A persistent newspaper reporter (Lee Tracy) sneaks into a clifftop mansion where a scientist (Lionel Atwill) is conducting experiments to determine which of his college associates may be the nefarious ‘Moon Killer’. The cast of Doctor X, which includes King Kong‘s Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter and love interest to Tracy, give predictably theatrical performances, but Tracy wields a brand of subtle humor that I appreciated. His best moment feels like an improvised one, after encountering a human skeleton hanging in a closet. After being startled by it, he sits and takes a breath. Then he notices how the dangling skeleton is bobbing up and down and starts singing to the beat.
Directed by the prolific Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood), Doctor X distinguishes itself from other B-grade genre movies with German Expressionist sets and plenty of shadow play. It’s also peculiar for being one of the rare films shot in two-tone Technicolor, which gives it an otherworldly color palette that somehow fits the tone of the movie perfectly. The first two thirds of the script suffer from some procedural rigmarole, but the third act pays off with a surprise sci-fi angle, a fairly tense climax, and a running joke that buttons up the love story nicely. It’s also pretty cool that the killer’s identity remains a genuine mystery until the film decides to reveal him to us.