Never, ever, annoy a surgeon.
During the course of your traditional television upbringing, you may have noticed a recurring stereotype throughout those evergreen reruns of black-and-white sitcoms, spy spoofs and Warner Bros cartoons. Whenever The Beverley Hillbillies, or The Avengers, or Bugs Bunny found themselves on a film set, they’d encounter a fearsome director with a German accent, usually clad in jodhpurs, wielding a riding crop and sporting a monocle, bringing each scene to a halt by crashing his loudspeaker to the ground and hurling abuse at the nearest underling. Unlike most clichéd characters, this figure is traceable to one person, who made such an impact on cinema he became a stock figure even to those who did not recognize the name of ‘the man you love to hate’, Erich von Stroheim.
As a director, von Stroheim developed a huge reputation in 1920s American cinema, for both good and ill. The film with which his name is most associated, Greed (1924), exemplifies von Stroheim’s working practice, shooting an incredible ten hours of footage in an almost shot-for-shot adaptation of Frank Norris’ 1899 novel McTeague. Knowing, but not accepting, a film of such length had no chance of release, von Stroheim had the project taken out of his hands by MGM, who eventually released a 150 minute version, flopping at the box office.
Arriving in America from Austria-Hungary in 1909, by 1916 von Stroheim had found work in Hollywood on the set of D W Griffith’s classic Intolerance. With America embroiled in the Great War, von Stroheim gained acting work as German villains in propaganda films such as The Heart of Humanity (1918) and The Hun Within (1918). Once peace arrived, von Stroheim continued to act in his own directorial projects, with roles in his début film as director, Blind Husbands (1919), and Foolish Wives (1923), rumored as Hollywood’s first movie budgeted at one million dollars. However, with nothing left to direct, the acting roles dried up as well, and in one exception, The Lost Squadron (1932), von Stroheim played an intentional parody of himself as von Furst, a vile-tempered and tyrannical film director who bullies his cast.
During the latter months of 1934, von Stroheim could only find work as a script polisher for MGM, working for $150 a week when once had commanded fees of $30000 for directing. In desperate financial trouble, von Stroheim had no choice but to accept an offer to star in a cheap horror flick, filmed in the course of a week, playing the title character in The Crime of Dr Crespi.
Liberty Pictures, the producers of the film, had their studios in New York and not Los Angeles, forcing von Stroheim to fly travel across country at short note; he would always comment that the studio never paid him for the cost of flying his trunk of clothes to New York (Liberty soon went broke and Republic took up distribution). What else von Stroheim found when he made the long trip east must have horrified the great director more than any ghoulish act found in the script.
The Crime of Dr Crespi opens with a signature theme that sounds like one of the more moribund national anthems of a banana republic where the crop just failed, and this leads into an ambulance winding its way through fragile-looking 1930s traffic to drop a patient off at a Taft Clinic. Inside the hospital, a nurse called Miss Gordon attempts to calm our comedy relief for this picture, an Italian named Di Angelo (Joe Verdi) who paces cheaply on the spot in the small, crowded set. As Di Angelo awaits news of his imminent fatherhood, Dr Arnold (Paul Gilfoyle) telephones Miss Gordon to flirt and to talk up the great Dr André Crespi, the hospital’s chief surgeon.
The Crime of Dr Crespi is one of those old movies in which establishes a character’s name with a shot of a nameplate on a desk or a notice on a door, often accompanied by a shot of a clock to show you the time, which by the end of Crespi’s long, silent, trundling opening scene, feels as if it’s grinding to a halt. Dr Crespi lights up a cigar, puffs on the cigar, exhales with exuberance, and takes another puff. These ‘bits of business’ are common to Crespi throughout the film; he doesn’t sip brandy but quaffs it, lips to glass then throwing his head back to down the drink, then patting down and smoothing his hair. One of von Stroheim’s biographers notes this as von Stroheim’s attempt to add characterisation to the threadbare script, but it slows an already over-mannered film already sparse on action.
