Saturday, February 19, 1972 (Noon): Bluebeard (1944) / Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)

 

 

Synopsis: In 19th-century Paris, the body of a young woman is fished out of the river Seine. She has been strangled, another victim of the notorious serial killer Bluebeard.  Women are urged to stay in at night, and not to take unnecessary risks – but it’s difficult to take precautions when no one knows what Bluebeard looks like.
 
One evening young Babette (Patti McCarty) and her two friends Constance (Carrie Devan) and Lucille (Jean Parker), knowing that women aren’t safe on the streets after dark, decide to walk home together.  On the gaslit streets they meet Gaston Morel, whom Babette recognizes — he is “The Puppeteer”, a painter well-known in Paris for the elaborate puppet operas he stages in the park.  Morel seems charmed to meet the young women, but is especially interested in Lucille, who claims to be entirely unafraid of Bluebeard.  He invites them all to see his show the following night, but it is clear that Lucille is the one he hopes will attend.
 
 
 
 
The following evening, Morel scans the crowd as he and his puppeteers perform “Faust”.  He sees Lucille and after the show invites her backstage.  He tells her that he wishes to paint her; will she sit for him?
 
Flattered, she tells him that she will.  Meanwhile, Morel’s assistant Renee angrily watches his flirtation with the new woman.
 
Later, Morel returns home to find Renee waiting for him.  She is angry that he is flirting with another new girl, and hurt that there have been other women who have posed for his pictures, women who have temporarily replaced her.  But, she says, “You always return to me.”
 
Morel is dismissive, telling her to go home, but she presses him further.  What, she asks, has happened to the  women he’s had dalliances with?  Where have they gone?  Angered, Morel removes his cravat and strangles her with it .  Later, he dumps her body in the river.
 
The next day, he goes to the police station, and reports Renee missing.  When her body is pulled out of the river he is asked to identify the body.  He does so, telling the police that Renee left the park before he did, and he is unable to say if she left alone or in someone’s company.
 
But the next time Morel sees Lucille, he tells her that what he really wants is for her to make new costumes for his puppets.  By this time we’ve figured out an important part of Bluebeard’s m.o. — he only strangles women who have posed for the pictures he’s painted.  Does the fact that he no longer wants to paint Lucille mean he is becoming genuinely fond of her?
 
Apparently so —  and Lucille is growing fond of him too.  She mends one of his torn cravats (which will, of course, prove to be an important plot point) and the two are spending more and more time together.
 
Meanwhile, police inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) discovers that a painting on display in a Paris gallery has as its subject one of Bluebeard’s victims.  He looks for other paintings by the same hand, and sure enough, all of the victims of Bluebeard appear to have sat for paintings.  But the identity of the artist is shrouded in mystery.
 

Lefevre locates the dealer of the paintings, who will not divulge the name of the artist.  Lefevre conducts a sting operation, arranging for a wealthy patron of the arts to offer an outrageous sum to the dealer — if he can get the mysterious painter to take a last-minute job.  Tempted by the money, the dealer talks Morel into doing it.  But what Morel doesn’t know is that his studio is now surrounded by the police — and that the woman he is painting is Lucille’s younger sister Francine….

Comments: Bluebeard is a movie that plays better than it sounds, and credit for its success should go to director Edgar G. Ulmer, who does two things that really help the production: he keeps events moving at a fast clip, and makes it look more sumptuous than its budget allowed through smart use of stock footage.

Ulmer also manages to keep a leash on the hammy John Carradine, who plays Morel as a laconic murderer who is ultimately undone by his own obsessions.

One curious thing about Morel is his decision to set aside his career as a well-regarded (and well-compensated) painter in order to launch a puppet theater that puts on (apparently free) performances in the park.  This strikes me as something of a step down, career-wise. I think we’re supposed to read something profound in this; Morel’s paintings are all of his various victims and perhaps this is an indication that he wants to put that behind him.  But the Bluebeard murders occur even after Morel is operating the puppet theater.  The puppet theater subplot seems to be a means for Morel to hook Lucille (he recruits her to design puppet costumes) and also makes it possible to trap Morel by getting his manager to  convince the painter to do one more job.

Carradine carries the movie pretty much on his own; no one else really stands out. Jean Parker has a brittle sort of look that I don’t find at all appealing;’ as you may recall she was  the hatchet-faced fiance to Lon Chaney, Jr. in Dead Man’s Eyes.  She’s not quite as abrasive here as she was in that Inner Sanctum opus, but I fail to see what Morel sees in her.

Dr. Renault’s Secret


Synopsis: Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives in a remote French village to see his fiance, Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts) and to meet her father, the renowned scientist Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco).  Forbes stops at an inn near the village, where he is supposed to meet someone who will take him to the Renault house.  But he learns that they will have to cross over a bridge that has been washed out; and as a result he is stranded in the town overnight.  He meets Renault’s gardener Rogell (Mike Mazursky) and another of Dr. Renault’s servants, a strange taciturn man named Noel (J. Carrol Naish).

Noel says he is from Java, and he seems gentle and sensitive, but also uncomfortable, apologizing repeatedly for his behavior, even when he’s done nothing wrong.  But he becomes enraged when a drunk inn patron makes a remark that Noel sees as insulting to Madelon.  Noel grabs the man and seems ready to attack him.  But Larry calms him down and the situation is defused.

