Dr. Renaultís Secret (1942) **Ĺ
This is a minor but fun mad scientist movie, of the sort that studios like Monogram and PRC used to specialize in back in the 1940ís. Itís short, itís cheap, and itís really pretty stupid, but its creators handled it all with a kind of professionalism that is sorely lacking from most cheapjack horror flicks today.
Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick, from The Monitors and the 1963 Psychomania) is a young American psychiatrist traveling in France. Specifically, he has come to a small village outside of Paris to marry his fiancee, Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts). On his first night in town, he gets a room at an inn, where the manager (Bert Roach, from The Last Warning and Murders in the Rue Morgue) introduces him to a strange man named Noel (J. Carrol Naish, of The Beast with Five Fingers and The Monster Maker). Noel, who appears to be a bit slow, works as a handyman for Madelonís uncle (George Zucco, from Voodoo Man and The Mummyís Tomb), himself a psychiatrist, and a neurosurgeon to boot. While Forbes is getting to know Noel and the proprietor of the inn, a big, rough-looking man named Rogell (Sinbad the Sailorís Mike Mazurki) enters the room, and everything suddenly gets very quiet. Rogell, you see, is an ex-convict, and he is barely tolerated by the villagers because he, too, works for Dr. Renault, who claims to have cured him of his criminal tendencies.
Donít you believe it, though. Rogell takes special notice of the fat wad of cash inside Larryís wallet when he takes it out to pay the innkeeper, and then listens closely when the psychiatrist is told heíll be staying in room 10. Actually, Forbes ends up in room 11 instead, because the drunken American vacationer who had been causing such a ruckus in the bar all evening (including a brief altercation with Noel, who took it badly when the tourist said something potentially disparaging about Madelon) has crashed in 10 by mistake. So when somebody sneaks into room 10 and strangles the drunk to death, but flees before Forbes can force his way into the room, the question becomes, was the strangler Rogell, murdering the wrong man by mistake in an attempt to get his hands on Larryís money, or was it Noel, looking to finish what the Yankee lush started a few hours before? Inspector Duvall (Daughter of Dr. Jekyllís Arthur Shields), the detective investigating the slaying, seems to favor Rogell, but heís not so sure as yet that heís ready to arrest anyone.
An odd thing happens the next morning, while Noel is driving Forbes and Rogell to the Renault estate. The taciturn handyman suddenly slams on the brakes before rounding a corner, in order to avoid hitting a dog that is crossing the street just around the bend. What makes this odd is the fact that Noel couldnít possibly have seen the dog until after he had already stopped. How did he know it was thereó did he smell it, or something? This dog ends up following the car all the way to the chateau, where Madelon is so taken with it that she instantly adopts it, at least pending the results of an effort to track down its real owners. But the dog doesnít like Noel, and it attacks him that evening, when he comes to Madelonís room to give her a pair of shoes he picked up for her in the village. The savagery with which the handyman fights back could almost get you to wondering which one was the animal...
As we shall soon learn, they both are. When the dog turns up dead later that night, hung by its leash from a tree limb, Dr. Renault decides Noel is to blame, though he says nothing of this to Madelon or Forbes. What he does instead is corner Noel in the basement laboratory where he sleeps, and accuse him killing both the dog and the drunk at the inn. What is remarkable about all this is that, when Renault finds Noel sitting more or less Indian-style on the floor, playing with a caged chimpanzee, he orders him to stand up, ďlike a manó like I taught you!Ē Then, over the course of his talk with the handyman, Renault drops all sorts of hints that Noel has not always been the man we see before us, and that it was the doctor who made him what he is today. And come to think of it, the posture in which Noel was sitting when Renault came in looks an awful lot like the one in which chimps usually sit. The clincher comes when Renault orders Noel into a big, stout cage in the corner, and tells him that heís going to stay locked up until Madelonó to whom he is fiercely, and perhaps jealously, attachedó is out of the country with Forbes.
Meanwhile, Rogell is busy scheming. What exactly that scheme entails isnít quite clear, but it somehow involves using Madelon to separate Forbes from his money. Not only that, Rogell has managed to coerce the cooperation of Renaultís butler, Henri (Jean Del Val), by threatening to expose some dirty dealing in which he was involved some years ago in Marseilles. And whatever it is, Rogell clearly means to use the chaos of tomorrowís Bastille Day festivities as a cover for his projected crime.
As it happens, this yearís festival will be more even more chaotic than usual, too. Madelon, you see, had promised to take Noel with her to the celebration, and when Dr. Renault keeps him locked in the lab (feeding his niece some bullshit about the handyman feeling ill and having taken a sleeping pill to help speed his recovery), he gets pissed off enough to bust out of his cage and go join the fun anyway. This brings him into contact with lots of people who taunt him for his ugliness, gracelessness, and peculiar mannerisms, and before the night is out, Inspector Duvall will be looking into a couple of those peopleís violent deaths. Meanwhile, Rogell seizes both the moment and Madelonó looks like itís a ransom plot heís got going. And while all thatís going on, Forbes stumbles upon Renaultís basement laboratory and the notebooks describing how he used a combination of surgery and psychiatry to transform Noel from a Javanese ape into something that could pass for a man. Renault catches his future son-in-law snooping soon thereafter, but the menís heated argument over the ethics of Renaultís experiment is cut short when Noel comes home, turns on his creator, and then lopes off into the night in pursuit of Rogell. The kidnapper will soon learn just how bad an idea it is to threaten the only girl whoís ever been nice to an ape-man...
Okay, so it isnít exactly Island of Lost Souls, but Dr. Renaultís Secret is still about as good as most B-movies about mad scientists got in the 1940ís. This ground has been well-enough trod by better films that the general public isnít missing much for being completely unaware of its existence, but for those of us who delight in digging through the trash heaps of cinemaís past, this film is definitely worth a look. It features some amazingly solid acting, especially from Strudwick and Naish, and even George Zucco puts in a credible, restrained (by his standards, anyway) performance. The script does a good job of juxtaposing Noelís and Rogellís criminal activities, and with a running time in the 60-minute class, the film moves along at a good, steady clip. By no means a classic, but check it out anyway if the opportunity ever arises.