THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR Rx. Universal PIctures, 1942. Patric Knowles, Lionel Atwill, Anne Gwynne, Mantan Moreland (not credited), Samuel S. Hinds, Mona Barrie, Paul Kavanaugh, Shemp Howard, Edward MacDonald, John Gallaudet. Screenplay by Clarence Upson Young. Director: William Nigh.

   A strong element of horror and Gothicism runs through this fast moving ’tec tale from Universal about amateur sleuth Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) trying to nail a crusading serial killer who signs himself Dr. Rx.

   The fifth victim of Dr. Rx, yet another criminal who escaped the law but not justice, has just died and the police headed by Captain Heard (Edward MacDonald) and his man Sweeny (Shemp Howard) are in in tither. Jerry Church is just back from South America with plans to retire to his family’s business in Boston (thus Knowles’ British accent) and sell bonds, which makes things even worse.

   Friendly rivals, Heard was counting on Church to track down this madman. Jerry’s retirement is postponed, when John Crispin (Paul Kavanaugh), brother of defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who represented three of the murdered men, convinces Church to at least hear his brother out at his Long Island estate. Crispin fears for his and his wife’s (Mona Barrie) lives, and that very night Jerry finds a note from Dr. Rx warning him off posted on the steering wheel of his car.

   Persuaded to take the case, Jerry focuses on Tony Zaroni, Crispin’s latest client, a hood on trial for murder, and when he is acquitted by the jury, Zaroni doesn’t even get out of the courtroom before he collapses, pronounced dead by the mysterious Dr. Fish (Lionel Atwill in bottle thick glasses) who has been watching the trial closely. Zaroni like the other victims died of strangulation, but how was he strangled in an open courtroom surrounded by witnesses?

   Yes, it’s a miracle crime, and I thought of John Dickson Carr too, but there is no fair-play here despite misdirection, red herrings, and more than a few twists worthy of the master.

   Complicating Church’s investigation are his forgetful valet Horatio (Mantan Moreland doing the most with the usual demeaning stereotype), and a mysterious figure who seems to know his every move and broadcast them to the press.

   The latter proves to be his girl friend, mystery writer Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne) who has had his apartment bugged while he was in South America. When Jerry catches her in the apartment below his he is rightfully angry, but also realizes heloves her so they elope.

   Now, to the horror, miracle crime, and serial killer, and detective story elements we add a touch of the Thin Man theme so popular in films of the mid thirties through the forties.

   After meeting the mother of a policeman who was on the Dr. Rx case and driven mad, his health and mind destroyed by the mysterious killer, Kit wants Jerry to quit, but Zaroni’s ex partner, Ernie Paul (John Gallaudet) threatens Kit if Jerry doesn’t stay on the case to clear him. After taking Jerry for a ride in the country where, in a scene that had to be lifted from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Jerry has a nice Marlowesque exchange with Paul’s moll:

    “My name’s Church, Jerry Church,” Knowles introduces himself to the blonde moll similar to Chandler’s Silver Hair, Eddie Marr’s wife. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

    “That’s the way to have any man.”

   Not Chandler by any means, but not bad.

   Before the final fade to black Jerry and Horatio will be kidnapped by Dr. Rx after a rainy chase through the country and he will find himself chained to an operating table being menaced by an angry ape while Horatio looks on hopelessly, and the mad Dr. Rx babbles.

   This never happened to Nick Charles or Pam North, though Pam came a lot closer to it than Nick.

   All leading to a clever trap to capture Dr. Rx at his deadly game.

   I suppose this will seem much better if like me, you first saw it on the weekend late show when you were fourteen, and caught it whenever it played since.

   Despite some missteps, the stereotype bits with Moreland (who is always better than the material), and one of those Detection Club no-nos (a unnamed South American poison) this is entertaining, with Knowles and Gwynne an attractive pair, Atwill menacing, and Jerry Church a sleuth I wouldn’t have minded encountering more than once.

   The horror elements give it the minor boost it needs, and a skilled cast and snappy screenplay do the rest. It can currently be seen on YouTube in an outstanding print and it is well worth catching with the few caveats I’ve made.