Saturday, December 23, 1972: Dr. Renault’s Secret (1943) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)


Synopsis: Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives in a remote French village to see his fiance, Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts) and to meet her uncle, 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: Tonight marks the fourth Horror Incorporated broadcast for this unusual Fox thriller, which we saw only a couple of months ago. I tried my best to stay with it this time, remembering John Landis’ affection for it, and to be honest I was more impressed with its craftsmanship this time around. To be fair, Landis had no illusions about Dr. Renault’s Secret. He called it “a very well-made, stupid programmer” by which I guess he meant it was a movie that succeeded on its own terms, despite the very silly premise.
And that is as it should be. Movies ought to be judged on their own merits; I Married a Monster From Outer Space is, in its way, just as successful as Cries and Whispers. Maybe not as successful, but you know what I mean.
All the same I still have problems with Dr. Renault’s Secret.  It’s clear that we’re supposed to feel sorry for Noel on some level, and his death at the end of the film is clearly supposed to be tragic, but Dr. Renault himself is never fully held to account for his cruelty and amorality. Yes, he’s killed by Noel in the final reel (via the shopworn creator-is-killed-by-his-creation conceit) but Rogell is really held up as the bad guy. Forbes criticizes Dr. Renault for the questionable morality of his experiments, but interestingly, it isn’t because of what he’s doing to poor Noel. Instead, Forbes is upset because Renault is essentially violating the laws of nature by trying to pass an animal off as a human being. Noel’s presence among humans is dangerous, Forbes argues, because he lacks the divine spark, the ability to know right from wrong. Morality is what separates us from the animals, and no matter how Noel is altered physically, he can’t be truly human.
This suggests that the gentleness we saw earlier in Noel is not his natural state, but something that was imposed on him by Renault’s experimental brain surgery. The film suggests that, as an animal, Noel’s default setting is ruthless savagery; and indeed Noel begins to kill near the end of the film for insults both real and imagined.
All the same, it’s a well-paced little movie, with a good deal of suspense and a fair amount of pathos. It’s also well-photographed and boasts fine performances from everyone, particularly J Carrol Naish. I don’t think any actor could sell the premise at hand, but Naish does as well as anyone could. He really was a remarkably talented and versatile performer.
The not-quite-as-versatile George Zucco is delightful as always, though of course he is only playing the George Zucco part. Mike Mazurky, uncredited, portrays the thuggish Rogell to perfection. Shepperd Strudwick has a thankless task in playing the less-than-interesting character of Larry Forbes, but I actually thought he brought a warmth and likability to the role that’s easy to miss. I particularly liked his interactions with Noel.

The Face Behind the Mask

Synopsis: Immigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He’s a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe). O’Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can’t get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him. Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky’s gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go….

Comments: Right from the opening title cards, The Face Behind the Mask wears its attitude about immigration on its sleeve, clearly referencing the Immigration Act of 1924 :

Commonly known as the Johnson-Reed Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 imposed quotas targeting “undesirable” immigrants — Jews, Asians, Eastern Europeans and assorted others. Previous to the Johnson – Reed Act, immigration for those groups was limited to 3% of the existing immigrant population in the United States. Johnson-Reed lowered this to 2%.

Johnson – Reed was undoubtedly cruel and unfair. It was also quite popular with voters, and when politicians are given a choice between doing what’s right and what’s popular, there’s no mystery about how things are going to play out.

Of course, it’s easy to scare people with images of immigrants as a mob of dirty, dangerous freeloaders. It’s harder to turn them away when they look like human beings. So there is a political undercurrent to The Face Behind the Mask, as we’re shown earnest Janos Szabo as a man deliriously in love with America, eager to roll up his sleeves and work to be a part of it. Who can be against that? And yet we watch as things go from bad to worse to worst for poor Janos, and can hardly blame him when he turns to a life of crime.

The mask Janos wears to hide his disfigurement is reminiscent of those developed for injured veterans after the First World War. While probably uncomfortable and certainly not perfect, the masks — made by hand, carefully painted and held on by the patient’s glasses — allowed men who’d suffered grotesque injuries to walk in the street without causing people to scream or run away. The mask Janos purchases, of course, is supposedly made of rubber instead of the tin used to make the masks in real life. And, of course, the mask we see in the movie isn’t a mask at all; just a heavy layer of make-up.

The movie itself is a crime melodrama that qualifies as horror only because of the presence of Peter Lorre. Lorre is an excellent choice as the lead, believable not only as the goofy and excitable fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, but also as the crime boss with a heart of gold.

George E Stone stands out too as Janos’ safe-cracker buddy Dinky. Probably the only actor in this absorbing little film we don’t buy is Evelyn Keys as Helen. Women characters in these sort of films tend to be thinly written, with little or no interior lives of their own, and Helen is no exception. But even so, Keys should have been able to bring something to the role to make her character memorable. Unfortunately, she barely registers with us and we get that she’s essentially a MacGuffin, just on hand to give Janos something to live for, and something to lose.

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2 comments

  1. DR. RENAULT’S SECRET was the last of George Zucco’s mad scientists from the 1940s that I caught up with, which he appeared to do at virtually every studio. Have to agree about Evelyn Keyes from THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, a pretty face but little real character to work with, the same fate as Boris Karloff’s daughter in BEFORE I HANG.

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  2. This is the first movie I can remember seeing on TV and understanding as a kid. Recently saw it again. A little melodramatic but it still holds up as a much better than average B movie and a solid performance by Peter Lorre. Still worth watching if you have a chance,imo.

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