How did the Headless Man choose his victims?
US / 57 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: Ben Stoloff Scr: Richard Weil Cine: Henry Sharp Cast: John Loder, Eleanor Parker, Bruce Lester, Lester Matthews, Forrester Harvey, Matt Willis, Frank Mayo, Phyllis Barry, David Clyde, Clyde Cook, Harold De Becker, Crauford Kent, Leo White.
One foggy night in darkest Cornwall a peddler (De Becker), terrified by local legends of the Headless Man—the ghost of tin miner Black Morgan, who lost his head in a dispute over the ownership of the Wickham Mine—conquers his fears enough to give a lift to a stranger, Dr. Frederick Holmes (Matthews), ostensibly on a walking tour of the English Southwest. (And a very rapid if rather aimless walker, be it noted: we later discover he was in Camborne, in Dorset, the night before, and St. Ives, in Cornwall, the night before that!)
Holmes hitches a lift from the peddler (Harold De Becker).
The peddler drops Holmes off at the Running Horse Inn in the village of Morgan’s Head. There the stranger discovers that the publican, Simon Tewkesbury (Mayo), wears a hangman-style leather hood at all times because, years ago, a stick of dynamite went off in his face. (The hood is going to play an important, albeit outlandishly implausible, part in the plot later on.)
The foreboding figure of barman Simon Tewkesbury (Frank Mayo).
Holmes also discovers that the locals are suspicious of and resentful of visitors—
Simon: “Us folks in Morgan’s Head don’t like to be laughed at, Dr. ’Olmes. Especially by strangers we don’t.”
—unless said strangers buy drinks all round, a trick taught to Holmes by village tosspot Hugh Penrhyn (Harvey). Those drinks are our first sign that this movie, though set in England, was a US product: the beers come in US pints (if not 12 fl oz “pints”) and about a quarter of the glass is filled with froth.
Hugh (Forrester Harvey) is ever eager to tell a tale and cadge a drink.
The local bigwig, Sir Harry Leland (Loder), arrives and welcomes the newcomer. Between them Sir Harry and Hugh, with gloomily portentous interpolations from Simon, tell Holmes more about the Wickham mine, the headless ghost and the toxic gas that fills the shafts at moments convenient to the plot.
Sir Harry (John Loder) cordially welcomes the newcomer.
When Holmes expresses surprise that, during this time of war, the Wickham Mine’s tin is going unexploited, Simon explains the dread, the ever-overpowering dread, the trepidation, the dread, the general ghastliness and, yes, the dread, that fills the soul of any true-blooded Cornishman at mere mention of the name of the Wickham Mine:
Simon: “Dr. ’Olmes, if you mean why don’t us folks here in Morgan’s Head work the mines, it’s just no go. We’ll fight for our country—aye, and die for her if need be, as it’s fittin’ and proper for Englishmen to do. And we won’t ’ang back when the time comes, ’cause we’ll know what we’re going up against. They’ll be men like ourselves. Not demons out of the pit.”
So there. Take that, grockle.
Nevertheless, Holmes vows to go investigate the mine the following day, then turns in for the night (despite having had no supper, not even a pasty, after his long day’s walking). After he’s gone to his room, we see that he has secrets—notably a scroll of paper that he keeps inside the bowl of his pipe and that he uses as his journal. As we guessed, he’s not just a hiker on vacation!
But is he a German parachutist? That’s the question that’s asked when a bunch of the locals arrive shortly afterward, having observed one such land on the moor earlier in the evening. Simon, armed with a hefty mallet, goes to either fetch Holmes back downstairs or beat his brains in—the choice is Holmes’s. The latter produces receipts from his previous nightly lodgings, so . . .