When he goes up to retire that night Larry finds the drunk has stumbled into his room by mistake and is snoring away on the bed.  Larry, amused, goes to sleep in the drunk’s unoccupied room next door.  But in the morning the drunk is found murdered, strangled by a very powerful assailant. The police question everyone closely, particularly Rogell, who has a criminal record, as well as Noel, who was seen to argue with the murder victim a few hours before the crime.



The police are unsure of whether the intended victim was the drunk or Larry himself, who was after all sleeping in the wrong room.  Nevertheless, Larry, Rogell and Noel head out to the Renault estate.  Noel drives, and as the car reaches a bend in the road, he abruptly slows the car down to a crawl.  To Larry’s astonishment, as they proceed around the curve they see a dog crossing  the road. Had Noel not slowed down he would have hit it.  But how did he know it was there?

Larry seems to find a kindred spirit in Dr. Renault, who has a keen and curious mind.   But  something bothers Larry about Noel, and he can’t put his finger on what it is.  Noel seems gentle and kind, extremely loyal to Madelon, but can fly into a murderous rage if provoked.  Animals don’t seem to like him, and he doesn’t seem to like them.  He has enormous strength — more than any one man ought to have.  He has senses much keener than any human. And it comforts him greatly when the barber in town gives him a good close shave….

Comments: Despite the presence of George Zucco and J. Carrol Naish, no one would mistake Dr. Renault’s Secret for a Universal production.  Universal would never have green- lit a screenplay this silly.  The titular secret to this programmer is exceptionally wacky: Noel isn’t a man at all, he’s a surgically enhanced (as well as extensively shaved) gorilla!

It’s the sort of premise that would only have gotten waved through at a studio that didn’t really understand the horror genre. A studio like 20th Century Fox, for example.  A lazy producer  might well think that an audience that can accept werewolves, vampires, reanimated corpses and walking mummies would have no problem believing that with a modest amount of surgery (and extensive manscaping) a gorilla could pass for a human.

But even the most outrageous premise must be plausible on some level, and this one just isn’t.  So Dr. Renault’s Secret torpedoes itself right away, simply by asking too much of its audience.

Long before the final credits, anyone in the audience smarter than a gorilla would be asking some pretty merciless questions. For example, how much surgery would it take to make a gorilla pass for human?  And even if you could make a gorilla look human, how could you make it act human?  Noel doesn’t just have the power of speech, after all; it is evident that his intelligence has been greatly increased too, and he has been given extensive training in interacting with human beings.  He’s a very polite fellow, and if a gorilla can walk around among humans, drawing only the occasional remark that the fellow from Java seems a bit odd — well, that’s an achievement. Hey, Noel can even drive a car, and I’ve known a few humans who couldn’t be trained to do that.

The absurdities really do pile up in this movie, and the wheels come off long before the big secret (which is heavily telegraphed) is revealed.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting things about the movie.  The first is J. Carrol Naish’s exceptional performance as Noel.  He brings great sensitivity and poignancy to the role of Noel, making him quite likable and putting us completely on his side. It’s rare for a screenplay to stack the deck so completely against an actor.  In fact there is almost no way that an actor can sell this character to an audience  — but Naish very nearly pulls it off.

Second, while watching the movie I was struck by the attitude that Zucco’s Dr. Renault has toward Noel.  Renault seems very proud to have, um, made Noel the man that he is.  Yet despite this, he does not treat Noel like a man at all.  He locks Noel in a cage, punishes him cruelly for the slightest offense, and is completely uninterested in Noel’s well-being. Which brings up an interesting question: why did he perform this experiment in the first place? Either Noel is a man or he isn’t; if he isn’t a man, why all the effort to pass him off as one?  It’s not clear if the screenwriters spent a lot of time thinking about this — they might have just been following the Frankenstein template — but it’s a question that the movie doesn’t dwell on.  That’s too bad, because it’s an interesting one.

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2 comments

  1. The reason why Gaston Morel gave up painting for puppets is explained in his climactic plea to the woman he loves: “I could take my fury out on them, I couldn't kill wood.” He had to continue because of his unscrupulous manager, the inspiration for his devil puppet, who takes his blood money knowing each painting will result in another death. DR. RENAULT'S SECRET was Fox's remake of their own (lost) silent horror, 1927's THE WIZARD, each based on the Gaston Leroux novel BALAOO, first filmed as a 1913 short BALAOO THE DEMON BABOON. J. Carrol Naish actually gets top billing, and director Harry Lachman, a former artist, certainly succeeds in keeping things lively and pictorially intriguing. A great cast of familiar faces is always welcome, though Mike Mazurki is all wrong as a Frenchman. The premise may have become mildewed by the 40s, but was frequently seen throughout the silent era (Lon Chaney starred in A BLIND BARGAIN in 1922, playing both mad scientist and his own creation). Thank God Mr. Noel is superior to any of the dumb apes found in Lugosi's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.

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  2. I'll admit that I've seen BLUEBEARD twice now and Gaston's explanation of his m.o. went in one ear and out the other. I vaguely remember his speech, but I don't really remember anything he said. As to Mike Mazurki, I thought he was fine, since aside from the surnames there was nothing identifiably French about the characters or the culture. Mazurki was great as Moose Malloy in MURDER, MY SWEET and I'm happy to see him turn up anywhere.

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