The Mad Doctor
UK title: A Date with Destiny
(1941), 90 minutes, b&w

In The Mad Doctor Rathbone turns in an excellent performance as a sinister psychiatrist driven to murder by the action of an unfaithful wife. He inspires her to suicide by the power of suggestion. After this act, he goes through life with but one aim, to marry wealthy women,  relieve them of their fortunes, and then scientifically bring about their deaths.

The film opens in a small town called Midbury.  Dr. Downer (Ralph Morgan), a medical doctor, is called to Dr. Sebastian's house to treat Sebastian's wife Ida, who is sick with pneumonia. He arrives too late; Mrs. Sebastian has died.

Surprised that Ida didn't recover from pneumonia, Dr. Downer remembers that Ida had a premonition that something bad was going to happen.  The doctor voices his suspicions to his housekeeper. "I don't like George Sebastian. . . . There's something twisted in him, something cold and hidden . . . strange man, full of secrets."

As soon as the funeral and the affairs of Ida's estate are wound up, Dr. Sebastian and friend/co-conspirator Maurice (Martin Kosleck) move to New York, where Dr. Sebastian sets up practice. One of his patients asks him to talk with her sister Linda, who is depressed and suicidal. "She gets very low over nothing at all." Upon learning that Linda has her own private fortune, Sebastian is eager to meet her. He says he'd like to observe her without her knowing that he's doing so professionally. So the sister invites him to a charity bazaar, at which Linda is working. Linda and Sebastian meet, and she finds him charming. Later, however, Linda attempts to jump from the roof of the building. After her suicide attempt, Linda agrees to put herself in Dr. Sebastian's care.

Linda's boyfriend Gil Sawyer (John Howard) is very suspicious of Dr. Sebastian. Gil thinks Sebastian is a quack, and wants to know who he is, and what his credentials are. Believing Sebastian is a "half-baked soul-meddler" Gil announces to Linda's family, "I'm going to write an exposé of phony psychiatrists, and I'll prove that usually the patient is helping the insanity of the doctor, coddling his delusions of superiority.  And that nine times out of ten, the patient loses his own soul in the process."

Gil is right to be suspicious. While Gil is working on his article, Dr. Sebastian asks Maurice if he would like to be very rich. "If I married [Linda], and she died, I'd be rich, innocent, and respectable."

"It's too late. Ida's dead."
Rathbone with Ralph Morgan as Dr. Downer

Louise (Barbara Allen) asks Dr. Sebastian to treat her neurotic sister Linda.

Over the next two months Linda continues to see Dr. Sebastian, and firmly believes that he is helping her. She is much happier and is also falling under Sebastian's charm. Gil believes that there is nothing wrong with Linda that common sense can't cure. "There's something weird and wrong with that Sebastian," he says. In spite of the "weirdness," Dr. Sebastian uses hypnosis to help Linda confront the childhood event that was causing her depression. They develop a closer relationship, and one evening Sebastian describes to Linda a case of a male patient, who discovered his wife and best friend together as lovers, and killed them both. In his mind, his wife became the personification of all women, and he swore to kill every woman who promised him love.  His case seemed almost hopeless, but recently his hate and bitterness has dissolved. Linda doesn't know it, but Sebastian is describing himself; he has really fallen in love with Linda, and does not wish to kill her, but rather wishes to live a normal, married life.

Gil Sawyer continues to investigate Dr. Sebastian. He travels to Midbury to visit Dr. Downer and mentions to him that Sebastian once practiced in Savannah, and left there after his wife died.  It's some coincidence that he's been married twice and both wives died of pneumonia. Dr. Downer decides that an autopsy on Ida Sebastian is warranted.

Sebastian and Maurice read in the newspaper that Ida's body is going to be exhumed. Sebastian sends Maurice to Midbury to take care of the problem. As soon as he's gone, Sebastian calls Linda and arranges to marry her the next day.

