CALLING DOCTOR DEATH (Universal, 1943), directed by Reginald LeBorg, marks the first of the "Inner Sanctum" mysteries, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. (billed solely as Lon Chaney in the credits). These second feature productions offered the mustached Chaney the opportunity to carry on a story without portraying an assortment of Universal monsters since his breakthrough performance as The Wolf Man (1941), followed by the Frankenstein monster ("The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942); Klaris, the Mummy (starting with "The Mummy's Tomb," 1942) and Count Dracula ("Son of Dracula, 1943). This, and some subsequent films in a total of six, mostly come with an introduction before the title credits with an image of a man's head (David Hoffman) floating inside a crystal ball looking directly into the camera, and saying, "This is the Inner Sanctum, the fantastic world controlled by mass of living, cult seeking flesh. The mind .. it destroys, distracts, creates monsters. Yes, even you, without knowing, can commit murder."
Taken from an original screenplay by Edward Dein, inspired by the "Inner Sanctum" stories owned and copyrighted by Simon and Schuster Publishers, this initial entry is not one about a doctor performing mercy killings, (though not a bad idea), but about a neurologist, Doctor Mark Steel (Lon Chaney), who, through the assistance of his confident, Stella Madden (Patricia Morison), enters the minds of patients through hypnotism, and solving whatever problem they may have. Though Mark is able to help those in need of his services, he's unable to do the same for himself, coping with his troubled two-year marriage to Maria (Ramsay Ames), an attractive, but faithless woman with outside affairs. Finding himself dining alone and awaiting to 3 a.m. for his wife's return (and suspecting another man involved), upon her return he asks for a divorce, but is refused. Maria intends remaining a doctor's wife and being part of the social circle. Later, after returning home late Saturday afternoon, Mark is told by Bryant (Holmes Herbert), his butler, that Mrs. Steel is gone for the weekend. In a delirious state, Mark drives to the country lodge to have a showdown. The next scene finds him being awakened by his nurse at his office Monday morning, unable to recall anything that occurred over the weekend. Then the arrival of detectives inform Mark of his wife's brutal murder with face burned with acid and head struck by a blunt instrument. In spite the fact that Robert Duval (David Bruce), Maria's lover and married man with an invalid wife (Fay Helm), being arrested, tried and sentenced to be executed for the crime, Mark still believes him innocent. With the help of Stella, hypnotizes himself to verbally record on Dictaphone to account for his missing alibi, but Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) of the police department has his doubts, continuing to hound and suspect Mark of foul play.
A well-scripted 64 minute mystery, with eerie background music, voice-over thoughts through the minds of central characters, and occasional slanted camera angles, CALLING DOCTOR DEATH is satisfactory screen entertainment. With Lon Chaney performing more of an actor than his usual tormented wolf man in a series of films, he's in fine support by Patricia Morison as his loyal assistant with few key scenes along her way, and J. Carrol Naish in a performance not much different from Peter Falk's style from his seventies TV mystery series as "Columbo."
Not broadcast regularly on television since the late 1970s, this and other "Inner Sanctum" mysteries starring Lon Chaney became available in a three set, double-feature packages on home video in the 1997, with CALLING DOCTOR DEATH double billed with the rarely seen and revived STRANGE CONFESSION (1945), and later the DVD format with three films on two discs collection in chronological order. A treat for Chaney fans and or old-time movie mystery lovers. Next installment: WEIRD WOMAN (1944), which is somewhat better. (**1/2)