The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935) looks and feels like it must be one of the earliest adaptations of an Edgar Allan Poe story. “Suggested” by "The Premature Burial," and filmed in a style that is simultaneously static, yet offers an occasional creative moment, some 34 shorts, silent films and sound features precede it. It’s not even the first adaptation of this specific Poe poem. Prelude, a 1927 short, beat it to the punch.
The movie begins with promise. If not the first example of a shot like this, it must be one of the first. We ride inside the front seat of an ambulance, the camera providing our POV as it speeds down the street and around corners. This part of it seems ahead of its time, but that may be due to the overall age shown during most of the rest of its scenes. I wonder how it would play as part of a restoration of the film that added consistent crispness and level sound to it.
It takes a long time into its 63 minutes to determine what is really going on. If I didn’t know better ahead of time, I would guess this was a hospital soap opera, with considerable time spent on the romantic relationships of supporting characters Dr. Thomas (Dwight Frye), Dr. Arnold (Paul Guilfoyle), Miss Rexford (Geraldine Kay), and Miss Gordon (Jean Brooks). Far be it for me to complain about creating characters with personalities that develop through the course of the movie.
Dr. Andre Crespi (Erich von Stroheim) lost the woman he loved, Estelle Ross (Harriet Russell) to a former assistant and friend, Dr. Stephen Ross (John Bohn). When Dr. Ross is involved in a nearly fatal accident, Crespi siezes the opportunity to exact his revenge by faking Ross' death. He has access to a drug that will paralyze him so that he will be buried prematurely and wake up in a coffin six feet under ground. (Or, 8 feet, as Crespi claims while he’s gleefully explaining his crime to the unconscious Dr. Ross.)
It’s an ironic twist that, at first, Crespi doesn’t want to treat Dr. Ross. It’s Estelle who insists that he’s the only one that can save him. Crespi is normally a mild-mannered physician, but has a short temper and occasionally demonstrates rage by breaking pencils and restraining colleagues who question him in the closet of his office. He’s too confident, though, thinking that said colleague wouldn’t pursue his belief that Dr. Ross was poisoned just because Crespi warned him not to.
In a nice back-and-forth series of shots, we see shovels of dirt being thrown on top of a coffin while Dr. Thomas wrestles with his conscious. He ultimately decides to dig up the body and convinces Dr. Arnold to help him. Later, in an effective little scene, Dr. Ross, whom they believe is dead by poisoning, sits up in the morgue at midnight when the drug wears off. He creeps up behind Miss Gordon just as she tells someone on the phone, “Nothing ever happens at night; I wish it would.”
Crespi makes an arrogant, silly mistake that ultimately exposes his scheme, but it makes sense within a story that starts off slowly, and then rapidly reaches the resolution… with a truly unexpected ending that could only exist in a pre-Code film. I love it when the stories and themes of Poe are “modernized” such as they are in The Crime of Dr. Crespi. The production values aren’t the same as other thrillers from the mid-30’s, but it’s nevertheless entertaining to watch.
Written by Lou Goldberg & Edwin Olmstead
Suggested by "The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allan Poe
Directed by John H. Auer
Starring Erich von Stroheim, Harriet Russell, Dwight Frye, Paul Guilfoyle, John Bohn, Geraldine Kay, Jean Brooks
Released September 24, 1935
RT 63 min.
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