This is one of those psychological things in which you can see the bad boy doing his stuff, and you want to scream and tell the pretty heroine what she's getting herself into. You don't, of course, because it's a movie and you know that the good boy will catch the villain and save the heroine in plenty of time. And that's what is wrong with the picture. You know, ahead of time, everything that is going to happen; what should be gripping suspense becomes, instead, polite curiosity.

Basil Rathbone is the fashionable doctor who has designs on Ellen Drew, a rich debutante. Her elder (and dizzy) sister is Vera Vague and, between the doc and Vera, Ellen is walking into a nasty death trap. But Ellen has a good friend named John Howard, a newspaperman who is in love with her, and who uncovers the projected crime in the nick of time.

The director has filled the picture with loads of symbolism and tries to impress you all the way through with "scientific" jargon, but it is overdone and results in the opposite effect.

Rathbone is as villainous as only Rathbone can be. Ellen is beautiful, but this won't help her climb. And it won't help John Howard either, especially since he doesn't look or act like a reporter for a minute. Vera Vague gets some laughs as the screwball rich dame, and Martin Kosleck is very effective in a curious characterization which is never quite explained, but which is intriguing. Directed by Tim Whelan. —Paramount

Modern Screen, March 1941, pp. 96-97

In Midbury, Maurice removes Ida's body, and dumps it in the river. He takes the train back to New York City, and notifies Sebastian that Dr. Downer was also on the train. Sebastian is afraid that Dr. Downer will find out who he really is.

Dr. Downer goes to the Public Library to look at the Medical School yearbooks. He finds a photo of a young Sebastian, but the name below the photo is Frederick Langemann. Downer then finds an old newspaper clipping with the headline: "Doctor convicted of double murder escapes from prison." He realizes that the murderer is Langemann, a.k.a. Sebastian.

Dr. Downer calls Mrs. Sebastian to warn her, but of course she doesn't believe him. She agrees to meet with him; she wants to talk with him before he goes to the police.

Meanwhile, Maurice and Sebastian have followed Downer onto the subway train. When Downer exits that train, Sebastian grabs him and pushes him in front of an oncoming train. Linda is in a taxi on the street above, waiting to meet Downer. When she sees the ambulance arrive, learns that a Dr. Downer "threw himself in front of a train," and then sees her husband leaving the scene, she realizes that what Dr. Downer told her was the truth.

Dr. Sebastian has pushed Dr. Downer in front of a train.

Sebastian, about to fall from window ledge

At home, she confronts Sebastian about killing Dr. Downer: "He said you were dangerous and vicious."  He tells her, "Whatever I've done, whoever I've been, I love you."

Linda is frightened, and faints.  Sebastian plans to jump off the ledge with Linda in his arms, but hears knocking at the door, so he leaves her and crawls onto the ledge himself.  Then he lets himself fall. (The censors complained about having a suicide in the film, so a gunshot was added to give the impression that Sebastian was shot.)

When Linda comes to, she tells Gil, "You should have seen his face, his eyes—so cruel, and yet so sad."

Pictures are supposed to move, but "Mad Doctor" has a difficult time getting anywhere. And the bookers are probably going to have trouble shifting it into gear. A melodramatic mixture of familiar ingredients, it is very poor entertainment from start to finish.

This cumbersome film, running 90 minutes, could have been cut to 60 and still there would have been little meat. The cast is highly handicapped, but make the most of the opportunities afforded. Basil Rathbone, Ellen Drew and John Howard are in the key roles, while lessers are Barbara Allen, a Billie Burke type; Ralph Morgan and Martin Kosleck. Miss Allen is Vera Vague of radio.

Rathbone plays a Vienna doctor with a criminal background whose hobby in America seems to be to marry wealthy women and then get rid of them. Two have passed on, supposedly from pneumonia, but the third victim coming up is the one Rathbone marries at just about the time his past is catching up with him. Howard plays the newspaper reporter, in love with Miss Drew, who saves her in time through the investigation he had started. For the finish Rathbone commits suicide. Effort to give the picture a horror flavor never gets very exciting. Char.

