CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Ordinarily a title like “The Mad Doctor of Market Street,” with its tang of 70s grindhouse fare doesn’t seem to promise much to fans of old-timey horror movies, but this one was a Universal product and it saw the light of day in 1942. Additionally, it was an early effort of director Joseph H. Lewis, so I took a chance.
First off, unlike “Night Monster,” which I discussed a while back, “The Mad Doctor of Market Street” doesn’t have a supernatural/horror component to it. What it does have is Lionel Atwill in his last sizeable lead (albeit second-billed to Una Merkel, Atwill really IS the star–in fact, he’s the whole picture). Certain actors have character traits that they can bring off better than most of their competitors. In Atwill’s case it was huffy self-importance coupled with a friendly demeanor so patently phony that it wouldn’t fool a love-starved mongrel. As Dr. Ralph Benson, “Research Scientist” (ever hear of a Ph.D. in that one?) Atwill gets to display both. In the opening minutes of the film–and clocking in at a tad over one hour, this film really had to move–we see the good Dr. Ralph assuring a somewhat hesitant subject who is in need of ready cash that he really and truly can place him in a state of suspended animation, and then revive him, good as new. That last part doesn’t quite work out and the last we see of Benson he is clambering out the back window of his surgery even as the police and his subject’s new-minted widow are breaking down his front door.
Next we find ourselves on a luxury liner bound for Australia. Folks are dancing and having a really good time. All except for one Mr. Graham who is nursing a cigar and shooting furtive glances all around the room. For good reason, as it turns out–Graham minus a Dr. Zharkov beard and with a die-job is our good friend Benson, now christened “The Mad Doctor of Market Street” by the sensation-hungry media. As if having his medical credentials called into doubt weren’t bad enough, there’s a pesky detective on board who seems to think that Benson is travelling incognito. A meditative moment with a smoke on-deck proves his undoing as Graham/Benson sneaks up on him, clobbers him and tosses him over the side.
Now our anti-hero’s problems are at an end, and it’s clear sailing to Australia and a new life as an “antiques dealer”, right? Actually no–in one of those lightning-quick plot developments that B-movies are made of, there’s a fire in the ship’s hold! In a matter of minutes–this is not “Titanic”–the entire ship is engulfed and the passengers must take to the lifeboats. Before evacuating, Graham rushes to his cabin to secure a black box he had stored away in his travel-trunk. Could it hold greenbacks? The Crown Jewels? (Wait, that Prof. Moriarity was George Zucco, not Lionel Atwill.)
Once the beleaguered survivors make landfall it soon becomes clear–it’s Dr. Benson’s handy revive-the-dead lab kit. The island is inhabited by a tribe led by the ever-lovable Noble Johnson who seems to feel that the best way of welcoming white guests is to pop them into a bonfire. (He seemed to have had the same idea in the 1935 version of “She.”) This time fate intervenes–his beloved wife Tanao (played by an Italian-American, Rosina Galli–why not?) has just died. Well, not really died, just had a really big heart attack. Chief Elan doesn’t know that, but Dr. Benson does. He’s a Research Scientist, remember? Digging into his black box of miracles he quickly manages to revive her, after which Elan proclaims him to be “The God of Life” and declares that he and his tribe are Benson’s slaves. That suits Benson fine, but it doesn’t sit so well with his fellow survivors–Merkel, blonde beauty Claire Dodd in her final film, Nat Pendelton, John Eldredge and leading-man Richard Davies–who Benson assumes will also be his slaves.
When he overplays his God-of-Life routine, putting Davies in a coma, forcing marriage upon Dodd, and generally being a pompous bore, his fellow passengers–minus Eldredge who perishes while attempting a cowardly escape–produce a newly-drowned native, one Barab. Barab appears to have been a good buddy of Elan who now petulantly insists that the God-of-Life do his thing. Poor Benson had already had his hand forced once when Merkel and Pendelton got the natives to insist that he revive the comatose Davies. Now he has a real problem on his hands in that Barab is well and truly dead. How will Atwill convince Johnson and his colleagues that he is The Real Deal? Well, you’ll just have to see the movie. It really is better than its title would lead you to believe.