DR. RENAULT’S SECRET(director: Harry Lachman; screenwriters: William Bruckner/ Robert Metzler; cinematographer: Virgil E. Miller; editor: Fred Allen; music: David Raksin; cast: Jack Norton (Austin), J. Carroll Naish (Noel), George Zucco (Dr. Renault), Lynne Roberts (Madeline Renault), John Sheppard (Dr. Larry Forbes), Bert Roach (Proprietor), Mike Mazurka (Gardener); Runtime: 58; 20th Century Fox; 1942)
“A remake of the 1927 horror melodrama The Wizard.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A remake of the 1927 horror melodrama The Wizard. It’s set in a remote French village where an American, Dr. Larry Forbes (John Sheppard) comes to pick up his future bride and take her to New York, Madeline Renault (Lynne Roberts). She’s living with her experimental scientist uncle, Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco). It’s a rainy night and the bridge to Renault’s chateau is down, so Larry is forced to take a room in the local inn. He’s met there by Noel (J. Carroll Naish), who is Renault’s strange looking and sounding handyman. Noel has been told by his boss to drive Larry tomorrow to his home, and obediently follows orders.
During the course of the evening a drunk American tourist, Austin, says something insulting about Madeline which offends Noel. The slow-witted Noel, who is totally devoted to Madeline, has to be told by Larry he was only joking or else he would have strangled him. When Austin retires for the night he accidentally stumbles into Larry’s room and crashes, as Larry decides to switch rooms rather than awaken him. But Larry flashed a lot of money when paying the bar tab and Renault’s gardener (Mazurka), who is an ex-con and still very much a thug, saw this as his chance to get rich quick. Instead Austin is killed by mistake, as the police believe the gardener aimed to kill Larry but can’t prove it.
Driving to Renault’s place the next day, Larry finds Noel to be a puzzling character. All Larry can find out about him, is that he’s from Java and he has animal instincts. Larry notices this when Noel brakes for a dog he can’t see but senses he’s there. Later, the dog attacks Noel in Renault’s house. At night the watchdog is killed by the gardener who plans to rob Larry and thereby have enough cash to go to Tahiti. The gardener strings the dog up on a tree, but the dog’s yelps alert Larry before the gardener can knife him.
Warning: spoiler in the next three paragraphs.
Renault thinks Noel killed the dog because he attacked him before being pulled off, so he locks him in his cage in the secret lab. We learn Renault’s secret is that Noel’s a Javanese ape whom Renault transformed by brain surgery and then performed plastic surgery making him look like a man. His purpose was to receive fame and prestige from his peers for this outlandish experiment.
When Renault is confronted about the strange people he employs by Larry, he acts evasive. This makes Larry very suspicious, but since it’s the French national holiday, Bastille Day, he goes into town with Madeline to celebrate. The police say they will guard him.
The film moves at a brisk pace, and in the dramatic finale Noel escapes by using his brute strength to bend back the bars to his cage. In town, a waiter and a barber who said Noel danced like an ape are brutally killed. Back in the chateau, Larry discovers Renault’s secret and calls him a madman. As Renault is about to shoot Larry, Noel strangles his cruel master and Larry remains knocked cold on the floor. When the gardener kidnaps Madeline and takes her into the woods by the old mill, Noel gives up his life to save her and get the human monster who kidnapped her for the possible ransom.
It was watchable hokum — something that could have come right out of H. G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was mainly enjoyable because of J. Carroll Naish’s sensitive and moving performance.
REVIEWED ON 1/21/2002 GRADE: C +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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