Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)

Dr.Renault's_Secret_(1942)‘The nerve graft operation is a success and this electroencephalogram indicates that the brain tracings are becoming more human every day.’

A young brain specialist travels to rural France to meet up with his fiancée before their wedding. She lives on the country estate of her uncle, a top scientist with some very strange servants…

Efficient b-movie chills from 20th Century Fox, who were not noted for their horror output but were obviously happy to ride the coat-tails of Universal’s successful cycle of low budget chillers of the early 1940s. The film delivers a stew of familiar elements with mad scientist George Zucco hunting gorillas in Africa and then spending too much time pottering around in his basement when he gets back home. Pretty niece Lynne Roberts suspects something’s not quite right, but is too busy getting all breathless and unnecessary about the imminent arrival of bridegroom to be Shepperd Strudwick (billed here as John Shepperd). The chateau’s servants are a mixed bunch, and include villainous Mike Mazurki and hairy handyman J. Carrol Naish.

Director Harry Lachman was actually a painter and he does have a good eye for shot composition, creating a pleasing level of interplay between light and shadow which lends the production a veneer of quality that perhaps it doesn’t really deserve. Sure, the story is tight and moves at a good pace, but it’s painfully mechanical, half-baked and derivative. The production design also exposes the limited budget, with Zucco’s laboratory consisting of a couple of cages, a table, a few test tubes, a large net and the afore mentioned ape (inevitably played by Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan). Perhaps the real work went on elsewhere!

On the credit side, we have two consummate professionals in Naish and Zucco, who are as fully committed as ever. Naish manages to engage audience sympathy despite sparing dialogue and vaguely ridiculous makeup, and the role was good practice for his tragic hunchback in Universal’s ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944). Zucco is his usual icy self, all clipped speech and quiet intensity, delivering the dialogue as if it’s the finest Shakespeare, rather than a dull and formulaic script. Both actors were sadly underused in Hollywood, plying their trade in bottom of the bill crime and horror pictures like this, with the occasional walk on in big, star studded productions.

Dr.Renault's_Secret_(1942)

His head shots hadn’t turned out as well as he’d hoped…

The supporting cast don’t get much of a chance to register, with Roberts and Strudwick being particularly colourless as the romantic leads. Mazurki was more at home menacing Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe in the classic ‘Murder My Sweet’ (1944) and is about as French as the Brooklyn Bridge. Other foreign accents are either non-existent, or rather wayward to say the least; Irishman Arthur Shields making an even more unconvincing officer of the Sûreté than Peter Sellers.

This effort was obviously not a big studio picture, rather a supporting feature that was quickly assembled and shot to provide some cheap, bottom of the bill scares. But, for all that, there is some quality here, and it’s in a completely different league to the weak product of the period that was churned out by no budget studios such as Monogram and PRC. With this cast, and a little more care and attention to the script, this could have been a little gem, but sadly it’s torpedoed by the stale storyline and somewhat perfunctory treatment. A pity.

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