Saturday, June 3, 1972: Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) / Three Strangers (1946)

 


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: This Fox production is more than a little silly, and we’re not particularly surprised when we learn the titular “secret”: Noel is a surgically altered and extensively manscaped gorilla. At least it’s a change of pace from the Universal horror standards and the poverty row cheapies that we’ve been seeing lately. This is only the second time we’ve seen Dr. Renault’s Secret on Horror Incorporated, and I’ll admit I felt a bit more kindly to it this time. One reason is that knowing the big reveal in advance means we’re not going to snort in derision when it arrives. Another is the performance of J. Carrol Naish, who really commits himself to a role that probably doesn’t deserve it. We are meant to feel pity for Noel, since he didn’t ask for what happened to him, and Nash does the best anyone could reasonably have done with it; nevertheless the premise is so absurd that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.
But here’s a question: why should this particular premise strike us as ridiculous? After all, you and I have been sitting up late at night, week in and week out, watching movies about monsters made of sewn-together corpses, and people who transform into bats when they’re not drinking blood and sleeping in coffins, and guys who turn into wolfmen, and mummified corpses that spring to life and chase people around. What does this movie ask of us that the others don’t?
Perhaps the problem isn’t that the premise is too broad; perhaps it’s too narrow.  We can imagine black magic or alchemy turning a gorilla into a man; it’s hard to imagine any amount of surgery (not to mention shaving) that could accomplish such a feat. After all, surgery could conceivably alter a gorilla to resemble a man in some fashion, and it might even grant the gorilla the physical attributes needed to speak, but it seems extremely unlikely that an ape’s mind could be similarly altered to resemble that of a human (however, if the latter were possible, that feat alone would be a Nobel-worthy discovery). It’s never clearly explained why Dr. Renault wants to undertake such a project in the first place (he apparently hasn’t published anything he’s learned from these experiments), except to simply prove that he can make a gorilla pass for a man. But it doesn’t really make sense; it would be like someone trying to surgically alter a camel so that it can pass for a horse. Even if it’s possible, what’s the point?

Motive was always a weak link with movies like this. I’m sure it made mad scientist movies easy to write; motive was built into the character. If anyone asks, “Well, that’s silly. Why would he do that? What’s the motive?” the answer is always the same: “Well, he’s a mad scientist.  That’s what they do“. The same tactic is used these days for serial killer movies.  “Um, why does Jigsaw kidnap people and force them to take part in ghastly, sadistic games?” “Hey listen, he’s a serial killer. That’s what they do.”

 

Three Strangers

 

Synopsis: London barrister Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is walking along the street when he meets beautiful Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald). After a bit of flirtatious small talk, she invites him up to her apartment. Once there, he is dismayed to find another man already there, a cheerful tippler named Johnny West (Peter Lorre). Johnny was lured up to her apartment with the same come-hither glance that roped in Arbutny.

Crystal reveals the reason for bringing the two men to her apartment. Crystal has in her possession a statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of good fortune. According to legend, Crystal says, if three strangers make a wish over the statue at midnight of the Chinese new year, the wish will be granted. If there is one wish they can agree on, they can all share in the good fortune provided by Kwan Yin.

Johnny has an Irish sweepstakes ticket, and he suggests they all wish for it to be a winner, then sign an agreement to divide any winnings from the ticket.

The others quickly agree to this, and a contract of sorts is hastily written up. The clock strikes midnight as the strangers concentrate on their wish, and it seems for a moment that the statue is smiling at them; but soon the moment is gone and the three go their separate ways.

 

We then follow the strangers in turn and discover that each one has arrived at a moment of crisis in their lives. Crystal’s estranged husband David (Alan Napier) has fallen in love with a Canadian woman and wants a divorce, but Crystal refuses to grant one. Arbutny has made a series of disastrous investments with money entrusted to him by the widowed Lady Beladon (Rosalind Ivan). Facing professional ruin when the secret gets out, he has recklessly decided to propose marriage to her in order to conceal his financial mismanagement. Meanwhile, Johnny has fallen in with a rough crowd, and he is currently being sought for a crime he didn’t commit. His only hope for redemption lies with his girlfriend, the devoted Janet (Marjorie Riordon).

Johnny ends up in the hospital, and only by chance discovers that the Irish sweepstakes ticket won. But unbeknownst to him, Arbutny and Shackleford have each decided, for their own reasons, that Johnny need never know about the money….

Comments: John Huston co-wrote this gentle fantasy about a magical statue and the lives it changes at midnight of the Chinese New Year. The presence of two of Huston’s alums from The Maltese Falcon have led to speculation over the years that it was written as a sequel — or perhaps a prequel — to that film, with Mary Astor originally intended to play Crystal. But I have a hard time believing this. The characters in this film don’t really resemble The Maltese Falcon’s Mr. Gutman, Joel Cairo or Bridget O’Shaughnessy; so it seems more likely that this was just an attempt to bring some familiar screen pairings together in a completely different story. This had already happened once with Casablanca, which reunited Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre. One big advantage of the old studio system was that you really could create a repertory company that audiences felt familiar with.  That might not have helped box office to a great extent, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

Anyway, this is somewhat more light-hearted fare than we usually see on Horror Incorporated, and it’s lovely to see Greenstreet and Lorre together. Greenstreet’s portrayal of the fussy attorney Arbutny is quite winning, and Lorre plays to perfection the part of the good-natured loser who has a chance to be redeemed by the love of a good woman. Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite convincing as Crystal, who’s willing to bet on the supernatural in order to keep the man she loves from leaving her.

Yeah yeah, it’s not horror. So what? We’ve seen a lot of stuff that doesn’t qualify as horror on this show. Three Strangers is a nice movie, okay? We’ll get back to drinking blood and sewing together corpses next week.

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One comment

  1. DR. RENAULT'S SECRET was a remake of a 1927 Edmund Lowe silent featuring Gustav von Seyffertitz as the mad scientist, George Kotsonaros as his creation, both films adapted from the original story BALAOO, by PHANTOM OF THE OPERA author Gaston Leroux. I've never seen THREE STRANGERS, but every movie teaming Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet was unique and individual.

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