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Film / Doctor X

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A 1932 mystery-horror-comedy film directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Lee Tracy, Lionel Atwill, and Fay Wray.

It follows New York newspaperman Lee Taylor (Tracy) as he covers the investigation of a series of full-moon murders in which victims are strangled, cut with a scalpel, and partially cannibalized. Evidence points to the Academy of Surgical Research, where five scientists — including the director, Dr. Xavier (Atwill) — have remained to continue their research while the students are on holiday.

Desperate to protect the reputation of his institution, Xavier strikes a bargain with the police: he will bring the suspects to his Long Island mansion and monitor their vital signs as they watch staged reenactments of the crimes. If he can discover the killer within 48 hours, his name and the Academy's will not be revealed to the newspapers in connection with the murders.

Lee will have nothing of this. He reports the story anyway, and secretly follows the investigation right to the mansion. Too bad Xavier's daughter, Joan (Wray), already recognizes him...

Doctor X was shot in both black-and-white and Technicolor; it was one of the last films to use the two-strip Technicolor process. The color version was believed to be lost until 1978, when a print was discovered in Jack Warner's personal collection. This, in its restored form, is now considered the definitive print, and for over 30 years was the only version of the film available until an HD restoration of the black-and-white version was included on the 2021 Blu-ray release as a bonus feature.

An In Name Only sequel, The Return of Dr. X, was filmed in 1939. It starred Humphrey Bogart.


  • Artificial Limbs: Wells's hand.
  • Beach Episode: Lee and Joan have a non-plot-related conversation on the beach in the middle of the film, solely to get in a bit of comic relief (from him) and Fanservice (from her).
  • Beat Still, My Heart: Wells's experiment, a heart kept alive in a jar.
  • Bully and Wimp Pairing: The servants have shades of this. Otto is a petty sadist who takes every opportunity to scare high-strung Mamie — and then they're called on to reenact the killings together.
  • Catchphrase: Lee's "Bad luck!"
  • Creepy Red Herring: Every single one of the scientists seem Obviously Evil and have the trappings of stereotypical mad scientists, with the exception of Dr. Xavier himself. This, naturally, may lead the viewer to predict that Xavier is the killer, but he's not: it was one of the weirdos after all.
  • Deadly Prank: Inverted. An Explosive Cigar saves Lee's life by startling the killer at a critical moment.
  • Dem Bones: Invoked, when Lee sees a skeleton apparently peeking at him around a corner. We then realize that it's actually being carried by one of the doctors, though Lee remains extremely shaken by the experience, and a few scenes later, starts talking to more skeletons as if they were alive.
  • Disability Alibi: Other characters determine that Wells can't be the killer because he only has one hand, which isn't consistent with the way the victims were strangled.
  • Disney Villain Death: Combined, gruesomely, with Kill It with Fire.
  • Dolled-Up Installment: The sequel, The Return of Doctor X, was based on an unrelated short story. What ties the two films together is their Applied Phlebotinum: synthetic flesh in the original and synthetic blood in the sequel. There's also The Revenge of Dr. X, which barely even qualifies as this trope.
  • Electric Joybuzzer: Averted. A handshake buzzer appears as a running gag (and is eventually even used as a weapon), but it's the realistic, mechanical kind. It ends up serving as Chekhov's Gun, giving Lee the edge to defeat the villain in a brawl.
  • For Science!: Part of the killer's motivation.
  • GPS Evidence: Police narrow the suspect pool considerably when they discover that the scalpel used in the murders must have come from the Academy of Surgical Research.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Averted at least twice: when the lights go out during the first reenactment, and in The Tag.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After the housemaid sees a bad omen in her tea leaves, she refills the teacup with gin. From a bottle she keeps under her pillow.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The killer, seemingly.
  • Instant Sedation: In the form of knockout gas, used on Lee while he is in the room of skeletons.
  • Intrepid Reporter: A variation. Lee pursues his story relentlessly, but otherwise doesn't fit the character type: he's a skittish Non-Action Guy who only stays on the case because of pressure from Da Editor.
  • Lovable Coward: Lee, though he ends up extremely brave in the movie's climax.
  • Lunacy: All of the killings have happened on nights with a full moon, leading Dr. Xavier to believe that the moon is a trigger for the so-called "Moon Killer". Dr. Rowitz is also studying the psychological effects of the moon and the phenomena of lunacy, which he poetically describes as the counterpart to sunstroke.
  • Mad Scientist: All of the doctors have elements of this, but the killer embodies the trope perfectly.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: The secret lab where Dr. Wells applies his "synthetic flesh".
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: Implied to be part of two of the doctors' shared backstory. The two of them - and a third guy - survived a shipwreck off Tahiti and were in a life raft. They insist that the third man died and they threw the body overboard.
  • Obfuscating Disability: The killer embodies this trope in spirit: even though he really does have only one hand, he is able to easily produce a functional, living replacement.
  • Old, Dark House: The second half of the movie takes place in Dr. Xavier's eerie, poorly-lit mansion in Long Island, where all the characters are stuck until they solve the mystery.
  • Porn Stash: Haines's magazine of "French art," hidden in a book. This is meant to be a Kick the Dog moment for him, establishing him as a pervert, though modern audiences would probably find his behaviour a lot more understandable.
  • Red Herring: Doctor X, X being the unknown, is likely to make viewers think the killer is Xavier, whose name starts with an X.
  • Red Right Hand: Three of the five doctors have physical oddities that could potentially mark them as villainous: Haines wears a goatee, Rowitz has a Dueling Scar and a dark monocle, and Duke uses a wheelchair and crutches. Of the other two, Xavier is ordinary-looking and Wells's one-handedness actually exempts him from suspicion.
  • Running Gag: The hand buzzer.
  • Scary Flashlight Face: Used several times (without actual flashlight), especially when Otto is in the shot.
  • Serial Killer: The Moon Killer, who has strangled four people on nights of the full moon. The plot revolves around trying to figure out his identity.