Breaking the tense wait for tension is Dr Thomas (Dwight Frye, in one of the few films calling
Our funny friend Di Angelo won’t be having time to think either, as Nurse Gordon informs him Mrs Di Angelo has delivered “five bambinos,” worth a montage of whirling newspaper headlines in most films. Instead, Dr Crespi enjoys a different kind of headline, as he reads of a serious car accident involving a Dr Stephen Ross. Dr Ross’ wife, Estelle (Harriet Russell, in her only film appearance), tries to telephone Dr Crespi, who refuses to talk to the woman. This is rather an inconvenience, as the family GP informs Mrs Ross that “Dr Crespi is the only man who can save Dr Ross.”
Ever the professional, Dr Crespi hits the liquor, drinking in the company of a strange little skeleton he keeps on top of a cabinet. Mrs Ross barges in; “why can’t you forgive?” she pleads. “Stephen didn’t know you wanted to marry me.” Dr Crespi, some years ago, had fallen in love with Estelle, who instead favored the dashing Dr Ross. After a series of stilted phone calls with fellow medical practitioners, Dr Crespi agrees to operates, and once the grateful Mrs Ross leaves, he leafs through a folder of newspaper clippings on the life and times of Dr Ross, including his marriage to Estelle. Dr Crespi taps on his desk with a pencil for thirty minutes or so (thanks heavens for those clock shots), snaps the pencil, prepares a solution in his lab and then snaps at Dr Thomas for barging in on him. Dr Crespi projects rather a lot onto poor Dr Thomas.
If all this sounds familiar, you’d be right; The Raven starts with a famous surgeon lauded as the only man who can save the spouse of someone for whom the surgeon harbours romantic feelings, and The Crime of Dr Crespi is also based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe, namely The Premature Burial, though both this and The Raven share as much of their original source as the other.
Next, two surgeons soap up to prepare for the rest of the film. “A good trepanning would make me,” says one, presumably thinking of performing one and not receiving. Mrs Ross paces in silhouette either with nerves or the need to meta-comment on the film’s own pacing. With the operation done, Dr Crespi kicks back with a cigar and assures Mrs Ross of her husband “He’ll be better than ever!” Dr Arnold celebrates by continuing his flirting campaign with Nurse Gordon.
A little later in his office, Dr Crespi takes a phone call; Dr Ross’s pulse, much like mine by this point, is giving cause for concern. “I’ll be there in a minute,” replies Dr Crespi, and he isn’t joking, as he goes through his refreshment and grooming routine once more, takes a quick read of a paper, notes the time and prepares a solution. Finally arriving at Dr Ross’ bedside, Dr Crespi injects his patient with the solution, as the actors go through their repertoire of concerned looks and glances. Dr Crespi declares Dr Ross dead, and the poor guy hadn’t even spoken a line yet. Pausing briefly from Dr Arnold’s flirting, Nurse Gordon takes the distraught Mrs Ross home.
Dr Crespi, with Dr Thomas in tow, writes out the death certificate, which Dr Thomas can’t help notice has the time of death already filled in. Dr Thomas suspects and the careless Dr Crespi suspects that Dr Thomas suspects, but nothing happens beyond mutually furrowed brows.
At the home of Mrs Ross, Dr Crespi advises the new widow to pull herself together and leave town for a holiday, because that was the official medical advice in 1935 for grieving women who spouse died a couple of hours ago; they didn’t call that time The Great Depression for nothing.
After some rather baffling dialogue with an undertaker, Dr Crespi returns to his office for another snifter of brandy with his weird pet skeleton. Dr Thomas enters (remembering to knock) and accuses Crespi of poisoning Ross. They fight, with Crespi overpowering Thomas, tying him up and shutting him into a store cupboard for safekeeping. There follows an unnecessary scene with Dr Crespi making a phone call to a florist (he wasn’t kidding about the carnations) and then it’s on with the next day’s funeral.