Variety, March 5, 1941, p. 16

Despite the title, The Mad Doctor is not a horror film, but a psychological thriller. Rathbone's performance is restrained, powerful and intense. The rest of the cast also turned in fine performances. Martin Kosleck, who played Maurice Gretz, recalled the following about Rathbone: "I enjoyed working on Mad Doctor more than anything else in my career because of Basil Rathbone. He was a wonderful man . . . very precise . . . he rehearsed everything until it was perfect. Between scenes, we would walk around the Paramount lot and go over our lines . . . I loved that man."1



Rathbone originally turned down the film (then titled Destiny), but with the addition of a new opening scene and the title changed to A Date with Destiny, Rathbone agreed to do the film. It was later released as The Mad Doctor. Despite the lukewarm review in Variety, the film was a success.


Psychiatry provides subject material for this story that has been contrived into a suspenseful, interesting and absorbing murder mystery. Film should interest the average audience and keep fans' attention from beginning to end. The cast is able, the direction suspenseful and the story maintains its pace and suspense. Exhibitors have lots of opportunities in the matter of exploitation on this picture due to the story material.

Basil Rathbone is fine as a mad psychiatrist. He is capably supported by a good cast, with the lovely Ellen Drew providing the principal feminine interests. John Howard, Barbara Allen, Ralph Morgan and Martin Kosleck turn in neat performances, with Kosleck excellent as the devoted disciple of Rathbone. Tim Whelan directed from a screenplay by Howard J. Green.

Rathbone, who had been married to an unfaithful woman, goes slightly mad and decides to marry as many wealthy women as possible and then do away with them. He dreams up the methods of elimination and Kosleck carries them out. Having murdered his first wife he is doing away with the second as the story opens. He gets away with this murder and then moves to New York. After opening swank offices and building up a practice Rathbone meets Miss Drew, fiancee of Howard, a newspaperman. Interested in the suave Rathbone, Miss Drew, who has a suicide complex, marries him after a hasty proposal caused by his finding out that Howard is about to expose him. Rathbone is finished off in a bangup climax and Howard is set to get his girl back with her complex completely cured by what she has discovered about Rathbone.

The Film Daily, March 4, 1941, p. 13

What kind of relationship existed between Maurice (Martin Kosleck) and Dr. Sebastian (Rathbone)? It has been suggested that a homosexual relationship is "obvious" (see The Baz and one of the IMDb user reviews). I personally don't think it's obvious that these two are gay partners, but the relationship is ambiguous enough that it certainly is a possibility. Reasonable arguments could be made both for and against these two characters having a homosexual relationship. For example, at one point Dr. Sebastian reminds Maurice, "I saved your life!" It's possible that Maurice was devoted to Dr. Sebastian because he felt indebted to him. They shared the secret of the double murder in Vienna; they may have stayed together because they were both fugitives. One can't help but notice that none of the reviews posted here mention an unusual relationship between Maurice and George, which they certainly would have if it were "obvious." Modern Screen (first review on this page) noted, "Martin Kosleck is very effective in a curious characterization which is never quite explained, but which is intriguing." Yes, intriguing and ambiguous, and very  possibly gay.

More important, whether or not Maurice Gretz and George Sebastian have a homosexual relationship makes no difference to the plot of this film. It's not about Maurice and George. Maurice's purpose seems to be to assist Dr. Sebastian in committing murder.

George Sebastian and Maurice Gretz

George and Maurice

Maurice and George

Maurice and George

According to the Hollywood Reporter, "Rathbone creates a character of staggering statue, dominating the film with the finesse and skill of his portrayal."

The reviewer for Photoplay wrote this enthusiastic review:

It's About: An insane doctor who murders his wives.

