The shocking story of a man-made monster…who dared to love!
20th Century Fox will never be known as the home of great horror films of the past, as that crown remains firmly with Universal Pictures. Even so, the former studio did contribute a few smaller, but still alluring, gems in the genre.
Among these is 1942’s Dr. Renault’s Secret, with J. Carrol Naish and Shepperd Strudwick. It’s not a classic horror picture in most senses of the word as there’s nobody slipping into a coffin by day or staggering around in linen wrappings. Rather, we have J. Carrol Naish as Noel, an ape who has been transformed by Dr. Renault (George Zucco) into a man. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s something you figure out rather easily a few minutes into the roughly hour long picture.
Instead of Noel rampaging throughout the countryside killing and terrorizing the populace, Dr. Renault’s Secret is not only rather house bound like an Agatha Christie story, but is also extremely sympathetic to the ‘creature.’ In large part this is due to the wonderful performance by Naish as Noel. While clearly a B picture from a studio dabbling outside its forte, Naish doesn’t simply mail in his performance like many actors may have done. His movements, even the subtle ones betray his simian ancestry, though while at the same time not being cliched or hokey.
Naish makes the movie work. Early on his movements are subtle and only later does he resort to more stereotypical movements like arm swinging and such as his duct taped new personality breaks down and crashes. He’s also shot in many cases from below to highlight his exaggerated nostrils and swarthy complexion. We, the audience can almost feel his turmoil and his inner stress as he’s torn between his two selves and his infatuation with the doctor’s niece Madelon (Lynne Roberts).
Beyond Naish the only standout in the cast is George Zucco as the mad doctor himself. That said, he has only a handful of scenes. His most notable moment is (of course) playing against Noel in the basement where he conducts his experiments and has Noel live. Noel shares that he has memories of his past (as a gorilla) and doesn’t understand why he had to be changed to meet someone’s petty goals of self-promotion. Here Renault is much like Nazi architect Albert Speer, presenting outwardly as a sincere technocrat, while behind the scenes mercilessly running roughshod over any obstacle presented in his quest to get to the top of the mountain. Perfectly proper over tea but demonically sinister back at the office!
Shepperd Strucwick (as visiting Dr. Larry Forbes, fiance to Madelon) and Lynne Roberts (as Madelon Ranault herself) are both adequate but unengaging for the most part, both being a bit static and naive to make the picture go.
Dr. Renault’s Secret isn’t great art, but its sincere approach from the ‘monster’s’ side is a nice change of pace and makes this a gem worth seeking out if for no other reason than J. Carrol Naish’s great performance. Though not known for horror films, Twentieth Century Fox brings really good production values (much better than what Monogram or poverty row studios were bringing to the table) and a good technical ensemble led by Virgil Miller’s creative photography. Music by Emil Newman and David Raksin is fair, but not on par with Salter’s work over at Universal.