There’s some decent camerawork during the funeral sequence, with both the mourners and the surrounding trees filmed at starkly odd angles, intercut with Dr Thomas’ struggle to break free of his bonds thereby mirroring the plight of Dr Ross. Von Stroheim looks in his element during this burst of expressionism, grinning as he takes a carnation to sniff from the casket, but we’re soon back at the hospital, where Dr Crespi frees Dr Thomas with only a threat to send him “to the observation ward” he if doesn’t keep quiet. As with a lot of the character motivation in this film, the threat is tenuous as to have no meaning, and so it’s no great surprise that Dr Thomas runs straight to Dr Arnold with his suspicion that Crespi is a murderer, though there is a nice irony in that the pair conduct their subsequent actions in the belief that Crespi murdered Ross, which he hasn’t – at least not yet...
As Thomas and Arnold do their best Burke and Hare, Dr Crespi takes time out from his busy schedule to read the newspaper report of Ross’ funeral, as newspapers were apparently short of real stories to print in the Thirties, while Mrs Ross responds to his daughter’s question on why Daddy isn’t around so much anymore with “Daddy’s gone away, you won’t see him for some time,” which seems disingenuous to say the least. Well, it turns out they’ve all got a surprise coming.
The two grave-digging doctors drive back to the hospital, with the ‘corpse’ of Ross propped up in the back, to undertake a post-mortem. Noting the lack of rigor mortis, the doctors are about to set loose with their scalpels when, at the stroke of midnight, Dr Ross rises and lumbers off in search of a stiff drink after the day he’s had, although he does reach Dr Crespi’s nurse just as she’s on the phone to a colleague about the late doctor’s good looks, so even when half-dead, Dr Ross knows he’s still got it.
Hearing the nurse’s screams, Thomas and Arnold rush to the scene in time to see Dr Ross confront Crespi in his office. “So, you’ve come back to haunt me?” asks Crespi as the other characters crowd in to watch this late drama. The surgeon announces “I’m through, the great Dr Crespi,” and shoots himself. At least he steals Dr Ross’ thunder, as no-one asks why the once-dead doc is up and about again. Dr Thomas’ lovelorn look of sorrow suggests he had a Smithers-Mr Burns thing going on for old Crespi.
It wasn’t quite as rosy for von Stroheim after The Crime of Dr Crespi, but his acting career recovered enough for him to appear in Jean Renoir’s Le Grand Illusion (1937), acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time, and Sunset Boulevard (1950), as Gloria Swanson’s butler, Max. Von Stroheim had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly (1929), yet another project from which the studio fired von Stroheim, but Sunset Boulevard did win the former director an Oscar nomination for his performance.
As far as happy endings go, spare a thought for Jean Kelly (who later changed back to her real name for Jean Brooks, to avoid confusion with the upcoming Gene Kelly), who plays Nurse Gordon. A discovery of von Stroheim’s, Kelly signed for a studio named Major Productions only to see them go bust a few weeks later. Kelly then signed in 1940 for Universal, who dropped her the following year; Kelly went on to star in three Val Newton films for RKO before they too dropped her in 1943. Kelly’s marriage broke up in 1944 and eventually she drifted out of films altogether, suffering from depression and alcoholism, a condition that killed her in 1963 aged 47.
The Crime of Dr Crespi has a strange feel to it, and its techniques, in terms of story-telling and the technology of the time, have an alienating effect on a modern viewer similar to White Zombie. The lack of background given to the characters leaves the viewer with a lot of work to connect to their onscreen activities. For example, we might assume Dr Crespi endures a lonely home life and pines for love, taking out his rage on Dr Thomas; he could also assume the tiny skeleton in his office represents the aborted love affair with Estelle Ross. We simply don’t know, with events presented in a stilted, nervous fashion, with silent pasteboard reaction shots and small, spartan sets. Little wonder von Stroheim, who believed every action and detail on-screen should signify for the characters, and who lost his directing career due to the attention he lavished to work, regarded The Crime of Dr Crespi as a true low point in his career.