A respected neurologist, Dr. Mark Steele (Lon Chaney, Jr.) treats his patients successfully with hypnosis, but has troubles of his own from a marriage falling apart, that he cannot treat himself in the same way. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) is cheating on him on a regular basis, which is something Mark is well aware of. When Maria returns home one night in the early morning hours after a rendez-vous with her lover, Mark finally tells her that he has had enough and that he wants a divorce. Maria, who is leading a very comfortable life as a doctor's wife, refuses her consent to a divorce, and laughs at him as she does so. That night Mark has a dream about strangling his wife to death.
When Maria goes away for the weekend, Mark decides to leave and gets into his car and drives off. Come Monday morning he wakes up in his office only to learn that he is suffering a mental blackout and that the memories of the weekend is missing. He is informed by the police that his wife has been murdered, and that her face was disfigured by some kind of acid. Mark begins to worry about not remembering the slightest thing about his own actions during the weekend.
His worries increase after finding a button from his own jacket near where his wife's body was found. He starts suspecting that he himself has done off with her. His nurse, Stella Madden (Patricia Morison) tells him not to air his suspicions to the police until he knows more. The police go on to arrest Maria's lover, an architect named Robert Duval (David Bruce), for the murder. Inspector Gregg (J. Carroll Naish), one of the detectives on the case still believes that Mark is the murderer. Duval's disabled wife (Fay Helm) pays Mark a visit, trying to convince him to help her prove that her husband is innocent.
Duval is eventually convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. In a moment of guilt Mark gets the idea to hypnotize himself to find out if he really is the real murderer. The hypnosis, however, is not completed because inspector Gregg arrives and interrupts. Nurse Stella does make an audio recording of the session though, and on the audio Mark talks about meeting up with his wife at a cabin in the mountains. He also tells of having a quarrel with her and leaving the cabin just as Duval arrives, going straight to his office and sedating himself into deep sleep. Gregg listens to the recording, but still seems to suspect Mark of being the real murderer.
Curious and craving for information Mark visits the incarcerated Duval and finds out that he borrowed $10,000 from Maria in order to pay off some gambling debts. After the visit Mark hears that Duval's request for pardoning has been denied by the governor. He talks to nurse Stella, who faints right in front of him in the office. Mark assumes that the nurse is beat from too much work. He suggests hiring another nurse as a secretary to handle the bills for the time being, and drives Stella to visit her family.
Upon his return to the office Mark gets a visit from inspector Gregg. Mark is confronted with the fact that there's a connection between Mark's private clinic and the acid used on the face of his murdered wife. Mark realizes there might be more at stake than he first thought and decides to hypnotize Stella to see if she knows more than she is letting him believe. On the night of Duval's scheduled execution, with very little time left, Mark gets to hypnotize Stella. She tells him the truth about her plan together with Duval to get the $10,000 and that she killed Maria when Duval tried to give the money back. She also admits having tried to burn down the medical office, destroying numerous records, to cover the fact that she had been embezzling from him. Gregg overhears this and arrests Stella, explaining to Mark that he had never really suspected him but needed to gather evidence against Stella.Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dr. Mark Steele
Patricia Morison as Stella Madden
J. Carrol Naish as Inspector Gregg
David Bruce as Bob Duval
Ramsay Ames as Maria Steele
Fay Helm as Mrs. Duval
Holmes Herbert as Bryant (the Butler)
Calling Dr. Death was the first in a series of Inner Sanctum mystery films produced by Universal Pictures, based on the popular book and radio series. The publishers of the mysteries, Simon & Schuster, had granted the studio the film rights to the series in June 1943. The screenplay that was chosen was one already written, by Edward Dein. The production was filmed in 20 days.
As with other Inner Sanctum mystery films, Calling Dr. Death makes substantial use of "stream of consciousness" voiceovers. In the case of Calling Dr. Death, a lot of speech was placed into the voiceover to simplify the rest of the script. Edward Dein, the scriptwriter, attributed this decision to the lead actor Chaney, Jr., who urged Dein "to put the dialogue on the soundtrack because it was too technical, and although he played a doctor in it, he just couldn't say the words." Director Reginald LeBorg also mentioned the film's producer in this regard, stating that Pivar was "very, very crude, not very intelligent, and he couldn't read very well".
Calling Dr. Death was released on 17 December 1943.