Dwight Frye-days is a column where I will explore the films of Dwight Frye, arguably the first method actor and a personal favorite of mine. During October I will be exploring the horror films in Frye’s filmography. Today’s movie is The Crime of Doctor Crespi, a film loosely based on the short story “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe, starring Erich von Stroheim (Foolish Wives, Sunset Boulevard), Harriet Russell, John Bohn (Shake, Mr. Shakespeare, It Happened in Hollywood), and the star of this column Dwight Frye (most well known for Fritz in Frankenstein and Renfield in Dracula).
After last week’s film, The Vampire Bat (1933), I was just a tad hyped up to watch another Dwight Frye movie, accepting the fact that this probably wouldn’t be as good as The Vampire Bat, but still hoping for another great film. The fact that it was also based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story made me even more excited to watch this. Boy was I wrong.
The Crime of Doctor Crespi follows Dr. Andre Crespi (Erich von Stroheim), a renowned doctor and surgeon at first through a typical day, where he comes off as a more rude and selfish version of Hugh Laurie’s House, until Estelle (Harriet Russell, in what seems to be her only film role) comes to his office begging him to help save her husband. Here’s where the story really starts as we find out that her husband, Dr. Stephen Ross (John Bohn), was once a good friend of Crespi’s and “took” Estelle from him. After some persuasion, Crespi finally agrees to operate on Stephen, where his ulterior motives come out, to drug Stephen and make it look like he has died and have him buried alive. To complicate matters for our evil star, the dimwitted Dr. Thomas (Dwight Frye) starts to notice that Crespi is up to something.
John H. Auer earlier films were not very well regarded upon release; nor have they improved with age. After viewing The Crime of Doctor Crespi I can see why. Here we have a film that not only looks amateurish, but it’s also paced poorly and full of random throwaway characters that feel like they are there only to pad out the running time. The cinematography and camera angles are all very basic, the set pieces feel bland and uninspired, in turn making the film incredibly boring to look at. The characters don’t often make sense, with people questioning why Crespi would want to operate on and save his “good friend” Stephen, or how Crespi keeps denying wanting to help Estelle while at the same time saying “I’ll do anything for you.” I also find it incredibly hard to believe that even though Crespi thinks Dr. Thomas to be quite stupid that he would be so careless about his plan around him.
The plot of the film itself is quite good and very scary. A man pretending to help another, who he pretends is his good friend, goes to operate on him to save his life but instead drugs him and plans to bury him alive with no remorse. Not only is being buried alive quite terrifying, but the glee and psychosis that Crespi shows while doing so, portrayed wonderfully by von Stroheim in a scene were he tells a drugged and seemingly dead (but who can hear everything) Stephen his entire plan, is scary as hell. This scene is wonderful and really shows von Stoheim’s acting chops, especially for villains as he ended up slightly typecast as. Unfortunately, this film called for Frye to play a much more restrained character; oh the wonderful crazy scenes we could have had if Frye was allowed to explode as he does in others with his over-the-top method acting and go at it with von Stroheim’s Crespi.
Speaking of Frye, he was great in this movie. Far from as good as his performances in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Vampire Bat where he was given out there and over-the-top crazy roles, He plays Dr. Thomas, a slightly dimwitted doctor who forgets patient’s names time of death, and entering Dr. Crespi’s office without a word and just randomly talking to him, which only fuels Crespi’s murderous desires. It’s quite fun to see Frye as a much more restrained character. Just watching him in this movie you can tell there’s so much inside of him that’s ready to come out, and we get to see a slight bit of that when he confronts Crespi about his suspicions.
The Crime of Doctor Crespi is a bad movie. It suffers from bad writing, directing, and cinematography, but worst of all: it’s boring. Which is quite sad as it gives us a fascinating and quiet performance by Dwight Frye that is essential to anyone who wants to study his acting. It has its decent moments, but they’re few and far between and can mostly always be attributed to Frye’s and von Stroheim’s performances. It does have a fun ending, but the build up to it fails to capitalize on its genuinely creepy premise. It genre-confused, it’s boring to look at, and overall it just feels very uninspired. If you are looking to study the acting of Dwight Frye, it might be worth watching if you really MUST see it. But even then I would feel bad recommending it.
Stay tuned for next Frye-day when I jump ahead to the 40’s with one of Dwight Frye’s last film performances, the supernatural and satanic horror film Dead Men Walk (1943)!