Director – Harry Lachman, Screenplay – William Bruckner & Robert E. Metzler, Photography (b&w) – Virgil Miller, Music – Emil Newman & David Raskin, Art Direction – Richard Day & Nathan Juran. Production Company – 20th Century Fox
John Shepperd (Larry Forbes), J. Carrol Naish (Noel), George Zucco (Dr Robert Renault), Lynne Roberts (Madeline Renault), Mike Mazurki (Rogell), Arthur Shields (Inspector Duval)
Larry Forbes arrives in a small French town to visit his fiancee Madeline Renault. While he is staying at the inn, another American is murdered in the room he was originally to be sleeping in. Suspicion is placed on Noel, the manservant of Madeline’s anthropologist father Dr Robert Renault. Larry then discovers that Dr Renault has actually surgically altered Noel from an ape into a human.
Dr Renault’s Secret was one of the mad scientist films that came out at the height of the great era of mad scientist films during the 1930s and 40s. It was actually a remake of an earlier film The Wizard (1927). The Wizard is lost today but sounds a fascinating artefact, featuring Gustav von Seyffertitz as the scientist Dr Coriolos who grafts a human face onto an ape and sends it to kill those who condemned his innocent son to the electric chair. This had in turn been based on a lost French short horror film Baloo the Demon Baboon (1913), which was taken from a novel by Gaston Leroux, author of The Phantom of the Opera (1900).
Dr Renault’s Secret is caught halfway between being a 1940s mad scientist film and an Old Dark House thriller. The Old Dark House genre emerged in the 1920s on the stage and later film. It would usually feature a selection of people in a haunted house setting being threatened by a masked madman and would maintain an even balance of comedy and thrills. There is much of the Old Dark House genre present in Dr Renault’s Secret – the constrained setting, the suspect line-up, the investigating inspector and cobwebby cliches like hands with daggers appearing from behind hidden doors. In fact, when you think about it Dr Renault’s Secret is an ingenious variation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), filmed as The Island of Lost Souls (1932), mounted as an Old Dark House film. (The earlier versions emphasised the simian connection even further and drawn their inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue ).
In comparison to many other mad scientist films that were being made around the time, usually by poverty row studios such as PRC, Monogram and Republic, and starring either Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff or, as here, George Zucco, this is quite well made. It is much better budgeted than most of its ilk. It is directed with a reasonable degree of style, arriving at a lavishly mounted mill climax. George Zucco is on fine form as the mad scientist and there is a surprising degree of sympathy generated for the monster of the show. It all hails in at only 58 minutes running time.
Harry Lachman had directed several Charlie Chan films and made one venture into genre material with Dante’s Inferno (1935). The art director was Nathan Juran, later to emerge as a strong genre director with the likes of 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), among others.