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Monday, March 31, 2008

Film Review: Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse Finds The Sweet Spot

Review by Noah Mallin

The title sounds like something from the deep recesses of 70s porn. The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is quite another thing entirely. Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Claire Trevor head the cast of this late 30s dramatic gangster comedy. The three would later end up in the superior Key Largo together directed by Clitterhouse co-writer John Huston.

Unlike Key Largo though this is one of the few gangster pics in which Robinson didn't play a ruthless mug -- that's down to Bogie in a smoldering performance. Instead Robinson is an intellectual doctor with an interest in the physiological effects of criminality. So interested is he that he begins to commit robberies amongst his wealthy friends to study the effect.

While attempting to hock his hot stuff he runs into Claire Trevor, an awfully nice gang queenpin, and gang leader Bogart. Clitterhouse's quick thinking and sharp organizational skills propel him to gang leadership and a place in Trevor's heart, both of which rub Bogie the wrong way.

This is an unusual performance from Robinson, playing an off-kilter upper class man of science. He speaks mellifluously and approaches every situation with calm and reason. Trevor is very good, though after her early scenes she becomes less convincing as a crime overlord. Bogart had played hoods before and was a Warner Brothers go-to guy for the type at this point in his career but the menace and resentment he brings to his role here are first rate.

Some reviewers have knocked Clitterhouse for its mix of comedy and drama and its odd conclusion, which must have been perplexing during the Code-era. I found it to be a great deal of fun, not least of which for the performances. The ambiguity in Dr. Clitterhouse's character is quite modern, fascinated by doing wrong and drawn to it -- for purely academic purposes.

Ultimately there are dark byways of the soul that director Anatole Litvak leaves unexplored, but the light froth that remains is enjoyable in and of itself.

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