Next morning we learn that Simon’s pretty niece Letty (Parker) thinks the locals are all wet to be frightened of ghosts, as does the Army’s Lt. Christopher “Kit” Hilton (Lester), recently posted nearby and clearly enamored of Letty, as is she of him. They believe the mine’s tin should be dug up forthwith to aid the war effort. Another who’s unafraid of the mine is local simpleton Bart Redmond (Willis), driven out of his wits by a nastiness years ago and now devoted to Letty, who’s one of the few villagers who isn’t vile to him. Letty, concerned about Holmes, tells Bart to follow the man on his expedition to the Wickham Mine to make sure no harm comes to him. Simon, too, follows Holmes to the mine on suspicion he’s up to no good (we recall that, the night before, Simon was terrified to go anywhere near the place, ho hum).
Bart (Matt Willis) confides his fears to Letty (Eleanor Parker).
And there’s an other secretly moving among the mine’s barely lit passages—a spectral other who, unlike his human counterparts, needs no gas mask: the Headless Man!
Simon (Frank Mayo) at last reveals his face.
Before you can say Jack Robinson, the Headless Man (White) has murdered Holmes and the plot is kicking into high melodrama. When the Running Horse’s maid, Ruby (Barry), announces next morning that the visitor has gone missing, the villagers raise a hue and cry and search the moor. The only ones who’ll take the search to the mine are Harry, Kit and Bart. (As they enter the mine, Harry tells Kit: “You won’t need your gas mask.” Eh? Why not? Everyone else has.) And soon they come across the pathetic corpse:
Bart: “’Is ’ead. He ain’t got no ’ead.”
Sir Harry: “I’m afraid you’re never going to get the men of Morgan’s Head into this mine again.”
This is, apparently, just the latest in a string of murders that the locals assume have been committed by the Headless Man. But rationalist Kit knows better! For no perceivable reason, based on evidence that’s stunning in its lack, he decides Bart must be the murderer and has him committed to the Morgan’s Head jailhouse. (You didn’t know that Cornish villages have jailhouses? Shame on you.) There Bart is guarded by jailer Tom Andrews (Clyde) until Letty arrives with a warning that the villagers have formed a mob and are on their way, complete with torches and pitchforks (or, in Simon’s case, his trusty mallet) . . .
Priggish Kit (Bruce Lester) thinks he has all the answers.
You might be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a Frankenstein movie at this point. In fact, the lumbering, large, slow-speaking Bart makes quite a good fit for the Monster: “But why don’t they like me?” he says of the local children, who’ve been taunting him. “I never hurt them. They threw stones at me. And I never hurt them at all.”
It goes without saying that the Headless Man will prove to be not a ghost but a villain in costume. The legend and the murders are part of a Nazi plot mounted by the descendants of Germans who came to this part of the world during the reign of George I and have been, apparently, sleeper agents ever since. Bart and Letty unlock the secret of the mine and reveal the baddy, but for their pains are locked up in a room filled with explosives. Before they can be blown sky-high there’s a mighty punchup during which someone gets impaled on a knife that’s lodged in a wooden door; oddly, when originally driven through the door it was pointing in the opposite direction.
Tom Andrews (David Clyde) watches the lynch mob approach.
Bart, despite or because of being shot twice by the villain, starts to recover his wits and his memory of who done him wrong, all those years ago. Hugh, earlier decapitated and with his head stuck on a pole (I forgot to mention that bit), will never face a gargantuan bar tab again. Lovers are united. Your popcorn’s finished and likewise your oversized sugary drink.
Risible though it might in many ways be, The Mysterious Doctor is great fun from beginning to end—it’s a very quick and entertaining way to spend an hour. Some of its cast will be familiar to assiduous readers of this site: John Loder starred in The Silent Passenger (1935) and, very creditably indeed, Eleanor Parker did likewise in the Shirley Jackson adaptation Lizzie (1957) alongside Richard Boone and the immortal Joan Blondell. (In The Mysterious Doctor she doesn’t quite have her accent under control, which is a bit of a distraction.) A useful webpage about Stoloff and some of his movies (including this one) can be found here.