed, if not the most exciting, chase sequence in movie history. I think Cliche Doctor dies somewhere in the middle of this part – possibly of boredom.
But we should forgive it all these failings and more – because this weird, annoying, rambling movie actually has the cojones – in 1941 – to present us with a homosexual relationship right slap in the middle of the story, driving the motivation and steering the plotlines. OK, neither of the two guys in question actually says “We’re lovers”. They don’t kiss. We don’t see them mid-action in the bedroom. But the only way you could doubt these men are gay is if you don’t know gay exists.
At the beginning of the movie with Sebastien’s latest wife recently deceased, Rathbone talks to little, fey Kosleck, who lives with him, about the “cave of romance” he’s been locked up in. He almost shudders describing seeing the “love light” in his wife’s eyes.
It couldn’t be made much more obvious that he finds sex with women repulsive, but maybe to underline the point he lights up a phallic cigar and lies back on the sofa to enjoy it while his “room mate” shares the fireside with him.
And it doesn’t get subtler as the movie progresses.
Kosleck flaunts about arranging flowers or spraying himself lavishly with perfume. Rathbone talks to him about the wonderful life they’ll share once they’ve disposed of the latest wealthy woman he’s in the throes of seducing. And when Sebastien accidentally falls in love with his victim and decides to quit his life of evil, Kosleck pouts and sulks like a jilted lover.
“What about me?” he demands at this point, in case some of us haven’t caught on yet.
“We’re out of tune, Maurice, you and I”, Rathbone says, while Kosleck flounces off into the bedroom.
Can there be many other movies of the period that were brave (or insane) enough to deal this honestly with man on man love? True, these men are not exactly exemplary characters, but they are presented as real and human, and Kosleck’s jealousy when he realises Rathbone is falling in love with a woman is permitted to be expressed as a natural and even legitimate response. There is sympathy in this movie for both of the men, despite their murderousness, and the glimpses of their domestic life are almost cozy. The two men have enormous chemistry in their scenes together so much so that Rathbone’s scenes with Drew pale a little in comparison. It’s the fact this movie treats homosexuality not just unusually frankly, but with innate understanding that makes it really remarkable.
I think I gather from things Kosleck and others said that it was this aspect of the movie he and Rathbone were most anxious to defend against censorship, and if that’s true they both deserve huge credit. It would be a brave stand for any actor to take back then, but when we consider that one of them (Kosleck) was quite openly gay in his private life then it looks even riskier to be toying with such themes in public.
Rathbone’s entire performance is extraordinary, and deserves the epithet “stunning” that some reviewer gave it. He gives us a truly plausible psychopath, readily charming, but psychologically detached and mutilated by a complete failure of empathy that is creepily at odds with his apparent intelligence. He believes he can redeem himself, but when he finds he can only do so through killing even more people, he entirely fails to see the certain irony.
When Kosleck – who is probably the only human being who really knows him – calls him a monster “born in the dark of the moon, with no breath of God in your soul,” he’s genuinely appalled.
“That’s not true any more”, he says, “it’s not true; her love is breathing the breath of God into my soul”.
His desperate need to believe is obvious, but so is the self-delusion underpinning it. Kosleck’s right. And Rathbone shows us this even while he’s denying it. It’s his genius to find the tragedy in that without in any way undermining the man’s genuine monstrosity.
It’s great acting. But – as so often – fate decided the Baz wouldn’t get the credit he deserved, and his work tanked along with the movie.
To sum up…
THE MAD DOCTOR is weird, bad in places, and incredibly interesting. If they’d ditched Howard as a love interest and made him a brother or something, cut back on that awful Feydeau Farce with the taxis and the stately search for Cliche Doctor in the NY Public Library, the movie would have shot up fifty points right there; add another fifteen or twenty minutes to the run and given Rathbone and Kosleck twice as much screen time, while also allowing the relationship between Rathbone and Drew to develop more slowly, and this movie would probably have been impressive. As it is, we are left with a situation that’s sadly familiar to Baz fans – wherein fate has contrived to snatch the cup of movie-greatness from his lips even as he was about to take the first sip. His scenes, particularly those with Kosleck, remain wonderful little jewels sparking in a drossy gloom; reminders of what might have been.