What in the world has got into Paramount, do you suppose, releasing two horror films in one month? (See the review of "The Monster and the Girl," p. 106) When we put it right up to them, the studio admitted this picture was made well over a year ago and has been gathering eeriness on the shelf until what seemed the propitious moment. We must say, despite its age, the film is one of the best of its kind, even better than "The Monster" story.

Basil Rathbone is simply out of this world in his role of the mad doctor who marries 'em rich and leaves them—quite dead. He gets away with the murder business, too, until young John Howard comes along and suspects the worst when his own fiancee, Ellen Drew, falls under the doctor's spell. Brrrr, it gives us goose pimples just to write about it! And that Rathbone! But we did mention the beauty of his performance, didn't we?

Your Reviewer Says: Hold on to your scalps.

Photoplay,  May 1941, pp. 105-106

During the filming of The Mad Doctor Basil Rathbone was bitten by the cat he was petting. It must have been fairly serious because Variety reported the injury: "Rathbone over Cat Bite. Basil Rathbone yesterday resumed work as star of Paramount's 'Destiny' after recovering from badly-chewed thumb which he suffered while petting cat for scene in picture."

clip from Variety (20 Feb 1940, p. 1)

This is the scene in which Rathbone was petting the cat


  • Director Tim Whelan also directed Rathbone in International Lady (1941).
  • The plot of The Mad Doctor bears some similarities with the case of the real-life serial killer Bela Kiss. While there is no solid evidence that the writers based the story of Dr. Sebastian on the story of Bela Kiss, it is still interesting to compare the two. Read Bela’s story here:


See Page Two for more reviews and photos from The Mad Doctor.

See Page Three for pictures of posters, lobby cards and promo photos.


Basil Rathbone ... Dr. George Sebastian
Ellen Drew ... Linda Boothe
John Howard ... Gil Sawyer
Barbara "Vera Vague" Allen ... Louise Watkins
Ralph Morgan ... Dr. Downer
Martin Koslek ... Maurice Gretz
Hugh O'Connell ... Lawrence Watkins
Kitty Kelly ... Winnie
Hugh Sothern ... Hatch
George Chandler ... Elevator Operator
Billy Benedict ... Copy Boy (Mickey)
Frances Raymond ... Librarian
Harry Hayden ... Ticket Clerk
Douglas Kennedy ... Hotel Clerk
John Laird ... Intern
James Seay ... Intern
Sheila Ryan ... Hostess at Charity Bazaar
Ben Taggart ... Motorman
Charles McAvoy ... Conductor
Johnnie Morris ... Newsboy
Howard Mitchell ... Station Master
Charles Hamilton ... Cop
Norma Varden ... Susan
Henry Victor ... Dr. Thurber
Max Wagner ... Taxi Driver
William Wayne ... Taxi Driver
Jacques Vanaire ... Waiter
William Kline ... Butler
Larry McGrath ... Photographer
Laura Treadwell ... Woman
Wanda McKay ... Girl
Jean Phillips ... Girl
Kay Stewart ... Girl
Ned Norton ... Passenger
Edward Earle ... Attendant
Betty McLaughlin ... Cigarette Girl
Dorothy Dayton ... Cigarette Girl
Harry Bailey ... Man with newspaper
Production Company ... Paramount Pictures
Producer ... George M. Arthur
Director ... Tim Whelan
Screenplay ... Howard J. Green, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Cinematographer ... Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editing ... Archie Marshek
Original Music ... Victor Young
Stock music ... Stephan Pasternacki
Assistant Director ... Joe Youngerman
Art Directors ... Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Interior Decoration ... A.E. Freudeman
Costumes ... Edith Head
Sound ... Harry Mills, John Cope
Special Photographic Effects ... Gordon Jennings
Process Photography ... Farciot Edouart


Go to Page Two for more pictures from The Mad Doctor.

Go to Page Three to see posters, lobby cards and promo photos from the film.



1. Michael Druxman, Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1975), p. 247.



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All original content is © Marcia Jessen, 2016