Dr. Renault's Secret

01/09/2023 09:14

Film: Dr. Renault’s Secret

Year: 1942

Director: Harry Lachman

Writers: William Bruckner and Robert F. Metzler

Starring: J. Carrol Naish, Shepperd Strudwick and Lynne Roberts



This is a movie that I didn’t learn about until searching for horror from 1942. What is interesting here is that this is based on a novel from Gaston Leroux entitled Balaoo. I know his more famous works of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, so I was intrigued since I didn’t know anything about this one.

Synopsis: Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) visits the château of Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco), uncle of his fiancée Madelon (Lynne Roberts), who is idolized by Renault’s assistant, a strange émigré from Java.

We start this movie in France. Larry is dropped off at an inn by the name of The Black Cat, just in French. He goes inside and states that he’s looking for a ride to the château belonging to Dr. Renault. He is informed that Noel (J. Carrol Naish) is there to collect him, but they’ll have to wait until morning. They’ve gotten heavy rains and the bridge is out. It won’t be repaired until then. Noel has already book Larry a room as well. Everyone stays up drinking and we get an interesting interaction between Mr. Austin (Jack Norton) and Noel. The former makes a joke about Larry’s fiancée and Noel has him by the throat. He is protective over her. This gets calmed down, allowing Mr. Austin to go to bed.

The events of the night don’t end there. The gardener for Dr. Renault also shows up. His name is Rogell (Mike Mazurki). Apparently, he made it over before the bridge went out. He needs a room as well. There are people at the inn who fear him. He uses this to his advantage as Rogell is a former criminal. He notices that Larry has quite a bit of money in his wallet.

Larry goes up to bed to find Mr. Austin is in his room. He decides to switch as that is easier. This turns out bad for the latter though. Someone comes into the room and murders him. The main suspect is Rogell, due to his past. It is also considered that Larry was the target, but the killer didn’t know the switch happened.

The next morning, Noel takes Larry to Dr. Renault’s. It is there we meet him along with Madelon and the other members who work in the house. Dr. Renault conducts experiments here and it seems that he’s colleagues with Larry, which is how he met the niece. What should be a joyous time as the wedding approaches, there is more death. Dr. Renault has a secret with an experiment he is conducting and this could be linked to these crimes.

That is where I’m going to leave my recap as well as introduce the characters. Even though this movie is 80+ years old, I didn’t want to spoil this as it has an interesting concept. It is one that I will say isn’t new. There is another famous book that deals with a similar subject matter so I’m curious if Leroux was influenced by that one. I am trying to cryptic here since if I name the title or the author, I believe it will give away the reveal.

Where I want to start delving deeper is that I’ve come to notice having watched movies from the early 1940s, cinema wasn’t that much different from what it is today. What I mean there is seeing what worked and doing different variations on it. This at the heart is a murder mystery. We have a bit of the ‘old dark house’ as well with secret passageways. I am a sucker for that. This is also pulling in the mad scientist angle as well. Dr. Renault is conducting experiments in the basement. He has an ape down there. This is also where Noel sleeps. The concept is that he's watching over the laboratory. You could even slide this in as a loose ape film that were popular around this time as well. What I find interesting is that this one doesn’t lean into the ape possible being behind the murders. The inspectors look at Rogell. He is a brute of a man and is fast talking. He is the likely suspect for sure. I do think that despite all these different elements, they work well together.

Sticking with everything put into this, this movie runs less than an hour long which shocked me. It is a fast watch as well. It moves through the plot points well. If anything, I’d give credit to the fact that we get a fully fleshed out story with subplots despite that short run time. I don’t think the ending is fully predictable, but it makes for an interesting idea.

Since I’m not going into spoilers, let me go over to the acting. I’ll start with Naish who has a great performance here. We see from the beginning that there is something off about him. Originally, I just thought he was slow. That isn’t necessarily the case. I love how he plays with the idea and truth of his character. Strudwick is good as our hero. I like that he’s a nice guy and using reason to find the truth of the slayings. Roberts was cute as Madelon. How she fits into the story is an intriguing one. Noel takes a liking to her. She is kind to him, but it is more of a teacher or motherly way. It adds to the overall story of the movie. I liked Zucco and Mazurki in their roles. The acting here is good across the board.

The only other things to go into would be the filmmaking. What I’ll say here is that the cinematography surprised me. How they frame shots was good. There are interesting things done with the ‘old dark house’ elements. We also don’t see things with the use of shadows. There are also close-ups that I found to be well-done. We don’t get a lot in the way of effects here. It also isn’t that type of movie and doesn’t necessarily need them. We do see an ape with Ray Corrigan inside. I have a soft spot for that. The last bit would be the soundtrack. I thought it fit for what was needed.

In conclusion, this is an interesting gem of a movie. It is based off a novel that I hadn’t heard of, so that intrigues me. I thought that the acting across the board was good. It isn’t the most original as it seems to be borrowing elements from different types of sub-genres that were popular during the era. There are interesting things done with the cinematography. This is a just a well-made movie with a short run time. I’d go as far to call this a hidden gem for me.


My Rating: 7 out of 10